Common Conversations: Series 1, Episode 3

Common Conversations

Common Conversations Transcript
Series 1 “The Weight of Racism”
Episode 3 “The Gravity of Trauma of These Enmeshed Communities”
December 2020

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Natalie Aho: Hello. I’m Natalie Aho, the new program manager for the Baptist Commons here at Wake Divinity. The Baptist Commons is a network of diverse communities of Baptists committed to justice, reconciliation, and compassion. We provide events, resources, and services for Wake Divinity students, alumni, and supporters. 

Today we welcome you to our first event for the new academic year called Common Conversations. Moderated by a Wake Divinity alumni, student, or supporter, these are conversations between experts and members of the Wake Divinity faculty. 

This fall, we are focusing on three topics under the theme of “the weight of racism.” As architects of equity, hope, and healing, we feel there is a no more important place to begin than to talk about racism in America. The weight of this injustice is on us all. As our beloved Deacon Maya Angelou once said, “It is impossible to struggle for civil rights, equal rights for blacks, without including whites. Because equal rights, fair play, justice, are all like the air: we all have it, or none of us has it.”

In our series, we’ll tackle the load of Christian nationalism and Baptist history for our first conversation; Black Baptist burdens and White Baptist pressures for the second; and the gravity of trauma of these enmeshed communities for the third. Don’t worry; you don’t need to be a Baptist to engage.

We hope you’ll do more than watch. We hope you are inspired to start your own conversation after listening to ours. And that you too will continue the call for justice, compassion, and reconciliation. 

Rev. Laura Barclay: I’m honored to welcome our audience to this discussion today on “The Gravity of Trauma of Enmeshed Communities,” the third in a series of discussions on the weight of racism at the Baptist Commons at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. I’d like to welcome our three expert panelists.

Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, the Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer Director for the College Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital, and the Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.

Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Rev. Laura Barclay: Rev. Sabrina N. Gilchrist, a Wake Divinity graduate from the class of ’10, Nationally Certified Counselor, Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor, and the Executive Director of Right Moves For Youth.

Rev. Sabrina N. Gilchrist: Thanks for having me.

Rev. Laura Barclay: Dr. Mark Jensen, the Teaching Professor of Pastoral Care and Pastoral Theology at Wake Divinity and a Chaplain Supervisor in the Division of FaithHealth at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

Dr. Mark Jensen: Thanks, Laura, it’s good to be here.

Rev. Laura Barclay: It’s so good to be with you all today and I’m Rev. Laura Barclay, a Wake Divinity graduate from the class of ‘08 and a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Louisville, KY and I’ll be moderating our conversation.

This year the North Carolina Healthcare Association, which represents all 130 hospitals in North Carolina, released a statement in November pledging to work harder to provide equitable care to everyone. Among the challenges to that goal, the association said, are the barriers to employment, education, and economic opportunity that people face because of their race. The association stated: “Persistent racism, one of several social injustices driving widening disparities of care disproportionately harming people of color, is an urgent threat to our public health in North Carolina. It’s time to elevate this issue to mission critical status.” This conversation is taking place at Wake Forest University Divinity School in North Carolina so it feels like a good introduction to our panel today.

For our first question, it’s important to name that discussions about racism and mental health are complex and multilayered. It’s difficult to know where we even begin. In relation to the previous two recorded conversations for Wake Div’s Common Conversation series on the weight of racism, we felt we should first ask, how do we frame the conversation about mental health and racism?

Rev. Sabrina N. Gilchrist: Well, Laura and my co-panelists here, I think it’s important for us to first acknowledge that the components of mental health are complex, they are multi-layered and they are connected. The existence of the mind, body and, dare I say spirit or soul connection, it’s very real. And the implications of mental health challenges are felt throughout all of those domains. So we have to first acknowledge that there is cultural or communal trauma that exists. It’s important to acknowledge it because it speaks to how groups of people who are tied together and connected, experience abrupt traumatic events collectively. These are shared experiences among them, even if there are nuances in how those experiences are conceptualized or even felt.
Another layer or element that really needs more attention in my personal opinion is the existence of generational trauma. It’s something that isn’t always acknowledged or explored. But in his book It Didn’t Start With You, Mark Wolynn provides research and resources that introduced the concept of generational trauma. “In some,” he says, “traumatic events that may have happened ages ago make imprints in our generational consciousness and even in our DNA.” He pulls research from Holocaust survivors and their family members. And what they find is that those individuals tend to have some really distinct genetic markers in their DNA. With that information in mind, we have to wonder what impact systemic racism and injustice has had throughout the generations of marginalized people, particularly people of color.

A good bit of the work that we are doing today to heal our wounds is really addressing the traumas of both today and yesterday. I think we have to go into this conversation with those elements in mind.

Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker: I am really glad, actually, that you opened with the question about how to frame the discussion. Because I think that two things are true in addition to what Sabrina just said. And the first is that simply put, racism is a public health crisis. We know that the social determinants of health – things like where you live, where you go to school, what water you drink, what food do you have access to – these things and racism are inextricably bound together and the evidence is compelling. It’s clear that the consequences of racism on our physical and mental health can be dire. So to put it in the simplest terms possible, people are literally getting sick from and dying from racism in this country.

That’s the first thing. And then the second thing, when I think about framing the conversation is to remember that when we’re talking about mental health and racism – in that single sentence we’re naming two constructs or two topics that historically we just don’t talk about in this country. Mental illness is still regarded as one of the last taboo topics of all time and racism is a topic that in fact we are socialized not to discuss. We’re talking about, how do you hold these two challenging issues or topics together? For most people you’re going to find that we are quickly out of our comfort zone. Or as we say in the mental health field, deskilled. I think it’s really important by acknowledging the challenges that are inherent in even having the conversation, even beginning to hold these weighty constructs together.

And then I think it’s important to give ourselves and each other and our institutions, if you’re feeling generous, permission to prepare for the conversations. And I mean, prepare. Basic things – going back to basics like defining your terms, agreeing on common language that we can all agree on in order to enter into this space and feel like it’s relatively a safe or brave space. We need to think about the fact that (I think we’re probably all feeling this to some extent) that well-intended people of all races and ethnicities, this year especially, are feeling a tremendous sense of urgency to get in there and have these conversations. Especially White Americans, it’s important to remember that there’s a juxtaposition in terms of readiness for these conversations. Because people from black, indigenous, and communities of color have been having conversations about how to stay safe and sane while being Black in America, for example, we’ve been having these conversations for literally centuries.

So these are not what I would call ‘water cooler’ conversations. It’s important to prepare to do the work. Fortunately there’s an entire body of literature that is really just accessible at our fingertips, so that we can start off on some common ground.

Dr. Mark Jensen: Thanks to both of you for beginning to frame the conversation. I will add just a thing or two. One, to reinforce what Stephanie was just saying, and at the risk of maybe being too simple or too elementary, I think we need to begin by emphasizing, again, that by racism, we mean something more than consciously-held individual prejudice or bias. We don’t exclude that, but we’re talking really about inequitable access, persistent and pervasive over time to the goods and services of a culture and a society – employment, education, housing, finance, political power.

I think we also need to situate mental health as an aspect of overall health and not sequester it. And recognize the toll that persistent systemic racism takes on individuals and communities. Among the many reasons that Covid-19 has taken a disproportionate toll among people of color is that the chronic, toxic stress of racism has already made them carry higher rates of chronic stress-related illnesses, leaving them at increased risk for the worst of the pandemic.

In real terms racism can be thought of as its own pandemic. It costs years, and it costs lives.

As Stephanie said, racial equity work stirs up deep feelings. I often say to students, if you’re going to have this conversation, you will soon be in the presence of strong affect including anger, shame, guilt, grief. Learning to tolerate feelings, working at the edges of our comfort zones, is essential to having these kinds of conversations.

Additionally, learning practices to regulate our bodies responses to stress and trauma – fight, flight, freeze – is also important. Leadership in this realm requires self-knowledge and practices of self-care, and it requires the capacity to tolerate messiness.

Last thing I’ll say in this first round is, as Stephanie alluded to, well-intended White people have been ready to jump into this conversation in new ways. I want to say that White-people work is its own thing. And that’s the message I often want to say to White people, people like me. In 2016, I remember conversations with Black students after Charlottesville, the election and the emboldening of White nationalist groups. As I sat with students and expressed my own shock and horror, they said to me gently, but clearly, “Welcome to the world we’ve always known.” I understood in a much deeper way, one dimension of my own privilege, in that exchange, and some of the work that I had to do if I were going to be a credible ally in the work of dismantling racism.

Rev. Laura Barclay: Thank you for beginning to frame this discussion in such beautiful and complex ways. I think about part of what you were saying that this is literally killing people, Stephanie. And the need for White therapists – you said, Mark, ‘White people’s work is its own thing’ – for a White therapist to begin to confront this in the therapy room. I think there was a sense in prior generations of therapists that therapists should be a bit of a blank slate, a bit of a mystery, and just kind of reflecting back consistently at clients. Now, I think that our role in current generations is we’re starting to challenge harmful views that people have of themselves and others. And I think we need to be careful to note in therapy, as therapists, that racism is not a mental illness where one gets a free pass for behavior due to a diagnosis. But it’s a systemic infection that needs to be confronted and addressed for personal and communal health – that mind, body, spirit connection that you mentioned, Sabrina.

I want to lead us into the next question here. I think it’s important for our audience to see what trauma looks like in their own context. And in a year with any crisis, like a pandemic or unemployment or natural disasters, much less more than one that we’ve experienced this year, we see a tipping point for even the most isolated communities that the trauma can no longer be ignored. How does systemic and complex trauma present itself amongst the different populations that each of you are working with?

Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker: I’m going to take a first crack at that question, Laura. But your last comment, I just want to go back to what you just said about the role of the therapists in broaching these topics just brought to mind a quote that I love by Dr. Kenneth Hardy. He’s a scholar in racial trauma therapy, and he talks about the role of the therapist as being the broker of permission to talk about race, to bring race into the therapy session. And I think it’s such a powerful and important statement, again, because we’ve been socialized to be a blank slate as therapists, but also specifically socialized not to talk about race. And so I think it’s a profound statement and really helpful to remember that in the sort of therapist-patient power imbalance, a really significant way of mitigating that imbalance is making it okay to bring race into the discussion. The research tells us that when therapists do that, when they get permission for us to address race and for people to bring their concerns about race or race-based trauma into the therapeutic space that outcomes are better.

So to the question that you just asked about how systemic and complex trauma presents itself among different populations, I think, first it’s important to remember that traumatic stress reactions are considered basically normal reactions to abnormal events. And that’s important to remember because we don’t want to pathologize what is considered a normal reaction to abnormal events. What’s pathological are the traumatic events themselves, not the individuals.

And then just important to remember that trauma affects everybody differently. I mean, it’s really fascinating, the impact of trauma can be subtle or can be outright destructive, dramatic, in-your-face. It can be immediate or delayed. It can be emotional as with signs of experiences of numbness or anxiety. It can be cognitive like difficulty concentrating, intrusive thoughts. It can be physical, like a disruption to sleep or nightmares or even physical aches and pains. It can be behavioral like avoidance or withdrawal. And it can even be existential like a flight into sort of an intense use of prayer or an extreme amount of despair about humanity.

Specifically what I think about college students, which is a population I specialize in, for students, one of the red flags that a trauma reaction may be occurring is simply an unexplained academic decline, a sudden unexplained academic decline. And if you think about all of the many ways in which traumatic stress can manifest, that makes a lot of sense because many of those ways involve cognition and things that challenge the ability to focus and to concentrate.

I always tell students and families to pay close attention when for no reason at all, seemingly, there is a sudden dip in grades.

Rev. Sabrina N. Gilchrist: I echo everything that Stephanie just said; I don’t know how much more I could add to that.

Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker: That means I talked too much.

Rev. Sabrina N. Gilchrist: No, you were spot-on. And I certainly don’t want to be repetitious unnecessarily. But a lot of what Stephanie pointed out, generally, in terms of trauma response and what she sees in working with college students, a good bit of that can be mirrored in children and adolescents as well. And the way that I’ll start off talking about that particular set of folks is I will say children and teenagers are phenomenal thermometers. They will help you take the temperature of whatever is happening. Because they’re doing the best they can to navigate typically what we might consider ‘adult situations’ from their child-like or adolescent brains. And so they are a great way to gauge what’s happening around us, even if we don’t fully understand what it is. They’ll definitely let you know something’s up. A lot of times what we might see with children and teenagers is what we might call ‘acting out.’ They may be exhibiting destructive behaviors, expressions of anger or explosiveness. They may be imploding. These kinds of behaviors, especially if they are all of a sudden, or not characteristic of how those children typically act or respond. We may also see increased dependency or clinginess amongst children and teenagers where they may have been at one point exhibiting some independence – that’s appropriate for that age range. We might see a little bit of reverting back to younger years of dependency. They might express that they’re having nightmares or night terrors. You may begin to see them have anxiety and panic attacks. They may begin complaining about physical elements that are unexplainable. You might take them to the doctor and the doctor says, well, nothing’s really coming up. But these children truly are experiencing some type of physical pain or ailment. We might see some children doing things like cutting or behaving with bulimic characteristics. We call that a type of physical mutilation.

For teenagers, especially, and in the realm that I work in, Right Moves for Youth, we often will see what we interpret as apathy – the presence or the appearance of apathy – these feelings of hopelessness, a low locus of control. Or in other words, they might begin to express, “Nothing I do matters anyway.” Going back to some of that existential expression that Stephanie was talking about.

The other thing, though, that I want to point out is that we may see these children and these teenagers increase in artistic expressions. A lot of times you’ll see they’ll start writing poetry, they will journal. They will sketch, they will paint, they will find ways or try to find ways to express what they’re feeling. And what we know from a mental health perspective is a lot of times when we can’t language what we feel or what we’re experiencing, we will try to find ways to express it otherwise. So we might see some of that. What I would encourage folks to do – I don’t want anybody to think that a child who was artistically inclined has experienced trauma. That’s not what I’m saying. But instead, pay attention to the work that these young people are creating. Look for intensity of feeling, depth of emotion. And also pay attention if it feels rather dark. A lot of times they’re expressing those feelings.

And then the other thing that we tend to see with children and teenagers is a search for non-isolation. So they may begin to reach out. They’re trying to find what I will call their tribe or their group where they can feel supported and feel understood. So those are just some examples of ways that this might play out for children and teenagers.

Dr. Mark Jensen: Thanks to both of you for really textured descriptions of how trauma manifest itself. I’m going to back up a little bit and talk a little more generally about trauma as in an effort to clarify some of our terms and talk a little bit about long term effects and community.

One of the named milestones in understanding the health effects of stress, trauma, and health was the study done from 1995 to 1997 by Kaiser Permanente on adverse childhood experiences. I commend you if you haven’t seen it, a TED Talk by Nadine Burke Harris. It’s probably the best brief presentation on this as a public health issue. It demonstrated that persons who would endure multiple forms of acute stress – abuse, neglect, household dysfunction were the categories they used then. People who’d experienced that in childhood were far more likely to have poor health status across seven out of ten of the leading causes of death in the U.S. And now, of course, we know that there are forms of acute and persistent stress beyond childhood. I think we’re learning and developing better vocabulary for the fact that racial trauma is one of them.

The seemingly relentless frequency of persons killed by police and the replay of that across our video screens traumatizes not only the families and the victims and whole communities and re-traumatizes as these things are replayed. Additional sources or triggers of racial trauma include racial harassment, whether subtle or gross, witnessing violence, even watching news coverage of violence.

Lastly, I think we need to recognize that communities suffer over time from lack of investment of resources. So trauma is not just an episodic, one-time eruption or incursion of violence or something terrible that happened. A couple of years ago a colleague in town found an old redlining map of our county used in the Depression Era refinance program. He then overlaid the current hotspot map that identified the most distressed census tracts in our city nearly 100 years later. It should be no surprise that the maps look remarkably similar in that the same census tracts were predominantly populated by persons of color. The lesson there is that investment over time or divestment over time has long-term consequences.

Rev. Laura Barclay: Thank you all. Something that stuck out to me that each of you covered was while you talked about some of the symptoms that we see, there is this strong effort to de-pathologize what we’re seeing. That thinking about what have people experienced versus –

Mark, as you put it, ‘what is wrong with you’ – what have people experienced. We can even look to ourselves as therapists. Sometimes we sit in this weird space in the medical community. We’re not in the medical community, we’re sort of tangential to it. And we can see that there is this history of racism and trauma in the medical community itself. This impetus to de-pathologize especially when we talk about race and clients and patients I think is so important. And you all encapsulated that so beautifully.

Rev. Laura Barclay: The next question I have is that you all are helping to raise the next generation of mental health professionals, chaplains, and pastors. How do we work towards healing and what do you see is next?

Dr. Mark Jensen: Laura, I want to back up for a minute and underline something you said about approaching trauma. Everyone has talked about that trauma responses are normal responses to abnormal events. In the broader field of trauma-informed care, I think one of the by-words is learning to go from the question, ‘what’s wrong with you’ to ‘what happened.’ So learning to ask that question is important.

I want to speak less to therapists and more to faith leaders for a moment who will be watching our production, I hope. I think we know that persons of color are less likely to seek or receive mental health services in general. There are many reasons for that. There is stigma that lives, again, an understandable reaction to historical things. That faith leaders can reduce stigma publicly and privately. Use the pulpit that one has, both publicly to reduce stigma and then privately as one cares for persons. Faith leaders can exercise “the ministry of introduction,” as one of my mentors said, in caring for people. Say, “I want to introduce you to my friend in the community.” So knowing the network of providers in their community and then working to dismantle barriers like affordability and access. Advocate for policies that increase access. Advocate for community investment. We know there are not enough providers of color in most of our communities, and we need to work at institutional levels to get those numbers up.

We also need to work to do anti-racism education, both in the current training of mental health professionals of tomorrow and in the continuing education of providers all across the spectrum. There are too many white male health providers who don’t get it, and anti-racism work needs to be in the continuing education curriculum. I think I’ll stop there for now.

Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker: Thank you for that, Mark. I think you could very easily substitute mental health professionals for many of the advice, recommendations that you just made for faith leaders in the community. When I think about the mental health profession, more broadly, I’m really encouraged by the fact that the next generation of mental health professionals actually is much more knowledgeable about trauma-informed treatment and better equipped to deliver culturally responsive care. In our hospital setting and our medical system, our psychology interns are postdocs, our psychiatry residents are social work students. They are all coming to us with a much stronger foundation of knowledge across these rounds. There’s no question about it. And they are getting to these places in their professional development and training, expecting us to take that knowledge to the next level as clinical supervisors. I think the challenge has more to do with some of the long-term, more senior professionals who are somewhat lacking in this particular knowledge base. And I think we all know the pitfalls across academia of convincing, or trying to convince, seasoned experts to do remedial work. Pick a field and tell me how successful you are with that. But I think that, in a sense, that’s exactly what’s required at this time. And so we really have to get creative in the academy about making this new type of learning possible, not just for the younger generation, of the incoming generation of mental health professionals, but those who are in positions of privilege and power and supervision within those same academic departments. So getting creative about making the new learning possible and then also beginning to hold people more accountable for incidents of bias, microaggressions, and other kinds of oppressive behaviors.

I think to the question about ‘where does the healing begin?,’ I think it really begins with racial reckoning. In our institution, I work at a psychiatric hospital, one of the longest standing psychiatric hospitals in the country. We’re beginning to ask ourselves some really tough questions. We’re acknowledging the fact that there’s a 400-year history about race in America that most of us don’t even know. And we’re having conversations in our grand rounds, in our clinical rounds, in our research labs, about the fact that the truth about race in America, the truth about race in medicine, the truth about race in psychiatry, or even the truth about race in our own hospital system is ugly. It’s sorted. We’re leaning into the words of James Baldwin who said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” So we are preparing ourselves – again, going back to the idea of preparation – we’re preparing ourselves to have these conversations in different ways within our institution. And beginning by creating spaces for people with lived and observed experiences of bias, marginalization, and racism to come forward and speak their truths. That’s a significant body of work. The phrase often used is safe space. There’s no preparation that can create a safe space. So maybe the closest that we can get is to create a space that feels brave for people to come forward and share their lived experiences.

But the other piece of that – again, the preparation – is to prepare leaders of organizations and institutions to get ready to hear those stories as people come forward very courageously to share the truths about their experiences within our institutions, within our academic programs, within our hospitals, and our medical systems. We need to be prepared with the skill set to hear those truths in a way that empowers the individuals who come forward to speak them. And that requires, again, a new skill set, a new type of learning. An example of that skill set – we’ve had our institution design and deliver a training for all of our senior managers at the institution, our top level, long-standing vice presidents, chiefs of different departments, we’ve taken them through a training that’s titled “Leading through Empowering Listening.” Just teaching leaders who are accustomed to doing things like coming up with quick solutions, interrupting, offering suggestions, holding space, taking up all of the space in the room. We’re teaching leaders how that skill set that many of us have acquired in order to be successful leaders is actually experienced as oppressive when entering in spaces where people are coming forward to talk about these very weighty, challenging race-related issues. And so that’s some of the work that I think is important as a foundation for healing to be able to begin.

Rev. Sabrina N. Gilchrist: I would just add – I’m listening and really taking in everything that these wonderful folks are saying here on the panel. The one thing that I would add is that we not only gain the tools, the knowledge, the training that we need in order to do this work. But we need to be brave enough and vulnerable enough to personalize what we’re learning, to move it from head knowledge to heart experience. I think it’s important to point out, at least in my mind, that one of the defense mechanisms that people sometimes will employ is intellectualizing. It’s easy to read the material – though the material is difficult to wrestle with – it’s easy to read it and to intellectualize it. But it takes bravery to actually let it touch you, and create a transformative learning experience. I think that’s important as we talk about ‘where do we go from here?’ – ‘how do we move forward in this work of healing?’

The other thing that I will say is, yes, we need to host brave space. I love that, Stephanie. We need to host and facilitate brave space and hear the stories of others, humanizing others. But we also need to make sure we are finding space to share our stories as well. We all have our own work to do, whether we have been a part of what historically has been an oppressed or marginalized community or whether we have been on the end of the spectrum where perhaps our experiences are more privileged. Either way, we have a personal experience. Racism, systemic racism, has impacted everyone. And so we need to find space. And if we can’t find it, we need to create it. Space where we can name our stories, name our experiences, because that’s how we begin to do our own work. I’m a firm believer, you can’t lead other people to places that you yourself have not gone. So we have to be brave enough to be vulnerable enough to do our work, to name our stories, and to work through them so that we can model, even for other people, how to be brave in that way.

Rev. Laura Barclay: You can’t lead people where you have not gone. I love that. I think that the anti-racism work that you all were talking about moving forward in the future, both in institutions and for ourselves, is so important. As a marriage and family therapist, there are core competencies that we have to acquire just to be therapists. And I wonder what it would look like if that was across fields, core competency was engaging in work of anti-racism, institutionally and personally. What that might look like? That would be a wonderful thing to see.

Now we’re going to move into the Q&A portion of our program, and I’d love to ask a personal question first.

In Louisville, especially this year, in the light of the murders of Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, Tyler Gerth, and Travis Nagdy, many in our community are traumatized. Downtown congregations became sanctuaries for protestors seeking refuge from police who were enforcing curfews with pepper bullets and arrests. Black women therapists organized free on-site mental healthcare services at Injustice Square near the Breonna Taylor memorial, and ministers stood by to assist with prayer, lament, and prophetic witness to whatever movement leaders needed. This is similar to what many other communities across America have faced this year. Can you speak to how ministers and therapists, especially Persons of Color who themselves may be experiencing trauma, can attend to self care in light of the events of 2020 and how white ministers and therapists may provide solidarity for their Black and Brown colleagues?

Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker: First of all, it made my heart heavy just hearing you read that opening and recounting of some of the events of earlier this year. But activism, anti-racism work, diversity, equity, and inclusion work, all can be highly effective outlets and constructed responses to the traumatic events that have been brought into sharp relief this year, but really have been taking place for many, many years. But it’s important to know that this type of work does take a toll, both physically and mentally. I think Sabrina said it beautifully earlier when she said it requires a commitment of both the head and heart. And we tend to be really good at the head part. We know that there’s going to be a format and a plan and possibly metrics involved, and numbers and definitions. But the hard part means that there’s also going to be anxiety and tension and shame and sadness and guilt. And we have to be able to hold both of those things in ourselves and then each other. And part of that means that we have to be able to take care of ourselves and really look out for each other, for those around us who are so deeply engrossed in doing this work.

So a few quick tips: One stand-by, disconnect from media. A strategy that I developed just this summer, you’d think I’d have figured this out long ago, but no, just this summer is when I finally realized when watching the evening news. And when I hear the warning, “What you are about to see may be disturbing to some,” now I make that a cue to hit mute or turn away. A colleague of mine says, and I love this quote, to “remember that breaking news is only breaking the first time you hear it.” So don’t expose yourself over and over again, to an endless loop of stories, images, of traumatic events like the killings of Brianna Taylor and George Floyd and countless others. Just shut it down, turn away, step away.

We know from research that there are certain components of resilience that can also help to be part of our self care arsenal. A metric that I use to remember is to call the six S’s. If you say it together quickly. It sounds like ‘success for resilience.’ Remember the six strategies for resilience, and they include S – attend to your spirituality/faith. Sometimes translated, I will say to remind people, don’t let folks steal your joy. S – remember to cultivate a sense of belongingness and connectedness. That’s the second. S – maintain a sense of purpose and meaning in life. S – maintain your sense of humor. S – remember structure, which became very important to all of us when our worlds were up-ended, and we found ourselves, suddenly, in many instances, working remotely or in unfamiliar spaces and places. And then S – self care. It’s sort of at the heart of the successes.

Self care is one of my personal favorites because self care skills and strategies are limitless. There’s no end to the skills that you can develop in this realm, and I really encourage people to have fun with it. Try to challenge yourself and each other. I do this with my friends; they think I’m so corny. But when we get on our calls together, I talk about when we have our next group call, let’s each share our self care superpower. Think of the thing that you really do well to take care of yourself because we can really learn from each other. And take pride in whatever that superpower is. Mine happens to be sleep. I’m an excellent sleeper. I’m also a good walker. I know to get out and walk in times of stress and distress. But when sort of scanning the six S strategies of resilience, it can be helpful just to do a periodic scan because it can also remind you of the areas in which you might be lacking and take that moment to commit to strengthening those areas. Maybe you’re not feeling as connected as you might be to others during these times. Maybe you’ve been neglecting care of your spirituality and your faith and so forth. There are also some excellent apps – Headspace and Calm are both apps that people have been finding very helpful for bolstering mindfulness skills and meditation, which can be extremely helpful during these times.

Also encouraged BIPOC communities, especially, to remember that when we talk about self care, self care is not the same as doing it all yourself. Those are not the same things. Remember that if you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, trauma, secondary trauma, vicarious trauma, a rise in substance use or abuse, don’t hesitate to seek professional support. There are wonderful resources, and we will include them at the link when this is posted. But things like Therapy for Black Girls; the Steve Fund is a phenomenal resource that people can go to and find a wealth of resources, skills, and strategies.

And then last, the question about what White ministers and therapists can do. I think that White individuals can provide solidarity by, and this was touched on earlier, I think Mark talked about it, is doing your own work. But basically, by doing your work and not relying solely upon Black colleagues and Black friends constantly to educate and explain. It’s important to take care in initiating these conversations. We talked many times about being prepared – ask permission before broaching a subject that can be traumatizing. And then understand that if you – I’m going to read a list of identities and just kind of think about yourself as I go through them – if you identify as a person who is White, male, straight, cis-gender, Christian, born in the United States – these are all realms in which you hold privilege and power. And I want to encourage you, really challenge you, to continuously consider and think about how you might use that power and privilege to promote anti-racist behavior and policies.

Rev. Laura Barclay: Oh my goodness, thank you, Stephanie. I think that was all such a wonderful toolkit for organizers, ministers, and therapists, on the ground, both BIPOC and White, here in Louisville and across America. And I’m going to be thinking about my own superpower, my self care superpower.

Rev. Jessica Stokes: I’m a Wake Div grad from 2013 and the Associate Director of Partners in Health and Wholeness at the NC Council of Churches. My question is how can faith leaders connect the racial trauma (individual, communal, generational, etc) that is experienced by Black, Indigenous, Persons of Color and the mental health concerns that are experienced due to racial trauma, to foster compassion and understanding?

Rev. Sabrina N. Gilchrist: Well, I thank Jessica for her question. I think that throughout our conversation today and even in some of Stephanie’s response from your question, Laura. I think it speaks to those things, particularly Mark’s response earlier on when he was talking about creating brave and safe space, doing your work, sitting with people, and really gaining education and understanding of the subject matter and what people are experiencing. And so I will just reiterate a few of those things and say, education and professional development is so important. I think too many clergy people fail to see themselves as the professionals they are and that continuing education is a huge component of doing a careful and intentional theological and spiritual direction work. So I say to folks, have no shame in not knowing, but be intentional about learning. Those things are very critical.

The other thing that folks can do to make that connection for their congregants and for people in their community is consult, consult, consult. Only work within your particular scope of expertise. For everything else, seek out the professionals who know what they’re doing in those areas. I remember working with a colleague of mine, she’s actually my partner in private practice, and we were doing a presentation for some clergy folks. They were completely relieved when we said to them that you’re not supposed to know. You’re not supposed to know how to do mental health work. You didn’t go to school for that. But find the folks who know how to do that, who are trained for that, and work through them. In 2010 I actually submitted my capstone to Wake Forest School of Divinity as a combination of my Masters of Divinity and Master of Arts in counseling work. Mark may be traumatized if I mentioned it, but my thesis was called “Care and counseling and the Black church: A model for collaboration between African American pastors and counseling professionals.” And essentially this thesis is talking about the need for clergy and spiritual leaders to be intentional about partnering with mental health professionals and organizations to provide care in their congregations and in their communities. And a part of that thesis and a part of what I also encourage folks to do in my work today is don’t wait until a crisis to try to find the resources. Do the work now; prepare now. If you don’t know mental health resources in your community, how can you refer people to the help that they need? And vice versa.

There’s another side to that and that is as you get to know mental health professionals and organizations in your community, they get to know you. They get to know who they can send folks to for spiritual care and guidance. So this really is a partnership. Build the partnership now so that when you’re facing those potential mental health crises in your congregations and in your communities, you have those tools readily available at your fingertips.

And then the last thing I’ll say is, again, we’ve said it many times, but that is to create safe and sacred space for people to express their experiences where they can share their stories bravely, and they can be affirmed in sharing those stories. I caution clergy to avoid spiritualizing people’s experiences prematurely. We often feel pressured to rush to the theological answer or the spiritual solution to what people are dealing with. And sometimes that is counterproductive and downright harmful. So we need to be careful with that. Wait for the right time to help people make spiritual sense of what’s happening to them emotionally and psychologically

Rev. Laura Barclay: Thank you so much, Sabrina. I think you hit the nail on the head there with consult, consult, consult. As therapists we just can’t say that enough, and I think it’s so important for churches to build that referral list. And if they don’t know where to start, start with one or two therapists and go from there. Also I’d encourage therapists to build a referral list for inclusive, community oriented churches who are doing really good work because so many people have experienced spiritual trauma and really are looking for good congregations and want that direction from a therapist that might be faith-minded.

Renisha Harris Lyon: I’m a current M.Div/MA counseling student at Wake Div with an anticipated year of graduation in May 2022. My question: How do we reduce the stigma of counseling and other mental health aids in communities affected greatly by trauma?

Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker: Renisha, thank you for your question, and hang in there! May 2022 is coming. Faith communities have long been places of refuge, of healing and solace for traumatized individuals, certainly for people who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color. I think that faith leaders can be ideally positioned to identify symptoms of trauma and to reduce stigma by dispelling deep seated myths about what it means to go to therapy or to seek counseling. We’ve all heard some of these myths include things like Black people don’t go to therapy. If my faith were stronger, I wouldn’t have depression. Anxiety is actually a sign of my weakened faith. If I pray, it all just go away. So faith leaders – at the intersection of the church and traumatized communities who are in the church seeking support and solace and refuge – you are just extraordinarily well positioned to debunk these myths and to address them head on, to challenge them. So many good suggestions were made about how to do this. I believe strongly in the idea of seeking partnerships and opportunities, not only to identify referrals, good referrals, who are out in the community, but also opportunities to bring those skill sets and psycho-education into the church. I think it’s so important that we meet people in the places where they feel safe and seen. And for so many people that is within their faith community. So I think that it’s an exceptional model when practitioners partner with faith communities and go where people are and build connections and a sense of trust in the places where people already feel safe.

I just want to mention the Aakoma Project founded by Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble is a wonderful example. Dr. Breland-Noble is a psychologist who did her graduate work at Duke. She is a researcher who wanted to study trauma in traumatized communities. And so she took her research and partnered with churches and embedded the practice within the church. From there she has gone on to develop this incredible model where psycho-education is just the norm. It’s just accepted and embraced in this amazing nonprofit that she started. She’s also gone on with this nonprofit to create a place where people can readily and quickly identify access and resources. That’s the other part of this issue because stigma is actually getting lower and as stigma continues to get lower, issues of access are going to become even greater. And so we are in desperate need of ensuring that people have readily available places to go when they’re prepared to take that next step. The Aakoma Project is an excellent model for that. It’s in the Washington DC area, but I wish we had one in every city.

Rev. Laura Barclay: I’m excited to look into that. Churches and other congregations of faith have such an opportunity to harness that energy to reduce stigma. Oh my goodness, if we could start working on that all across the nation, that would be amazing.

Rev. Clare C. Johnson: Hi. I’m both an MDiv/Master of Counseling graduate of Wake who graduated in 2011 and a mental health therapist in private practice in Spartanburg, SC. I have noticed that often, mental illness is described medically in terms of symptoms and treated without acknowledging that these often debilitating symptoms are appropriate and proportional responses to the trauma and hopelessness created by poverty, racism, and lack of community supports, especially in communities of color. I have seen this model reinforce some clients’ feelings of isolation and shame, further separating them from possible support. How can theology inform our care for people experiencing trauma in our communities? Does the church have a place in reframing and validating the trauma that people experience?

Dr. Mark Jensen: Thanks, Clare, for a great question and for stirring good memories of your time with us at Wake Div and the good leadership you provide now. I want to say that being with people who are traumatized is the church’s home turf. Too often, and not just churches, faith communities, in more broad ways, this is the home ground. If you look at both Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the communities that formed them and the literature itself, was born of trauma, whether that was enslavement, exile, captivity, persecution, the execution of the leader of the disciples, all of that literature was born in community trauma. In many ways the formation of communities and the literature that became the sacred stories are stories of resilience and survival. I would name some theological images and themes that help us accompany persons who have experienced trauma. One, Sabrina touched on it, is the theme of remaining or abiding. Shelly Rambo and Serene Jones have both written wonderfully about this. I recommend both their books. But the capacity for faith leaders and faith communities to abide, to remain between Good Friday and Easter. We have this urge to move everything to Easter. The capacity to be with people in the messy difficult spaces.

A related theme is the capacity to offer witness or presence, to simply say, yes, that happened. The capacity to be story listeners and not story fixers. Bessel A. van der Kolk says, “What can’t be told to another, can’t be told to oneself.” So to be that person who can receive stories as people come to language, and recognize that often, people who have been traumatized are not yet ready for language. Just bear witness, be a comforting presence, to be sensitive notice-ers and acknowledge-ers.

Another theme in faith communities is the theme of shelter and sanctuary. That’s both literal and figurative. To provide, as we’ve said several times already, brave spaces, and hopefully moving towards safe spaces. And to provide experiences of the soothed body. Resmaa Menakem says that ‘healing trauma is to be in the presence of a body that is soothed’ because trauma locates itself in the body and lives there in ways that are disruptive and hyper-aroused and agitated and dis-regulated. So to be able to recognize even communal and individual spiritual practices that help people sooth themselves. We need, in order to recover from trauma, we need islands of safety and that islands of safety often need to be an embodied experience of safety.

Another theme that is in the faith communities’ wheelhouse is the practice of lament, both individual and communal lament. When people hear echoes of their own suffering in worship and liturgy, in Scripture – lament is all through Scripture, particularly the Psalms – when these are practices where people feel their own stories echoed, it’s very powerful.

The last one and this comes out of the Christian tradition is simply the theme and the practice of Eucharist. So to recognize that something broken and shared is finally sacred and holy. While recognizing as faith leaders, that any of these themes, any of these practices, any of this language could be triggering for people and to be patient and accepting and compassionate with that.

Rev. Laura Barclay: Mark, as you were talking, I was thinking about growing up in a conservative White Baptist Church. There wasn’t Advent, there wasn’t Lent, there wasn’t Good Friday. There was a rush to Easter, a rush to Christmas. And I’m so thankful for being in a congregation now that’s able to sit a moment, sit in the ashes of Wednesday and the brokenness of Good Friday. There is such a richness of the Scripture and the liturgical year to understand and approach complex trauma. What a gift we have in that to be able to go there for people for healing.

Mary Beth Beck-Henderson: I am a third-year Divinity school student with anticipated graduation in May 2021. I also am a family educator and have been a family educator for 19 years with a local nonprofit. So I support families as they raised their children. With a social work background, today’s topic has been very enlightening.

Because the pandemic and its effects are now a part of our collective and individual stories, how can faith leaders best respond to individuals and communities who are most vulnerable around the elements of child abuse, interpersonal violence, and grief that have intensified and have been integrated into stories as a result of trauma of the pandemic? In other words, how can we be effective story partners?

Dr. Mark Jensen: Thanks, Mary Beth. You’ve worked in this space for a long time. I’m tempted to just say, “How about taking a crack at this question?” because you’ve been working there, in many ways, and you have your own practical wisdom there that you’ve accumulated over the years. I would say this to faith leaders – I think it’s important to put ourselves in positions that take us out of our bubbles. Now I should qualify that, bubbles are important things in the pandemic, so I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about our comfort zones, to get out of our comfort zones and be learners. While there are significant differences among histories and social occasions and experiences, we all share things like hope for our children, concern for vulnerable elders.

Recently I heard longtime Black feminist activists Loretta Ross interview, when she was involved in anti-KKK work, she said her mentor told her that if she was going to ask people to give up hate, she better be there for them when they gave it up. She didn’t like that but started having real conversations with persons caught in cultures of hate and violence and began to hear their stories. Now she was no less committed to opposing violence against women and people of color, but she cultivated and retain access to her capacity for human compassion. She’s now writing about calling-in the ‘calling-out’ culture. While it is important to call people to account, it is important to call people in to community.

So faith leaders, in terms of the really wicked synergies of structural and systemic things that you name, need, first of all, not to go it alone. Partner with other organizations; form creative partnerships with schools, with community agencies. And we’ve said some of this before, but it bears repeating. Cultivate mentorship programs in your community. Equip your own members to volunteer. Do tutoring. Teach conflict resolution. Host the kinds of psycho-educational events that Stephanie talked about earlier. Support childcare opportunities. Advocate for childcare across the community and finally, see strength. Don’t just see deficits. Honor resilience and start with strengths. Too often, when we talk about disadvantaged communities, we focus on deficits, and we need to see strength, and we need to empower and begin there.

Rev. Sabrina N. Gilchrist: I’m so glad that Mark just said that because that’s what I was thinking. We’ve talked a lot about the negative effects of all of these things. And, of course, a pandemic exacerbates the challenges and the struggles and the barriers and obstacles that people are trying to navigate. But I think it’s important to also, as faith leaders especially, to help people to name – there’s power in naming – not only what those obstacles and barriers and challenges and effects of racism and injustice. And there’s power in naming those things. But there’s also power in naming the strengths, the resilience, the tools, the inherent resources that people bring to the table already. Both individually and collectively as a community to name those strengths, along with naming the challenges and helping people to see for themselves just how resilient and how strong and how powerful they are. That’s particularly important when you’re dealing with marginalized communities. Communities who have been experiencing systemic oppression. It’s important for people to see. They do have power. They do have strength somewhere, and helping them to name it.

The other thing that I will say, and in terms of tools that clergy can use to help marginalized neighbors bring about healing, is very similar to what we’ve been saying – consult. Partner with folks. Bring some resources in front of those communities, in front of your congregations, but also there’s power in facilitating support groups. Inviting those members of those communities to bring the resources that they have to the table. It’s one of the most powerful things. And what I love about working with teenagers and groups in a group setting, the power of positive peer pressure and peer influence. So when people, as Mark mentioned earlier, begin to hear in the lament, other people’s stories that mirror their own, in like fashion, people can begin to learn from other people, skills and strengths and resources. Clergy are greatly positioned to help facilitate and invite and host some of those gatherings, where people can really gain strength from each other.

Rev. Laura Barclay: Thank you to all of our panelists for sharing your time and immense wisdom in this discussion on the gravity of trauma in enmeshed communities. I want to give each of our panelists some time to share closing thoughts. Let’s begin with Stephanie.

Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker: Thank you, Laura. I just want to say that it was really an honor to share the space today with you and my incredible co-panelists Sabrina and Mark. Thank you so much. You know, I was just thinking, reflecting on the fact that I know so many people right now are counting down, literally counting down the days, the hours, the minutes until we can say the year 2020 is drawn to an end. This year has been filled with such dire statistics, cautionary tales, trauma, risk, loss, grief. I guess my closing message is just to remind folks that it’s not a contradiction to be a person of great faith and to need additional support or counseling to get through these difficult times. The message is that simple, that there is tremendous strength, power, and courage in knowing when to say when. And particularly as we enter the holiday season, a gift that we can all give each other is permission to seek help when we need it, to remember that we possess the power to destigmatize help-seeking.

Rev. Sabrina N. Gilchrist: I want to begin my closing by thanking you all for the opportunity to participate in such an incredible panel. I am truly honored to sit amongst experts and professionals and just incredible human beings to be able to address this topic. And in all of this, I have learned so much from each of the panelists and our wonderful moderator. I have much to think about. I’ve been over here taking notes and saying, ‘oh, I need to go back and journal about that.’ It’s just been an incredible time to talk about a really important topic. When we start talking about the effects of racism, and when we start talking about the realities of mental health and mental health challenges, and Stephanie kind of opened us up on this, that these are very messy, very weighty constructs. And when you begin to do this work, you’re going to get some on you. It’s just that plain and simple. It is not easy. It is not clean. It is not quick. But it is so worth the journey, and it is worth the work. And so my final words to folks would be in doing this work, number one, give yourself a round of applause because you are engaging in very difficult work, and it’s not for the faint of heart. And the other thing I would say is, in doing this, be good to you, be gracious to yourself. Be good to yourself and then turn around and be gracious and good to others. And that’s the only way that we will heal these wounds and move past it is if we do it together. But we can’t do it together if we don’t extend grace and goodness to ourselves and to one another.

Dr. Mark Jensen: Well said, Sabrina. I want to begin by a proud shout out to everybody who was involved and say that I feel honored to have been part of this. But Wake Div has as a vision statement that we want to help equip agents of justice, reconciliation, compassion. And Laura, Sabrina, Jessica, Clare, Renisha, Mary Beth, to see your gifts in the world as agents of reconciliation, justice, and compassion, and Stephanie, thank you for joining us. We’re gonna make you an honorary Demon Deacon here, if that’s okay with you, along with all these other Wake Div graduates.

Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker: What an honor.

Dr. Mark Jensen: So I think to do this work, we need a stubborn hope, which is not the same thing as optimism. Wendell Berry has a line in one of his poems that says, “Be joyful, even though you’ve considered all the facts.” And so I think it’s a stubborn hope that we need. And I just want to say that being in your presence and seeing your gifts, reinforces my stubborn hope.

Rev. Laura Barclay: May we all look for and maintain stubborn hope this Advent of 2020. I’d like to close with a quote that I’ve carried with me from Wake Forest Divinity School Dean Jonathan Lee Walton. I happened to be reading Wake Div magazine this summer, and was looking for a good word in the midst of a lot of communal suffering. Dean Walton was being interviewed and stated, “Moments of mass suffering reveal the folly of our claims to autonomy. Moments of mass suffering unveil the myth of our rugged individuality. No man, no woman is an island. And these moments reveal to us how interdependent we are, how much we need one other.” I’ve carried that quote with me every day in my planner since and because maybe I needed a little stubborn hope. And I believe discussions like this on race and trauma are so important to organize us, educate us, and galvanize us to work toward a more beloved community. Thank you to our panelists for sharing your time and immense wisdom today, and thank you to our audience for their thoughtful questions.


Natalie Aho: If this is your first Common Conversation, then I encourage you to join us for all three this fall as we talk about the weight of racism. Don’t miss the discussions on the load of Christian Nationalism and Baptist history in October; Black Baptist burdens and White Baptist pressures in November and the gravity of trauma of these enmeshed communities in December. And stay tuned for future series next semester. 


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