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O n the surface, things seemed calm. Professors came and left every two weeks, teaching courses to adult South Sudanese students on various aspects of peacebuilding. The students sang together during morning devotions, laughed while acting out dramas in class, and played boisterous volleyball matches before dinner. The staff enjoyed the liveliness of a campus brimming with activity. Yet underneath, we were all aware of the country’s instability. At any time, a spark might fly, igniting a rapidly spreading flame of violence.

While our family lived at the RECONCILE Training Center in Yei, South Sudan, we kept a grab bag—a bag we could grab quickly with our essential items: passports, some money, some food and water, etc. When our second child joined us, we added to the list of essentials another baby carrier, so both kids could easily be strapped on our backs while escaping through the woods.

Recognizing trauma

If you stay in a state of hypervigilance long enough, it starts to feel normal. That is the sad reality for many of our South Sudanese friends, and to a more limited extent, it slowly became ours. When we traveled away from Yei, and felt our bodies instinctively exhale, then we remembered that life with constant fear of war is far from normal; it is traumatizing. We also realized that wherever we went, we carried with us the horrible stories of violence, torture, and death heard regularly at the training center, a source of secondary trauma for us.

Before moving to South Sudan in late 2011, we took a course on trauma called Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR). As the years passed, we became more and more aware of the effects of trauma on the community in which we lived and on our own lives. We could identify the damage it caused within relationships among colleagues, and even within our own marriage. “I feel like I have no buffer,” [referring to an unusual amount of impatience and short-temperedness] would be our first confession, helping my husband, Shelvis, and I know that the effects of trauma on our minds and bodies needed our attention.

Working towards healing trauma

Our most intimate encounter with strategic trauma healing came when we facilitated a course on the topic for church leaders at a theological college in 2017. The college, like our family, had to move to Arua, Uganda, when fighting reached our hometown of Yei. The majority of the students became refugees when crossing the border, and their families settled in the camps.

In class, trauma was compared to a physical wound, as both require time and care to heal. Using the book Healing the Wounds of Trauma; How the Church Can Help, we defined trauma as a wound of the heart, caused when a person is “overwhelmed with intense fear, helplessness, or horror.”  After hearing the definition, all the church leaders self-identified as traumatized.

The student-built classroom with tarp walls became our safe space, where personal stories of deep pain began to flow. Trauma involves loss and the need to grieve, and these church leaders were processing so much loss: loss of their homes, possessions, church families, livelihoods, and loved ones. So, they took turns listening to one another, really listening, listening well. In an effort to apply the lessons about trauma recovery, students intentionally made time to care for their own bodies, minds, and souls, by establishing healthy routines.

In addition, based on the example of Psalm 13, they crafted their own laments to God, crying out in their agony, not hiding their anger, and affirming still their trust in God’s faithfulness. I’ll never forget the lament which described people in South Sudan being slaughtered like chickens.

Over time, a sense of relief emerged; steps towards healing felt tangible. The church leaders started to own their stories, instead of being owned by them. While each student would continue their healing journey over time, they became eager to facilitate trauma recovery for the members of their churches in the camps.

And something happened in me too. I came to fully embrace the general truths of trauma that cut across experiences. I could no longer say, “They have lost so much more than me, I shouldn’t complain.”  If we do not intentionally address our internal wounds, no matter how they compare to others, those wounds will not heal but fester and do more damage in the long run. With this new realization, it became easier for me to share with the students in class bits of my own story, though notably less dramatic. They seemed to appreciate my vulnerability and never made me feel judged.

Grieving loss

In the years of global pandemic and beyond, there is widespread loss. For some, it is the unexpected death of a loved one. Others have lost their jobs and feel helpless to provide for their families. Many feel the loss of a sense of security.

We can even grieve the loss of a hope or an expectation. Due to the pandemic especially, many people missed key events like prom, graduations, annual family gatherings, weddings, or the birth of a grandchild. Some losses are traumatic, and some are not, yet all need to be grieved. Some of us may also be experiencing secondary trauma from watching or reading a steady flow of heart-breaking stories night after night.

Rev. Alice standing in front of building with male student

Rev. Alice (right), a graduate of the RECONCILE Peace Institute in Yei, now pastors a church in the refugee camps in Uganda. With her is a youth leader from her congregation, who is also a student at the theological college in Arua and attended the Smith-Mathers’ class on trauma healing. The Reformed Church in America partnered with Rev. Alice’s congregation to fund the roof for the church building (seen in photo).

Ways to work through loss

Now is a good time for people in North America and around the world to find a good listener and to be good listeners. Seek out someone who can listen to you without the need to fix your problem, to give advice, or to diminish your struggle through comparison. Avoid calling upon friends who feel Christians should never be sad, a sentiment that is not consistent with the breadth of Scripture. Find someone who makes you feel safe, heard, and understood. It may be through a phone conversation, a discussion while walking, or even a small group Zoom call. For Shelvis and me, sometimes we talk with a friend, and sometimes we talk with a professional counselor. While it may look different for each of us, let’s try to ask for and offer the healing gift of listening.

If you feel you have no buffer, that your emotions are just on the surface and it is not as easy as usual to be patient or kind, pause. Then pause again. Becoming easily agitated or on edge is just one common response to trauma. Some others include: not being able to sleep, getting too much sleep, having nightmares, avoiding things that trigger the painful memories, lack of energy, not being able to concentrate, feeling tense constantly, having headaches or stomach aches, having a hard time thinking ahead to the future, loss of interest in eating, or feeling very sad and crying frequently.

In addition to contacting a good listener, find ways to care for your mind, body, and soul. For some, there may be a need for regular exercise or a favorite hobby. Try to eat healthy and get enough sleep. Take time to journal, reflect, have a personal devotion, and pray. Writing a lament to God, expressing your anger, pain, frustration, and confusion, as well as your trust in God in the midst of trial, can bring a sense of peace. Crying is a great way to let out pain. Do what you need to feel more like you again. Even when free-time is limited, taking 10–15 minutes a day for self-care can make a difference.

In our world today, often laden with heaviness and chaos, we have an opportunity to learn a bit more, as a nation and as a global community, about trauma, grief, and healing. God designed our bodies with the need to express and process loss. If we keep it locked inside, it hurts us and often our relationships with others. Helping each other grieve well is a transformative ministry. When that healing miracle happens, we are often stronger than before, equipped with greater resilience and better able to help our neighbor.

Prayer: God who knows the wounds in our hearts, please give us the courage to face our own painful emotions, to acknowledge, validate, and understand them. Help us take intentional steps towards healing. Once we have made progress on our own journey, please grant us the compassion and strength to help others do the same. Amen.

Nancy Smith-Mathers wearing a straw hat
Nancy Smith-Mather

Nancy Smith-Mather and her husband, Shelvis, are Reformed Church in America missionaries serving alongside the Reformed Church in America’s South Sudanese partners in both Uganda and South Sudan.