Spiritual Abuse & The Clark Sisters

The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel, a #Lifetime biopic about the greatest Black female gospel group in America was everything that #Black women of faith needed before Easter Sunday during COVID-19. It provided a pause for peace, solace and comfort during these unprecedented and trying times. However, it would be very remiss of me to not acknowledge the wave of emotions I experienced such as happiness, but also sadness and grief.  In the movie, there were quite a few examples of relational trauma; specifically, #domestic violence. Such vivid images were triggering for individuals in current or past domestic violence relationships. So, whatever came up; it was okay, and still okay to feel what you feel.

From the music, wardrobe, acting, this movie resonated with Black women of faith that have experienced domestic violence. The founder of this dynasty, #Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, was the epitome of a Strong Black woman navigating multiple identities such as a First Lady, Wife, Mother, Minister of Music and Choir Director. Dr. Clark juggled many roles and often faced difficult dilemmas of fulfilling duties as a First Lady and attending events for #The Clark Sisters.   Yet, this created strife and discord in her marriage. So much so that she experienced physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse by her husband, a pastor. Let’s dig into spiritual abuse.

Spiritual Abuse; really, does that exist?

Well, yes it does! #Spiritual abuse, a form of domestic violence is when one intimate partner utilizes religious text or spiritual beliefs out of context to manipulate, guilt or shame another partner.  It is also when a faith or church elder inflicts abuse by using their position to control members. This is a form of power and control, a core tenet of domestic violence. It is worth noting that spiritual abuse is not limited to a certain denomination or religion. Any person, entity can perpetuate spiritual abuse, just as anyone can be a victim of it. Nobody is exempt. In the movie, Dr. Clark’s husband quoted Matthew 23:12 “He who exalts himself will be humbled” to shame and manipulate Dr. Clark to attend a First Lady event versus attend an event for The Clark Sisters. The entire scripture reads “He who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he that humbles himself, shall be exalted. In other words, he felt that Dr. Clark cared more about The Clark Sisters, her role as a business manager versus her responsibilities as a First Lady. However, this twisted thinking was far from true. Her husband was more concern about himself, he was trying to guilt Dr. Clark to attend an event to make him look good – yep, self-glorification.  Although, Dr. Clark was the manager of the Clark Sisters and a First Lady; it did not mean she loved her church or devalued her First Lady duties any less than the former. It was simply her job, and she had responsibilities like anyone else on a job.

So, why is spiritual abuse important? For one, topics such as domestic violence are tabooed in the #Black Community, particularly, the Black Church. As a community, we have made strides, but in the Black Church, we are treading slowly. Second, spiritual abuse is hard to identify, because it is rarely discussed. For instance, in my research exploring the intersection of race, spirituality and domestic violence, all participants experienced spiritual abuse by their partners and/or faith leaders. Third, due to the role of spirituality and faith, Black women seek guidance from their faith leaders before contacting a domestic violence advocate. Last, according to the Pew Research Center, Black women make up more than 70% of active congregations in Black Churches. We play a role in the survival of the Black Church.  So, you would think it makes sense to address a serious issue that impacts Black women more than any other race/ethnicity. Black women are dying by domestic violence homicides at alarming rates. However, the inequality of Black women in the church remains an unresolved issue, and the silence about domestic violence perpetuates the problem.

I admire the Clark Sisters for being so courageous and transparent with this movie, especially, when Black women are taught to keep things silent, uphold the family and submit to their husbands. Even in domestic violence, Black women are overwhelmingly encouraged to “hang in there”, “pray about it” versus “this is not your fault”, “you did not deserve this”, “abuse is never okay”.  In other words, stand by your husband at all costs. Sadly, this patriarchal teaching leads to more abuse and confusion.

Domestic violence is a complex issue and more complex for Black women.  The intersection of race, gender and class place them at risk for multiple oppressive experiences. For example, Black women are faced with systemic barriers such as limited access to resources, discrimination, poverty, housing, and transportation. As a result, they stay in toxic relationships longer they really desire. Be that as it may, we saw life after abuse is possible. There is a brighter side. I believe it was not easy for Dr. Clark to leave an abusive marriage, but some way, her faith provided strength to move forward. Salute Dr. Clark, a warrior, innovator, an iconic legend.