Growing Hope

The Healing Potential of Trauma-Informed Faith Communities

by Andrea Blanch
Illustration by Terri Scott

In 2012, a statewide survey in Tennessee measured the prevalence of ten “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs)—things like child abuse and neglect, living with domestic violence, or having a family member incarcerated. The survey showed that over half of Tennessee citizens experienced at least one ACE before the age of 18, and more than 20 percent experienced three or more. Childhood adversity can have a significant impact on health and well-being. To quote from the report, “Like a house’s foundation, brain architecture is built over time and from the bottom up. Positive experiences in infancy and early childhood can build a strong and solid foundation. Negative experiences weaken the foundation which can lead to life-long problems.”

Clearly trauma is a serious and widespread problem. But the report leads with the words “Facts, Not Fate” to emphasize that healing is possible. People are naturally resilient. With support, they can bounce back after even very traumatic experiences. Faith communities can play a very important role in this process.

While science may be able to explain the impact of traumatic events on the brain, healing is as much a spiritual journey as a medical or psychological one. People of faith often turn to their clergy and their congregations for help with life’s most difficult problems. A trauma-informed congregation responds by providing moral leadership, supportive relationships, compassionate presence, and tools for spiritual healing. This is not as daunting as it might sound. In fact, these qualities are inherent in Christian teachings, as well as in the tenets of all the world’s major religions. Congregations can increase their capacity to be healing places if they become trauma-informed.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) defines a setting as trauma-informed if the people in that setting demonstrate the four Rs: realize the widespread prevalence of trauma, recognize the signs and symptoms, respond in an understanding and supportive manner, and resist doing further harm. The first two Rs reflect knowledge about trauma and its consequences. The second two Rs reflect a different way of being with people.

The Consequences of Trauma

People can be affected by violence or abuse, poverty or racism, an accident or an illness, extreme loss or grief, or being exposed to severe stress before birth. First responders, health and human service workers, clergy and other individuals are often deeply affected by witnessing the trauma of others. We may even be affected by trauma that occurred in the lives of our ancestors, through intergenerational transmission of patterns of behavior and through changes in the mechanisms that turn our genes on or off.

Most of us are familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) associated with such experiences as being a victim of violent crime or witnessing acts of war. But trauma can affect every aspect of life. If trauma occurs in the lives of very young children, it can affect their ability to form trusting relationships or to regulate their emotions. Older children may have trouble concentrating in school or making friends. Teenagers may experiment with sex or drugs as a way to cope with feelings of worthlessness or emotions they don’t know how to manage. Adults may be chronically angry and explosive, depressed, or unable to organize their thoughts or to think beyond today. Unless we are familiar with trauma and its impact, we may not recognize these symptoms and behaviors for what they are.

Remember that people don’t need to be aware of trauma to be affected by it. In fact, people who grew up in abusive environments often believe that violence is the norm. They may not see any connection between their current problems and what happened to them earlier in life. One of the most important ways to interact with someone who is suffering is to help change the question from “What is wrong with me?” to “What happened to me?”

A Place of Healing

Using a trauma lens means looking below the surface of symptoms and behaviors to understand the root cause of the problem. Trauma survivors need us to respond with compassion, not judgment. We are naturally compassionate to people we know have experienced trauma—veterans returning from war, people who have survived a natural disaster, or children who havewitnessed a school shooting. It is harder to be nonjudgmental about people who drink too much or use drugs, get in trouble with the law, lash out in anger, or are just plain difficult. Once we understand that trauma may be causing the behaviors we find most challenging, it is easier to respond without shaming or blaming.

Often when people’s behaviors are trauma-related, what they need most is space to calm down and an opportunity to tell someone their stories, in their own words, without shame or blame. If someone is courageous enough to talk about what happened to them, honor the telling by listening with your whole heart. Compassionate or deep listening—allowing someone to empty his or her heart without comment or advice—relieves suffering and can be transformative. Avoid the temptation to offer guidance or correct a person’s misconceptions at this stage. First be silent; be willing to sit with the pain of another and make room for God’s grace.

While working to become trauma-informed, remember the fourth “R”—resist doing further harm. Some people have experienced trauma in the context of religion, either directly (as in clergy abuse) or indirectly (by adopting the image of a punitive and vengeful God). Many have been harmed by people in positions of authority. In either case, the power relations and hierarchy inherent in most organized religions may remind the person of earlier trauma. Gently ask people what makes them feel safe (and unsafe), encourage them to be honest and transparent, and give them control over any activities or options available.

What We Could Do Differently

Many resources are available to help congregations learn the basics about trauma. Brochures and posters can be downloaded; videos and PowerPoints are available; study groups, church bulletins and ecumenical groups are potential forums for educating people about trauma. Social networking groups like ACEs Connection Network, which has an interest group on trauma-informed congregations, are available to connect you with others doing similar work.

Yet the hardest part may be breaking the silence. In some cultures, talking about your problems may be seen as a sign of weakness, or even a lack of faith in God’s will. It is not uncommon to hear people say, “This is just my cross to bear,” or “God won’t give you any more than you can handle.” There may be an implicit assumption that traumatic experiences are punishment for sins.

Perhaps most importantly, a trauma-informed congregation can provide moral leadership for the rest of the community. Research has shown convincingly that our health and social problems would decrease significantly if we could 1) ensure that every child is safe and well-loved; 2) reduce all forms of violence across the lifespan; and 3) support healing and resilience of individuals, families and communities.

Across the country, religious organizations are taking leadership in addressing domestic violence, child abuse, child sexual abuse and other sources of trauma. In many cases, religious organizations are leading community-wide efforts to address trauma and violence. These efforts remind us about how powerful spiritual leadership can be. As Albert Schweitzer said, “Do something wonderful; people may imitate it.”



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