Marie M. Fortune '72: Building stronger faith communities

Jerry Agee

As founder and senior analyst at Seattle's FaithTrust Institute, The Reverend Marie M. Fortune '72 oversees an international, multifaith organization dedicated to ending sexual and domestic violence and abuse by members of the clergy. It's an ambitious undertaking whose roots can be traced back to Fortune's undergraduate experiences at Duke.

She arrived on campus in the fall of 1968, a turbulent time for college campuses across the country. Fortune was open to new ideas, having grown up in a Methodist congregation in Asheville, North Carolina, that encouraged intellectual honesty and critical thinking.

She found a spiritual home in the campus chapter of the YMCA-YWCA, where the staff "helped us get through questions like do we boycott class or not and why," she says. Within that context, she and other students began conversations about how they could remain involved in social issues and still earn a living.

By graduation she had a goal: to bring a religious perspective to issues surrounding sexism and racism. But she wasn't yet sure how to do that. During her seminary years, she found kindred spirits in the United Church of Christ, which ordained her without a "call" in the traditional sense of an actual job prospect.

In the mid-'70s, Fortune was living in Seattle, working with the church, and volunteering at a rape crisis center. When clients at the center learned that she was an ordained minister, they approached her with questions about what faith says about sexual abuse. At the same time, she discovered that many in the religious community were ill- equipped to help members of their congregations who were facing sexual or domestic violence.

To address that void, Fortune launched the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, forerunner of the FaithTrust Institute. Today, the Institute works collaboratively with a wide range of ethnic and religious communities. For example, the organization produces culturally specific materials geared toward Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Asian-Pacific populations; offers workshops and training for staff in secular and religious organizations; and works with clergy and lay leaders to promote healthy and safe congregations. It also publishes the Journal of Religion & Abuse: Advocacy, Pastoral Care and Prevention.

Fortune has authored or co-authored a number of books, including Keeping the Faith: Guidance for Christian Women Facing Abuse and Is Nothing Sacred?: When Sex Invades the Pastoral Relationship. She also served as a consultant for the National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women for the U.S. Department of Justice from 1994 to 2000, and on the Task Force on Domestic Violence for the U.S. Defense Department from 1999 to 2003.

In the more than three decades since it was founded, FaithTrust Institute has helped countless congregations become better equipped to acknowledge and address issues of sexual and domestic violence and abuse by clergy, says Fortune. But there is still plenty of work to be done.

"It's easy for a congregation and its leaders to understand illness or natural disaster and respond immediately and generously," she says. "It's harder when one person in the congregation has done harm to another.

"Those of us working within faith communities can either be roadblocks for helping people who have been abused, or we can be resources. We want to help people understand the practical as well as the theological foundation of what needs to be done in those situations."

—Engram is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

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