by Elle Dowd
God will cover you with his feathers,
and under God’s wings you will find refuge;
God’s faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
– Psalm 91: 4
Many of us who have experienced trauma lean on our faith for support. When I was in the midst of abuse in my childhood and adolescence, my belief in God helped me to hold on, to survive. When I later got into therapy, God’s presence with me in my suffering was a major source of my healing. Knowing that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, was also a victim of abuse—but that the abuse that killed him did not have the final word—gave me comfort when I felt alone and the strength to find hope.
But unfortunately, even though I knew that God was with me in my pain, the church itself often not only fails to provide support for people healing from trauma, but has even had a part in perpetuating it. Sometimes this happens through toxic theology that isolates and blames victims. But it also happens unwittingly, by well-meaning churches who want to help but don’t know how.
Trauma is the physical, mental and emotional wounds that develop as a result of experiences where a person fears for their own life or safety, or the life or safety of someone else. Although we most often talk about trauma in the context of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and soldiers returning from war, there can be many forms and sources of trauma. Instances of abuse or sexual assault, for example, are common sources of trauma that too often affect the young people in our care. We may not know who in our congregations or youth groups is suffering. With trauma often comes shame, causing people to stay silent. But even if we don’t know the deep wounds of the children and youth that we minister alongside, there are some basic things we can do as ministerial leaders to include more trauma-informed practices in our churches.
Check Your Assumptions
One important thing we can do is check our own assumptions about what young people are going through. When I was a teenager, I often felt dismissed, as if my problems could not truly be serious just because I was young. This kept me from reaching out for help and further isolated me, making me even more vulnerable to abuse. It is important for us to remember that the things that cause trauma affect people of all ages, all genders, all backgrounds. We should be careful in our theological reflections not to imply that people are to blame for their own suffering and to deconstruct Bible passages that include or seem to excuse abusive behaviors.
Traumatic experiences cause people to feel out of control in their own lives. Because of this, a major element of healing is empowering people to gain back some sense of autonomy. Theology that undermines that people have a right to their own body and bodily safety, including theology that props up patriarchy or hetero-sexism, can hinder healing and even retraumatize victims. It is crucial that people are affirmed that their boundaries are holy, in both word and action. That is why consent in worship spaces and fellowship gatherings has to be central. Adults should model seeking consent with all people, but particularly with children and youth, with special attention paid to the power differential between young people and their adult leaders. This means we must ask before touching for any reason—during ritual, during greetings and in any other moment—and make sure that it is clear with our body language and our words that saying “no” is always an option.
Set Boundaries Together
When I was the youth missioner working in the bishop’s office in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, at the beginning of each youth event we had youth lead a session about boundaries and guidelines for our time together, in order to feel safe and build deep, healthy relationships with one another. The youth made clear to their peers that things like sexism, racism and homo/bi/transphobia were not to be tolerated and talked about what it means to ask for consent. In addition to teaching about asking for verbal consent by saying things like, “Would you like a hug?”, they modeled the practice of mirroring, noticing and matching the body language of the person you are with. This taught young people to pay attention to the cues of their peers. Is this person reaching for a hug? Or did they put out their hand for a handshake? By noticing and teaching about these boundaries, young people felt empowered to create spaces for themselves that maximized safety and respect.
Another part of consent is disclosure. We cannot consent to things that we don’t know about or understand. It is important to be transparent in our communication about what people can expect from an event or activity so that they can make the right choice for themselves. Before any conversation on sensitive issues or before any activity involving any level of bodily contact, we must explain what is planned and give space for people to care for themselves by opting out or participating on a different level.
One way that this can take place is through what is sometimes called, “trigger warnings” or “content warnings.” There has been some public conversation lately about trigger warnings. Some of these conversations make trigger warnings into a joke, using words like “trigger” pejoratively and implying that people who need a heads up are weak or ridiculous. But a “trigger” is not just something that brings discomfort. Triggers are a psychological word for things that can bring on serious symptoms associated with trauma, including flashbacks, intrusive thoughts or bad dreams. When we give trigger warnings, we are not failing to prepare young people to live in the real world. We are modeling compassion and transparency, and building trust.
Before hosting a planned discussion about sensitive issues such as drug use, mental health issues, suicide, sexual assault, abuse, violence (including state violence) and systems of oppression, we should give the young people under our care notice. We can send home a note beforehand, outlining what will be discussed, and at the event itself remind everyone that they have permission to take a break if they need it—to step outside, to grab some water. During and after the event, we can follow up with resources for support and ongoing pastoral care. I sometimes create a handout for these discussions that include four parts—a summary of what we talked about, discussion questions for ongoing conversation at home, a list of resources and my contact information for questions and continued spiritual care or support.
Although navigating trauma with children and youth can be tricky, in some ways the church is uniquely positioned to offer support. Because of stigma and lack of access to mental health care, trusted adults who are spiritual caregivers are often the first responders in moments of emotional distress. Ministerial leaders should recognize our capacity and training in these moments and be present for spiritual care while referring out to experts for ongoing psychological support. But while most of us are not mental health experts, the experts in trauma know that there are certain things that help support survivors of trauma. Experiences of trauma often violently separate people from their bodies. People report feeling “out of body,” alienated from their body, or like things “aren’t real.” Embodied practices are clinically shown to help aid in healing.
Typically we hear of these embodied practices with examples like running or yoga, but in the church, we have many ritualized sacramental moments that connect the embodied and the spiritual. Rituals like Holy Communion or Holy Baptism connect the spiritual with the embodied through the use of the senses. We hear the trickle of water being poured out, we feel the cool, wet cross traced on our skin—all while being reminded that we belong to God. We smell the wine, we taste the bread—all while hearing that all people have a place at God’s table, and that God’s body was broken, as ours often is too.
In addition to the embodied sacraments of Holy Communion and Holy Baptism, theology like the doctrine of the incarnation or the imageo dei both connect our goodness to our bodies, uniting the divide between spirit and body that happens during trauma. In cooperation with mental health experts and resources, through embodied practices and language centered in consent, our church leaders and communities have the opportunity to play a major role in bringing health and wholeness to the young people in our ministries.
Elle Dowd (she/her/hers) is a bi-furious graduate of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and a candidate for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Elle has pieces of her heart in Sierra Leone, where her two children were born, and in St. Louis, where she learned from the radical, queer, Black leadership during the Ferguson Uprising. She was formerly a founding co-conspirator with the movement to #decolonizeLutheranism and currently works as a community organizer with SOUL, writes regularly for the Disrupt Worship Project and facilitates workshops on gender and sexuality and the church in both secular conferences and Christian spaces. She recently signed a contract with Broadleaf Books and is writing her first book. Elle has interests in queer and feminist Biblical interpretation and liberation and body theology. Elle loves spending time with the people she loves, and on weekends, she tours the city of Chicago in search of the best brunch.
You can follow Elle’s ministry and activism at elledowd.com, on Facebook at Facebook.com/elledowdministry or on Twitter at @hownowbrowndowd.