Jul 19

IM Moment: How understanding toxic stress may change your ministry, with Todd Garrison

Most churches and fellowships look for opportunities to impact their communities and the world for the better. They do this through any number of ways: social justice initiatives, mission work at home and overseas, prison ministry, youth outreach, parenting classes, recovery ministries… the list goes on and on.

One of the questions I am regularly asked as I speak in faith-based settings about trauma, toxic stress and the role of adversity in the lives of children is: “Does acknowledging someone comes from a trauma background mean that we need to excuse certain behaviors? What if what they are doing makes others in our worshipping community feel unsafe?”

These are excellent questions. As a partial answer, I would encourage you to view the video below, featuring Todd Garrison, ACE Study Certified Master Trainer. Then, after you have watched the video, keep reading below for a few more thoughts and ideas.

 

“It’s not a free pass… but the consequences may look different.”

I really appreciate the way Todd phrases his response to these difficult questions.

If your ministry engages those with significant trauma, there will be moments when the behavior of those you are working with doesn’t match the situation. Perhaps they are triggered by a certain event that happens within your ministry context. Maybe that little boy or girl comes into your Sunday School already disregulated and “out of sorts” because their little brains have been swimming in a sea of stress hormones the night before? If there is a significant mental health issue, that may be another “filter” through which we need to run our response, reaction, or subsequent consequence through!

This is where one of our trauma-informed mantras come in handy: “Ask not, ‘What is wrong with that person?’ but rather, ‘What must have happened to that person?’ in order for them to act as they are right now?” Then, after taking a deep breath, do what you can to ensure as safe an environment as possible. For an agitated adult, that may be asking them to step outside to carry on a conversation (making sure you don’t go outside with them alone, but with at least one other person), and for a child it could mean transitioning the rest of the class out in the hall or to another room temporarily (again, making sure you call in another adult so you are not alone in the room with the retraumatized child).

Once a somewhat safe environment has been reestablished, give clear and repeated instructions as to what behavior you need to see in order to move the conversation forward. The individual’s ability to follow a simple instruction (“I’ll need you to lower your voice and have a seat over here on the chair beside me before we can continue this discussion”) is an indication that they are coming out of a hyper-aroused state (fight-flight-freeze) and can begin to have a rational discussion.

Then, and only then, do you have a hope of addressing what the real need is being expressed by the behavior. Then, compassionately, you may work on a consequence that balances the needs of the trauma-affected individual or child with the expectations you have for participants in your ministry setting. It is always appropriate for you to expect that a child or individual be safe in their words and actions around others!

For more insights into trauma-informed ministry and applications within the church, contact Intermountain to request a training for your ministry, or order the “Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks” curriculum, available on the resource page: http://www.intermountainministry.org/resources/

 

Jun 13

Intermountain moment: “I love that little tornado!” with ML Rutherford

Parenting a child with emotional disturbance or another mental health issue, being a foster parent, and adopting a child from a trauma background… all of these can seem like living in tornado alley! (view the video and you’ll understand the reference!)

I am so thankful for my friendship and partnership in mission with ML Rutherford, our Residential Operations Manager in Helena, Montana. A while back we sat down and talked heart-to-heart about the difficulties that face parents and care givers of those children who have such a turbulent emotional world that it inevitably escapes their little mouths and bodies in a torrent of pain and hurt. While directed outward, this explosion of hurt and pain is the expression of their own deep sense of shame and unworthiness.

Knowing this is at the core of a child’s violent outbursts is helpful, but it doesn’t make the bruises and pain any less real. Being a parent for whom that rage and emotion is often focused on is HARD. Many on the outside who haven’t experienced it cannot fully understand or perhaps don’t care to.

That’s why it is SO important that Intermountain includes the family system in treatment and brings parents together for “LIFE Days” (LIFE = Learning through Integrated Family Experience). As we hold another LIFE Day this week, I am so grateful to work in a therapeutic setting that doesn’t just see the kid as the one who must be fixed or healed, nor is it the parent who is the problem. At the root of all these issues that draw families to us is the trauma and retraumatization that deeply wounded people experience. So, as these parents gather to learn and to “find their tribe” of others going through the hard work of parenting and caring for a child with emotional special needs, pray for all who “live in tornado alley” and have accepted their children as they are and working to be the family they know they can be.

 

Jun 10

Coming back to ‘The Wall': building resilience by learning to trust

Recently, we did an object lesson as part of our Resilience-based series that I call “the Wall.” We talked about how bad things happen in this world despite having a loving God that looks over us. We make bad choices at times that hurt us, and others make bad choices that hurt us. In general, there is a lot of brokenness in relationships that causes a lot of damage.

So, I told the children, we learn how to protect ourselves. Just like castles have BIG walls or our cottages on campus have thick walls, we build walls around our hearts. While we still feel hurt from time to time, by building a wall and keeping people out of our hearts (and away from how we are truly feeling), we stay safe. We survive.

Children were asked to write down the feeling or problem they felt was a big part of the wall they have put up to protect their hearts, but they want God's help to work through so the wall can come down.

Children were asked to write down the feeling or problem they felt was a big part of the wall they have put up to protect their hearts, but they want God’s help to work through so the wall can come down.

However, I told the children, something unfortunate happens. We find someone that we want to let into our hearts. They show us love and care and grace in ways we hadn’t experienced from others. That sounds good, right? But, you know what the unfortunate part is?

[The children instinctively knew, because this has been their experience!]

The walls we used to protect us from bad things getting in and hurting our hearts more also keep good things out. We can’t let our parents, our teachers, our friends, or our counselors… whoever it might be… into our hearts to see them as they really are: hurting, broken, but desperately wanting love and acceptance. That’s more than unfortunate… it’s tragic!

So, we might get frustrated that the wall keeps them out, and they might get frustrated too, because they see our need and want to meet it, but can’t ever get in. So, we fear it is all going to turn out awful. Maybe that person we want to let in gets so fed up being on the other side of the wall that they leave… and we hurt again and tell ourselves:

“Well, that was dumb of me! I just thought about taking my wall–my defenses–down, and look what it got me. Nothing but more hurt and pain.”

So, we build another layer to the wall… we make it thicker and stronger.

This seems like a real story, doesn’t it? Maybe this is your story?

But, as I told the children, there is another story, that if considered, just might make all the difference. That story is the story of God’s love shown to us through Jesus. Jesus came to show us a better way. It was so important to him that we understand God’s love that he was willing to be put to death by the angry people that couldn’t accept what he was saying about God! And, miracle of all miracles, Jesus rose from the grave on Easter morning, giving us hope that nothing ever has to separate us from God’s love.

Consider what the Jesus follower named Paul, who once had a REALLY big wall up between himself and others, wrote about the love of God he had come to understand and experience:

“So, what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? …Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins…
I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us. [Romans 8:32-39, The Message]

But, what about that wall? If nothing can separate us from God’s love… that wall is going to have to come down. We can start by letting Jesus in, and together, working with God to remove the wall brick by brick until we can let others in, too. We built the wall, but it’s too strong for us to tear down on our own. We need help. We need God’s help. And, God wants to help us, but we have to ask him.

By this time many children were nodding their heads. This made sense. They understood the walls they had placed in the way for God and others to come in and bring healing to their heavy and hurting hearts.

We closed our time by writing things down on our “bricks” [wooden blocks, really] and building a wall. Here is what a few of the children wrote:

“Lord, help me talk about my feelings.”

“I’ve been hurt MANY times.”

“CONTROL.”

“I am afraid of loving people.”

 

Once our wall was built, we said a prayer, and pushed the wall over together. Please, if you are reading this, take the time to pray for our children:

“Lord, help those children who–in order to survive–have built walls around their hearts that are now keeping out the very people they need to let in. Strengthen their resolve to do the hard work of sharing their feelings, help them learn what a healthy relationship looks like, and may they come to a place where they can both experience and express the love they so desire. Meet them right where they are, Lord, and help them accept your love and grace. Amen.”

 

P.S. As part of our lesson time, we watched the following video from 1991… a little dated, but the song was just perfect for our kids!

May 27

A sunny day for a New Horizons visit to chapel!

band2-2018Nancy Trudell, Intermountain Board member, coordinated with Chaplain Chris to once again bring the New Horizons Community Band to a Tuesday chapel time in May.  The band has visited campus a number of times before, each time bringing energy and enthusiasm to their music and their interaction with kids and staff. This year, the weather was SO beautiful tat we decided to try something new… a concert on the lawn!

The band is made up of about 70 community members, from a variety of backgrounds, ages and experience who enjoy playing together.  This most recent visit to campus was especially fun, because the program consisted of marches from Star Wars, which is VERY popular with our children in residence. They also played a medley of Disney songs featuring tunes from a Jungle Book to The Little Mermaid.

Chaplain Chris billed the Spring Concert as a special visit from New Horizons, complete with “instrument petting zoo!” It was fun to hear from the children what they expected the “petting zoo” to be. Though no animals were involved, all of the children’s eyes lit up when they learned that they would get a chance to play trumpets, percussion, trombones, and other instruments. It was entertaining to watch one of our littlest guys on campus to play a trombone that was as tall as he was… and he was delighted when he made a sound “like a ‘lphant!”

The children enjoy the relationships they have built with the band members by this point, some of them having seen the band a few times during their treatment. And, of course the band members love the interaction with the children. One band member remarked at the close of the time together… “Well, that was fun! The highlight of my week!”band1-2018

 

May 17

FREE RESOURCE for youth ministers… preparing to discuss 13 Reasons Why, season 2 (Netflix)

NOTE: This is a guest post from Tracie Dahl, LCPC, Middle School Therapist with Intermountain School-based Services (Helena, MT). It has been edited for use in a church setting by Chaplain Chris Haughee.

 

13 Reasons Why is about to drop its second season on May 18th. Since Season 2 is no longer adapting Jay Asher’s 2007 YA novel and telling a completely new story, as those who work with young adults, it would be best to know what you can expect from the upcoming string of episodes. Most people working with youth were more reactive than proactive when Season 1 came out… and it’s easier to be more proactive whenever possible! Knowing what may be coming is part of that process.

13reasonswhy-screencap

(c) Netflix, 13 Reasons Why

While a big part of the new season is still under wraps, we’ve gotten a few details of what is coming our way on May 18:

1. No More Suicide

While Season 1 dealt with a number of hot-button issues, at its core, it was about teen suicide and how that might affect a community. Moving forward, showrunner Brian Yorkey confirmed that the new season will not depict suicide onscreen or off at all, although he did clarify that Hannah Baker’s death does continue to be a central part of the story.

2. A New Theme: Sexual Abuse

Yorkey also revealed that with the story of Hannah’s suicide having been told, Season 2 will focus on a brand-new controversy: sexual assault at a high school. The first season included two harrowing instances of sexual assault, as it was revealed that school jock Bryce Walker raped both Hannah Baker and Jessica Davis, and both of these women’s stories will continue into Season 2. The new season will expand on the topic, focusing on a case of serial sexual assault perpetrated by one of the school’s athletic teams. It will also follow Jessica Davis’ story of going from victim to survivor.

3. Bryce’s Just Desserts

One of the most frustrating parts of Season 1 was knowing what Bryce did but never seeing him have to pay for his actions. Given the theme of Season 2 and a hint from Netflix last summer that “Bryce will hopefully get what’s coming to him,” we may finally see Bryce face justice.

4. The Bakers Are Suing The School

The fallout from Hannah’s suicide is still very much a driving force in the new season, and Yorkey said that there will be a legal trial that lasts throughout the second season that is pivotal in unraveling a new mystery. The trial is the result of Hannah’s parents suing Liberty High School after they have finally heard their daughter’s suicide tapes.

5. Polaroids Instead Of Cassette Tapes

Last year, Brian Yorkey teased that Season 2 would employ “a different sort of analog technology” from the cassette tapes at the heart of the first season, and the recently released teaser trailer for Season 2 made it very clear what that analog tech would be: Polaroids. Apparently, a series of ominous Polaroids will provide characters with important details about Hannah or about the high school’s sexual assault outbreak, and the mystery surrounding them will be a huge part of Season 2.

6. There Is A New Narrator

With Hannah’s suicide taking a backseat in the new season, Netflix has confirmed a different character is taking over the narration duties for Season 2. Although the identity of the new narrator has not yet been revealed, there seem to be two clear standouts as the top possibilities:

  • Jessica Davis — Given the season’s focus on sexual assault, it seems likely that the show will follow Jessica’s story most closely of all.
  • Tyler Down — Hannah narrated Season 1 through her cassette tapes, and now that Polaroid photos are the new form of communication in Season 2, it clearly points to resident photographer Tyler as the new narrator, right?

7. Meet The New Characters

With a new mystery and theme, we are also going to meet a ton of new characters in season 2. These include:

  • Chloe, a popular cheerleader (played by Anne Winters).
  • Cyrus, a rebellious teen who becomes a champion for the downtrodden (played by Bryce Cass).
  • Mackenzie, Cyrus’ outspoken sister (played by Chelsea Alden).
  • Sonya, an ambitious young lawyer (played by Allison Miller).
  • Nina, a track star at Liberty High who’s hiding a secret (played by Samantha Logan).
  • Jackie, an advocate for victims of bullying (played by Kelli O’Hara).
  • Rick, Liberty High’s beloved basketball coach (played by Ben Lawson).

8. Hannah Is In It

Even though Season 1 was all about her death, Hannah Baker actually will appear in Season 2. This is possible through flashbacks to when Hannah was still alive, which were also a big part of the first season. It is rumored that we will be seeing a “very different Hannah” in the new season.

9. Answers To Pressing Questions

We will learn answers to all the questions left at the end of season 1. We will finally learn more about Alex’s suicide attempt, and why Tyler has that secret stash of firearms in his room, and what Mr. Porter is going to do with Hannah’s tapes.

Season 2 of 13 Reasons Why will premiere on Netflix on May 18.

 

What you can do as a youth minister or church to support children in your community that will be drawn to watching and discussing 13 Reasons Why, season 2:

 

Approach others that work with youth in your community. For instance, at one of Helena’s middle schools, teachers and counselors are reviewing and revising our procedures for sexual assault disclosure and response to ensure the most empathetic and effective response possible for survivors who may relate to characters on 13 Reasons Why and therefore come forward with their own disclosures of assault and/or sexual abuse.

The following is a brief synopsis of highlights of some of the things discussed in that school by providers… guidelines that are also helpful in youth groups and after-school church groups where children and teens gather!

 

Sexual assault disclosures:

  1. Believe the survivor (research shows that how a disclosure is responded to not only helps in not re-traumatizing the survivor but is also a major factor in treatment and recovery)
  2. The survivor chose you for a reason. Stay with them and do not ask them to go to/tell someone else.
  3. Notify school admin and/or the school resource officer at the child’s school.
  4. Administration and/or the school grade level counselor can help with providing direction.
  5. Listen and do not ask questions other than to assess for immediate safety and to determine the relationship of the perpetrator to the survivor
  6. Perpetrators who are family members need to be reported to CPS (Child Protective Services). If you need help making the report, ask school administration, school grade level counselor, or a therapist.
  7. A safe adult support person (parent or guardian) will need to be notified – administration or the school grade level counselor can help with this.

It is helpful to use the term survivor instead of victim. Start now with helping to empower those who have been victimized to see themselves as survivors NOT victims. How we respond and help to shape the cognitive processes makes a big difference.

 

May 15

From Covenant Companion: “Helping Kids Heal,” 5 Minutes with Chris Haughee

Five Minutes with Chris Haughee: Helping Kids Heal

By Guest AuthorApril 16, 2018

Chris Haughee is a Covenant chaplain working at Intermountain Residential, an intensive residential program for children who demonstrate behavioral challenges with campuses in Helena and Kalispell, Montana. Chris and his family attend Headwaters Covenant Church in Helena.

Who are the children you serve at Intermountain?

They may be as young as four years old and as old as thirteen. We can house up to forty children and youth in cottages on our two campuses—for an average stay of fifteen months. Our staff consists
of therapists, educators, nurses, and case managers, as well as a psychiatrist. I serve as the chaplain on staff in Helena.

What kind of situation brings a child to Intermountain?

All of our kids have pretty complex mental health diagnoses. We see a lot of PTSD as a result of significant trauma in their past. Some kids are on the autism spectrum with sensory processing issues. Sometimes they’ve been identified by the symptoms of their trauma, whether that’s ADHD or oppositional defiant disorder—there’s a whole bag of diagnoses that are necessary to guide treatment, but ultimately early childhood trauma lies at the root of their challenges.

A number of our referrals come from school districts—from educational consultants in California and other states. Sometimes we receive kids from the foster care system because facilities or families do not have the training or support in place to help care for a severely emotionally disturbed child. We also have quite a few kids who reached a certain developmental stage and some kind of mental health issue was identified that their parents were unprepared to deal with. The families are looking for help to learn how to parent their child and get them back home.

Sometimes a child’s behavior in school and at home reaches the point where the parents genuinely can’t help them, and they call 911 because their child threatens violence or injury to him- or herself or others. The kids are hurting and struggling so much that they just keep amping up their behavior as a way of saying “I need help.” When parents are afraid for their kid’s safety, Intermountain can help.

As chaplain, what kind of activities or interactions do you have with the clients?

My role with the family starts the day a parent brings their child to us. From day one, my work is to come alongside the parents and reassure them. I learn about their faith tradition if they have one. Our program is based on a nondenominational Christian perspective. Within that framework we feel called to meet the family wherever they are. Sometimes families are experiencing a crisis of faith. Some children have had no exposure to any faith background. I come alongside all of those families.

We have chapel on Tuesday afternoons from 4 to 5, so I see the kids in that setting once a week. Chapel is like a vacation Bible school where we sing songs and play games and have snacks—it’s fun, so most of the time the kids are pretty jazzed to see me. We also have discussion time where we talk about spiritual themes that connect to their treatment. In that context we focus on relationship—loving God, loving our neighbor, and especially loving ourselves. Kids are working on all three areas through their treatment.

The rest of the week I try to make time to be at meals or spend time in the classroom with them. Sometimes they need somebody to talk to who is not a therapist or a direct care worker that is making them talk about their difficult feelings and relationship issues.

How do you connect with caregivers or parents while their child is at Intermountain?

We do weekly family therapies, so we try to video chat or talk on the phone with parents who live far away. Most of the time I am not directly involved with family therapies, but can participate at the invitation of the therapist or family when spiritual issues are involved. We also have an onsite apartment that families can use when they come to visit. We do quarterly trainings for parents on campus, which is a chance for them to talk with other parents and understand that someone else shares their experience. We also invite parents to come see their kids participate in a program at our school. For some of them, it’s the first time their child has been able to successfully participate in something like that.

The kids we serve have learned to survive a chaotic internal (and in some cases, external) life. At Intermountain, we offer them hope for a new path. We come alongside parents to help them learn ways to parent their children in a nonjudgmental and compassionate way.

How did you end up doing this work?

I was in between calls, having served as associate pastor in Helena at a Presbyterian church. I wasn’t sure what I would do next, and then I heard about this position from my predecessor, Dana Holzer. At the time I knew that Intermountain existed in my own backyard, but I didn’t know much about the ministry. 

After I began this work, we also became clients of Intermountain. My six-year-old son, whom we had adopted when he was eighteen months old, began to display some significant emotional and behavioral challenges as a result of trauma experienced in his first few months of life. He entered Intermountain’s residential program for fourteen months.

Through our family’s experience, I learned how to empathize with parents who find themselves in a similar situation in a completely different way. I get what it’s like to try to care for your child and provide for them but what you’re doing isn’t working. Through his stay my son learned some ways to break out of negative and destructive patterns. He started to engage his trauma history and gain ownership of his story, including his abandonment as a baby. He has begun to really see what an amazing kid he is. While there is plenty of work ahead for us as a family, we are grateful for the healing work God has done in our son and our family through Intermountain.

Apr 30

“I stay near the pit” a poem written for the dedication of Van Orsdel Commons and chapel

I stay near the pit

(inspired by Rev. Samuel Shoemaker’s poem, “I Stand by the Door,” and Psalm 40)

© Chris Haughee, 2018. All rights reserved.

 

I stay near the pit.

My cry was heard and I was lifted from it.

And while my feet are steady on the Rock and the path is laid straight before me

I was not alone in that pit.

There were many others with me, stuck in that mire.

So, I stay near the pit.

 

I had tried for a long time—such a long, long time—

to make my way out,

to find myself planted firm on that rock.

That Rock in whom I now put my trust.

Yes, I tried to find my way out on my own…

 

But steep are the slopes and slick the sides that surround the pit

Dark with self-centeredness, with self-hatred, with fear and shame.

I had almost given up my trying, given up my crying, when someone heard.

Yes, my cry was heard.

 

And it turned out the ears of the Lord took the shape of a friend

And the hands that lifted me out came not from heaven, but from those Heaven sent.

They lifted me out, pulled me clear and helped me clean up.

It turns out that they, too, had just been freed from the pit

and felt compelled to help… me.

They pointed the way to the horizon, a path laid out upon the Rock.

They beckoned me, “Come!” as they started on their way.

But something made me pause. So,

I stay near the pit.

 

It is a miraculous thing, this difference between the Rock and the pit

And it is a glory to be saved from destruction and shame.

To stand in the light and know you are loved…

Loved by the One who calls from the horizon.

 

I understand the motivation of those who started down the path

Leaving the pit far behind them.

Drawn forward by Love, urged on to know who they are

Know whose they are.

 

I, too, am compelled by Love.

Not to start down that path, but to linger still.

For love of those still in the pit.

So I stay near the pit.

Run freely the paths of God’s great law, fellow saints!

Revel in the joy of being free, being alive.

With ecstasy, I too have skipped down that road.

The sun on my back.

A new song in my mouth.

 

But as the volume of that praise arose

The sounds from the pit and the cries of those

Still stuck, still hurting, still without hope…

Grew fainter, and fainter still… nearly silent

Drowned out by the chorus of pilgrims and their singing

So I withdrew

I returned

And I stayed near the pit.

 

I remember that first time

That first cry that I heard

Calling not for me, but for someone… anyone.

Fearfully I went near the pit

dark with the memories of my past, my guilt, my pain

But a companion to that fear was a Love that compelled me

A love I recognized in the faces of those that pulled me free.

So I came nearer the edge and I looked into the darkness

For the one who was calling—screaming, really…

And I was not prepared for what came next

It became my reason,

The reason I stay near the pit.

 

As the cry grew louder

my front foot slipped on the sludge near the edge

So I got on my knees and leaned forward to reach

What was it? Could I make it out in the dark?

Yes… a hand! But not any hand…

The hand of a child.

I reached out and grabbed hold…

For this reason I had remained near the pit.

 

This frightened child at first feared my grasp and

Scratched, bit, and clawed to free herself

All the time crying and wailing, covered in filth

She did not—could not—know that Heaven had sent me

Just as One had once been sent for me!

So I held on through the pain and pulled her free.

Free from the pit, she wept. We wept. And,

Exhausted, together, we stayed near the pit.

 

In the midst of that struggle, another miracle took place.

Gathered round us, drawn in by the girl’s cries,

Was huddled a group of others.

They, too, had been pulled from the pit… yet stayed near.

Drawn as I was, it turned out, to help—

If not many, at least one.

And send these little least ones on their way…

Down the path toward healing, toward wholeness.

So we sent this young girl off to the horizon.

But we—these new friends and I—

We stayed near the pit.

 

And here we are together—you and I—

And our tribe has grown as have the years.

Some we have lost. Not every tale a triumph.

More than a few have gone on, past the horizon.

But new friends have come…

They, too, having heard the cries.

We stay near the pit.

 

And it is here that we do this messy,

inglorious,

difficult work together.

We stay near the pit.

Yes, “He drew me up from the pit… set my feet upon a rock,”

So, in honor and praise…

I stay near the pit.

 

 

Apr 27

Flashback Friday: A trauma-informed reading of Cain and Abel

NOTE: Having spent a good portion of the last year focusing on trauma-informed ministry interventions, trainings, and writing resilience-based curriculum, I was drawn back to this post from April 2017. I hope you enjoy this “flashback!” –Chaplain Chris

ICTG meme of Haughee quote

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Maybe you are familiar with the story of Cain and Abel?

It’s hard to think of a Bible story that has more potential triggers for retraumatization or difficult feelings for children from hard places and circumstances than this story of jealousy, murder, and judgment!

As the story goes, the first family is living out its existence after mom and dad (Eve and Adam) have been kicked out of the Garden of Eden. The family is small… just two sons at this point: Cain and Abel. Abel tends flocks while Cain works the soil.

When it comes time to thank God for the fruit of their labors, Cain gives some of his crop, while Abel provides a “first-fruit”: the best cuts of meat from the firstborn of his flock. God is pleased with Abel’s gift, but not Cain’s. Cain gets jealous, burns with anger toward his little brother, and eventually leads him out into the fields and kills him.

God addresses Cain and asks about Abel, to which Cain replies infamously: “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain has not only murdered his brother, but now he’s trying to lie to God about it!

As a result, God “punishes” Cain by driving him away from his fields and family and he must make his way from now on by being a hunter and gatherer.

Not the most “trauma sensitive” story to tell to children 6-13 who have experienced their fair share of difficulty in their lives… or so I thought at first. But, putting this story through the lens of “trauma-informed ministry,” I believe I unearthed a truth that deepened my faith and allowed the children and staff to connect to God and this story in a new way. I’ll explain in just a bit. First, a word about retraumatization.

a child draws a picture of a traumatic event

a child draws a picture of a traumatic event

Retraumatization happens when a person is “triggered” by something or someone in their environment that takes them back to a previous experience of trauma. It is not merely reminding them of the trauma, they physically re-experience their trauma as if it were happening again–right at that moment. It happens as much to children and youth who have experienced adversity in childhood (ACEs) as it does to combat veterans. It’s not an uncommon experience among the clientele that Intermountain works with. So… why this talk of retraumatization?

Well, it’s my conviction that God is “trauma-informed,” and what I had seen for over four decades as God’s punishment of Cain was actually an act of mercy! Here’s how I explained it to the children in chapel…

I asked all those who had ever done something really bad or had something really bad happen to them in a certain place to raise their hand if it was hard for them to return to that place because it made them relive the experience in their minds and hearts?

     EVERY HAND WENT UP… even those of our staff.

Then, I asked the children to put themselves in Cain’s position. He’s done something that

would you like to be known by others as the worst version of yourself?

would you like to be known by others as the worst version of yourself?

he is ashamed of. It’s so bad, he thinks he can hide it from God… hide it from himself. But, day after day he’d try and carry on working the field and doing what he knows how to do–plant and grow crops. All the while, he is working the same ground he buried his brother in! God points this out and shows Cain what he is doing is going to keep retraumatizing him: “You brother’s blood cries out from the ground!” Can you imagine a worse punishment than being forced to stay in that place for the rest of his life? Can you imagine God “rubbing his nose” in it by making Cain continue his life as a farmer?

So, what I saw (and had been taught to see!) as punishment was God’s grace… God forced Cain to leave what was familiar to lead a new life. He had to leave the fields in which he buried his brother and learn new skills and a new way of life.

It bears repeating, because it is at odds with our nature and how we often view God… God wasn’t punishing him, but instead giving Cain a chance to redefine himself as something other than a farmer who had murdered his brother!

Horrible things happen every day. Bad things happen to us and we have, perhaps, done our fair share of bad things. God’s grace means we don’t have to stay stuck there. We should stop retraumatizing ourselves by reliving our worst moments. None of us deserves to be known as the worst version of ourselves, and that is CERTAINLY not what God sees when he looks at us. God sees a son or daughter he desperately loves.

It was a message I needed to hear as much as our children. Perhaps you needed to hear it, too?

Apr 19

Intermountain moment: when a child engages in self-harm or other scary behaviors

Cutting. Self-harm. It is a phenomenon much more common (it seems) today than twenty-two years ago when I entered children’s and youth ministry. It’s certainly not uncommon behavior in the emotionally disturbed children that Intermountain works with. That’s why I felt it was important to share a little with you from a conversation I had with Joelle Johnson, formerly of Intermountain’s Community-based Services.

We agreed that whether it’s cutting, suicidal thoughts or an eating disorder, these “extreme” behaviors can send parents, youth leaders, and churches spinning to try and figure out the best way to address the needs being expressed. I’d like to share with you a few thoughts, and I hope you view the video in this post and share with others who might also need some direction or encouragement.

 

 

First, if your child or a child you are working with is engaged in self-harm, it’s important to realize that this is a form of communication. Sometimes the message is as simple as “I need control, and this is something I can control.” Cutting and self-harm is a way of expressing something that is difficult to express.

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” Romans 8:26

Second, it’s important to get help and to not shame the child for these behaviors. I often tell the groups I speak to that we ALL have coping mechanisms. While it may sound strange to you, self-harming behaviors are a coping mechanism! While some coping behaviors are more socially acceptable than others, the answer is to replacing an unhealthy behavior is find a healthy alternative. A licensed therapist or counselor would be an excellent resource for helping the self-harming child get at the root feelings that need to be expressed in a healthier way, AND identifying what a better alternative might be.

Lastly, think about the culture of the home, church, or youth group that this child is a part of. Has the expectation been set that a child can come with any issue and be unconditionally loved? Is authenticity and openness an expressed value that the child can see lived out by the adult role models around them? If so, it is much more likely that a child or teen will feel open, once they are ready, to share those difficult feelings and emotions that they once felt could only be controlled or expressed through self-harm.

Apr 09

Welcoming Courtney Into Our Family

Note: The following article was written last summer by a partner in ministry, Rabbi Chaim Bruk. He is an excellent resource for our Jewish children in residence at Intermountain and is an advocate for foster care and adoption within faith communities. Rabbi Chaim Bruk is executive director of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. He can be reached at Rabbi@JewishMontana.com. The article below was originally published at: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/welcoming-courtney-into-our-family/2017/07/07/ It appears here at the author’s permission. – Chaplain Chris

 

Welcoming Courtney Into Our Family

By Rabbi Chaim Bruk on 13 Tammuz 5777 – July 7, 2017

 

If you have a beating heart, the images of families floating across the Mediterranean, hoping to survive, are sure to make you cry.

It’s gut wrenching to know that in the era of Facebook, FaceTime, Instagram and Twitter, humanity is still capable of sitting on the sidelines as so many children are slaughtered, maimed, and exiled from their homes.

I have no doubt my fellow Americans are truly bothered when seeing such horrific images.

But what about the “refugee” down the block? What about your child’s classmate who’s too hungry to do his or her homework? What about the child here in Bozeman, Montana who has never had a well visit with a pediatrician or a dental check up and doesn’t know if a drunk “parent” is going to wake up in time to serve them breakfast?

Merriam-Webster defines “refugee” as “one who flees; especially a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution.”

But shouldn’t the definition be broadened to someone seeking refuge – period?

According to government statistics, on an average day in the United States more than 100,000 foster-care children are yearning to be adopted. Is this not a refugee crisis within our own borders?

As an adoptive father of four, I am keenly aware of how challenging it can be to meet the needs of these children. I don’t expect every American to foster or adopt children. But shouldn’t the “Welcome Refugees” sign be held high not only at our nation’s airports but in our local communities as well? Wouldn’t it be noble and merciful if we were to hold up signs saying “Welcome Johnny from Down the Block” or “No One Chooses to Be a Refugee, Including Maya from Butte, America”?

Last August a lovely 12-year-old girl, Courtney, joined our Gan Israel summer camp in Bozeman. Her mom died tragically when little Courtney was five years old and her dad, who loved her a lot, didn’t raise her with the stability that each precious child deserves.

With the encouragement of her beloved grammie, she spent two weeks in our home and loved her time here. But she was unhappy upon returning to her everyday living situation, and the question arose: Should we take her in as our own?

Chavie and I had adopted three babies, but a pre-teen? Unlike babies, they come with “baggage” that affects their every day, their every thought, their every emotion.

Courtney was placed by God at our doorstep and we needed to answer God’s call. I know God would have understood had we said, “Sorry, we just can’t. We aren’t cut out for this.”

But how could we?

Rabbi Chaim Bruk with Courtney

Rabbi Chaim Bruk with Courtney

We said yes.

On Thursday, September 1, 2016, Courtney – AKA Shoshana, which means Rose in Hebrew – joined our family. Her adoption has now been finalized. She’s an amazing, talented, smart, and fun young woman and she will undoubtedly grow to boundless heights.

Does that mean she’s always easy? Not in the slightest. Are any girls her age easy?

Does she have a lot to repair internally? She would be the first to say so.

But does she have a glowing soul that is in love with Judaism and is she a remarkable older sister to Chaya, Zeesy, and Menny? You bet!

I know that, like our Shoshana, there are so many gem-like souls out there who need a loving, nurturing, and non-abusive home. They don’t always scream for help, because so often they are certain no one is listening.

May God bless all the Courtneys of the United States to find parents who view them as the Shoshanas they are.

Don’t ever give up.

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