My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. Psalm 22:1-2
The ritual changed in another way that day: Standing around the spot where Vincent had fallen, we realized we could still see his blood on the pavement at our feet. As one, we poured more water than the rain on it, and someone brought out a rag, to wipe the blood away. That his spilled blood not be further desecrated by the traffic that would drive over it, without knowing what damage they wrought.
We needed to honor his life, we who knew and loved him.
Some in the community were also with Faye, Vincent's mother, that day: They were taking a stand against gun violence and wanted to be seen in the light of day, holding down that corner.
Ritual is often an untapped resource after a communal trauma or disaster. I think of ritual as an especially appropriate resource in disaster work because of its inherent ability to work symbolically and communally -- with words, often, though also in ways beyond what words can express, and communally, gathering people together across lines that tend to divide. Times after disaster and trauma often allow such openings.
Over the next three months, this blog series will explore the use of ritual following disaster and trauma and how you might approach preparing for such gatherings, including listening for the need, bringing resources to fit the needs, and considering how symbolic action enhances a ritual.
This introduction begins with the heart of what makes a ritual speak and the kind of care and healing we seek: a deep listening to the disaster as people in your community experience it. (A candlelight vigil at the place of Vincent's death was a wonderful idea in the planning, and the place was essential, but when the thunderstorm struck, Vincent's mother couldn't wait another day. Being with her, listening to her, we knew we had to go out with her, no matter what the weather, no matter if no one else showed up.)
Start by thinking of the disaster in your community, in all of its particularity. (If you are called in as an outsider to help, you will first need to identify what range of people can speak for the community.) Precisely what need do you see/hear being expressed? Often there are tremendous losses involved with trauma and disaster, but loss has so many different faces! Is there a sense of the cataclysms of nature? Or the failure of human systems? The ritual would take very different shape following an earthquake and a terrorist attack. Let survivors talk and let their words evoke for you a deeper sense of need.
You might try this out when you are not in the midst of a crisis, about any ministry area in any work or conversation: try asking the above questions to two or three other people. Here's an example: An elder in your congregation is now a widow of several years, but resists moving out of her large house. Her adult children seem passive. What does she need? Or, here's another: the feeding program in the fellowship hall of the church in another section of town has been displaced by a storm that destroyed their roof; they have no funds to repair it. What do they need? Brainstorm for ten minutes -- that means gather ideas onto a common paper or screen without censoring them -- then pause for a minute and go back for a second or sometimes even a third round of brainstorming. Sometimes the most creative thinking and best solutions happen after the most obvious "answers" get spoken and out of the way.
When you do this brainstorming following a real disaster, of course it is better when some of the disaster's victims are with you to do the planning, but sometimes this is not possible. Include them if at all possible; their presence will change what you do. Otherwise, represent them as best you can.
When you have a list before you of a number of needs facing those who have experienced the disaster or trauma in your community, sit for a few moments in silence with the list before you. Allow the ones who are planning to take in the voices crying out, in all their uniqueness, their particularity.
Then let those who are planning begin to prioritize. You can't focus a ritual in ten different directions. What is most pressing right now, at this phase? Are there one, two, or three complementary voices/themes that might accompany that primary concern? (Example: primary: space for grieving; supplementary: concern for the safety of aid workers and compassion for those for those who survived) it's possible to work out other patterns, but the point is to try to focus on a few things, rather than to attempt too much and to end up satisfying nothing. The time following a disaster or trauma is emotionally exhausting. Simpler works better, yet being together to do something in the presence of God is life-giving.
Recovery from trauma and disaster often takes years, indeed can sometimes take generations. Ritual might be part of the healing at various stages. There might be an impulse to rush to put something together, say in the early stages, to have an appropriate community response to the disaster. Some lovely community services have arisen at such occasions. Let someone among you, though, take some time for deeper listening, and all of the work you do with ritual will build toward deeper healing.
Follow this blog series
Part II - Finding Resource to Use in Rituals after Trauma or Disaster >
Part III - Considering the Use of Symbols and Symbolic Action in Rituals after a Disaster or Trauma >
* Learn more about congregational care practices on the ICTG Training page. Here, you will find dozens of resources, including the ICTG Congregational Assessment Guide, seminars on becoming trauma-informed, modules, forums, and more!