From Church Magazine, published originally in Spring 2001
Reverend Michael Enright, s..L., is the pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Chicago.
The Limits of Psychology
When violence tears the fabric of a neighborhood and debilitates the residents, ministers in the inner city must learn to help a population suffering the effects of trauma. Random gunfire, drug dealing, gangs, pros-titution, difficulties with the police and the political process, physical dangers, and a host of other intractable social problems can corrode hope and deaden the human spirit. Trauma also plagues people in many third-world countries. Perhaps their experience of dealing with it could help those in our inner cities.
What is trauma? It has been defined as an overwhelming event that renders people helpless, fearing for their lives. Trauma breaks apart ordinary ways of cop-ing. It stands outside the range of usual human experience that would be distressing to anyone. Trauma includes not only torture and rape, but the witnessing of violent acts such as kidnapping, murder, or geno-cide. In inner-city parishes, many parishioners have witnessed people being beaten or murdered. However commonplace, it is always traumatic.
Trauma has an immediate impact. It crashes through the boundaries of ordinary life and may incapacitate the person who has experienced it. Victims of trauma include primary victims (those who suffer the trauma) and secondary victims (those who work or live with the victims, such as family members, friends, and neighbors; doctors, paramedics, relief workers, priests, and pastoral staff). The possible negative effects range from a stress reaction to culture shock to post-traumatic stress disorder. Without intervention they will likely go from the intrusive phase to the denial phase and perhaps develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Victims may become incapacitated: unable to focus on the present, set goals, or plan for the future; unable to give or receive love. A few may even commit suicide. How can a minister help a parish of traumatized people?
One might logically look to psychology for assistance. But psychology, it turns out, is limited in helping with certain kinds of trauma. In an article in Together, the Journal of the World Vision Partners (April-June 1999), John Fawcett calls into question the usual American psychological protocol. World Vision (an organization working to provide relief and development in the third world) developed an extensive treatment protocol for its staff members working in war torn Cambodia, finding intervention essential in preventing permanent dam-age. But what worked for the international, first-world staff failed (and at times was counterproductive) when used with the native Cambodian staff.
Why? For one thing, the psychological model assumes that the traumatic experience is abnormal. That was true for the international staff who had flown in and would eventually return home, but it was not true for the local residents. Cambodian staff were shot at routinely on their way to and from meetings. For the protocol to work, the victims must be removed from the traumatic situation. Second, the psychological model assumes that it is essential for trauma victims to talk about the experience. By talking it out, they learn that it is safe for them to lower their defenses, to stop the denial or repression or fantasy that protects their psyche from further damage. But talking does not work if the person returns to the same environment, for this time they go back defenseless, which is potentially counterproductive and very damaging.
The head of he psychology department at the University of Chicago once told me something similar. He said that gathering young people from the inner-city neighborhood and getting them to talk about their experiences of violence could do more harm than good because they would return to their same environment without vital defenses. Moreover, there are practical problems. When whole populations or neighborhoods suffer the effects of trauma, it is simply impossible to
offer each person individual or even group counseling. The numbers are prohibitive.
Current psychological approaches, then, will not work well in inner-city environments because: (1) it is impossible to remove the people from their environment; (2) talking about trauma when returning to the same environment is counterproductive; and (3) the numbers make the psychological approach impossible to administer.
How Other Cultures Handle Trauma
As it became clear to the World Vision staff that the psychological model for dealing with trauma could not be used with the Cambodians, they began to notice elements in Cambodian culture that helped the local staff to deal with the trauma they were exposed to without talking about it. The Khmer monks, the healing that Cambodians sought outside Western medicine, and public rituals-these pointed to a different path toward healing.
In some cultures, trauma is not healed by talking. Learning how it is healed might be useful in situations where Western trauma protocols are ineffective.
Among the Nigerian Yoruba, for example, if a woman is raped she is not expected to talk about her experience (sexuality is not something the Yoruba talk about, and the shame attached to rape adds to the taboo). She is expected,however, to tell her mother what has happened. In the tribe’s thinking, the rape has not happened to the woman alone, but to her family, her tribe, and to all of humanity. Consequently, healing must take into account all of the ruptures caused by the act. The mother tells the girl’s father, who goes to the village elder with the story. The village elder goes to the family of the rapist and demands restitution. The criminal is seen as an individual, but also as part of a much larger social web.
The event does not immediately become public knowledge, except to the degree that the families involved know about it. Usually, with time, the village comes to know what has happened. Villagers will then refuse to marry anyone from the rapist’s family because they view this kind of behavior as a contagious family illness.
Such healing requires the girl to regard the experience of rape as something that has happened both to her (a personal experience) and to the group (family, tribe, humanity). The sacrifice required of the rapist’s family is made to heal the rift between the people and the earth and the people and each other. Since the trauma is a public experience, it involves a corporate, public response. Just as the event is not solely personal, neither is the healing process.
Corporate Identity and Pastoral Care
Is there anything to be learned from such cultural examples that could be applied to inner-city trauma and pastoral care? I think so. In working with Mexican people for twenty years (as a priest for sixteen of those years), I have noticed that Mexicans often have a corporate identity. They perceive themselves as “a peo-ple” in a way we Americans cannot easily understand.
Their corporate identity helps to diffuse the impact of trauma in their lives. While we Americans receive the blows of trauma as individuals and seek personal heal-ing, Mexicans perceive themselves as members first of a family, then of a people. The traumatic experience is understood as something that has happened to “us.” It is also to be expected; suffering is seen as a part of life.
Mexican culture has a strong current of fatalism in which some things must be “accepted”: that life is difficult, for example, and that an individual will sometimes become a victim of larger forces.
As Americans, we believe that no one should be a victim. Yet “victimhood” can play an important part in mitigating the negative effects of trauma. If you are a victim, the trauma is not personal to you, rather it is part of a corporate experience “we” have. You do not need to absorb the blows of the traumas as a free standing individual, and you have a whole range of ways to seek public healing for the traumas you have suffered.
Such an understanding helps explain the importance of the deep popular religiosity found among the Mexican people. The bloody crucifixes, the long pilgrimages, the deep devotion to the saints, and a host of other religious practices are ways the Mexican people find public healing for trauma; they are connected to Jesus, who also suffers. The corporate identity as “a Mexican” and public paths to healing actually work. They enable the Mexicans to absorb traumatic blows that might destroy us and help them to survive and function in the face of enormous violence and suffering.
Some of the same dynamics appear to be at work in African-American populations and among other groups who suffer. In the past, strong parishes may have provided enough corporate identity to protect parishioners from the negative effects of trauma.
Consider the role of U.S. parishes in the lives of immigrants. Being an immigrant has never been easy; most have been oppressed and arrive poor. As these immigrants went through the process of assimilation, losing their identity as Poles, Lithuanians, Germans and Irish, they adopted corporate identities as members of parishes. Second-generation immigrants born in Chicago, for example, were no longer Polish, but they were members of Immaculate Conception parish or some such. The corporate identity helped shield them from the traumas they experienced as they slowly moved into American culture. These parishes also helped them lose their sense of themselves as “victims.”
They changed from being “oppressed victims” to becoming proud members of parishes. It would help explain, too, how there could be fourteen parishes in two square miles in Chicago, each serving a different population. The parishes were manifestations of a strong corporate identity, necessary on a religious, social, and psychological level. It also helps us understand why the children of immigrants in Chicago (New York, Boston, and elsewhere) identify themselves not by the neighborhood they live in but by the parish.
The people who would suffer the most in a neighborhood plagued by violence would likely be those with the weakest connection to a “corporate” body. Experience bears this out. The people most adversely affected by the violence in South Chicago (and neighborhoods like it) are those who do not speak the common language, Spanish, or who speak it poorly, and who do not identify themselves as either Mexican or American. They have no access to the American tools of healing (get out of the traumatic environment and seek psychotherapy) and no access to the Mexican tools of healing (public rituals of identification with a suffering Jesus and a suffering people).
By contrast, the people who recover best from the blows of trauma are likely those with a strong parish identification, who attend Mass regularly and see themselves as “members.”
Pastorally it makes sense to strengthen parish corporate identity to help mitigate the effects of trauma.
Three specific ways to build corporate identity for Mexican immigrants are: (1) encourage popular religiosity, which is not priest-centered and in which everyone can participate; (2) encourage processions and pilgrimages, which build a sense of “we”; (3) encourage all kinds of different groups to spring up in the parish, enough so that there is a group for everyone; and (4) encourage, cajole, and push people to register in the parish, which strengthens their connection to the larger church.
An inner-city minister must find ways to strengthen the people’s hope. Psychological models, as I have shown here, are limited, but the ecclesial model that functioned well in the past still offers much. Strong parishes, and people’s strong identification with parishes, can serve as a “shock absorber,” enabling parishioners to function well even in an unhealthy environment.