Traces of Trauma in the Body of Christ: The case of The Place of Refuge
By Elizabeth Hernandez, D. Min
A hard-working, middle-aged Latino man, father to six children, recently suffered three heart attacks. His family background is broken, like most of the clients I see. He loves Jesus, but the weight of unemployment and disability has become too much for him. He is bowed down with past pain and present despair.
Look around you. There is a famine in Christian circles for true comfort among the broken and hurting in the body of Christ. Those who have undergone trauma feel keenly alone, abandoned by God, and unseen by fellow Christians. One way compassion and grace has shown up for people struggling with the effects of trauma is in the formation of services like the Place of Refuge, a professional counseling center located in the heart of impoverished North Philadelphia, trauma-informed and faith-based.
My client and I prayed together, and I made some calls on his behalf. At the end of our session, his whole countenance had lit up. “You have no idea what this means for me,” he said. “If I’m lame when I come, I leap when I leave. If I’m hungry, I leave full. You have God and walk with Him, and I know He’s here—and that He takes care of me.”
In this way, we as members of the Church can help: building a bridge between the sufferer and God, between the hurting community and the church, between the individual and the counselor. That bridge brings an end to famine in people’s lives. It means that the sufferer need no longer walk alone.
The journey for many in our urban areas is sometimes excruciating. At times, the burden may feel so overwhelming that men and women may even despair of life. When a man like this client of mine loses his ability to sustain himself and those who depend on him, and he has no control over his circumstances, the burden accumulates—it becomes heavy—and it can lead to destruction. This is not the story of suffering felt in one dark night of the soul. This is the story of helplessness, of the slow crush of the spirit. It is to have all the will to survive and thrive and succeed, but to have no means to do so.
In this article, I integrate scriptural and theological imperative to help the less fortunate with clinical treatment for the kind of counseling work we provide at our center. Furthermore, I will share the story of the Place of Refuge, with special emphasis to the true nature of trauma and the reverence in care that it demands. I will present a vision of the application of both training and the Gospel intersecting for the person’s healing, as we have experienced it in the development of the Place of Refuge. And finally, I will give voice to the great need in the world today—a need that the church cannot, and must not, ignore.
In 2008, The Place of Refuge opened its doors: a non-profit, trauma-informed and faith-based center with a culturally diverse staff which provides a high quality of professional clinical care in its counseling services. We train professional and lay counselors (and communities) in the skills necessary for work with the victims of trauma, and we work extensively with local leaders—especially church leaders—to empower them to assess, help, and at times refer the sufferers who come under their authority. At the Place of Refuge, we seek above all to go into the place of deepest suffering and help bring God’s healing there in lasting ways in the lives of the downtrodden.
The Refuge staff embodies those gifts that make for a great counselor: good listeners, patient, formally educated at secular institutions and seminaries, discerning, measured, and critical. We have a beautiful office, which promotes real peace the moment people walk through the door. We laugh. The culture is amiable. We keep the space clean and uncluttered, serene and unpretentious. Our counseling services create a framework for the most basic and practical steps that can help a person in need. When leaders within a community have such resource, they foster a strong community, a strong fellowship, between the church and her people, between leadership and the voiceless, and between the believer and the seeker.
The Refuge model is a way of helping people carry burdens, a way of walking alongside someone—not of fixing people, and especially not of being indispensable to their healing ourselves. Amy Carmichael, a missionary who spent her life serving and caring for orphans in India, teaches that the desire to reach in and fix people must be fought. She holds up instead the interaction between Jonathan, the son of King Saul, and his friend David who later became king: “And Jonathan, Saul’s son arose, and went to David into the wood, and strengthened his hand in God.”[i] Rather than ministering to David so that Jonathan “becomes necessary to him, [he instead] leaves his friend strong in God, resting in God, safe in God.”[ii]
The body of Christ has both the privilege and responsibility to care for the least among us, and we cannot turn a deaf ear to the cries of the urban poor, whose socio-economic reality often intensifies the effects of trauma in their lives. No darker stain can be left on a person’s body, mind, and spirit as when she has experienced the evil of trauma. And poverty and trauma often go hand-in-hand. Poverty opens the way to the illegal drug trafficking that wreaks havoc in our community. The lure of easy money produces drug addiction and crime. Homicide is rampant. Families crumble. Suffering spreads. In this manner, trauma takes over a whole community. The need could not be greater, in North Philadelphia and elsewhere, and often, as in our community, caring pastors and lay-leaders lack only the knowledge of trauma counseling to equip them to answer that need.
The community we serve—primarily Latinos—did not have a counseling service that can provide culturally appropriate, spiritually sensitive, bilingual, and trauma-informed counseling. What this community did have was a committed group of pastors and lay-leaders who cared for the suffering of the people, whom we sought to integrate with our staff of mental health practitioners to strengthen both our own staff and the care that these pastors could provide to their people. This project therefore exists to fill the gap between the mental health profession and people who desire to help the hurting. They know the community; they speak the language; they understand the culture. By providing these helpers with knowledge of trauma care, soon the broken and abandoned people of their community can receive counseling support from lay people and fellow believers who yearn for a stronger helping relationship.
Trauma: An Emerging Area of Study and Concern
Secular and non-secular experts in the field stand shoulder to shoulder on the profound significance of this issue. Diane Langberg, PhD, a renowned Christian psychologist and speaker, believes that trauma is the mission field of the twenty-first century.[iii] Judith Herman, MD, leading secular psychiatrist and author of the most-read book on trauma, Trauma and Recovery, writes:
“The traumatic event challenges an ordinary person to become a theologian, a philosopher and a jurist. The survivor is called upon to articulate the values and beliefs that she once held and that the trauma destroyed. She stands mute before the emptiness of evil, feeling the insufficiency of any known system of explanation. Survivors of atrocity of every age and every culture come to a point in their testimony where all questions are reduced to one, spoken more in bewilderment than in outrage; Why? The answer is beyond human understanding… why me?”[iv]
Bruce Perry, MD, a neuroscientist in the field of trauma, has researched the effects of trauma on the human brain. He believes that trauma affects children’s brains, stating, “Ultimately, what determines how children survive trauma, physically, emotionally, or psychologically, is whether the people around them—particularly the adults—stand by them with love, support, and encouragement.”[v] Clearly, this is a simple but courageous call to the average person taking time to care for those most vulnerable.
Sandra Bloom, MD, another leading secular expert in the field of trauma treatment, created the Sanctuary model of treatment (first introduced at Friends Hospital in Philadelphia). She writes that “[o]ur ability to form attachments to each other and form social groups has been our best defense and has guaranteed our survival. Attachment to our social group is a deeply ingrained structure that derives from our primate heritage.”[vi] Trauma renders us helpless and powerless, particularly during childhood years. It directly affects that ability to attach to our social groups and therefore threatens our survival.
The voices of these leading experts form a single conclusion. Trauma creates a great need; it shakes its victims to the core. For healing to occur, the unaffected must take initiative on behalf of those who have been wounded. Healing cannot solely be done in individual therapy, though that is crucial. The Place of Refuge model utilizes multiple avenues in its pursuit of healing and care, not replacing but adding onto and strengthening the individual therapeutic model.
So, how do the social sciences and pastoral counseling interact in this integrated model? Within Christian circles, the question posed is (unfortunately) often the reverse: Do secular sciences like psychology have a place in the healing of human suffering? For those in the mental health field who approach counseling from not only a clinical framework, but also from a faith-based perspective, this becomes an important inquiry, and an oft-debated one at that. To say that psychology (or any other field of science) has no place in ministry because Scripture’s authority is final and exhaustive, is to fail to see the subtle difference between the biblical claim of authority and the authoritative character of the Bible.
Trauma Care and the Guidance of Scripture
According to biblical scholar Noel Weeks, Christian biases wrongly demand that the Bible be exhaustive in all areas; biblical authority, in this view, means that the Bible has to operate as a complete science textbook. When one sees the matter in this light, if the Bible does not measure up to this extreme demand, it cannot serve as our ultimate ethical or religious authority and should be thrown out. Weeks explains that the Bible is not written in exhaustive detail, on the one hand, but neither is it couched entirely in abstractions, on the other.[vii] Rather, its primary focus is aiding believers to live practical Christian lives in accordance with biblical principles. And, as such, it does indeed function as a reliable ethical authority in Christian living. This is how we utilize Scripture at the Place of Refuge.
When taken in light of those principles, then, secular sciences like psychology have much to offer, since the Bible leaves room for the findings of science. Take, for example, psychology as it relates to trauma (our area of specialty). I have been astonished and blessed to experience the complementary roles that psychology and theology play in alleviating human suffering. The work done by Bruce Perry on trauma psychology especially is breaking ground, particularly in understanding the effect of trauma on the human brain. His research (as I examine in my own research) has opened a window into understanding the architecture of the brain, with its different domains and functions. He studies and documents sequential brain growth, and in his studies, he has been able to show that when a person undergoes trauma, the brain does not go through the normal patterns of growth for proper functioning in society. Instead, the “primitive” side of the brain is over-developed, while the frontal lobe or logical side is not well developed for some under chronic distress.
This explains why Christians who have undergone trauma may find themselves floundering when trying to attain healing solely by listening to sermons or praying. Even religious people who put their faith in prayer for healing would be foolish not to go to physical therapy after a knee surgery, if recommended by their physician. The same principle holds true for healing in the deep structures of the brain. We as counselors must understand the biological component involved in healing, as well as the spiritual. Here the complementary nature of the secular and sacred can be clearly seen, and understanding this complementarity is crucial. As Perry explains, a understanding of the biology only makes up part of the picture, because without a trusting environment, without safety, and without connection to community, healing from trauma is difficult or impossible. Both scientific and spiritual tools are needed to transform broken lives.[viii]
My life’s devotion has been a journey, and it is inextricably bound up with the mission of the Place of Refuge. Through my own immersion in a similar culture as that in North Philadelphia and exposure to its poverty and crime, and through the experience of personal tragedy, by the time I entered the workforce as a counselor, I had a painful firsthand knowledge of the social struggles this population faces on a daily basis. Yet I also had the powerful shalom of God and the knowledge that Christ can transform a life. I wanted deeply to bring these riches to my culture in its brokenness.
My work, and the work of the Place of Refuge, can serve as a model for urban ministry through counseling in many contexts—and my hope and prayer is that this project will not only be a resource for the church in North Philadelphia, but also for the church beyond my local community, in other cities where brokenness seems victorious and the need too great. This ministry we have built over the past decade tells the people who come to Refuge for counsel: “We are here with you. We will not leave you until God blesses you.” After all, Christ sees the whole of creation—the broken along with the strong and undamaged—as sacred. That clasp of a hand in the darkest place is redemptive; and when we offer it, we follow the risen Lord into a truly saving type of work.
[i] 1 Sam 23:16.
[ii] Amy Carmichael, Edges of His Ways (Essex, Great Britain: The Talbot Press, 1955), 5.
[iii] Dr. Langberg shared this idea with me in a supervisory meeting in summer 2012.
[iv] Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1992), 178.
[v] Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz, The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 5.
[vi] Sandra Bloom, Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies (New York, NY: Routledge, 1997), 16.
[vii] Noel Weeks, The Sufficiency of Scripture (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1988), 3-36.
[viii] Perry and Szalavitz, The Boy.
Elizabeth Hernandez, D.Min., is the Co-Founder of the The Place of Refuge and served as the agency’s first Executive Director from 2004-2015. Dr. Hernandez was the 2010 Orlando E. Costas Holistic Ministries with Compassion Award recipient from Palmer Theological Seminary and the winner of Dr. Natika M. McNeil’s Mental Health Awareness Award for 2013 for her efforts and success in making a difference in the lives of many in the mental health community.
Elizabeth's qualifications include more than 20 years of experience in the health services with 12 years spent as a Senior Manager at Esperanza Health Center, responsible for the Counseling/Therapy division, coordination of special programs, management of counseling staff, fiscal planning and controls, and organizational oversight. Prior to Esperanza, she served in two administrative roles for Bellevue Hospital and Metropolitan Hospital, both in New York.
Prior to Elizabeth's work in health services, she also spent over five years working with the Equitable Life Insurance Company where she went through a two-year management training program, also in New York. Dr. Hernandez holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s of Arts (counseling concentration). She recently completed her doctoral work (Spring 2014) at Westminster Theological Seminary in the area of religion and urban studies. Her research project was entitled “Christ and the Marginalized: Bringing Refuge to the Broken.” Other writing includes co-authoring Trailblazing in the Badlands of Philadelphia, published in Christian Counseling Today (1998), which provided information on best practices for counseling in one of the nation’s most at-risk communities.