Mending with Grace

(Here’s the sermon I offered at Grandview United Methodist Church in Lancaster, PA on Sunday, April 2, 2017 on the subject of trauma, shame and healing. There’s an audio recording of it here)

One of my personal heroes, Father Greg Boyle, of Homeboy Industries has said,

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But it occurs to me that to achieve a real sense of KINSHIP with those who are marginalized requires a deep understanding and acceptance of our own imperfections and brokenness or, as one of Father Greg’s “homies,” former gang member Jose, says,

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My work as Director of the RMO, a prisoner reentry initiative, is with people who carry numerous wounds: addiction, mental illness, poverty, violence, the dehumanization and stripping of dignity that goes with incarceration, not to mention the additional wounds of shame, stigma, and being judged, labeled and ostracized by the community as “criminals”, “offenders”, “ex-cons”.

For longer than I’d like to admit, I had been operating under the delusion that to serve them effectively, I needed to be a pillar of strength and model of someone who had things pretty well figured out.

The core messages of my childhood were: 

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and

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Those messages steeped me in what author and shame researcher Brene Brown calls the “myth of self sufficiency.” In her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection”, Brown writes,

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I finally came to understand that in my work, I was often attaching judgment to “helping” people coming out of prison because I had not come to a full understanding of my own brokenness and my own need for help. And I had to make the painful admission that the reason I had not done so was SHAME.

Some of my shame comes from having grown up with a mother who struggled with addiction and, later, mental health issues, and the pain and trauma that created for me throughout my life. And because I had not done the necessary inner work to transform my pain, I transmitted it to others around me by being judgmental and critical, with a “holier-than-thou” arrogance. I hurt people because I was hurting.

Those childhood messages: “Don’t air your dirty laundry” and “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” meant that, for years, I didn’t recognize or acknowledge, and certainly didn’t talk about, any of this. When I was a kid, our family did go to church regularly on Sunday mornings, all cleaned up and dressed in our finest.  But even at church – in fact, I now think, ESPECIALLY at church – we kept silent about what was going on with my Mom’s addiction behind the closed doors of our home.

This morning, there are many people, many families, in many churches, in many places – even right here in this place – who are sitting in silent shame, over things going on in our lives, how we feel about ourselves and the kind of people we are, about sinful and shameful things we have done that have hurt others or ourselves, about things our loved ones have done. And there are many additional people who feel such deep shame that they feel like they aren’t even worthy to come into a church.

(This is the “squirmy part of this sermon” . . . but that’s okay . . . stay with me here . . . )

Brene Brown says that shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives:

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Her research shows that:

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In other words . . .

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We are afraid to admit or let anyone see the broken places in our lives. We may think, “If others knew this about me, would they still accept and love me?”

But here’s the good news: There IS a way for us to overcome those fears and address our shame, so we can heal and move forward.

The scientific research shows that the best way to address shame is to bravely bring it out into the light of day, to acknowledge what’s broken in our lives, to name it, TALK about it with trusted others who will offer us compassionate listening, empathy, and forgiveness and to ASK FOR HELP.

We can’t do it alone. Here’s the secret: There’s NO SUCH THING as pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. It’s a myth. We need each other.

Interestingly, what the research shows will help us deal with our shame are the same things that our Christian tradition teaches us: the things we know as:

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Pastor Andrea said in the first of her sermons in this series that the CHURCH has a vital role to play in healing shame and creating healthy community, because of the church’s unique offering of GRACE: the central tenet of our faith as Christians and the focus of this morning’s lectionary texts.

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and in the passage from Romans:

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These promises of God’s grace and forgiveness, of God’s abundant love, despite our sinfulness, our brokenness, are what give us HOPE. God’s abundant love is so much stronger than our fear of admitting to the brokenness in our lives.

Another of my personal heroes, Bryan Stevenson, author of the book Just Mercy, writes,

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One of the things I’ve learned through my work with the RMO is that there’s pretty extensive evidence that a majority of the people in our prisons and jails have had a history of trauma in their lives – often when they were children. They’ve experienced emotional, physical and sexual abuse, emotional and physical neglect. Many have grown up in households with a parent who had addictions or mental illness. Many have witnessed domestic violence and other forms of violence. Many have lost a parent to death, abandonment, or incarceration.

It isn’t that these experiences excuse what they have done to harm others, and we may struggle to feel compassion for THEIR PAIN, asking what about the pain THEY have caused?

And that’s absolutely a fair question, with, I admit, no simple answers. And yet, our common humanity and our Christian teaching compel us to recognize THEIR SACRED WORTH rather than judging and shaming them; to EMBRACE them; to truly LOVE them as our NEIGHBORS.

I like what the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote:

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Much of what we do with brokenness in our own lives, as well as the lives of people with addictions, mental illness, and those in our criminal justice system, is like using an aspirin and an ice pack for a broken leg. While aspirin and an ice pack might temporarily relieve the pain and reduce the swelling, the TRUTH is that the leg is still broken – and if we never PROPERLY mend what’s broken inside of us, it may continue to “cripple” us.

But I’d like to close this morning by offering a different vision for mending the broken places in all of our lives.

In Japanese culture, beautiful pottery is an important part of everyday life – pottery bowls, plates, cups and vases.

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When a bowl or vase or cup or plate gets chipped, or cracked . . .

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or even completely broken into pieces . . . 

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rather than throw it away, they have a beautiful traditional practice called:

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or as it’s sometimes called, “mending with gold.”

What they do is mix up a lacquer to which they ADD precious metals – usually GOLD DUST –

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Then they take the broken pieces of that bowl or vase or plate, and they carefully and lovingly apply the golden lacquer along the broken edges and join the pieces back together.

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Their philosophy is that when something happens that damages a piece of pottery, it should NOT be tossed aside or thrown away as worthless. Instead it is WORTH taking the time and care to mend what’s broken.

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They treat the breakage and the process of repairing it as simply part of the history of that object, instead of something to be hidden or disguised.

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They believe that chips, cracks, even completely breaking into pieces – these are all just natural parts of life. 

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Not only is there no attempt to hide the cracks and brokenness, but the repair is literally illuminated. 

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And because they have used precious metals (GOLD DUST!) . . .

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to mend the broken places . . .

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. . . the resulting piece is considered even more valuable and beautiful than the original.

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We are not called to be perfect. We ARE called to be light and love to one another. Acknowledging the cracks in our own lives, and letting the light get in, can help us to heal our own brokenness, and give us the capacity to be compassionate, wounded healers in kinship with others.

Slide27Here’s what the research says about what we need to HEAL from the trauma of our own inner brokenness:   We need:

  • Opportunities to share our stories with empathetic listeners
  • Meaningful connection with others
  • Support from trusted others
  • Spiritual connections: a sense of something larger than ourselves
  • Opportunities to participate in social activities
  • Opportunities to be of service to others
  • Healthy, meaningful rituals
  • Opportunities for fun, play, laughter
  • Opportunities for creative endeavors
  • Opportunities to connect with nature

Amazingly, the CHURCH offers EVERY ONE of these things – and all of these things foster the kind of KINSHIP that Father Greg Boyle talks about.

In Jane’s Dutton’s sermon a couple of weeks ago – she highlighted the repetition in New Testament stories of the words: “Us”, “Our” and “We” – this is the language of KINSHIP. And I love that the word “Kintsugi” is so similar to “Kinship.”

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Grace is like that lacquer mixed with gold dust – God’s grace can mend the broken places in ALL of our lives, making us whole again, even more valuable and beautiful than before.

And through our compassion, love, empathy, and golden offerings of grace to others, we can be instruments of God’s ultimate transformation, to make gentle a bruised and broken world.

SO, I echo Pastor Andrea’s call to all of us in her first sermon in this series: to live into who God created us to be – wholehearted people who make up a grace-filled AND grace-giving body called the CHURCH.

Mending the chipped and cracked and broken places in our own and one another’s lives with God’s golden, and amazing grace.

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What IS a trauma-informed community, anyway?

What is a trauma-informed community? One definition, from The Wilson Foundation, in Rochester, NY, is: “A strategic approach that links all community sectors together around the effects of trauma, while preventing gaps in services for clients.”

But I like this description from an article about Tarpon Springs, Florida, one of the first communities in the US to declare itself a trauma-informed community:

“Being a trauma-informed community means that Tarpon Spring has made a commitment to engage people from all sectors—education, juvenile justice, faith, housing, health care and business—in common goals. The first is to understand how personal adversity affects the community’s well being. The second is to institute resilience-building practices so that people, organizations and systems no longer traumatize already traumatized people and instead contribute to building a healthy community.”

As I visit trauma-informed communities in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and in Calgary, I’ll likely learn additional definitions. Most of the places I’ll be visiting have been focused on trauma-informed care for 6-8 years or longer. So there will be much we can learn from them.

A few weeks ago, I convened a meeting of 22 people from Community Action Partnership of Lancaster CountySchool District of LancasterCOBYS Family ServicesAssetsLancaster County Community FoundationBenchmark Construction Company, Inc.Advoz: formerly Center for Community PeacemakingLancaster Housing Opportunity PartnershipLancaster County Drug & Alcohol CommissionUnited Way of Lancaster County, PADanene SoraceNorman Bristol Colon for Mayor of Lancaster, and others to discuss how to move toward making Lancaster County a trauma-informed community. I asked for their ideas about what questions to ask and what information to gather from the trauma-informed communities I’ll be visiting. Here are a few of their recommended questions:

  • How have communities used their own local/regional demographics to guide their trauma-informed community initiatives?
  • How have they addressed needs for cultural competency to ensure the broadest possible inclusion of all persons and all stakeholder groups?
  • How did they go about getting buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders and potential funders?
  • What barriers, roadblocks and resistances have they encountered, from whom, and how have they attempted to address these (either successfully or not)?
  • What trauma education approaches, tools, curricula, and other resources have they used? What has worked? Not worked?
  • How are they integrating trauma knowledge into all different sectors of the community? (healthcare, education, human services, community development, housing, juvenile justice, criminal justice, business, faith community, etc).
  • What are the metrics and outcomes they are using to measure and track results of their efforts?

The group provided other input, ideas and insights – and I’ll share more in future blog posts. Meanwhile, feel free to contact me with YOUR ideas and suggestions.

I depart for this 3-week trip on Easter Sunday….stay tuned for more details in upcoming posts.

Trauma-Informed Criminal Justice

I woke up this morning feeling deeply grateful (and a bit tired . . . and relieved) for the experience this week of offering trainings about trauma to the staff of Lancaster County Prison and Lancaster County Adult Probation & Parole. And, as has been the case throughout my career, I feel like I learned more from them than they did from us.

Six days, eleven classes, 261 trained LCP staff and 44 trained Probation & Parole staff later, here are a few insights from this week:

  • Corrections professionals have some of the most stressful and under-appreciated jobs in our community. The situations they are exposed to and required to handle are often traumatic, yet there’s a general sense that they have to just “deal with it” and “be strong.”
  • One of the things Grace Marie Hamilton taught me is that she always made sure she showed as much care and concern for the people who worked within the criminal justice system as for those caught up in it – and I was reminded time and time again this week of how absolutely wise and essential it is for me to maintain that perspective.
  • Most of the people who came to this week’s trainings take their jobs very seriously, take pride in their profession, and care deeply about doing their jobs thoroughly and well. Many of them already do some of the things suggested in the training. Yet, the nature of the work can take a huge toll on them, and for some, can lead to cynicism, detachment, diminished capacity to show empathy or compassion, and a belief that nothing will ever change – including the people under their “care, custody and control.”
  • The lack of adequate mental health treatment and resources is a genuine crisis in our criminal justice system (not just here in Lancaster – this is a problem in prisons and jails across the entire country – see https://stepuptogether.org/) – and as a result, staff are placed in the untenable position of having to deal with the significant mental health issues of incarcerated people without access to the necessary mental health expertise and resources to truly address people’s underlying needs. This creates an enormous amount of additional stress and trauma for the staff.
  • As we talked about the connections between trauma, addiction and mental health issues, we acknowledged that much of what’s historically been done for people with mental health and addiction issues is like giving someone aspirin and an ice pack for a broken leg: while those measures might temporarily relieve the pain and reduce the swelling, the leg is still broken – and if what’s broken inside is never addressed, it may continue to “cripple” the person.

I’m deeply grateful to my training team: Allison Weber (SACA), Vanessa Philbert (CAP), Jen Strasenburgh (CompassMark), & Angela Keen (CCP), and my fantastic RMO interns (both Millersville University students) Lindsay Mays (MSW candidate) & Beckah Shenk (BSW candidate).

We are also very grateful to the Walters / Unitarian Church Trust, an endowment from Art and Selma Walters to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lancaster (UUCL) for funding part of this training through a grant to the RMO. In awarding this grant, the UUCL Board has acknowledged the contributions of the RMO to achieving the vision of inclusiveness among all humans as well as respect for the dignity and worth of each individual, as promoted by the Walters Trust and UUCL. We are deeply honored to have been awarded this grant from the Walters Trust and UUCL.

This first round of trainings for prison and probation/parole staff is the beginning of the RMO’s effort to build the foundation for a trauma-informed criminal justice system in Lancaster County. There’s more to come…but I’m hopeful that this week’s trainings helped to start the conversation.

Brokenness, Judgment, Compassion, and Kinship

One of my heroes, Father Greg Boyle, of Homeboy Industries has said, “The true measure of our compassion lies not in our service to people on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.” This requires a deep understanding and acceptance of our own brokenness or, as one of Father Greg’s “homies,” former gang member Jose, says, ““How can I help the wounded if I don’t welcome my own wounds?”

My work as Director of the RMO for Returning Citizens is with people who have been wounded in countless ways, by poverty, addiction, mental illness, incarceration, trauma. They are demonized and marginalized by the rest of society. For longer than I’d like to admit, I’ve been operating under the delusion that to serve them effectively, I need to be a pillar of strength and model of someone who has things pretty well figured out.

The core messages of my childhood were: “What’s done is done. No point rehashing the past. Get over it and move on.” “Don’t air your dirty laundry.” “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”  

These messages have steeped me in what Brene Brown calls the “myth of self sufficiency.” In “The Gifts of Imperfection”, she writes, “It’s as if we’ve divided the world into ‘those who offer help’ and ‘those who need help.’ The truth is that we are both . . . Until we can receive with an open heart, we’re never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.”

I’ve finally come to understand that in my work, I often attach judgment to “helping” people coming out of prison because I have NOT come to a full understanding of my own brokenness and my own need for help.

When I first heard Brene Brown’s TED talks on vulnerability and shame, I identified deeply with her admitted perfectionism and belief in self-sufficiency, her desire to plan, control and avoid vulnerability (aka “weakness”). But when she said her research shows that vulnerability is essential to creativity, joy and authentic connection and that being vulnerable is our most accurate measure of courage, it was a sobering wake-up call for me.

So last summer, I applied for, and was blessed and grateful to receive, a Baldwin Fellowship from the Lancaster County Community Foundation. As part of my Baldwin project, since September, I have been delving deeply into childhood trauma and how it affects connection, health, and mental health.

I’m now preparing for the next major phase of my Baldwin project: a trip to Oregon, Washington and Alberta, Canada, to visit several trauma-informed communities to develop a deeper understanding of how a broad-based, cross-sector “Trauma-Informed Community” approach could fundamentally change our schools, healthcare, community-benefit organizations, justice system, and entire community.

I hope the insights from the trauma-informed communities I visit may help us move toward becoming a trauma-informed community here in Lancaster – a place of true compassion and kinship.

As I prepare for this trip, and throughout my travels, I will be posting updates about what I’m learning along the way – about trauma, brokenness, judgment, compassion, and kinship. So, stay tuned…