I work at Denver Inner City Parish (“The Parish”), a non-denominational human services organization that is planted in the financially impoverished, largely Latino/a West Side of Denver.
Our community at The Parish embraces those whom the rest of American society might call the “underclass” — but I know them as wonderful, worthy persons. Our community includes the full spectrum of all of our neighbors, from five generation Latino/a families to struggling and displaced young families, from the chronically homeless to those who are working their way back to personal stability, from ex-offenders and ex-addicts to those who have never battled the law or addiction and those who are very much in the midst of that battle.
I am continually awed and moved by the richness of the personal resources that our community members bring to their own and each others’ lives. Every day, unselfishly and unselfconsciously, they unbundle and share their life-giving humor, their hard-earned wisdom, their quiet grit and resilience amid backbreaking adversity, their patient understanding care for one another and for their families. I learn from them and am humbled by them.
An undertow of violence tears away at the foundations of life.
I am also continually horrified and heart-broken by the trauma that haunts their lives. An undertow of violence tears away at the foundations of life on Denver’s West Side. Its occurrence is commonplace and its ravages widespread.
In just one day last year, community members told me of three instances of horrific violence that had dislocated their lives. In all three conversations, the trauma was not the cause of the conversation, but simply came up as a sidebar during our talk — a testament to the numbing normality of violence in their lives.
- Luis apologized for not attending worship the night before, and sheepishly confessed that he was uncomfortable walking down his street alone because he didn’t want to pass by the crime scene tape that wrapped the house next door. Asked what had happened, Luis explained that his neighbor, a young woman, had been murdered in her home. But, he added, thank goodness!, her little child who was with her had not been hurt. A mother murdered; her child, orphaned and traumatized. All right next door.
- I was helping Delores fill out some SSI forms when she asked, with some agitation, what it took to be charged with murder. Why? What’s happened? I asked. Delores replied that her niece had gone to court to seek a restraining order against her abusive boyfriend. Unable to find any other childcare, she left her two year old daughter with her boyfriend, the child’s father. When she returned from court, the child was dead, killed by head injuries; the boyfriend claimed that his daughter “had fallen.” Delores was consumed with anxiety that her niece, and not the boyfriend, would be charged with murder.
- I was driving Carlina, a young woman gripped by alcoholism, to detox, and as we chatted in the course of the ride, she began to talk about the counseling that she had (finally!) agreed to undertake. Carlina revealed that she had been diagnosed with PTSD. Glad for the conversational opening, I asked her the nature of her trauma — expecting to hear about the sexual abuse I knew from other sources that she had suffered as a child. Instead, Carlina rocked me by recalling how, as a teenager, she had been sitting next to her favorite cousin when he suddenly killed himself with a shotgun blast to the head.
These life-shattering experiences are individually tragic — but they are also heart-rendingly commonplace in our community. Domestic abuse (physical, psychological and sexual) is widespread; and hidden beneath a shroud of shame and secrecy, its contagion spreads from generation to generation. Gang violence, drug violence, the violence that erupts daily from the pressures of living in poverty and oppression; addiction, abandonment, imprisonment, dysfunction — all of these rend the fabric of life in the community and unravel the threads of connection, control and meaning that weave individuals into coherence.
The effects are magnified because trauma is unacknowledged and untreated.
The effects of trauma are magnified within the community because traumatic events are often unacknowledged and untreated. Incidents of violence are often experienced by individuals and regarded by the community as part of the expected course of life’s hardships; as such, they are submerged beneath the surface of life, unaddressed and hardly spoken. Episodes of domestic abuse and sexual abuse generally go unnamed and unreported, silenced and denied because of shame, fear and familial pressures. And even when traumatic events are reported and help is sought, legal redress and clinical treatment are rarely available: our community members, like most poor, inner city residents, do not have access to good medical help, clinical or personal counseling or effective police protection. As a result, the effects of traumatic incidents spread beyond the immediate victim. The effects of unacknowledged and untreated trauma are transmitted to others and are often re-enacted generationally. As a result, pervasive and unacknowledged trauma infects the entire community, so that the community itself has become traumatized.