Roots in the Ruins
Psalm 46:1-7; Revelation 22:1-2
October 8, 2017
Rev. Dr. Deborah L. Clark
“You will walk again. You will laugh again. You will dance again. You will live again.” A few days ago Jeff Bauman, the young man who lost both legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, posted these words on Facebook.
He went on, acknowledging how painful his journey toward healing has been: “The most important advice I can give is to remember that healing your mind is just as important as healing your physical, visible injuries. It took me too many years and dark moments to realize that and it is so, so important.”
His advice is directed to people who were injured in the Las Vegas mass shooting; it applies as well to people who lost homes and livelihoods and loved one in hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands and Dominica and Florida and Texas, and to people who felt the earth shake and saw buildings crumble around them in Mexico. It speaks to those of us who watched on TV as disaster piled on top of disaster these last few weeks.
The vivid imagery of Psalm 46 conveys the physical, social, and emotional impact of traumatic events. The earth changes. The mountains shake in the heart of the sea. The waters roar and foam. The mountains tremble with tumult. The nations are in an uproar.
In the wake of trauma–whether from natural disaster, war, terrorist attack or personal violation–, there is often loss of a basic sense of security. The ground under our feet, the structures that hold community together, our sense of who we can trust–all these are shaken. It feels as though there is no solid ground.
Traumatic events can also stir a deep sense of powerlessness. We feel out of control, acutely aware of how quickly our carefully laid plans and our carefully constructed lives can be destroyed. Unacknowledged, this loss of solid ground and sense of the meaning of our actions can lead to isolation, despair and alienation. Psalm 46 offers assurance in the face of trauma: God is the solid rock on which our lives can rest; God is our refuge when everything else falls apart. It is a powerful promise, and yet the experience of trauma can shake our faith in God’s presence and power. If God is in charge, how could God let this happen? If God is not in charge, then is God too weak to be our refuge and strength? These are very real questions, part of the on-going struggle of healing from trauma.
The words of Psalm 46 are not enough. Healing trauma requires so much more than words. How do we reclaim, for ourselves, a sense of security in a world that feels so out of control? How do we face the reality of the ways we are powerless while claiming the power we do have? How do we walk with people who have experienced the traumas of the last few weeks so much more directly and intensely than we have?
A few weeks ago, before the Las Vegas shooting and shortly after the 3rd hurricane and 2nd earthquake, I received an e-newsletter from Elena Huegel. Some of you may remember Elena, who came to Edwards Church with a Latin American drama group five years ago. Elena served, through the UCC and Disciples of Christ Global Ministries, for more than 15 years as our mission partner, working with our sister churches in the Pentecostal Church of Chile.
Early in her ministry there, Elena teamed up with Rev. Beverly Prestwood-Taylor from the Brookfield Institute to create a project called Retonos en las Ruinas–Roots in the Ruins. Drawing upon the Strategies for Trauma and Resilience program developed by Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, Roots in the Ruins sought to train local leaders to address the deep traumatic wounds many people in Latin America had experienced during decades of political upheaval and violence.
In 2010, they began to offer a few initial workshops for the Pentecostal Church of Chile, at Centro Shalom, a beautiful retreat center in the mountains. Elena was leading one of those workshops when an 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit Chile, triggering a tsunami, devastating entire towns and killing more than 500 people. The focus of Retonos en las Ruinas shifted; Elena and the church leaders who had received the training leapt into action, reaching out to offer basic “emotional first-aid” training to pastors, developing simple techniques for helping children cope with trauma, which they taught to Sunday School teachers.
Two years later, I went on a Brookfield Institute trip to Chile and saw the impact of those trainings–groups of youth who had become leaders in conflict transformation, churches filled with people who knew how to support one another. I also saw a physical expression of “Roots in the Ruins.” One afternoon, we visited a family that had lost their home in the earthquake. They were living in a “blessing cabin,” one of the small, simple houses we helped the Pentecostal Church of Chile build in the year after the earthquake. They had added to the cabin, making it their new home. Outside the front door was a trellis, on which a fruit-filled grape vine was climbing.
I kept thinking about that vine. Surely it had not grown from seed in the short time since their cabin was built. The roots of the vine must have survived the earthquake. With support from their church and our church, this family had built a home around those roots, and had nurtured the new shoots that emerged to create beauty and sweet, sweet grapes. Retonos en las Ruinas– roots in the ruins.
That family had experienced the shaking of the mountains, the trembling of the earth. They had also experienced the care of their church and the care of strangers from afar. They had discovered the solid roots of their grapevine and their faith, upon which they could build a new life.
A few years ago, Elena turned her work in Chile over to the people she had trained, and moved to a new ministry in Chiapas, in Mexico. From that base, she has continued to travel throughout the Americas, offering 5 levels of training in trauma resilience. Her recent e-newsletter told her remarkable story. She was in Texas with family during Hurricane Harvey. From there, she flew to Puerto Rico to facilitate two Roots in the Ruins trainings for church leaders–training pastors who then were prepared for what was coming. She left there just before Hurricane Irma, and was in Texas when the first earthquake hit Mexico. She was back in Mexico for the second, more powerful earthquake.
In the days after that quake, she traveled with colleagues to visit affected towns. She led a training for a group of 63 pastors and teachers to introduce basics of emotional first aid and compassion fatigue and to help them plan for long-term healing. She encouraged them to celebrate signs of resilience, recognizing that a key component of trauma healing is helping people claim their own inner resources. She was already scheduled to teach two courses in grief, dignity and resilience for church leaders this month. Now she is planning more–training the trainers so the healing gifts can multiply.
Throughout this fall, in our worship services, we are focusing on discipleship. It strikes me that Elena’s story offers powerful insights into what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus the healer.
Jesus healed in many ways. He healed by touching people–helping them know they were not alone, assuring them of their worth. He healed by helping people claim their own inner strength– “your faith,” he said many times, “has made you whole.” He healed by bringing people into community so they could support one another. He healed by sending people out to expand his ministry, recognizing that as we facilitate healing for others, we experience it for ourselves. After his death and resurrection, he inspired the creation of congregations that were there to care for one another in the long haul.
Elena reminds us that to be a disciple is to be part of Jesus’ healing ministry. That doesn’t require supernatural power; it may require training and practice. The healing role of disciples involves touching people, physically and emotionally, letting them know they are not alone. It involves helping people claim their own strength, building communities that can support one another long term.
In this time where there is so much need for so much help, it is hard to know where to start. I am grateful for Church World Service, which has the systems in place to get our hygiene kits where they are most needed. I am grateful that the UCC is already working with partner churches in Mexico and Puerto Rico and Florida and Texas, and already reaching out to our congregations in Las Vegas. I am grateful that, with our support, Elena Huegel has spent decades building networks of people training more people to help their own communities claim their resilience in the face of traumatic events.
The Chilean blessing cabin with the grapevine brings me back to the rich imagery of our scripture readings. The vine grew from roots that survived the ruins of an earthquake. It was nurtured and woven into the trellis by a family that experienced the healing power of community, nourished by the river of God’s love flowing through their church. The leaves on that vine were broad and beautiful, absorbing the sunlight, producing new fruit, strengthening that family so they can be part of healing another family in crisis. The leaves of the tree–or the vine–surely, are for the healing of the nations.
God is our refuge and strength. The solid ground on which we stand, through earthquake and hurricane and human-created horror, is found in our God-given resilient spirits deep inside each one of us. It is found in human acts of love and compassion that reflect God’s love and compassion, in community that reaches out beyond itself. It is found in our capacity to make a difference and to work together with God to multiply that difference.
May we be fed by the river of the water of life. May we discover deep roots in the midst of the ruins. May we nurture the shoots that come from the roots, weave them into our lives, and offer the leaves for the healing of the nations. Amen.