Sharon Ellis sees herself as a conqueror rather than a survivor--but she had to fight the battle alone. In 1980, fed up with her husband's abuse, she went to her church for help. "It was there for me with the love but not necessarily with the knowledge of what to do with me," she says. "The message I was getting was similar to the ones we receive as children. They were about self-worth, my place as a woman, my job as a woman, and that type of thing. They were not ones that would help me to get out of an abusive relationship."
Ellis, who has been a police officer since 1978, next turned to her friends. They also encouraged her to stay in her marriage and work things out. She says at first she tried to follow their advice. "I had to give myself permission [to leave]. It was a painfully difficult life-or-death decision, and I had to deal with a lot of guilt and shame that I had to work through on my own."
She divorced her husband the following year and sought counseling. In 1988 Ellis was ordained a minister of the United Church of Christ. She's now a chaplain and copastor at the South Shore Community Church, and has been married to another police officer since 1984. On her days off from her job as a city police chaplain, a position she's held since 1991, she works as a counselor at Evergreen Park Ministry Inc.'s Care and Counseling Center and speaks at conferences on domestic violence.
Nevertheless, she says her decision to join the clergy was not directly related to her own experience with abuse, but that the two intertwined later. "I felt myself becoming a soldier for justice in terms of issues of violence against women, racism, and sexism. For me it's a vital part of the ministry."
In general, Ellis says, the clergy still isn't well equipped to deal with domestic violence, even though a religious institution is still one of the first places women go for help. "I don't want to generalize, but many churches have silenced women simply because of the way they practice their ministry," she says. "If we're going to begin talking about issues of domestic violence, we have to talk about issues of sexism in the church."
Tuesday's Chicago Light of Life Conference on domestic abuse will allow representatives from different religious denominations to discuss the problem and how to approach it as well as to highlight resources available in their communities. "We don't want them to teach women to get a divorce or do something different from what's being taught in the church. We want them to be safe, and to establish trust, community, collaboration, and partnership between churches and the secular world."
Ellis, who coorganized the conference, will speak at a panel called "Making a Difference: What Can Be Done in My Congregation" from 1:30 to 3:30. The conference runs from 8 to 4:30 on Tuesday at the Drake Hotel, 140 E. Walton; admission is $50, which includes lunch. Call 847-966-5318 to register.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sharon Ellis photo by Nathan Mandell.