ELY– Ely, Iowa, may only officially have 1,776 people, but this Valentine’s Day, it will be home to one billion.
One Billion Rising, that is, an international movement created to raise awareness of violence against women and girls across the globe and in our own neighborhoods. On Feb. 14, at 5 p.m., at the Ely American Legion Hall, 1545 Main St., members of St. John Lutheran Church of Ely and the wider community will join with activists around the world for One Billion Rising, the largest day of action in the history of V-Day, the global activist movement to end violence against women and girls. The evening begins with a candlelight vigil, and ends with dancing, led by certified Zumba instructor Allison Scheer.
Pastor Erika Uthe of St. John Lutheran Church in Ely is spearheading the event, a first for this small Iowa community. Pastor Uthe said she read about the One Billion Rising movement in a women’s magazine, and it caught her attention.
“I am very passionate about justice for women and children,” said Uthe. The mission of One Billion Rising is to give voice to the one in three women on the planet who will be raped or beaten in her lifetime, to invite people around the world to rise up together on one day, find strength in solidarity and demand an end to the violence and society’s careless indifference about it. It is a mission that aligns with Uthe’s passion.
The horrors perpetrated daily on women in Syria and other countries across the ocean may seem out of focus for those who live and worship in our small, safe Midwestern communities, but Uthe knows that sharp, painful experiences are the reality for many women everywhere, even those we know personally.
“We feel kind of insulated here, but this summer we had the girls from Evansdale who were taken and killed,” she said. “Abuse against women happens every day in our homes and our neighborhoods, and we are kind of ignorant of it.”
She hesitated to use the term.
“Ignorant is not a very nice word,” she said, “but sometimes, we just don’t want to know about it.”
Ignorance and apathy are exactly the attitudes Uthe wants to change and One Billion Rising fights against. Organized as a one-day campaign to rally women and men worldwide in support of V-Day– the ongoing activist movement founded by author and Tony Award winner Eve Ensler– One Billion Rising seeks to put words to the things people find troublesome to talk about: things like rape, battery, incest, and sex slavery.
Uthe said she has never used the word “rape” from the pulpit, as her congregation is full of children with whom language must be used carefully. However, she believes there are ways to talk to children about the issue of violence that they understand.
“Kids know that people can hurt people,” she said. “That is a good starting point, to let them know people sometimes hurt women and children in ways that are very damaging.”
It’s the same simple awareness Uthe hopes to generate by hosting the upcoming One Billion Rising event next week. The event is free, and no financial commitment is expected.
“It is totally free,” said Uthe. “It’s just to raise awareness, and we would love to have a huge turnout.”
The members of St. John Lutheran Church have engaged in similar efforts before, as proceeds from the church’s annual polka fest benefit the Child Protection Center of St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids, which largely deals with victims of child abuse. Uthe said this time, she reached out to the wider community. Non-church members have already committed to volunteering and participating.
“This is a new way of being involved,” said Uthe.
And dancing is another. V-Day and One Billion Rising encourage participants to dance, as a way to “shake the world into a new consciousness,” according to the website onebillionrising.org. Dancing brings an energy that is contagious. “It breaks the rules. It can happen anywhere at anytime with anyone and everyone. It’s free. No corporation can control it. It joins us and pushes us to go further. It’s transcendent.”
Much as the message Uthe offers up, one taken from Christian scriptures but transcends cultures, religions and generations.
“The Old Testament talks about caring for the widow and the orphan, which is really a statement about taking care of society’s most vulnerable,” Uthe said. “Our faith teaches us about honoring others as God honors them, being loving to others and respecting others bodies, ideas and minds. Because often times, you don’t see domestic violence. Sometimes its emotional and verbal.”
Along with several other Iowa-based experiences, the Feb. 14 Ely event is registered on the One Billion Rising website, at www.onebillionrising.org . The website also has a variety of resources, including a curriculum for high school students and a variety of ways to be involved in the movement in your own community.
Uthe encourages everyone to get involved, whether by coming to an event, engaging in tough conversations or simply by learning more about violence against women and girls.
“There is still a stigma around violence in our homes,” said Uthe, who herself has given a fair amount of pastoral care to women who have experienced sexual and physical violence in their own lives. Women are often afraid to come forward, and are routinely concerned about what friends and neighbors will think, she added. “It makes your heart ache. But we need to be brave together, and help each other find a voice. Maybe together, we can make something happen.
“At least, this is a good first step.”