Trauma and Compassion

By Tyler Michel

In December of 2014, I took an opportunity to leave my position as an Associate Pastor at a mid-sized church, to become the Executive Director of a non-profit working with families who’ve experienced trauma. For me, it was an exciting risk. The move was a chance to grow as a leader, and to practice what I had been preaching to my church for the past three years - to live everyday ‘on mission” primarily among ‘the least of these’.

What I quickly discovered is that my years in seminary and church ministry, while fruitful in many ways, left me under-prepared for the task at-hand. I found it difficult to move and operate in the non-profit sphere, removed from some the comforts and familiarity I enjoyed being in a church role. I had to work with lots of people I didn’t understand and use different language outside the theological and missional framework I had become accustomed to.

It felt like a new world. I was surrounded by kids and parents who are fighting to overcome incredibly heartbreaking circumstances. Most of the families we work with have been through hell – poverty, addiction, incarceration, child removal, sexual abuse, physical abuse, murder of a loved one – and were resiliently trying to move forward towards restoration.

Our non-profit runs a summer day camp called ‘Ray of Hope’ for about 100 trauma-background kids, most of which have behavioral and emotional issues, which make it next to impossible for them to attend more traditional camps. Kids are referred from state agencies like Child and Family Services, Social and Health Services, Catholic Community Services, and a variety of others.

Many are in foster care. Many are victims of sexual abuse. Many have lost parents to incarceration, addiction, or death.

I knew the base requirement for my role was compassion. I thought as soon as my foot hit the ground at Ray of Hope my heart would burst for these kids. I was a pastor and a parent of two small kids after all.

Not so.

If compassion is a fire, I was wet wood. It could have partly been the gravity of my role, but I think my primary motivator initially was fear. I was afraid of all that could go wrong, preoccupied with thoughts of worst-case scenarios and often over-reacting when a kid acted out.

Fear is a healthy part of our humanity, but it’s a terrible master. It’s something that exists in the absence of compassion; a default response to dealing with that challenge us to our core. It’s often what we see in both the church and social service worlds as we try to minimize the liabilities around us.

John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”

As I learned over the course of the summer, compassion must engulf fear. It took a few weeks to surrender – God had to dry out the fear in me so that my heart could catch fire.

It took hearing the heartbreaking stories of physical and sexual abuse that led kids into their own fear of adults. It came in seeing where these kids were living – we picked up one young girl every day from a half-condemned hotel where she lived with one drug-addicted parent and an abusive older brother.

There was a point that summer where compassion engulfed my fear. I looked around and saw kids that were grieving over something they lost or had been taken from them, and my heart broke. I began to understand their behavior from the standpoint of grief. Helen Fitzgerald describes the human reaction to grief as everything inside of you being “savage and snarled” and reacting with “screeching emotions and venomous attitudes.”

That is the territory we tread into when we work with trauma-background children and parents. Our Western culture conditions us to run away from grief, but Christ calls us to run towards it. Our ability to have compassion on those affected by trauma depends on our willingness to walk into the fire and stay there. In doing so, we demonstrate the incarnational love of Christ to wounded hearts that God desires to heal.