As we close 2020, more than 81 million people total have tested positive for COVID-19. Nearly 1.8 million people have died of it. The virus has had significant economic effects and cost many their livelihoods. Prolonged distance from others, of course, has also triggered an increase in depression and other mental health issues. And the pandemic has revealed increasing divisions over masks, meeting in person, and what constitutes an essential business or service.

Of course, the pandemic was not the only thing that provoked anxiety in many this year. America will get a new president in January, but current president Donald Trump has refused to concede and made false statements about voting fraud for weeks.

In May, a police officer killed Minneapolis’ George Floyd weeks after officers shot Breonna Taylor in her home, actions which sparked demonstrations across the country, protesters fed up with police violence against black Americans. Protests lasted for weeks and were especially heated where protesters, counterprotesters, and outside agitators converged. Many cities suffered looting and some burned buildings.

In a year with so much trauma, we wanted to spend some time talking about how we should start to process and make sense of the year. What should we remember? How should we remember it? And what should we forget?

Sheila Wise Rowe is a writer, counselor, speaker, and spiritual director, and most recently the author of Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience for which she won a 2021 Christianity Today Book of the Year Award. She joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editor in chief Daniel Harrell to discuss how our bodies experienced the trauma of the year, what parts of it we should remember, and what Christians might choose to set as a 2021 New Year’s resolution.

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Quick to Listen is produced by Morgan Lee and Matt Linder

The transcript is edited by Yvonne Su

Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode 245

What are the big things that stand out for you this year?

Shelia Wise Rowe: COVID is front and center in how it has transformed how we move about and live. It has changed the significance of our relationships and been a wake-up call in terms of taking the temperature of our relationships, shifting how we relate with fellow believers. How do we relate with people in our own families, with our communities? It’s caused us in many cases to reevaluate.

Sometimes it's resulted in relationships ending, including abusive situations. Many of us have also lost dear ones, people who are close to us. Many of us can name even acquaintances who've passed away because of COVID.

For communities of color, we've particularly felt the devastation of the consequences of COVID-19 ravaging black, indigenous, and Latinx communities. It really has exposed that there's been systemic racism in healthcare and also in employment. So when I think about that impact and how far-reaching that has been, it is really one that is going to affect us for many, many years to come.

I believe it’s caused us to come out of a place of denial because we were locked in.

We were all home or socially distancing. Things happened, including the murder of George Floyd in that horrific video that we all saw, that was undeniable. Although there were people who would rationalize why it was, whether he deserved it or he shouldn't have, it just did not sit well for anyone who actually watched that video. It was absolutely horrific and it was very clear that there's something more going on here. In addition to COVID-19, this video really shifted people's perspective and caused us all to come out of denial and pour out into the streets.

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I think an amazing part was the diversity of the people who came out and protest. It was something that we had never seen in this country. If we look back at past protests, they were never this diverse. To see this swift move to deal with racism and implicit/explicit bias in organizations and institutions. I don't know if we're going to see something sustainable out of this. But if I look at 2020, those are the two things that stand out for me.

There’s no doubt that that COVID has exacerbated all of the troubles that have haunted America around racial injustice. What does it say about us that it took this exacerbation to truly get our attention and expose what’s long been here?

Shelia Wise Rowe: Many things distract us from being present in our lives, to people in our lives, and to what is going on around us. We can easily just kind of be and hunker down in our own little silos, with our own little people having conversations. And then we have something like that moment where it just burst those boundaries, in which we are then coming face-to-face with a reality that we have denied.

It was a moment for people to really look at “What is American history like?” What has been the experience of people of color in this country? There are ways in which frankly, the white majority has not had to look at it. The information has been doctored and presented a certain way through history books. It was a huge outpouring of people wanting information, wanting to learn, wanting to understand because they didn't have the distractions to hide behind anymore.

How did you see all of these issues play out in the church?

Shelia Wise Rowe: If we go back over four years ago, it was the election of the current president and the realities of how divided the churches are in terms of directives and experiences. There was a real inability to really listen to what are these different realities and what are our roles as believers and as members of the body of Christ in terms of addressing that. What am I to do about it as an individual, as a church community?

For some people of color coming out of that election, they were coming away with this sense of moral injury and their sense of having had this expectation as believers, that the church could be something more, it should be something more. It should be more Christ-like. There was the feeling that that was not the case; as a person of color to hear and see the things that were said and done coming from this administration, it was wounding for people.

So, a part of the body is deeply wounded. COVID and the George Floyd video really were a wake-up call. They’re a part of the body, but also the way the country is in pain and hurting, and it has been over generations and it is not new.

Particularly white churches, but really all churches scrambled to make sense of George Floyd. You sensed that there was this upheaval happening. Some doubled down in a way to defend and protect a way of life that I would argue can no longer be a way of life, but then others who sought to innovate, but don't know what to do. Could you speak on that?

Shelia Wise Rowe: That was a really difficult piece, the whole doubling down part. For many people of color, they saw the inability to listen, the inability to see, and the difficulty of owning up to, “I actually missed the mark” or “I didn't see things totally clearly.”

Rather than taking that moment when people marched out into the streets and looking at that as people saying “Something is wrong here and there's been an ongoing injustice, there was this framing of Black Lives Matter as an organization, then all of the slamming that could possibly happen. The attention was taken away from the realities of the injustice and the focus was then on the organization Black Lives Matter versus the Black Lives Matter movement, which was more around just that simple phrase that is profoundly true.

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We’re seeing the latest iteration with Critical Race Theory. We're not going to deal with justice. We're not going to deal with the realities of injustice and systemic oppression, implicit and explicit bias in our organizations in churches.

We're going to fix on Critical Race Theory and talk about how it's Marxists, talk about how it's unbiblical. The average person doesn't even know what Critical Race Theory is. They're not thinking about that. They are living, their lived experience on the ground is one where they are wondering, “Where are my white brothers and sisters? Where are they? I'm in pain, there's injustice happening in the church and outside the church. Where are my brothers and sisters?”

How does that type of trauma actually change our bodies and how our bodies? Could you talk about that in the context of 2020?

Shelia Wise Rowe: We have experienced a collective trauma in real-time all together. We’ve been flooded with stress hormones. We're constantly bombarded by videos, updates of the latest stats. We are experiencing it. When family members become ill, when we've lost loved ones -- we've been on this tight rope for almost a year and it has been excruciatingly difficult.

We've had kids who've been home and we've had to try to figure out how to educate them and still try to work. And then some of us have had to go out and work; we're essential workers in various forms, whether it was working in the grocery store or working in the ER.

So we're all experiencing the big T trauma. We're dealing with lots of mental health issues that the emotional strain is wearing on us. We're battling with depression and anxiety. There are places where there's anger that flares up about “How did we get to this place?”

We're having difficulty sleeping. There's anxiety. It's kind of free-floating. Statistically, they're showing an increase in addictions and that people are self-medicating. There's a need for therapy to really work through this and we're in a place where we can't really we can't gather in person.

But what I'm seeing online in terms of people connecting has been a real huge help. We are dealing with big T trauma as well as little T trauma. Those indignities that have been happening are continuing to happen, whether it's being tailed by a police car or harassed in the mall. Even recently, the gentleman who was trying to check out of the hotel with his 14-year-old son had this woman accused the 14-year-old of stealing her iPhone when they had literally just come down from their hotel. That exchange being filmed is just one incident. These things are continuing to happen while we're all collectively dealing with the big T trauma. In that way, black, indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color are carrying the weight of this, even with the attacks on the Asian community around COVID.

We’re dealing with all of these things and we're grieving. The question is, are we going to be able to do that? And will we allow ourselves to grieve?

During this continued grief and trauma, what are some of the scars we're going to carry forward from this year?

Shelia Wise Rowe: One of them is that this doubling down is resulting in just further division. Predominantly black churches in the Southern Baptist Convention who are leaving because they've just had it.

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It's missing the mark, it's missing where the focus really needs to be. So that maybe be a scar. I don't know what the Southern Baptist Convention is going to end up looking like at the end but that's one piece of it. I think another scar is going to be how our young people are going to process 2020 as well as these last four years.

We are seeing our young people leave. This is not even just white young people. This is black young people. We have, on the one hand, white young people who are leaving because they're like, “Look, everything you taught me in Sunday school really meant nothing because everything that you're co-signing is totally against everything you've ever taught me. So what you taught me wasn't real.” And then you have, on the other hand, black as well as other young people of color who have bought into this notion of Christianity as a white man's religion: white men oppressors, white Jesus. There's a lack of understanding about the history of Christianity and its roots. I believe that's going to be a scar and that my hope and prayer is that at some point, those young ones who have basically left the church will return. But it's going to be a while.

We're a church, we're a country. We're on your therapist's couch. What are you saying to us? What's the way forward?

Shelia Wise Rowe: One of the major things that I would say is to remember the importance of relationships and to prioritize people over things. Coming out of 2020, we remember that we really are not in control, that we've never been in control. That's a hard one because human nature is that we want to grab for control.

We have to have these daily reminders of what it is that we value most, what's most important, and come to this place of surrendering our way. I think of the 12 steps of the Serenity Prayer that says, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

That is the way I would invite the church to stop, to slow down and get quiet, and to honestly ask the Lord about the current state of the church in America. To listen, not to come with our preconceived notions of what is, but to listen and to listen for what have we lost this year.

And what have we gained? Let's look at what has been lost and let's look at how love has grown, or fear has grown in our hearts, our minds, and our relationships. What does that fear or that love look like in our bodies? How does it show up in those relationships that are closest to us or with the stranger?

Those are important questions that we need to ask ourselves as we process this year, as well as the past four years. Because I believe that God is saying something to the church at this moment. We've got to take that time of quiet to really listen to what He is saying.

There's been a lot of communication about how the election was stolen. Is that really possible? If the Lord is sovereign in control, He's doing something. So, what is He doing at this moment? Because you can't steal something from Him. What is He wanting to say to us?

It's taking that honest look at what part of this has been kind of like smoke and mirrors. It's like they're building these shiny bits coming into 2020, but it's also come with a whole lot of mess and devastation. How is the Lord calling us back to the center of our calling? When I think about Matthew 12 and 32 to 34, the essence of it is to love God with all our hearts, with all of our minds, with all of our strengths, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

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I love that. The importance of that over all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices, the core essence is that you're not far from the kingdom of God. You’re close closer than you were.

What should we remember and how should we go about remembering it?

Shelia Wise Rowe: That's common to come out of a traumatic experience and not want to talk about it, not want to deal with it, and wanting to go back to the normal times. Those times are gone. At the end of the day, it's going to come down to our relationships with God.

How are we to engage even with our own selves, our own bodies, and our spiritual life and relationships. That really is the essence of it: relationships with those close to us and our neighbors. We have to come out of this remembering that we don't want to lose the diversity of the people who came out to protests. My hope is that it would not just be a moment. When people go back to what they’ve known, that it is a moment that will change us, but it will only change us if we remember. Many incidences where the Lord said to remember and to Institute these memorials and festivals and celebrations.

There's some talk about a COVID Memorial, but even more so, in the day-to-day, how do we go about living our lives? This year should not have been wasted.

What are some practices that help us remember in ways that don't just reduce things to a token act, but to provide space for people to lament and people to honor their loss? Do you imagine families trying to create a ritual themselves?

Shelia Wise Rowe: I think that it can be both. There have been churches and universities that have done lament services in the tradition of the book of Lamentations and the Psalms: times and spaces for people to share their pain, to share their hurt, to share their trauma.

To know that others are listening with them, walking with them as they're grappling with everything that happened. They know that they're not alone in it. The point of walking with each other as we walk to the Lord, where we're going to receive that comfort that we so desperately need.

I also recommend that people write out their prayers. It may be taking some time just being brutally honest about how this year has been, how it has impacted you and your family and the community. And in a God can handle our anger.

We look at Psalms and David's engagement with the Lord at various points. He's brutally honest in questioning God in saying what he wanted to do to his enemies. The Lord engages with us from a place of realness, not from putting on the Christian face, but the healing and comfort come and the tears flow when we're real about what it is that we've gone through. Writing out your prayers and sharing them with someone else is profoundly healing.

How do you apply the road to recovery to this larger trauma we’ve been experiencing?

Shelia Wise Rowe: Resilience is built over time. It isn't this magical moment that happens, but it's one where the Scripture talks about going from strength to strength, incrementally and there are small things that we can do that build that.

In many ways we feel that we've not done things perfectly: monitor, educate our kids while they were being schooled on Zoom. Maybe we didn't engage with our family members. But how we have done it is good enough. That builds resilience, that builds strength, how we can. We look at this year and we look at what are the things that I learned from this, that I want to carry forward in terms of engagement, in terms of how I do my work. How do I see my vocation? How do I engage with politics even? What is it that I want? What quality of life do I want going forward? What is it that I really value that I want to put front and center going forward? All of those things, those steps, and they may be small steps that we take, but they build strength and they build resilience.

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So when the next thing happens, we're a little bit stronger. Keep building and building. This is a life where we'll be stronger and stronger. It's taking that those small steps

Resilience isn’t just about survival then. Being able to endure is related to a kind of transformation. Could you say more about how it works?

Shelia Wise Rowe: I firmly believe that our ultimate power source is the Lord in terms of the power to act. The transformation that happens internally is that we're becoming more and more like Christ. Relying not on our own strength, but a deeper strength that is not shifting. It's not shifting sand, it's solid rock. We know the difference. When there's something that the Lord has done internally, there's been a transformation.

Jesus gives us internally the kind of rock that sometimes doesn't show itself until the next hard thing happens.

Shelia Wise Rowe: Absolutely. Sometimes we're surprised at what it is that we can endure when we thought there's no way we could have done that. And yet we have, and that needs to be honored as well. I didn't have the strength at moments, and yet God is still there. Emmanuel God is still with us. He didn't leave. That's so important to remember that we go with the pace that He's setting. He meets us in our places of grief when we're not alone.

What did your prayer life look like this year? And how was it different than other years?

Shelia Wise Rowe: We had spent 10 years in South Africa, so I was familiar with praying more globally. In terms of this year, a lot of prayers around protection for the disease. Usually, it has been protection for my black son, husband, daughter, and extended family. Around this pandemic and also around the race issue, that this would take root and that there would be a transformation in the world.

More importantly, some transformation in terms of the church. It's odd to say this, but because of the nature of the number of people who went out on the street, it left me more hopeful for reconciliation and healing.

How do you think that we should cultivate hope as we go into 2021? Does that show up in the types of prayers that we pray, the conversations that we have, or in the actions that we take?

Shelia Wise-Rowe: When I did a chapel service at Gordon College, the theme of the year for them was hope. I talked about staying in the story. If we think of our lives as a story, there are so many chapters to come. At this point in my life, having decades of living through some really difficult, horrible things, and continuing to move forward because at the end of the day, God is still at work and we need to remind each other of that fact. Even as we're going into January and they're saying it may be worse, it's continuing to remind each other and to pray that our hope is revived for those who are lacking hope. Be a presence with those who are struggling right now and encourage them.

Might you offer a few resolutions to Christians who are seeking to walk faithfully amid the challenges we anticipate in 2021?

Shelia Wise-Rowe: Listen around. Listen for the voice of God, that still, small voice of the Holy Spirit and the many ways in which the Lord speaks through people, things, experiences.

He's speaking. My encouragement would be as we go into this new year to listen for direction, listen with the ears of discernment. Don't check out, try not to go back to distraction. Try to be present to what's going on around you, the people around you. What is it that you need to learn and to hear from them?