Healing hearts in Congo: The church as instrument to mend children’s wounds of trauma

Burdens of trauma are consumed by re at the foot of the cross during a children's trauma healing program in Eastern Congo.


Burdens of trauma are consumed by fire at the foot of the cross during a children’s trauma healing program in Eastern Congo.

Dorika (15) and Kanyere (16) became child mothers after sexual assault and are juggling to care for their infants while finishing school.

Gelord (10) gets distracted in class, as he keeps having flashbacks of his family’s burning thatched-roofed house that was set afire by militia men who raided his village. 

Enock (15) is upset because no one told him until recently that his now deceased father, a former rebel soldier, had forced himself on his mother, while everyone around him knew about his origin.

Deborah (19) witnessed militia decapitate her father, and has since needed to take care of her siblings as the traumatic events have incapacitated her mother.

Gradi and Glodi (twin boys, age 10) are unaware that they were conceived through rape, but their 22-year-old mother wants to prepare them for the day she will answer their questions about their father. 

Dorika, Kanyere, Gelord, Enock, Deborah, Gradi and Glode are just seven of the 50 youngsters who met up last August at a children’s camp that was part of a nine-day training seminar for 30 facilitators of trauma healing for children in Goma, East Congo. The event was organized by the Protestant Council of Churches in Congo (ECC), which embodies over 70 Congolese denominations nationwide and has historical ties to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) dating back to over a century ago. It was the week that the world was captivated by media coverage of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, who, wide-eyed and in shock, became the personification of children’s suffering in war-torn Syria. The images stirred a momentary global outpour of pity and indignation, and still serve as a reminder of children’s innocence and silent witness in times of conflict worldwide.

The Congolese context
Whereas the carnage in Syria is broadcasted from the battleground into households worldwide, conflicts in less geopolitically charged areas go under the global radar, particularly when they take place in impenetrable territories. Eastern Congo is one of those forgotten conflict zones, where reports of brutal killings trickle from remote villages to the local press, but rarely make it into the international media. Spurred by the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and subsequent mass migrations, five years of recurrent proxy wars have since proliferated into pockets of localized violence, predominantly inflicted by some 70 militia groups that continue to terrorize the population. Their motives range from political influence to ethnic contentions, land rights and access to mineral wealth. There currently are 2 million displaced persons, including 500,000 children under the age of 5. The estimated number of deaths from the war and its aftermath is now over 5 million.

The bloodshed in these Congolese communities is produced not by sophisticated war machinery, but by hand-wielded machetes and guns, and it goes accompanied by rape as a strategy to destroy the social fabric of communities. As a result, the pattern of sexual violence has shifted from men in uniform as perpetrators to civilian offenders, and from women and teens as their targets to young children and even infants. Family cohesion has disintegrated as divorce rates rise. Children’s rejection by stepparents has become the norm. Without adequate help, children who witnessed atrocities or otherwise survived the aftereffects are at risk of developing troubled behavior themselves, thereby perpetuating the cyclical pattern of conflict and trauma in this already volatile region.

It is in this dire context that women leaders of the ECC have come alongside survivors in their communities. Initially, their ministries focused on the needs of rape survivors for medical, psychological, social and economic support. Many were trained in counseling skills following “Healing the Wounds of Trauma,” a Bible-based resource for adults developed by the Trauma Healing Institute (THI) of the American Bible Society. Children’s needs, however, went overlooked until a couple of years ago when the THI developed – with substantial input from Presbyterian World Mission – a similar approach for children called “Healing Hearts.”

“Healing Hearts” curriculum
Healing Hearts is an interactive program that allows children to understand their emotional journey of grief and recovery by contextualizing conventional trauma-healing principles within a biblical framework. The curriculum has 10 lessons that each include a segment of the Old Testament account of Joseph and his brothers; a story of two young children (Sammy and Rose) in their ordeal with war and loss; and a variety of games and crafts to help children to realize that they are unique beings created by a loving God, recognize effects of trauma and playfully engage in the process of healing. The program can be organized as a weeklong camp, offered as biweekly classes or adapted into shorter series of mini-sessions.

After field-testing the Healing Hearts curriculum, the THI introduced it to the Bible Alliance in Congo, which then identified staff to become certified “master facilitators” for the training of local facilitators of trauma-healing in children following the Healing Hearts approach. Once in their community, trained facilitators write reports about their sessions, which are reviewed by their master facilitator and forwarded to THI. This allows for ongoing follow-up and feedback about the application of the program.

Through its member denominations, the ECC is omnipresent across Congo, where 80 percent of the people confess the Christian faith and all aspects of life are experienced in a spiritual realm. The church is therefore God’s instrument par excellence to promulgate Healing Hearts for its holistic approach.

Without letting go, trauma and its perpetrator are a constant burden carried around, as illustrated in this activity. The conflict-ridden area of Goma, Eastern Congo, is considered to be the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. Refusing to shrink from the problem, the Church of Christ in Congo held a much-needed children’s trauma healing training course for 27 church and community leaders, supported significantly by Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church. The Healing Hearts curriculum uses crafts, stories, games and Bible lessons to help children understand grief, gain self-worth, let go of revenge and ultimately forgive those who have caused physical and emotional wounds. The long-term goal is to break the cycle of abused children becoming perpetrators of violence as adults.

Global connections
The ECC women’s desire to launch Healing Hearts ministries in East Congo drew the interest of Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church (LOPC) in California at a symposium the church organized around a visit by myself as one of PC(USA)’s mission co-workers. LOPC was already familiar with the East Congo context, but the PC(USA)’s ecumenical affiliation with the ECC constituted a new partnership framework for its Congo Mission Team. An ensuing campaign proved pivotal for the eventual launch of the ECC’s Healing Hearts ministries in East Congo. Besides relationship-building and fundraising efforts, the team members also accompanied their Congolese counterparts spiritually through intentional prayer, and they continue to follow up with me to update the congregation. Altogether, LOPC’s Healing Hearts campaign succeeded not only because it by far exceeded its initial goal, but also and particularly because it generated a broad-based support among the LOPC membership and affiliations as 200 people donated to the cause.

Children in Eastern Congo write words of encouragement for one another during a trauma healing program using the Healing Hearts curriculum.

Expanding the ministry
Training seminars usually wear on participants’ energy levels, but in the course of the Healing Hearts seminar, the enthusiasm of trainees and children alike only increased as the program progressed, with the facilitator trainees growing eager to start Healing Hearts ministries in their localities. Representing 11 ECC member denominations in five provincial synods, women leaders and schoolteachers have become the church’s pioneers in Healing Heart ministries.

Six months after the training event, nearly all facilitator teams have completed a first round of Healing Hearts lessons in their communities. Recent follow-up visits proved the ministry much valued at all levels of the church. The ecumenical authorities of the provincial synods now plead with the ECC and its partners to allow this first class of facilitators to become master facilitators who in turn can recruit and train additional Healing Hearts facilitators in their respective provincial synods. This way, the program can continue to grow wide and deep into the interior where the suffering is at its worst.

Christi Boyd serves in the Democratic Republic of Congo as facilitator for women and children’s interests as well as three other French-speaking African countries, Madagascar, Niger and Rwanda, and one non-French-speaking country, South Sudan. She accompanies global partners as they work to remedy the marginalization of women and children in their communities, and she engages with Presbyterian constituencies in the U.S. that wish to walk alongside these global partners.