As a Counsellor, I get to work with people who’ve experienced a range of traumas like: sexual abuse, in all its forms; domestic violence; rejection; abandonment and childhood trauma in its entirety.
Karen Saakvitne defined psychological trauma as “the unique individual experience of an event, a series of events, or a set of enduring conditions in which:
- The individual’s ability to tolerate or integrate the emotional and physical experience is overwhelmed, and or
- The individual experiences a sense of threat to life, bodily integrity or sanity.”
Some enduring conditions are things such as racism, domestic abuse, and sexual abuse.
I believe when faced with enduring conditions, the church should be a safe place to escape. Even for those couple of hours every week, the church should be the one place people can go to find relief.
However, now and again, I am reminded that the church needs a lot of education before it can appropriately support the people who need it the most. These realisations are startling, sad and disheartening.
There is no place for pain in church.
Victims of abuse
The church should be the place where the women who are in an abusive relationship can find comfort: a space to heal and find safety from the abuser. What usually happens is that the woman has to leave her church family either because they are unable to support her or they’ve taken the side of the perpetrator.
The church should be a safe space where the young girl abused and pregnant can discuss her next steps without being judged, criticised or ostracised. She probably knows what scripture says, but can she talk about the pain in your pews? Can she talk about the impact of the abuse? Can she wonder how to love an unborn child created through violence? Can you cry with her and hold her until she makes a decision that will impact both her and the unborn child?
Can she wonder how and where?
Can you be the representative of God to her showing the love that she needs in that time of crisis?
Can you help her when she rejects herself and the child? Can you help her through the hate?
Can you make room for her anger?
Is there a place in your church for that kind of pain?
Is there space in your church to be fully known? Can the black woman take all of her to church? Can she talk about her experiences out in the world without being dismissed?
As a Christian woman, I know how to use the Bible as a tool to help me get through awkward life moments. In my early twenties, when the religion of my parents could no longer sustain me, I took the deliberate decision to get to know God for myself. Through that process, I get to know Him as kind, compassionate, caring and ready to listen. He is the epitome of don’t rush. What I learn is at odds with what the church represents today.
As a youth, I often hear that the church is a hospital; it’s a refuge, some say. Lets witness and get people in but I am wondering whether we are ready for the people who will come.
For example, in a world where there is crisis, one after the other, it cannot be business as usual at church. We have to be able to hear the pain of everyone. Though the conversation might be awkward, according to Isiah 58, we have to position ourselves to be the bridge to people in all kinds of circumstances.
However, when it relates to racial trauma, there is tone-deafness that feels cruel, unkind and unchristlike.
Every day it’s become more apparent to me that church is not a safe place for my pain. No place for me as a black woman to be fully known. No place to talk about the pain of systematic racism and the impact of injustice.
I work with trauma survivors and help them understand and respond to triggers; I help them have a regulated nervous system and live with the tools to live safely in their environment.
I cannot ignore the fact that as a black woman that’s also crucial for me. Dealing with and managing r acial trauma is not so easy because the threats are everywhere.
The brain is on constant alert
When we sense a threat in response to a trigger, we respond instinctively from the most primitive place in the mind.
“Like all animals, we humans are oriented to survival. When we sense a threat, we are wired to fight or flee – or freeze, in dire circumstances. The fight or flight response is mediated by the brain stem and by the amygdala, a tiny almond-shaped area in the limbic system deep in the brain.” – Mona Dekoven Fishbane
It’s an automatic response, but most churches would ignore that. Some Christians would tell me that I shouldn’t feel the way I do.
The world isn’t a safe place when you are a black person; there are dangers everywhere.
When you feel the same threats of danger in the church that you experience everywhere else, then there’s a problem.
Silence can give the perception of danger as much as a look or verbal attack. Our bodies response to anticipated risk, the kind a woman feels who is triggered by the memory of abuse. Or the woman who sees her abusive partner for the first time since leaving; the impact of the violent parent; the triggers from an accident.
For black and brown people, we often live with that sense of danger. For some of us, our nervous system is on constant alert. It’s tripped the minute we enter the supermarket, walk in the park, take a taxi, visit the doctor, go shopping or do typical day to day activities. It pains me that we now have to consider the church as part of that list.
Church people, pastors, leaders would want me to think that it’s wrong for my body to have those natural, healthy responses.
“Don’t feel like that.”
“Think this instead.”
As humans, we are hyper-vigilant to both inside and outside threats. The feeling of safety or fear is environmentally driven, and we go into fight-flight or freeze response automatically.
During those times the part of my brain that makes logical decisions are offline when we feel threatened.
I can learn to manage and moderate, but with dangers everywhere, this can be a full-time job. Some people’s hypervigilance can become anxiety, depression or other mental health problems.
How do you become a bridge?
I won’t pretend to know all the resources needed for bridge-building, but I know that our whole self is required.
Making room to talk to and listen to people in pain. Not by giving a bandaid with a barrage of scriptures but with really sitting in the discomfort and allow others to share their experiences.
“Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke.” Isaiah 58: 6