The serene village, in the central Pennsylvania mountains, quivered with traumatizing affects. The small white chapel, in the community that did not even have a cross road, sat with a silent presence as members were faced with an emotional challenge. The challenge was to examine how each one would respond to the heart-wrenching drama that occurred in a family home, just three doors down from the sanctuary entrance.
A brother and sister, friends of mine in school, were left reeling and alone one afternoon. Their father had come home from work early and found their mother, his wife, in bed with another man. I am not sure why he had a gun on his person, but he did. In his shock he shot and killed both his wife and the man she entertained.
I do not remember many of the details that circulated around the community communication line, or what was seen in the newspaper surrounding the critical incident, I was only sixteen at the time, but I do remember how I felt. My feelings were dipping in several categories of sadness, confusion and frustration. A compelling courage forced my back up straight and my chin to rise to the challenge of caring for those in need.
My friends were not orphaned or fatherless per se, but circumstances left them in a position that should have qualified them for the care.
Sitting here now, I feel like the attention of the situation fell to me. Not so much in a nurturing, team work care, but with conflict in the question of how we as the church community should respond in this horrific, godless situation. In the lack of knowing how to respond, the church activities continued on without deviation from the normal functions. It was natural for me to care about my friends, but caution was administered in strong doses from church leadership to “not become too personally involved”.
This family was not church goers and were known for being a bit on the rowdy side. Did the man not get what he deserved? I was heart-sick. Why did not the ‘talk’ surround the possibility that this man loved his wife and was grief-stricken to conduct such an act? I did not think to condone his actions, but to understand them. I was sure that God would forgive him, could we not show this man some grace and mercy; At the very least-help his children? This was not their doing or sin. They were caught in the consequences of their father’s rage.
My parents were gracious with me. I was the one that brought home stray teenagers versus pets. My father, I know, was concerned for my safety, yet supported my endeavors. Starting in my teens he would respond, “I do not understand but I respect your conviction” as I would immerse myself into the lives of those in our community that others feared to acknowledge. As rural farmers, we did not have much ourselves, but my parents helped put forth whatever items of food I deemed necessary to give away and the use of the car to do so.
This situation was no different. I loaded several boxes of food and items into the 1975 tan, Chevy -Impala and drove the back-mountain roads to my friend’s home. I pulled into the driveway and felt secluded amongst the towering trees. The single level home seemed dark and quiet. Tentatively I got out of the car and headed to the trunk to gather a box of farm fresh produce and butchered meats. Leaving the trunk open for my second box, I rounded the left side of the car in line with the front door to the home. With the trunk open I did not see the two Doberman Pincher dogs approaching from the back side of the house.
The deduction of my racing thoughts and high adrenalin rush concluded that throwing the ten-pound roll of pork across the breadth of the car hood would seduce the dogs to the meat, giving me time to get in the house door that was being open by my friend.
I entered the dining-room, low ceilings and a musky wooded scent enveloped my senses supporting a sullen mood. I sat on the long wooden bench at the table across from my friends. I listened to the account that brought us all to this point. She relayed the account as though she was recalling a show she saw on television. What does one say when encountering such a sensitive, volatile and heart-twisting tale in the reality of a fifteen and sixteen-year old youth? They lost both their parents in a single hour; One to death, the other to prison.
Forty years-ago situations such as this were rare. The Department of Child and Family Services allowed the youth to stay in their own home with their eighteen-year old brother. The community shook their head in confusion and disbelief, however, I cannot recall any effort on the part of the community to collaborate for their continued care. This could have been in part of ignorance crossing some cultural lines, belief that the [world] system was responsible or the belief that you do not intrude in the lives of others.
Privacy of the “goings on” in our home and that of other homes has been enshrined in walls of steel and privacy laws that permit horrific actions, with secrets of traumatic and life-threatening behaviors.
Today, in this 21st century, the ‘out’ of following governing HIPPA standards allows for us to hold our hands up in mock release of responsibility, but morally are we released?
Domestic Violence has reached long arms of turmoil that no longer can be hidden or ignored inside the church sanctuary. In 2015, while the world was watching the news of the mass shooting inside a church in South Carolina, other small town churches were about to face their own trauma. (https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/charleston-south-carolina-church-shooting/ )
“Mass casualty equals four or more persons.
This does not count in domestic violence situations.
There are more mass casualties from domestic violence in America than from terrorism.”
Melissa Jeltzen 09/12/2017 Huffington Post
In my own personal life, I had several friends around the country who were experiencing the drama of family mental health situations in their home congregations the same time as the South Carolina shooting. A dear friend and her family attended a church that I once fellowshipped at. Both loved the Lord and had testimony of God’s great faithfulness in their lives. The husband wrestled with mental illness that caused self-harm behaviors. After several hospitalization due to suicide attempts, his action on a specific morning while his wife was away, was successful. Their special-needs daughter, enthusiastic to play with her friend, ran into the room where her father hung limp.
The mind image of that event still catches my breath today. Well-meaning people proclaimed the strength of the Lord and rote Biblical promises to encourage and hold my dear friend up. In reality they barred her behind a door of denial to her grief and real human emotion. In trying to be strong for her, she had to become strong in-face for them. The mind of a person left in such a situation does not just deal with the loss of a loved one, but: racks their brain in guilt wondering what could have been done different to prevent such finality; hides under a load of shame; or rages that others did not believe the severity of her family’s situation. Fear and hypervigilance over-flow her love-cup that prevents her from trusting her true self in reciprocal relationship with others in the church community.
Another friend, a leader in her church, was forced to deal with a domestic violence situation that ended in mass murder and suicide. The leadership stepped-up to give safety to this young mother and her daughters within the church resources. Unfortunately, the husband and father found a way to carry out his plan. With deep distraught this congregation reached out to counseling resources to help them process and grieve for their healing.
When situations like this present themselves among our communities, the affect reaches further in the pews then is realized. When the congregant is not given the opportunity to process, grieve and heal together additional emotional hurt cements the original pain.
The ‘Nimby’ (Not in my back yard) attitude is still prevalent today. Lack of understanding mental health and brain functions in stressful and dire situations can result in devastating blows of deadly outcomes; Even in the church! If we confess to being family, then these situations are not single incidents for the one directly involved. Sin crouches at every church door. If not, then what kind of church are we? We can pretend that the life of others that worship with us do not affect us, but, we should be close enough to each other that they do.
We can pretend that the lives of others that worship with us do not affect us,
but, we should be close enough to each other that they do.
Jeremiah refers to trouble with his people the Israelites saying, “I hurt with the hurt of my people. I mourn and am overcome with grief. (8:21) Paul encourages us “Don’t pretend to love others. Really love them”. He gives instructions on how we are to treat people in Romans 12. We might do well to remind ourselves what Love is (I Corinthians 13). Love has nothing to do with what we want or need in the moment/situation, but, has everything to do with what the other person needs.
I fear individuals that proclaim themselves as family in the faith-community, toss a roll of bologna across the width of a barrier, the very thing [we] have to offer is used to combat perceived personal harm. The gift is brought to the situation, yet, gets diverted to what seems like the potential harm of the moment versus focused on the intended root need.
What gift do you have to offer? Will you throw it aside to divert attention elsewhere, or will you present the gift for the intended purpose? How will you respond when trauma comes to your church?
Teaching Note: The most crucial need in the times of critical incidents is a silent presence; Someone to take care of the physical needs and safety concerns. Think of how you may respond if you were the person going through the current situation. If someone is speaking rote passages of truth you already know but your emotions are reeling with conflicting thoughts and feelings, would you melt into the words of truth or would you brace yourself to get through the moments message and deny your emotional need? When you are facing someone going through a crisis, do your words speak for THEIR need or for your need because you are not sure what else to do or say?
Studies have shown that persons who are allowed the freedom to feel and express their thoughts, and emotions while others care-give in physical and safety needs tend to move on to a new normal and healing. Others that get stuck in the emotion and feel unsafe (not feeling heard or able to trust themselves to be real) with those around them tend to develop mental and emotional challenges.
Be a silent presence unless invited for counsel.
Secondly: How does [this] critical incident for a church member affect others within the body. Others are affected in ways others may not be aware. Encourage leadership in your fellowship to promote and make provision for healing opportunities to all who are affected. (corporately, group or individually as deemed appropriate)