Jean was in her 80s when she first came to see me for massage therapy. She suffered with severe pain in her hip where age and arthritis had conspired to cripple her, but had only succeeded in making her walker-dependant.
From the moment I touched Jean, I could feel the loneliness that plagued her. A widow who lived alone, she had grace and humor, but also emotional hurt. "I wish my friends could feel this," Jean said to me in a whisper one afternoon. "I don't think they'd be afraid of dying anymore. Getting a rub down would help them, whoop!, just float away to the Big Guy."
Sasha and Martin were brother and sister living in a foster home. Their foster parents loved them and were doing everything they knew to help the two children heal from their abusive childhood. But the children were unable to bond and the family was struggling.
One day the mother brought them to our healthy touch program for kids where we give children mini-massages on their shoulders as well as hands and scalp while telling familiar songs and stories. At first, they didn't want to participate, but by the end of the class when I asked if they had any questions, Martin raised his hand and with a sheepish grin said "When are you coming back to give us more hugs?"
In over ten years working as a massage therapist in private practice and facilitating community programs for children and adults, I have witnessed the power of healthy touch to heal, deliver, redeem, and restore people in mind, body, and spirit. Loving touch has the power to draw out the introverted autistic child, make an outcast teenager feel accepted, or communicate safety to a battered woman. Healthy, loving touch reminds us of our God-given worth and identity.
Research affirms the many benefits of touch. Studies conducted by the Touch Institute in Miami indicate the improvements in sleep and digestion among infants who are massaged regularly. Healthy touch releases endorphins such as the bonding hormone oxytocin and can calm the aggressive behavior of adolescents. Holding hands or giving and receiving hugs on a regular basis can lower blood pressure and calm a racing heartbeat.
"Touch is without a doubt one of the most, if not the most powerful means of communication we have available to us as human beings" says James Smith, counselor at Willow Tree Christian Counseling in Northern Ireland. "We may speak, express ourselves through words, tone and the volume of our voice, or body language, however nothing comes close to touch."
And yet the default position in the world around us is that touch is bad. Touch is wrong, dangerous even. Many daycares and schools have adopted no touch/low touch policies. Residential homes for the elderly often implement no-touch regulations for those in their care. Understandably, aspects of our culture have made us touch-phobic. Lawsuits abound against sexual misconduct. Every day, news of another abuse, another sexual scandal. We fear our innocent offer of touch—a hug, a reach to hold a hand—will be misunderstood. Or worse, we will unintentionally harm someone who has suffered any of these abuses.
So we shrink back, keep to ourselves. We become people who use too many words and withhold what is often needed: a simple touch that says, "I'm here and I care. You are not alone."
"God made us physical beings for a reason," said Pastor Jim Bleakley of the Vineyard Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. "Our skin is the largest organ in our body. Scripture gives us two powerful examples for the use of touch: For the transmission of power, authority and the presence of God, and for healing. The Holy Spirit moves powerfully through touch."
Yet, when I began my massage therapy training in 2003, I was met with an unexpected resistance from those in my Christian community. One pastor in particular warned me about the "loose energy" that comes from "touching too many people."
In all fairness, he knew my history. I was a single mom who had experienced multiple abuses during my youth and adolescence and, as a result, had spent many years running from God living the prodigal lifestyle. But this was exactly why I wanted to be a touch therapist: I knew the pain and violation of misused touch, as well as the restoration possible through meaningful touch, and wanted to help heal others who had been hurt.
When I suggested educating the church on the power of giving and receiving healthy touch, I still received an emphatic no. The church elders did not want to encourage "inappropriate touching." Even many of my friends seemed uncertain about the role of healthy touch, as if touch and sex were synonymous.
I began to notice the lonely and hurting people at church: widows, widowers, the divorcees or singles, and the disabled, those in broken and neglectful marriages, all of us struggling with the very real need for touch. I couldn't shake the feeling that God wanted me to minister to people through healthy touch.
Even before I became a therapist, I was intrigued by Jesus' choice to heal through touch, especially when the religious leaders of the day didn't seem too fond of touching. With few exceptions, he either laid hands on those who sought healing from him, or they touched him.
As Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey concluded in the book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Jesus' primary purpose was not to heal disease, but was rather "a ministry to individual people, some of whom happened to have a disease." Brand wrote, "He wanted those people, one by one, to feel his love and warmth and his full identification with them. Jesus knew he could not readily demonstrate love to a crowd, for love usually involves touching."
Inspired by Christ's own ministry, I began facilitating classes for the community. A simple hand massage for a tired student, a foot massage for a pregnant woman, and a scalp massage for a child while singing a favorite song became my vehicles for sharing the love of God through touch. Sometimes I am permitted to share the message of the gospel, and sometimes not, but I always feel Christ working through me to do exceedingly more than ease a headache or backache.
Though most Christians will offer prayer, reaching out in a tangible, physical way like the disciples did in the early church can be daunting for all of us. When was the last time we touched a homeless person or visited the elderly and held their hand while praying? Or rested our hands on the shoulders of a struggling family and prayed a hedge of protection over them or a blessing?
I believe most of us want to do all we can to bring healing and comfort to others-- we just don't know where to start. How then can we address the subject of touch? In Mathew 8:2-4 a man with leprosy kneels before Jesus and says "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean." Jesus reaches out to the man and touches him. "I am willing. Be clean!" Certainly Jesus touching a leper was not appropriate, yet it was the right choice. It was a compassionate choice, and the man was healed. Touch begins with compassion.
The church is the Body of Christ and we cannot fully be who and what we were created to be unless we involve loving touch. This includes bringing to the forefront the ways in which touch is abused such as in situations of domestic violence and child and elder abuse. Addressing touch will be uncomfortable. But it is vital. Every church should have a safe place where abuse victims can ask for help, singles struggling with temptation can receive support, and anyone who has any concerns about misused touch within the church can have a voice without fear of repercussion.
On a practical note, leaders in the church must set wise guidelines for touch, especially within the various ministries. Touch should not be discouraged, but rather clear boundaries of respect and protocol should be developed. "When I'm conducting training in our prayer ministry teams which utilize touch, I always tell people not to touch inappropriate places," said Beakley, a Vineyard pastor. "Don't ever assume everyone is on the same page. In our times of prayer at Vineyard, we always ask before we touch: 'Do you mind if I put a hand on your shoulder while we pray?'
Asking permission to extend touch beyond a quick handshake is generally a good guideline in a church setting. "We do not want our churches to be sterile environments where people are not touched," agreed Linda Crockett, director of clergy and congregation care at Samaritan's Counseling in Pennsylvania and author of The Deepest Wound. "Knowing when and how to offer touch is an important skill we all need to learn and churches are a great place in which to teach it."
Some touch, however, is spontaneous and is meant to be so such as an embrace at a funeral or holding a frightened child in the nursery. To withhold this sort of touch can make a grieving person feel abandoned or rejected. At all times, we must be aware of what is helpful to the other person.
After treating thousands of people for all sorts of physical and mental ailments, I have realized how our greatest disease—separation from God, and from ourselves and each other—gets compounded by the fear and loneliness often associated with physical disconnect. Healthy, loving touch can help to heal those in our community at large, as well as those in the pew beside us on Sunday morning.
Nicole Mann Watt is a massage therapist in private and community practice for over ten years. Nicole writes on mind, body, and spirit topics as well as personal memoirs. An American citizen, she currently lives with her husband and children in Northern Ireland.