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.


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.

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.