(This article contains content which readers may find upsetting)

When David* was 12 he was on an overcrowded bus making its way across the orange-red dust roads of what is now South Sudan when soldiers opened fire, peppering the bus with bullets, breaking glass, bursting tyres, killing many of the passengers, and injuring and maiming others.

Because of where he was sitting, David wasn’t hit and he managed to crawl off the bus and to find a hiding place lying in the bush off the side of the road.

A picture of the attack, drawn by David in a trauma healing workshop

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 what happened on the bus changed him and 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.’ But David changed again when he had the chance to do a trauma healing course. There, along with others who had also experienced trauma, David went on a biblically-based journey towards healing.

The light came into my heart, and I recognised that the word of God had entered deeply into my mind

‘As soon as I began to study trauma healing at the workshop,’ David says, ‘the light came into my heart, and I recognised that the word of God had entered deeply into my mind. That has changed me into a good Christian.’

These changes in David have contributed to him becoming a leader in his community – and to him being elected the chief of his village. David is one of the many people who have experienced help and healing through trauma healing courses since they began as a fledgling programme in Kenya in 2002. From those small beginnings, the impact of this trauma healing course has spread out around the world and has now touched over one million lives. But what is it that makes these trauma healing workshops so powerful and effective? What is the biblical journey of healing they lead people through? And how did they develop out of the work of Bible translation?

Children play a trauma healing trust game
(Those who would have found the game upsetting did not have to participate)

Responding to the effects of war

In the late 1990s, Margaret Hill, one of the authors of the trauma healing book and a Bible translation consultant, was living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country being torn apart by war.

‘I was evacuated a couple of times,’ Margaret remembers, ‘and when I returned I became aware that the local church leaders found it hard to understand the effects of the trauma 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 effects 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,’ Cami Robbins, who along with her husband Larry now coordinates trauma healing for Wycliffe in Francophone Africa, says. ‘And even when you could get people together again, they were often so traumatised that they couldn’t work. So, it became clear that people’s trauma needed to be addressed if the work was to continue.’

We started asking: ‘What does the Bible have to say about this?’

Harriet Hill (no relation to Margaret), also one of the authors of the trauma healing book and who served with Wycliffe in Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya, and became the director of the Trauma Healing Institute at the American Bible Society between 2010-2020, explains: ‘There were a number of us in Wycliffe who were in contact with the trauma of war and we started asking: “What does the Bible have to say about this? How do you read the Bible from a position of unjust suffering, horrific prolonged unjust suffering?”’

To attempt to answer these questions, Margaret worked with Richard Baggé and Pat Miersma, who were mental health experts working with Wycliffe in Africa. They were soon joined by Harriet. 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 took the material, translated it, and then went back home to use it to help the people in their churches and communities. The next year they did a follow-up workshop with the pastors to find out what they had learned, and they used this input to revise the book – this process of revising and improving the material is still continuing. And it 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 we found that church leaders really appreciated.’ News about the impact of the course began to spread through word of mouth, and then more widely when it was first published as a book titled Healing the Wounds of Trauma: How the Church Can Help in 2004. ‘It never stopped spreading, with people frequently writing to us and asking how they could use it,’ Harriet remembers. ‘Within 10 years it was in over 100 languages and it had reached every continent.’ It continues to grow and spread – and different versions of the course for children, oral communicators, teens and for radio broadcasting have been developed.

Through the lens of the Bible

‘When we’ve talked with people we find there are many organisations, like the UN and other aid agencies, that come in and do a form of trauma healing,’ Cami notes, ‘but during our workshops people will stand up and say “those courses never helped us like this.”’ Cami believes ‘that the number one reason for this is that the course is Bible based.’ She explains further that, ‘when mental health is taught through the lens of the Bible, with biblical support for the power of listening, biblical support for the power of writing laments, biblical support for the way we process grief, biblical support for bringing your pain to the cross – when you bring the Bible into it, it brings a supernatural power that people feel.’ Harriet also believes that it is this ‘fusion of the Bible with good mental health principles’ that makes the course so effective. ‘We have research by secular mental health scholars,’ Harriet explains, ‘documenting that if you do trauma healing interventions without addressing the spiritual, it is not as effective.’ Of course, good mental health and the Bible are not separate things – as Margaret observes, ‘good mental health is in the Bible.’

Why, God?

So how does the trauma healing course guide people on a healing journey through the teaching of the Bible?

‘It starts,’ Harriet explains, ‘with the pain, with asking “Why, God?”’

There are 16 lessons in the course, five of which are considered ‘core’ lessons that are covered in every trauma healing course. The other lessons can be used according to the circumstances of the people on the course.

The first core lesson asks: ‘If God loves us then why do we suffer?’ This lesson provides a vital foundation for the course, for, Cami explains, ‘if you do not deal with the theology of suffering first, then none of the rest of it makes any sense.’ This lesson invites participants to look at what the Bible teaches about the difficult question of suffering and leads participants to understand how, even in the middle of immense pain, God is close.

Many study together in a trauma healing class

Studying Bible passages like Romans 8:38-39 – ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (NIV) – can help traumatised people to see how God is present and all-powerful, even in the midst of their suffering.

A fellowship of suffering

After being Bible based, the other thing that makes the course so effective is, according to Cami, ‘it is taught interactively.’ That means that ‘people can actually process their own experience in a safe group.’ The second core session asks: ‘What is a heart wound?’ This lesson also explores how to listen well to others, and brings the interactive nature of the course to the fore.

People who never associated with each another, or were actually enemies, become intimate friends

Sharing your own story, and listening to others’ stories, is an important part of the healing process. Harriet describes it as a ‘fellowship of suffering, where people get to tell their story and hear the story of those sitting on the pews with them week after week.’ This brings a new level of vulnerability that often changes relationships. ‘People who never associated with each another, or were actually enemies, become intimate friends,’ Harriet explains, ‘because through hearing each other’s stories they see each other as fellow humans and stop categorising each other as being an “enemy”’.

Storytelling is a central part of the course – which reflects the centrality of storytelling in the Bible. Each lesson begins with a story, because, as Margaret explains: ‘People remember stories. People relate to stories. You don’t want just pedagogical material, you want something people can relate to. And stories really help to get the point across.’

As well as storytelling, drawing is often used as part of this lesson to help people express their pain. Drawing can enable people to express things they can’t put into words – or that are beyond words. Harriet remembers a pastor from Côte d’Ivoire, who when he saw his drawing said: ‘I didn’t realise how bad off I was.’ He was trying his very best to cope, but the act of drawing unlocked something in him that allowed God to lead him to deeper healing.

The journey of grief

The journey of grief

‘One of the things the authors developed, is teaching the journey of grief as being a journey through three villages,’ Cami notes. ‘The first village is the village of anger and denial, the second village is the village of no hope, and the third is the village of new beginnings.’ Cami remembers the story of a man who, the day after they had explored the villages in the grief journey, ‘told the group that he had realised that he was stuck in the village of anger and denial, even though it had been three years since the war, and he did not want to be there any longer. So, he went to the people that had perpetrated the violence on him and on his family and told them about the grief journey, and when he came back he said: “I’ve moved on, I’m not in the village of anger and denial any more, I’m moving towards the village of new beginnings.” It was really wonderful to see how learning about the grief journey was life transforming for that man.’

Writing laments to God is part of this stage of the course. ‘Lamenting to God, actually telling God of your pain and what you are upset about, is in the Psalms and other parts of the Bible,’ Harriet observes. The course includes biblical examples of laments as an encouragement for people to write their own laments – and to experience the healing power of expressing themselves to God in this way.

Taking your pain to the cross

‘Bringing our pain to the cross is the apex of the journey of trauma healing,’ Harriet says. ‘For it is through Christ, by whose wounds we are healed, and who bore our suffering on the cross, that we are healed.’ People prayerfully write their pain on a piece of paper, and then stick it to, or place it in front of, the cross. People who can’t write can use a stick or something else as a symbol of their pain.

Burning papers before a cross

Then the group prays, sings, and reads Bible passages together before burning the papers to ashes as a symbol of giving the pain to Christ. This is often a particularly powerful part of the course where people can 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.’

Hilary Warner, a member of Mission Assist, who has taught trauma healing in Burundi, Rwanda, and more recently in the Middle East, recalls how during one bringing your pain to the cross ceremony her local co-leader in Burundi ‘created the opportunity for people who had been unable to bury a loved one, or attend their funeral, to commit the loved one to God. She invited them to put some soil from the ground at the foot of the cross. It was amazing how many of the participants came forward to do that, and many of them testified afterwards as to how it had brought them peace.’

Forgiveness

‘Many times, people will come to the workshop,’ Cami observes, ‘and at the start they will say “I’m going to take part in this workshop, but don’t ask me to forgive. I will never forgive the people who killed my child, or whatever happened to them.”’ But by the time the workshop gets to the lesson on forgiveness, which is the final core lesson, often people have experienced some level of healing, and some rebuilding of relationships and of their lives, and they are more able to forgive.

Writing a lament to God

The lesson on forgiveness is often demonstrated by a role play of having one person hold one end of a rope, and another person the other end of the rope, so that everywhere the first person goes they are pulling the second person along with them. That illustrates how until you forgive you are carrying it around with you. Cami notes that the course teaches forgiveness as ‘a healing thing. That you forgive not for the other person, but for yourself, for your own healing. For as long as you don’t forgive, as long as you carry bitterness in your heart you will not be healed.’ And Cami observes that often, after seeing forgiveness in that light, the people who said they would never forgive find themselves realising that ‘not only can I forgive, but I’ve got to forgive, and I want to forgive.’

Nowadays he is my fellow Christian

Mary* is a widow from Rwanda. During the Rwandan genocide she was with her six children and her pregnant sister when she saw them all killed. In front of Mary the killers cut her sister’s womb open. ‘The baby was alive when my sister’s womb was cut open,’ Mary tells. ‘I saw him with my own eyes.’

After the genocide, the killers were put in prison. But then an amnesty was given and the man who had cut her sister’s womb open was released. In prison he had become a Christian. He came to see Mary to say that ‘he regretted so much what he did’ and to ask her forgiveness. But even though she was a Christian, she couldn’t bring herself to forgive him.

Five years later Mary attended a trauma healing course. On the course Mary says: ‘I learned that forgiving is for our behalf. Forgiving doesn’t mean the fault was not deep and I learnt that Christians must forgive. I ended the training with a wish to be able to forgive this man, I prayed for this wish.’

Praying together at a trauma healing workshop

In time God opened the door for Mary to meet him. When she did she says, ‘I asked him a lot of questions like: Why did he come to me? Why did he do what he did? What did he expect to come from his terrible act?’ Now Mary says, ‘I have forgiven him from the deep of my heart. Nowadays he is my fellow Christian. No more conflicts or misunderstandings with him, and we have told our journey to church and through that we have helped others.’

The Lord working through his word

‘I would like to see the Church be a place of healing,’ Harriet concludes. ‘We did some research on churches in East Africa who had been involved in trauma healing for three years or more and it was clear that this had helped churches flourish and grow. The problem they have now is so many people wanting help. In the Bible the same Greek word – Sozo – is translated “to save” and “to heal”, so that is my goal, to see the Church be a place of saving and healing that leads to a deeper engagement with God and his word.’

Trauma healing is – as David’s and Mary’s stories, as well as the stories of many, many others, attest – 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 through the power of God and his word, it can be a beautiful one.

Alfred Thompson

Photos: Alan Hood / Wycliffe Canada

The Trauma Healing Institute has developed into a global collaboration of ministries dedicated to helping people around the world heal from the pain of trauma with more than 16,000 trained facilitators working in association with local churches and more than 600 Christian organisations. New editions of Healing the Wounds of Trauma are now available, online courses are held when needed and materials have been developed to help with the trauma associated with the coronavirus pandemic. Further information is available here.

SIL International’s Global Trauma Healing Services is committed to helping all Wycliffe and SIL programs incorporate trauma healing (and prevention) and is an integral part of the Trauma Healing Institute’s programme development. You can contact Global Trauma Healing services here.

Even people in the UK need trauma healing! Helping people heal from trauma caused by coronavirus describes some possible options. A growing band of trauma healing facilitators are available to lead courses and train others. They can be contacted online here or directly by email.