Meeting Christ in the Inner City

Last week, a desperate unwed teen mother taught me the true meaning of the Cross.

Teresa has grown up in the impoverished West Side of inner city Denver. Like many families in this community, her family is ensnared in generational poverty and generational abuse. She came to me to find housing, after being abandoned by her child’s father – but her needs far exceeded shelter. Sobbing in grief, bewilderment and rage, Teresa poured out her life story.

A homeless teenage mother, the inheritor of a legacy of violence.

Living with her addicted and dysfunctional mother, she had been repeatedly sexually abused as a child by a cousin and by her mother’s boyfriend. When she was eleven, her stepfather, her one source of emotional support and safety, left the family; she was devastated, and plunged herself into a journey of self-destruction through drugs and alcohol. She dropped out of high school when she got pregnant. But since the birth of her daughter, she has been struggling to turn her life around, to establish a stable foundation for her child. And Teresa’s fierce love for her daughter was what was so remarkable – no: mind-blowing, life-shaking – about her visit to my office.

Violence is woven into the fabric of life in this community. And because that violence is unacknowledged, suppressed and untreated, it gets passed on from generation to generation: suffering people who have been abused, knowing no other way to discharge their anguish and pain, become abusers themselves. The sins of the fathers are visited upon their children, and their children, and their children. Teresa is the inheritor of that violent legacy, and has suffered its effects in her body and being.

But Teresa is determined that the transmission of violence will end with her. She cried out, over and over, “My daughter will not have the life that I had!” Teresa has resolved that her daughter will not be abused, will not be abandoned, will not be mistreated – that she will be cherished, protected, believed in, supported.

She is determined that the transmission of violence will end with her.

The depth and difficulty of Teresa’s resolution are staggering – as are its profound ramifications. Her body and being have been battered by violence, and her life has been tragically distorted by its effects. But she is electing, heroically and painfully, not to transmit that violence on to others. She has absorbed the violence into herself, and in the searing crucible of her suffering, she is turning it into love. Teresa is, in her own life and body, halting the transmission of anger and trauma, by choosing to respond to violence with nonviolence. She is transmuting the deathly power of violence into the quickening power of new life and new ways of being together.

Isn’t that what Jesus did on the cross? He took the terrible power of human violence into himself, and broke it. Broke it in and through his own broken body and unbroken spirit. He suffered all of the horror and trauma that a violent, insecure, retributive world could wield. But he did not return violence for violence, did not reciprocate violence to the perpetrators or pass it on to others. He met violence with nonviolence, vengeance with grace, blind reenactment with intentional new life. He endured the violence that was inflicted upon him, and through the redemptive power and love of God, he transfigured it into reconciliation and renewal.

Isn’t that what Jesus did on the cross?

A Christ figure walked into my office last week. Her suffering, courage, passion and love shook me to my core, and shattered my superficial and complacent beliefs – or were they non-beliefs? – about the harsh and transformative reality of the cross in today’s world. I stand before her in awe, heartbreak and gratitude.

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Why should the mainline church care?

Is inner city trauma a niche concern, of interest only to those who work or live in core urban areas? Why should the mainline church care?

Violence and trauma in our urban neighborhoods are a critical problem in our country today. One recent study showed that the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder is higher among inner city youth than among combat veterans. The crises unfolding in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, Charleston and other urban areas are fueled by the trauma and violence that are woven into the fabric of daily life for the impoverished residents of urban communities. The terrible truths of life for the poor in these cities are representative of the trauma and suffering in urban neighborhoods throughout our country.

Inner city trauma afflicts God’s people.

Inner city trauma is not a problem happening ‘out there’ to ‘other people.’ It is happening to God’s people, our people. The oppression, violence and poverty suffered by the urban poor issue a harrowing and heart-wrenching cry to which the mainline church is called to respond.

A healing and liberating response to such suffering was the mission that drove Jesus’ ministry. At the very outset of his work, he announced,

“The Spirit of the Lord has sent me . . . to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.” [Luke 4:18]

This is the work of healing, of bringing and being the good news of the borning of the community of God in our broken world that Jesus dedicated himself to. It is the work that he sent his disciples and the seventy out to accomplish. And it is the work that Jesus calls the church today to embrace, if we are indeed to call ourselves and to live as the body of Christ – the heart, hands and feet of Jesus – in our world.

Not to respond is to turn our backs to the call of God.

And it is work that the church – not the church of committee meetings and covered dishes, but the church that truly aspires to follow in Christ’s footsteps – is uniquely graced to undertake. The church, in-formed and inflamed by the Spirit of Christ, possesses extraordinary resources of safety and caring, of connection and trust, of courage and hope, of grounding in ultimate value and meaning. These are the resources that are the church’s alone to give, resources that that no protest march, political movement, or service provider can supply. Not to respond in faith and in care to the crisis in our inner cities would be to squander these gifts and to turn our backs to the call of God. If the mainline church fails to respond, it will consign itself to irrelevance for millions of our brothers and sisters in this country.

The mainline church cannot, must not harden its heart and turn away. It must learn, as Pope Francis has said, how to weep: how to weep for and with the poor, the homeless, the oppressed. For only when our hearts are open to and broken by the suffering of our brothers and sisters can we begin to move forward together; only then can we call ourselves Christians.

We are one body in the one Lord.

The mainline church, and its primarily white, middle-class members, must also awake to the reality that the suffering of the underclass is not ‘their’ problem which does not concern ‘us.’ There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’ in God: there is only ‘us.’ “One bread, one body,” we sing, “we are one body in this one Lord.” The trauma inflicted on the poor is our trauma as well; our one body, God’s body, is shattered with their affliction.

Finally, the mainline church cannot turn away from urban trauma because the larger church has much to learn from its inner city neighbors about experiences and resources of resilience and hope in difficult times. Our country and our world are challenged by increasingly intractable problems, problems for which there is no quick fix and no clear solution: severe income inequality, climate change, spreading violence. Wrestling with these problems will require long engagements, with uncertain results, and many defeats along the way. Those in power who are used to quick and clear victories and a prompt return to ‘normalcy’ do not have the experience to guide us through these times; mainstream theologies which posit crucifixion as a temporary setback on the way to the complete and final triumph of resurrection provide little help or comfort amid a darkness that will not go away. Communities of color and communities of limited material resources are rich in traditions of wisdom and faith that acknowledge “la vida es la lucha,” yet offer depths of courage and sustenance, love and hope to preserve and nourish community members through the ongoing struggle.

In oneness lies the church’s life and hope.

The mainline church should care about inner city trauma because it is called to care. In affirming and embracing its oneness with its inner city neighbors lies the church’s life and hope.

Context 4: Towards a Theology of Inner City Trauma

Effective liturgy informs and forms participants in worship. Liturgy should retell the central stories of the Christian faith in a way that pulls congregants into the experiential and theological heart of those stories. Good liturgy mediates both our understanding and our experience of the divine by evoking and inviting participants into the theology — the logos of the theos — that frames and animates the words and rituals of worship. Theology, then, is the life spirit of liturgy – and trauma-informed worship must be infused by a theology that grapples with and responds to the challenging realities of trauma and recovery from trauma.

Mainstream Christian theologies do not speak adequately to inner city trauma.

Contemporary mainstream Christian theologies of redemption and resurrection – theologies that largely originated in white, middle and upper class contexts — do not speak adequately to inner city trauma. In the United States, the prevailing Christian narrative of redemption posits deathliness and life as mutually exclusive realities. That narrative describes a clear and final transition between death and life, in which death is concluded, a joyous new life is begun, and good wins out over evil. That narrative fails in the face of trauma; and it markedly fails in the context of the ongoing, communal trauma of life in the inner city. For trauma victims, the deathliness of the traumatic event is never fully left behind, and the potent reality of evil remains, even in recovery. For those who live in the inner city, where violence and grinding poverty are seemingly intractable facts of life, a complete escape from the effects or threat of trauma is impossible. A practical theology that promises and delivers resilience, hope and some mode of healing even in the midst of enduring deathliness is required.

How do we begin to discover such a theology? What are the guideposts that will direct our journey? I believe that an effective and faithful theology of inner city trauma must be guided by the following criteria:

A faithful and effective theology of inner city trauma should be trauma-informed, Biblically-based, Trinitarian, and grounded in the experiences and culture of the inner city community.

1. It must be grounded in the experiences and culture of the worshiping community. For my congregation, a theology of trauma and recovery must grow out of the experiences and culture of this American Latino/a community, and must be informed both by the struggles and by the strengths and resources of Latino/a culture and theology. At a minimum, such a theology must recognize that ‘la vida es la lucha’ – but even in the midst of la lucha, life is fed by wellsprings of relationship, familia, and community.

2. It must be trauma-informed. To be effective, this theology must be responsive to the dynamic of traumatic experience and, guided by imagination, wisdom and compassion, must incorporate the central features of trauma recovery. It must create a safe place for honesty and grieving, as well as for trust and growth; it must witness to and honor shattering stories of traumatic events; and it must work to restore the selfhood of the survivor, to foster loving relationships, and to engender a sustaining faith in a coherent and meaningful cosmos, even in the midst of darkness.

3. It must be Biblically-based. The Bible abounds with narrative, poetry and prophecy that give powerful voice to harrowing experiences of trauma and to the grace-filled gift of life after trauma. From Jesus’ resurrection with the wounds of his trauma still intact, to the healing of the hemorrhaging woman, to the agonies of Job, to the Psalms of lament and Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones, the Bible witnesses honestly and faithfully to interlaced realities of trauma and grace. In addition, the Gospel of John provides an alternate account of the Last Supper, which opens the way toward a communion service that celebrates salvation based in love stronger than death rather than in blood sacrifice.

4. It must be Trinitarian. The Trinity embodies the loving, life-sustaining relationality that undergirds trauma survival and recovery. Jesus is the incarnate reality of the God who walks with us and helps to bear our burdens, even to and through deathliness; he is both the messenger and the personification of God With Us and God For Us. The Spirit is the Paraclete whose exhorting, supportive presence is promised and given in the darkest hours of the disciples’ – and our – lives. And God is the Parent, whose love embraces even the most broken and wretched among us and whose mercy creates and recreates life, even and especially where new life seems humanly impossible.

And now, let’s begin.

Context 3: Worship and Recovery from Trauma

Our worship services at Denver Inner City Parish offer powerful possibilities for acknowledging and addressing our community’s trauma, theologically and spiritually, and for providing a place of safety and a path to recovery. Our services are intimate in size and caring in spirit and practice; congregants participate actively during the service; and every service concludes with a welcoming community dinner. The heart of our worship is Communion, which is celebrated at every service. For our congregation, Communion is the medium through which divine love and welcome are most fully communicated and experienced.

Standard liturgy fails to engage the fundamental and ongoing communal reality of trauma.

The traditional liturgy currently used in our worship services is based largely on the Book of Common Prayer.  As beautiful and powerful as this liturgy is, however, it fails to engage the fundamental and ongoing communal reality of trauma; and it provides our congregation with few theological or spiritual resources to help them acknowledge, cope with and prevail over this towering reality in their daily lives.  And it may even unintentionally cause harm:  I cringe when I hear or use the language of blood sacrifice that is interwoven through the communion service, and fear that the language and underlying theology may re-traumatize or drive away our congregants who have suffered from blood-letting violence.

Our worship services at The Parish do not currently address the crisis of trauma in our community – but they can and they must. Christian worship is uniquely suited to be a safe and sacred place where trauma and its effects can be witnessed to, and where recovery from trauma can begin. Trauma propels its victims into existential crisis, and recovery from trauma requires the long, hard, caring work of rebuilding belief in self, trust in others, and reliance upon a stable ground of meaning. Worship can provide the essential elements needed for recovery from trauma: a safe and caring place where the hard and complex truths of traumatic experience can be spoken; loving relationships with other people and with the triune God that restore both a trusting connection with others and a new valuing of the self; and a new understanding and experience of the unshakeable divine bedrock of love that grounds life and provides meaning, sustenance, hope and courage, even in the ongoing darkness.

A revised liturgy can declare new things to those who sit in darkness and captivity.

Seeking a revised liturgy that engages the fundamental realities of life in our community does not disparage existing liturgies, which speak powerfully to the realities of other communities.  Rather, it affirms that the word of God is living and active, that it speaks to all people in their own languages and contexts — and that it can ever be trusted to declare new things to those who sit in darkness and captivity.

Context 1: Trauma in the Inner City

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.

The Challenge

Trauma is pandemic in the inner city community that I serve.  Physical and psychological abuse, rape and sexual abuse, beatings and shootings are commonplace. Community members sometimes name the acts of violence, but many of those acts are unspeakable or unspoken. The effects of this widespread trauma manifest themselves in individuals and throughout the community as hopelessness, numbness, an inability to trust or form close relationships, a shattered sense of self, and a disbelief in any secure ground of meaning or order.

Conversation and exploration at the intersection of trauma, theology and liturgy

Our worship services at Denver Inner City Parish do not currently address the crisis of trauma in our community – but they can and they must. Over the next year, I will be developing a theology and liturgy that: are grounded in the experiences and culture of my inner-city community; express – perhaps even rediscover – the Good News for traumatized persons and communities; and reshape worship as a safe and sacred place where trauma and its effects can be witnessed to, and where recovery from trauma can begin.

This blog is an integral part of that process. This is a place for conversation and exploration for all who study, worship or work at the intersection of trauma, theology and liturgy. My weekly blog postings will trace the course of my reading, theological and Biblical reflections, and liturgical writings. Please join the conversation! Our experiences will be richer for your participation.