People ask me about disaster preparedness often – so much of it, for congregations, lies in the ordinary practices of weekly gathering that may someday need to serve as a source of strength and renewal. However, congregations are not just important for the work they do in preparing people for disasters, but also the work they do in responding to disasters. In the months following Trayvon Martin's death, communities of faith have been reminded in manifold ways how their role matters in providing healing – not only for the sense of Holy presence they represent but also for the roles they play in creating venues for witnessing, for seeing and hearing, and for restoration.
Sometimes, though, it can seem like a congregation can barely catch it's breath from the chronic stress in the community. Last week, Fr. Jeff Putthoff reminded the world that "Tragedies Like Trayvon Martin's Death Occur Regularly in Camden," as they do in so many cities around our country. Putthoff explains that his "heart breaks any time a person loses his or her life to violence, especially when someone so young is killed." And he finds himself "not only sad but angry; angry for an entirely different reason" than most people he encounters. "Why don't people take to the streets every time a young person is killed in Camden, N.J.? Last year, we had the most people killed in our city's history and more violent crimes than anywhere else per capita. We live and work in the country's most violent and poorest place." Putthoff asks, "Where is the outrage for Camden and other cities like it? What is happening that we are so vocal for Trayvon but muted for so many others?"
Dr. Gregory C. Ellison II, member of ICTG's Board of Advisors and assistant professor of pastoral care and counseling at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, has been addressing the issue of mutedness in his research, projects, and practice, and the ways that faith-based caregivers can respond effectively. This weekend, after President Obama's speech on July 19, 2013, associated press reporter, Sonya Ross, interviewed Ellison for her article "In Passionate Speech, Obama Bares His Black Self." According to the article, Ellison "felt that the president appeared to check himself midway through – something black men tend to do, Ellison said, when they find themselves heading into an emotional place on racial matters." Ellison wonders, "How many African-American men have to take that pause on a daily basis, you know?"
In his speech, President Obama says that he thinks "it's going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching" following the events of Trayvon Martin's death and the verdict in the case of George Zimmerman last week, and how those conversations ought not to be convened by politicians. Instead, he says, "in families and churches and workplaces, there's a possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy."
For congregations that want to engage in this proposal and who are seeking to be trauma-informed, perhaps wondering how best to respond to the emotions and pain stirred in their communities, they may consider becoming involved with Ellison's latest project: Fearless Dialogues. This past Saturday, Fearless Dialogues held its inaugural "Fearless Dialogues Community Conversation," in which community leaders, clergy, government officials, parents, and students gathered together to consider sustainable ways to see, hear, and change communities for the better. You can see snippets from the conversation by visiting the Fearless Dialogues fb page: "We are the reliable caregivers who are called to reconnect our community. #FDatl13"