Crossing the Aisle to Teach Healing in Response to Trauma
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
impactmania has been talking to thinkers and doers who drive cultural, social and economic impact for the book, Impact X, since 2013. The book covers 30-plus impact makers in different fields.
One of the people interviewed is Rev. Dr. Kate Wiebe, the founder and director of ICTG and a volunteer disaster relief ministry with the National Responder for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. She actively supports clergy and congregational care.
Wiebe shares some insights to the critical work and support she offers congregation leaders dealing with crisis and about the importance of community and “crossing the aisle” to work together in the wake of disaster and trauma.
Kate, please tell me about the Institute you founded.
The Institute of Congregational Trauma and Growth (ICTG) is focused in the area of emotional, psychological, and spiritual care for congregation leaders.
We help congregation leaders acquire tools and expertise in order to lead congregations after disaster. It came out of a couple years of research and my own work volunteering in the field of disaster relief, realizing that disaster-relief organizations tend to focus in two areas: natural storms and mass violence.
How has the work of the institute expanded since you founded it in 2012?
At first we focused only on small staffs who could not afford to attend a university-based conference or to bring in high-end consultants. We still provide for those leaders, but also work with faith leaders of larger community organizations, too. For example, recently a director of youth camps contacted us to get training for health under extreme stress. Campus ministry leaders also contact us to learn about planning vigils after campus shootings.
Specifically, what kind of support do you offer?
A few different organizations — both a church and a boarding school — called us for help with responding to suicides within their organizations. In each of these cases, we provided coaching for the senior leadership, and in the case of the school, we met with their staff and faculty to answer questions and provide training for how to practice self-care, care for children and youth, and how to understand general stages of healing after collective traumas. We provide both training materials to help organization leaders expand their personal and professional care practices and networks, including learning how to make good referrals when post-trauma experiences exceed their abilities as a teacher or clergy person.
You have worked with many different organizations. What does a successful collaboration look like?
The folks that are in disaster relief really have gotten to know each other because they all show up at the same places. It really comes down to the very basic thing of building trustworthy relationships.
Each organization has its own niche of what it focuses on. Presbyterians tend to do emotional and spiritual care really well, as well as long-term recovery. Methodists are known for doing case management. Southern Baptists are known for coming in and helping the cleanup right away with chainsaws and sort of clean up the mess. Salvation Army, of course, is known for its food trucks and its donation triaging. We help get folks connected where they need to be connected.
Do you have experience with disaster and relief work on a national level?
In my volunteer work with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, I’ve responded to Tucson and to Aurora. Homeland Security recognized the emotional need and the psychological need that was there after the shooting in Tuscon. When we were in Aurora, Homeland Security checked to see if we were there and then sent a representative from the White House, the White House Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
When I was deployed to Newtown, President Obama ended up coming. My assessment of what was burdening the pastors in Newtown was that the donation overload was really keeping pastors from being able to provide pastoral care and focus on the memorial services and the usual holiday services. We really needed to alleviate that burden.
When I realized that President Obama was coming, I figured that the White House Center would probably have representatives there. I had his [White House representative’s] contact information, I got in touch with him, and sure enough, he was there. We were able to assess what was going on in Newtown. He then got in touch with the national offices of the Red Cross. They came in and sort of sent their A-team, and that’s how the warehouses for the donations ended up coming together.
That kind of networking is so important. Especially, in a Newtown or a Boston situation… a mass-violence event like that has opened their eyes to the long-term emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs… whereas disaster relief used to focus mainly on the physical needs. Newtown was not declared a state of emergency. So, FEMA didn’t come in, and a number of other organizations didn’t come in. And yet the level of donations that came in basically created a disaster within the disaster.
Why do you give?
I am a practitioner at heart. I always have questions of what can be done or how this can be better. I also grew up in a big community that I felt really helped me to be who I am. I think faith communities have a lot of potential to be a healing catalyst in a community. For a lot of different reasons, some of them haven’t been able to do that. When ministers have more access to information on best practices and expertise, they’re better able to be healing agents. I like to be a part of helping to make that happen.
Isn’t being a healing catalyst the core mission of every faith-based organization?
Some faith communities [laughs] have not been that… Sometimes it’s really an aspect of stress, and other times it’s that the leader or the organization has been traumatized and he/she has never healed from that. What we’ve learned in trauma studies is that the effect or the emotional residue of trauma actually can pass through generations. And so there are a lot of organizations, whether it’s a faith group, or a business, or a neighborhood, that were traumatized a couple of generations ago and now are just sort of living through the cycles of the emotion and not really knowing why. And that can lead to more harm.
Do you feel that collaboration across faith-based organizations is happening or improving?
Yes, to some extent it is. I think a disaster is the quickest way to cross the aisle. That moment of crisis — It really helps you remember what’s important, and in terms of the Christian faith, the passage about being a good neighbor, that’s a trauma story.
It’s about crossing the political lines and the theological lines and being willing to draw near and to help. In disaster-relief organizations and certainly with ICTG, we focus on being a good neighbor like that. If we can lay aside our differences to some extent and be a good neighbor, we can create community care.
What do your children learn from your work?
There was a double murder-suicide on the campus of the church where Erik [husband and Reverend Erik Wiebe] and I worked. It involved the church secretary and a youth group member. Our kids knew the secretary really well and knew the youth group member. At first, I thought, like a lot of parents think, that this was beyond them and we didn’t really need to go into any details.
Then we realized that, just by the very nature of this being the woman who will no longer be there to give them candy, they were involved. This simple thing sort of led us into some really big conversations. Like any child, they had really practical and even brash questions. We found ourselves talking about things before we thought we would ever talk about them with our kids. But we found through that experience that we were able to create a safe space for them.
They have a sense that they know I go to help people. They have a sense that there’s a lot that goes on in the world that is really troubling, but at the same time, we try to not let that be the focus of our life. And that there are a lot of really great and joyful things in the world, as well.