I sat looking at my computer, in a small online Bible study group, trying to maintain some community in this time of safe distancing, wondering how to respond to the question, “How are you doing?” Why did that seem like a loaded question?
I said that I didn't really know how I was doing. It seemed lately that I wasn’t able to do what I normally could do, everything was harder and took longer. It was as if I was moving through thick sucking mud, or that my brain wasn’t quite able to function normally, somehow it didn’t have its usual bandwidth. Another group member casually said, “that’s trauma, we’re all experiencing trauma during this pandemic.” Her words struck me because I hadn’t seen it that way before.
I thought I knew trauma, from my own story and from my work, hearing many stories of people who have experienced sexual violence. Trauma is when you’re afraid to go to sleep because of all the times that you’ve woken up terrorized, sweating, unable to keep the pictures from your mind. Trauma is when my thoughts race, I can’t focus, and a certain smell, word, or look can trigger a depth of feeling that leaves me in a sobbing hopeless puddle. Trauma is when I’m always afraid of people, of everyone, because I know the power that people have to hurt me, and I must not let them do it again, can’t let my guard down for a second, I might not survive! Isn’t that trauma? I’ve moved on from there. Keeping distance, working from my nice home with enough to eat, living with my faithful husband, how can this be trauma?
Then I thought about how distressing the news is, death counts from COVID-19, unemployment, sexual abuse, police brutality, racial injustice, and the list could go on and on. It’s a lot of bad news. What is most powerful in the news are the stories, stories of people who couldn’t be with loved ones as they lay dying, people seeking refuge living in squalid conditions, families losing businesses that have been part of their lives for generations, and the list could go on and on. So many hurting people! As much as I like to be an informed citizen, I’ve found that I’ve had to limit my news intake, and I don’t access it at all in the morning or before bed.
I thought about all the changes within the CRCNA, some that have taken place, some that are proposed. The executive director resigned unexpectedly, my position changed to a U.S. position (though I serve churches in Canada as always), a proposed change in the structure of the justice ministries may mean that when I retire in November, there will no longer be a director of Safe Church Ministry; oh yes, I’m retiring, and with a desire to finish this chapter of my life well. But the future is so uncertain. We’ve recently moved to a new home in a new location. We joined a church just before the pandemic ended all of its gatherings, other places where we had hoped to begin building community also closed. It’s a lot!
Is it, taken altogether, trauma? Yes, I think so. According to Wikipedia, psychological trauma can be defined as damage to the mind that occurs as a result of a distressing event, often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one's ability to cope.
All trauma is not the same, there are different kinds. Acute trauma comes from a single incident, chronic trauma is repeated and prolonged, complex trauma is exposure to varied and multiple events, and collective trauma can occur when traumatic events are witnessed or shared by a group of people. During this time, I’m also well aware that trauma feelings can mingle with one another inside me, calling to one another, bringing up more intense past feelings in ways that can’t be predicted.
So, I have this trauma label, now what? I’ve learned from my social work education about deep, conscious breathing and from my faith about prayer practices as ways to calm myself. Was there something more that I needed here? The CRCNA offers an Employment Assistance Program (EAP) to its employees. Part of the program includes up to 3 counseling sessions free of charge. I’ve been in counseling before on more than one occasion, and though counseling in itself was not life changing for me, it was always helpful. (Nothing at all like meeting Jesus at a Young Life camp when I was in high school; that was life changing!)
I decided to take advantage of the EAP and called to set up a telehealth meeting. (Are you kidding, another online meeting, really?) Though I had a little trouble with the online paperwork, it was worth the effort and turned out to be a very good decision. I was given resources about self-compassion, imagining myself as a good friend in similar circumstances, treating myself the way I would care for my friend. What a helpful concept that was for me!
I was given an assignment to write a letter to the person who would replace me in Safe Church, not to actually give the letter to anyone, but for my own benefit. Writing the letter helped clarify and define some issues for me in very helpful ways. I passed my ‘letter’ along to Safe Church staff, who will be around after I’m gone, in case it could be helpful to them too. I remembered that so many times in my life it was through writing and journaling that I was able to see something more clearly, or make a decision. Why didn’t I take time to do that more often?
Not everyone has an EAP or access to professional counseling services. A church community cannot take the place of professional counseling services, nor should an untrained pastor try to serve in this role. Yet, there are valuable roles that churches can play in helping people overcome trauma. People need to know that they are not alone. Churches can offer a safe place where people can share their stories, because stories are powerful! We know this because it’s the way that God has chosen to reveal himself to us throughout Scripture. Sharing our stories of hurt and struggle can lead to sharing our stories of God’s transformation, as God continues to reveal himself to us today. Let’s not miss this opportunity for connection and growth.
Learning from others in similar circumstances is invaluable and helps us realize that we are not alone. God has created us to live in community, as one body, the Church. In this context we can affirm the foundational truth that we all need to hear, we are, each one of us, God’s beloved, valuable and precious in his sight and God is with us. This foundational truth is a critical message during times of uncertainty and distress. It’s a trauma mitigation message that only the Church can give.
The Church has unique assets to promote deep healing, not least of which is the very presence of the Lord in our midst. When the Church is a caring community of people, infused with the gentleness of the Holy Spirit and the strong love of God, it’s hard to imagine a better context for trauma recovery. We worship an amazing God, with the power to take what’s been shattered by trauma, and create something new and beautiful that reflects his glory. I think of the image of a stained glass window, or an intricate beautiful mosaic made from broken pottery pieces. That is our hope, a hope that is sure.
Churches will need resources going forward in this time that can help us better respond to trauma, all kinds of trauma. Why? Because perhaps my friend in the Bible study was right, perhaps we’ve all experienced trauma on some level through the pandemic we’ve faced together and the injustices we’ve seen and experienced. And perhaps it’s time that we acknowledge how many of us have experienced deeper acute trauma, which requires trauma-informed professional intervention. There is no shame in acknowledging who we are within God’s blessed community. “Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5)
A few resources are listed below, feel free to add others in the comments:
- The American Bible Society’s Trauma Healing Institute. The THI uses applied Scripture and mental health principles to address spiritual and emotional wounds caused by trauma. This proven model, outlined in the book, Healing the Wounds of Trauma: How the Church Can Help, has been effectively used in over 50 countries. Training is available for churches. (Note: Safe Church mini-grants may be used to sponsor Trauma Healing Institute training events)
- Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth. Find resources and services for leaders, organizations, and communities impacted after collective trauma.
- Spiritual First Aid. Spiritual First Aid has developed interventions using both biblical wisdom and evidenced-based psychological insights to provide spiritual and emotional care in disaster response.
- Taking Care of Your Mental and Physical Health during Covid-19. Canadian resources for maintaining good mental and physical health.