Over the last several years, the abuse crisis has brought the phrase trauma informed into our sanctuaries and homes. Pastors and layleaders are learning to understand trauma alongside the victims in their midst. Families and friends are doing it too. But what does awareness actually mean, and where does it start?
In my experience, those who’ve experienced injury often struggle with realizing something simple: It’s not my fault.
As a pastor, I’ve had many conversations with congregants who’ve been subjected to various kinds of serious abuse. Somehow in the process, they’ve internalized responsibility for the mistreatment. Women who’ve been exploited by powerful men feel they’re somehow to blame and are often too afraid to speak up due to fear and shame. Young adults reeling from years of sexual exploitation turn in on themselves, only deepening their wounds.
That’s the agonizing truth about suffering: Not only do we carry the pain of being hurt, but we often bear the internal condemnation as well.
In a broken world, trauma—and the attending shame—will continue to be with us. But, by the grace of God, it doesn’t have to consume us. It can be redeemed. For all its strangeness, that is the good news of the gospel.
I’ve discovered that good news in my own life journey.
When I was growing up, my family was very wealthy. Our wealth, however, was not measured in padded bank accounts, large homes, or expensive cars. In fact, we were quite poor as far as money was concerned. Our wealth was measured in joy, love, and warmth.
For several years, our family was on public assistance to help make ends meet. Back then, government funds were not put on a debit card. Instead, we had to purchase groceries with food stamps.
One day—I must have been about 12—I went to the bodega on the corner for eggs and bread. When it was time to pay, I took out our stamps and placed them on the counter. For whatever reason, the cashier looked at me and began to loudly point out to the handful of other people in the store that I wasn’t paying with cash. He made fun of my payment, and I heard snickers behind me. I was embarrassed. Ashamed.
From that point on, whenever I had to pay with food stamps, I’d walk around the corner until the store emptied. I couldn’t bear further ridicule.
The messages I received from that one experience made me believe something was deeply wrong with me for being poor and that receiving assistance was something to be ashamed of, something even worthy of being mocked.
Three decades later, I was still carrying that burden.
During the pandemic, the city of New York made a provision for all parents to receive $400 for groceries. The money came in the form of a debit card. Our family didn’t need the extra funds, but we were grateful to have them.
Soon after the card came, I went to the supermarket. When the cashier rang up my total, I took out the government-issued card. But as soon as I did, I noticed my hands shaking and my eyes averting the cashier’s gaze. I swiped as fast as I could, grabbed my groceries, and walked out of the supermarket.
When I got into my car, I paused and realized that something deep within me had been touched. The dormant shame I felt in that bodega so many years ago had boiled to the surface again.
As I sat in my dining room later that night, I named those feelings. I tried to reach for the deep, subterranean messages stored away in me. I lifted my heart to God in prayer. And I filled pages in my journal with words of grace, trying to name the various “shame scripts” that had informed my relationship to money.
In the silence, I sensed God saying, Rich, you are not your bank account. You are not your poverty or your financial wealth. You are beloved. You are treasured. You are mine.
In the act of naming that shame, I experienced a moment of breakthrough that continues to mark me.
The same opportunity awaits all of us. In response to suffering, we’re faced with two options: We can be wounded wounders or become wounded healers. Those in Christ can join him in demonstrating the wholeness that love brings not only to individuals and relationships but also to institutions.
In a traumatized world, loving well starts with confronting or facing ourselves, which in turn enables us to relate differently toward others. In short, the person we must learn to love is ourselves, primarily. It’s very easy to focus on the traumas of others—and there’s a place for that too—but first we’re called to open our own hearts to the personal healing available in God’s love.
That process requires naming our shame, making sense of our stories, attending to our whole person (particularly our bodies), and beholding Jesus—our wounded, resurrected Lord.
Rich Villodas is the author of Good and Beautiful and Kind: Becoming Whole in a Fractured World and the lead pastor of New Life Fellowship, a large, multiracial church in Elmhurst, Queens.
This essay was adapted from Good and Beautiful and Kind. Copyright © 2022 by Richard A. Villodas, Jr. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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