When David* was 12 years old, he was on an overcrowded bus in what is now South Sudan. Soldiers opened fire, peppering the bus with bullets. Many passengers died, and many more were injured or maimed.
Because of where he was sitting, David wasn’t hit and he managed to crawl off the bus and find a hiding place. There he hid from the soldiers for three days, listening to the cries of the wounded and dying, before he was rescued. David survived—but the experience affected the way he lived for many years.
“I was not good in my heart,” he recalls many years later. “The situation made me bitter, and I used to seek revenge against everybody who did something against me. I knew nothing about forgiveness.”
Sometime later, David attended a trauma healing course. There, along with others who had also experienced trauma, David went on a biblically-based journey towards healing.
“As soon as I began to study trauma healing at the workshop,” David says, “the light came into my heart, and I recognized that the Word of God had entered deeply into my mind. That has changed me. . . .”
David is one of the many people who have experienced help and healing through trauma healing courses since they began as a fledgling program in Kenya in 2002. From those small beginnings, the impact of the course has spread around the world and has now touched more than a million lives.
Responding to the effects of war
In the late 1990s, Margaret Hill, one of the authors of a book on trauma healing and a Bible translation consultant, was living in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“I became aware that the local church leaders found it hard to understand the traumatic effects of war on people like David, and why so many people in their congregations were behaving in a destructive and angry way.”
As well as affecting the church, the consequences of trauma also disrupted the work of Bible translation.
“It is very hard to continue doing the work when the translators have to flee for their lives,” says Cami Robbins, who along with her husband Larry now co-ordinates trauma healing for Wycliffe in Francophone Africa. “And even when you could get people together again, they were often so traumatized that they couldn’t work. So, it became clear that people’s trauma needed to be addressed if the work was to continue.”
Looking to the Word
Harriet Hill (no relation to Margaret) is also one of the authors of the trauma healing book. She served with Wycliffe in Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya, and later served for 10 years as director of the Trauma Healing Institute at the American Bible Society.
“There were a number of us in Wycliffe who were in contact with the trauma of war,” says Harriet, “and we started asking, ‘What does the Bible have to say about this?’”
Harriet and Margaret began working with Richard Baggé and Pat Miersma, who were mental health experts working with Wycliffe in Africa. Together with a team of other experts they produced the first version of what would become Healing the Wounds of Trauma. They tested it in an initial workshop, where pastors from 10 different ethnic groups who lived in war zones translated the materials and returned home to help people in their churches and communities.
After receiving feedback from the pastors, the four authors revised and improved the materials—a process that continues to this day. The impact of the book and workshops took off from there.
Never stopped spreading
“We found a niche with something that no one was working on in Christian circles,” Margaret explains, “and something that church leaders really appreciated.”
News about the impact of the course began to spread through word of mouth, and then more widely when the trauma healing book was published in 2004.
“Within 10 years,” says Harriet, “it [was available] in over 100 languages . . . in every continent.”
Harriet believes the impact of the trauma healing book and workshops stem from “the fusion of the Bible with good mental health principles.”
Addressing the “Why”
So how does the trauma healing course guide people on a healing journey through the teaching of the Bible? It begins by addressing the hard question, “If God loves us, then why do we suffer?” The answer to this question provides a vital foundation for what follows.
“If you do not deal with the theology of suffering first,” says Cami, “then none of the rest of it makes any sense.”
Participants explore what the Bible teaches about suffering, which helps them to understand how, even in the middle of immense pain, God is close. They also benefit from sharing their own stories in a safe environment—an important part of the healing process. Each lesson begins with a story, too.
“People relate to stories,” says Margaret. “You don’t want just pedagogical material, you want something people can relate to. And stories really help to get the point across.”
The healing journey includes a group visit to three “villages” that represent the journey of grief. They include the village of Anger and Denial, the village of No Hope and the village of New Beginnings.
Taking pain to the cross
“Bringing our pain to the cross is the apex of the journey of trauma healing,” Harriet says. People prayerfully write about their pain on a piece of paper, and then stick it to, or place it in front of, the cross. Those who can’t write can use a stick or something else as a symbol of their pain.
Group members then pray, sing, and read Bible passages together before burning the papers to ashes as a symbol of giving their pain to Christ. This is often a powerful part of the course where people experience a burden being lifted.
“It is not magic, and it’s not a one-time deal,” Harriet explains, “but it can be very significant for people to feel the pain, to express it, and then to actually give it to Christ.”
Eventually, course participants come to the topic of forgiveness. For many—like Mary,* a widow who had witnessed the deaths of her six children and her pregnant sister during the 1994 Rwandan genocide—it can be the hardest step. But thanks to the teachings she received in the trauma healing course, Mary was able to forgive the man who killed her sister and they have even shared their remarkable story with church groups.
“I have forgiven him from the deep [places] of my heart,” says Mary. “He is [now] my fellow Christian . . . we have told our journey to the church and through that, we have helped others.”
Trauma healing is—as David’s and Mary’s stories attest, as well as those of many, many others—all about the power of God to work through His Church, and His Word, to transform and restore broken and hurt lives.
That process is never an easy or simple one. But thanks to God’s amazing grace, it can be a beautiful one.
Adapted from an article by Alfred Thompson, Wycliffe UK and Ireland
Video: Healing Trauma (Democratic Republic of the Congo)