Voices: What collective trauma teaches congregations

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I didn’t live on the coast when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in August 2017, but the majority of my family did. The coast was filled with people, places and memories that were dear to me.

I remember staying up all night watching the news on the storm demolishing my beloved town. I saw buildings being blown apart and debris filling the town while I sat praying for safety and peace for all involved.

At the time, I was a student at Truett Seminary and Garland School of Social Work with a concentration in trauma and congregations. I wanted to see how local congregations were impacted by the collective trauma of Hurricane Harvey; so, I formed a focus group of members from a local congregation to learn about their experience. What I learned in this research study not only impacted me on an emotional level but impacted me as a minister and a social worker.

Trauma’s effects on the church

It was obvious “church” was not the same after Harvey. The most frequent topic of discussion was that the church was a safe place during the recovery.

One participant said: “Right after the storm, it was chaos. It was hard to find your way around town, and there were a lot of people I didn’t know, but I would come to the church and feel safe. I knew I would be cared for, and the community would be cared for.”

Mental health was another topic discussed in the focus group. One member shared about her young daughter’s anxiety after the storm. She said she could see it boiling to the surface within her daughter anytime she would leave her to go to school or work. She bravely admitted to the group the hurricane made her realize anxiety was a real condition.

Other mental health concerns such as depression and PTSD also became prevalent within the community.

Each of the focus group participants had to find the balance of caring for each other while also caring for themselves. How do you adequately care for your neighbors’ anxiety attacks while also trying to figure out how to live with your own anxiety? How does a pastor sufficiently care for the congregation’s members while the pastor is living in the church because the pastor’s house also was destroyed?

Experience of Christ during trauma

More than anything—and maybe the most impactful takeaway from the focus group—was how each person said he or she experienced the providence, love and concern of Christ during this time.

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When asked, they said they thought positively about how they experienced Hurricane Harvey. They did clarify that though they do not want to endure it again, God’s providence truly was powerful for them.

The one story that forever will be etched into my mind is one from an individual who stayed in town during the storm. In the middle of the night, when the storm started to get bad and particularly dangerous, this individual put shoes on, tucked a wallet on the bed, and crawled into bed to go to sleep.

This person said: “I prayed that God would just let me sleep through the rest of it and that he could decide where I woke up. But I wanted to make sure my ID was on me so that people who would find me could identify my body, if needed. I slept through the night with complete peace that I knew came from the Lord.”

This individual went to sleep completely trusting in God’s care even if it meant that person physically died during the storm. That is a faith I can only pray I would have in a similar situation.

From the thousands of volunteers who showed up to help, to the supplies donated, to supernatural peace and strength, God’s presence was obvious.

Lessons from past trauma for future trauma

It is now the middle of summer almost two years after Hurricane Harvey changed the lives of every person on the coast of Texas. It is also the middle of the current hurricane season.

Because of the trauma everyone experienced from Harvey, anxiety and other PTSD symptoms are high among many residents of this particular Coastal Bend town. Every time a tropical storm pops up in the Gulf of Mexico, knots form in the stomachs of concerned coastal citizens. Their brains immediately remind them of the suffering and hardship they endured, and they panic thinking about enduring it again.

Weary pastors wonder how they will lead their community through another storm. In the midst of all of this, these pastors’ fatigued voices will remind us: God provides, God sustains and God cares for his children in the midst of even the biggest storms.

Erin Albin is a recent graduate of Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work and Truett Seminary. She is a member of a Texas Baptist church in the Coastal Bend area and is the coordinator of research projects at The Center for Church and Community Impact.

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