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Plunged into the valley of the shadow: Ministering after trauma

A few years ago, in the midst of the war in Syria, some 50 pastors from across the Middle East made their way to the Near East School of Theology in Beirut to spend a week together reflecting on the realities of being pastors in wartime. I was a part of that conference, invited to provide support to these colleagues in the form of training for compassion fatigue and resiliency. During a panel discussion on how pastoral work had changed since the war, a pastor from the shattered city of Homs, in western Syria, said: “Before, preaching was an art, a part of ritual, a tool to change a small corner of the church. You preach in order to help people come back to right thinking. But suddenly in the crisis we are demanded to answer universal questions, difficult questions. We are like Jesus in the garden: praying that God would take this away from me.”

He described how church life was — before. He talked about the impossible circumstances endured by so many of the members of his congregation, who had been forced out of their homes, were without work, had lost family members to snipers or were frightened and bereft. He talked about his struggle to answer the question “Why has God abandoned me?” He said: “We reach places where we are depressed, lost, without peace, down. How can we preach a message of peace when we are in need of peace?”

Christianity, my theology professors used to tell me, is centered in the church’s lived experience and witness to the resurrection. But when disaster, violence or trauma disrupts our world, the church’s identity as an Easter people is overturned; the belief that we are safe and whole because God is blessing us is abruptly challenged. In the immediate wake of disaster or an act of mass violence, we are plunged into the valley of the shadow, to borrow an image from Psalm 23. What do we do — after? And how can church leaders and the congregations they serve prepare for the unimaginable?

In the living of these days, it is an inescapable fact that disaster and trauma can afflict any of us, at any moment. Trauma in our church or community forces us to reckon with whether we are in fact a resurrection people, whether love and forgiveness really do conquer all — or if those are just mythical ideals in the face of life-altering realities. The immediate aftermath of trauma is a valley of the shadow of death, a cavern that stands between resurrection and us. The valley refers to the personal or communal state of being caught in the abyss that follows traumatic loss. It requires intentional care and companionship to traverse successfully. It is tempting to focus on the positive work of rebuilding: the heroism that inspires, the coming together of a community determined to recover, the physical repairs that – while time consuming – are tangible efforts with visible results. Yet, among survivors, the physical, emotional and spiritual ripple effects in the wake of disaster are far-reaching. Experts say these ripple effects can even pass through generations when not responded to in healthy ways. They temporarily overwhelm a community’s ability to cope and sometimes permanently alter the community’s identity or composition. It may seem obvious, but simply acknowledging and accepting that churches and their leaders need to be prepared is a critical first step.

What’s first? The work of lament

The latter and less quoted part of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” states: “Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.” After more than 30 years of walking alongside churches after trauma, I have observed that the congregations and pastors whose life together incorporates an awareness of and appreciation for the work of lament undertaken “in the valley of the shadow” tend to have more resiliency than those who do not.

While some faith communities consider lament an act of unfaith, a denial of the power of God or Jesus to triumph over chaos or disaster, lament is a critical engagement of a people whose world and faith assumptions have been shattered by an act of violence. Through no choice of our own, chaos has overtaken us, and though we wish God would fix it and Jesus could carry our burden for us, there is no help for it; the only way beyond the valley of the shadow is through it, as one pastor said. In a pastoral reflection group following a community shooting, one pastor quoted Psalm 137, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” and said: “I get this, the rage, the helplessness that only lament can bring to speech. I remember how this feeling overwhelmed me late in the week following September 11, 2001, when my 14-year-old daughter turned away from the images on CNN that had been burning themselves into our souls for days, looked at me with a deep grief and weariness beyond her years, and said, ‘This wasn’t supposed to happen in my lifetime.’”

“This wasn’t supposed to happen.” That is the heart of the complaint that fuels the psalms of lament. There is an anguished longing that faith should keep that “sacred space” inviolate, a place where God’s good order can still be affirmed and maintained. Yet, just as the world is not like that, so the life of the church, embedded and incarnate as it is in the world, is not like that either. Brokenness, crisis and change are as much a part of the church’s life as they are a part of life in the world, whether people of faith will admit it or not. Lament is the way we mourn the failure of the world and the God we once trusted and find our way into the faith-language of bewilderment, anger, loss and grief. To find courage to embrace the necessity of lament is a primary task of the church after disaster and trauma, especially because the voice of lament uses strong language, expressing negative emotions in ways that many of us have been taught is inappropriate or even unfaithful.

In seeking to be prepared for pastoral work after trauma, it may be helpful to review the preaching and teaching that shapes the life of your congregation. Are themes of loss, sorrow and lament a part of your practice? Of your teaching of children and adults? You may also want to meet with those who share responsibility for visitation and congregational care, reflecting on the spiritual, emotional and practical landscape of your encounters with those who suffer. Are pastors, deacons, elders, teachers and Stephen ministers equipped with the spiritual tools to listen deeply when stories of suffering, doubt or trauma are raw and unfinished, resisting the urge to reassure or wrap up? Are the words spoken offering survivors a path into honoring the grief and trauma, or leading away from it, toward a resolution that may be too fast, too soon?

It hurts to be with someone who is suffering; it is human nature to want to comfort and heal. If we are honest, the need for that comfort is ours as well, not just for the one whose suffering we are trying to support. When accompanying communities in trauma, it is critical to be able to pay attention to our own bodies and become comfortable with discomfort. We need to develop the skills to self-regulate our own need for relief and resist offering answers, resolution and quick comfort to people in the valley of the shadow. Paying attention to the hard questions of those who are suffering and exploring the texts of lament throughout Scripture, as a continuing discipline of our preaching and teaching, equips congregations to be resilient and helpful when trauma or disaster strike.

What now?

 The Sufi poet Rumi has a poem that begins, “This being human is a guest house/ Every morning a new arrival.” He goes on to catalog joy, depression, meanness, malice — each “an unexpected visitor” that we are meant to “welcome and entertain.” This advice, paired with the image of the open hospitality of the Lord’s Table, are strong metaphors for congregations living through trauma or seeking to support neighbors who have that experience.

After a mass shooting occurred near the church where a colleague was pastor, he described making his way to the church’s welcome center while first responders were still active only a few doors away. He recalls looking around at the familiar contours of the church and the faces of his colleagues and thinking: This changes everything.

If you and your congregation are close to the epicenter of an event or disaster, this is the beginning of wisdom: This changes everything! The first work is to breathe and pay attention to what is changing, and what needs to change.

What’s urgent? What’s not? What part of the ordinary life of the congregation can be repurposed to provide a structure for the congregation to begin to enter the borderlands of trauma, so the work of experiencing shock, grief, anger, depression and loss can be honored and those doing the work can find spiritual accompaniment and know they are not alone? What events or scheduled meetings or initiatives can or should be set aside, canceled or delayed? In the wake of a mass shooting, for example, the youth group’s paintball event might strike a false note; the launching of the building campaign might seem tone deaf. As I write these words, churches are grapple with the impact of a COVID-19 pandemic on our communities and faith, acknowledging that gathering physically for worship is neither prudent nor possible in this moment. In whatever circumstance of disaster or trauma, take stock and make space for the holy work that has been thrust upon you.

Pandemic is, thankfully, an infrequent experience. Most traumas – disasters that are natural or human-caused – awaken in us a deeper need to be connected. Churches and their leaders should be prepared to gather. If it is possible, open up the church, provide experienced leaders to accompany those affected, create holy space, tend it gently and hold it loosely. Talk to other spiritual leaders in the community and in your congregation. If something happens, what do you have to share? What can you offer? How can you together support each other and your community?

After a physical disaster, that work is dominated by the practical. In preparing to support a community after a natural disaster, congregations will want to take stock of their resources and abilities. Can your facility serve as an emergency or short-term shelter? Does your congregation have supplies, emergency skill sets, or a set role in supporting recovery?

In a university town in Idaho, after a mass shooting made a local church part of the crime scene, faith leaders came together, listening to the pastor of the affected congregation and providing a place to worship and receive other support. Every night for a week, another faith community hosted a public gathering: a brief contemplative worship service, food, supportive presence. The affected congregation was consulted, gave permission and was not required to take the lead if it didn’t want to. When your faith community is in a support role, it’s important to show up and vital to take your cue from those most affected. Let their spiritual journey set the tone. Don’t rush toward forgiveness, resolution and peace — or supplant the important work of grief with strategies for repair, advocacy and recovery. These responses and advocacy are an important part of the work after trauma but should accompany grief, not replace it. Healing is a process; it needs both attention and space.

What remains?

As the days and weeks and months wear on, don’t forget. Pay attention to the long walk. Trigger events – anniversaries, trials, arrests, new storms, another act of violence or crisis, even in a community far away – can reawaken memories or reminders of trauma, creating soreness or even reinjury in a part of the body of Christ that is still in the process of healing.

Honor this process in life together, acknowledge, listen and review: How are you different? How do you experience the suffering of others differently? How do you experience the divine after you have gone through the valley of the shadow and are once again walking toward the light? “Be grateful for whoever comes,” advises the poet Rumi. “Welcome and entertain them all.” They may be “clearing you out for some new delight.” Put another way, when we walk through the valley of the shadow, the psalmist reminds us that goodness and mercy do follow us, all the days of our lives.

How can churches and their leaders develop and practice resilience after trauma? That is, how do we navigate through and beyond the valley of the shadow? In her book “Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining,” theologian Shelly Rambo draws our attention to “what remains” after trauma. Grief, anger, blame and suffering and their impact on individuals and communities are substantive and real. But what also remains is holy presence, human connection and the opportunity to deepen and enrich the common life of our congregations and the communities we seek to serve in Jesus’ name.

LAURIE A. KRAUS is director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Louisville, Kentucky.