Churches as healing communities

How should the church think about mental health?

Our mental state is connected to body and spirit, and, like them, can be in a state of unhealthiness. In this perspectives section, leaders and health practitioners from Anabaptist-related congregations around the world address how their church has a role in caring for the mental health of their congregants.

Churches as healing communities

Since the mid-1960s, Colombia has been engaged in an armed conflict with approximately 7 million men, women and children forced from their homes, more than 60,000 people disappeared and nearly 600,000 civilians killed. When people fled to the large cities, some came to our churches. They came with all the strengths and resources that life had given them, but also with the load of sadness, loss of community, questions about how a loving God could have allowed this to happen to them; a longing for justice; and the fear – often justified – that the threat they were fleeing would resurface in the city.

Anabaptist churches and organizations in Colombia identified the importance of addressing the spiritual, psychological and social needs of the people that came to us. Together with MCC, we began to consider how to proceed, receiving valuable training from Eastern Mennonite University’s STAR program, and from MCC’s Stress and Trauma Healing material.

Identifying the local congregation as the focus of our efforts, we saw the potential of faith communities as a place of healing. We joined efforts as Brethren in Christ, Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite churches in an initiative called Church Coordination for Psychosocial Action (CEAS): a resource for local congregations in their response to the victims who were arriving.

How to be a place of healing

In 2012, CEAS embarked on an interview project with those living in forced displacement and actively participating in an Anabaptist church. The interviews aimed to understand what qualities churches have that allow people to experience healing (spiritual, psychological, social and even physical) in the midst of forced displacement and what more churches could be doing.

People’s responses illustrated the amazing simplicity of ways in which the local congregation is an avenue for healing. Members open possibilities for the presence of God to minister to traumatized people and to find meaning by welcoming and expressing sincere interest in those who come to the church, providing a place of safety, listening to sorrow and pain, providing opportunities for serving others, and offering encouragement to rebuild their lives. The congregation becomes the body through which people meet Christ and can strengthen their relationship to God

People’s testimonies reflected what has been identified by psychiatrist Judith Herman and therapist Carolyn Yoder of STAR, who emphasize the importance of safety, recognition for what has happened and social reconnection as key elements in a healing process. When a person’s sense of meaning has been shaken, rebuilding an understanding of life in the presence of an accepting faith community helps move toward recovery.

Reading the Bible from a lens of trauma and resilience, we see the anguish and longing for God when the Israelites are driven from their home (Lamentations 3, Psalms 79, 137) and when Job has lost everything (Job 2, 19), the faith and resilience in the Psalms (Psalms 23, 91), the hope in the messages of the prophets (Micah 4:1–4) and Jesus coming to incarnate God’s love (John 1:1–14, Ephesians 2:17–19) and charge us, as the church, to carry on the work of love and reconciliation (Ephesians 1:23, 2 Corinthians 5:18–20).

Dignity transforms

As one who suffered, Andres (not real name) came to the Teusaquillo Mennonite Church in Bogotà with an angry and fearful heart, sensing that at any moment those who killed his brother and father would appear on the streets of Bogotà. By feeling welcomed and recognized for who he was, Andres began to open himself up to the church community. With opportunity to explore new understandings, he let go of hate and found dignity in rebuilding his own life. Andres’ testimony demonstrates the importance of a welcoming church willing to listen to people’s stories and provide a place to grow in community and in faith.

A final product of the interview project is a study guide for a healing church to be used by local congregations. It is beginning to be used by Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren churches in different parts of Colombia. The booklet is proving useful not only for victims of trauma, but for everyone who has experienced pain, rejection and loss that need to be transformed into fullness of life. The testimonies, the biblical texts and the exercises of the booklet are applicable to all.

Colombia is beginning the implementation of peace accords. Local communities now face the challenge of reintegrating former combatants and moving towards reconciliation. Victims seek truth and justice. New forms of armed violence are emerging. In this context, local churches as healing communities can contribute significantly to peacebuilding. Providing conditions for forgiveness and repentance can help break the cycle of violence. Trauma healing can end the internalized harm and victimization. Acceptance can promote social connection and help build community.

Local congregations have long been places of healing and hope with a message of salvation. This project documents specific church experiences, identifying learnings that serve as teaching tools for congregations to strengthen their capacity to foster community and healing.

—Nathan Toews and Paul Stucky worked together with MCC-funded Church Coordination for Psychosocial Action (CEAS) in Colombia. Nathan currently serves with MCC in Bolivia and Paul is coordinating CEAS as well as serving as MWC Andean Regional Representative.

Click here for PDF of “Iglesia Acogedora y Sanadora,” a study guide for a healing church, in Spanish.

This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier April 2017

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