Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj. Rev. Dharmaraj is President of the Retired Clergy and Spouse Association of the New York Annual Conference. It is the first of a two-part series. For part one, click here.
Part II: The Church’s Required Response: Mutuality to Mutual Aid
Amidst the current crises of COVID-19, the church today is called to respond in at least two ways: by offering Trauma Informed Care (TIC) and by moving from mutuality in mission to mutual aid in mission. In both these ways, the church can walk alongside the traumatized, as they journey through loss, grief, and change, by offering not pieties but grace, reassurance, and compassion, not mere instruction and charity.
One thing COVID-19 has taught those of us who serve the church is that loss endures, even as grief departs. Our recoveries are always partial. Grief is a long-term project. Grief is circular, until suddenly it abates. Those who have been abused by the system during times of crisis will remember for a lifetime.
Researchers and psychologists have found, in past crises, the deepest traumas surfaced only after they had ended. The trauma is well contained whilst people are actively engaged in fighting and protecting, but the problems transpire only afterward. The scars of this crisis will linger for generations.
Therefore, the current context calls for spiritual leaders to retool themselves and their churches to offer what other organizations cannot offer.
TIC creates a culture that empowers and enables the vulnerable and victimized. TIC offers frameworks, structures, rituals, and prayers. TIC is not an intervention. It does not follow prescribed methods or actions. It is rooted in empathy. It creates a more helpful and therapeutic environment through compassion and solidarity that would promote safety, inclusion, dignity, values, and respect.
More important are monitoring and managing how to move past biases and bring about holistic healing. During stressful times, when resources are in short supply and needed equipment becomes scarce, many professionals make ethical decisions on an hourly basis. Some of them are sincere and straightforward. Other times certain extraneous factors such as age, gender, race, and class come into play. Who will be the guardian here and who has the ultimate power to make the split-second decision? It is impossible to monitor or remediate every situation. Knowing what is just and ethical to do in a given context and being able to apply them to crucial situations are two different things.
TIC advances a culture of safety, empowerment, and curative. Recognizing power differentials, acknowledging that flashbacks of past abusive episodes can affect the victims, and understanding the reason why some avoid therapeutic care is the first step. Too often trauma survivors who seek out support find themselves re-traumatized by the very systems designed to help them.
In the midst of this practice of TIC, one fundamental change that will happen in the area of mission theology is a shift from a theology of mutuality, which many, including me, advocated for the last quarter of a century, to a theology of mutual aid.
Mutual aid is defined primarily as a concept of providing each other support, either through resources or services, for the sake of mutual benefit. The hallmark of mutual aid is that support flows between peers, neighbors, colleagues, community members, horizontally rather than from the top-down, as it would hierarchically from a government agency or a mission institution to those in need.
Charity funds or bureaucratic allocation of resources have no room in mutual aid, as they are deeply entrenched in processes and frameworks that often mean handouts or strings attached with inflexibility: for example, donated funds or resources to be used only for elderly, children, mothers, etc.
Mutual aid is neither hierarchical nor charity based. It is horizontal, mostly volunteer-run. It is driven by the emerging or immediate needs expressed by the members of the community. Bureaucratic and middle agents are eliminated as survival needs and shared understanding take priority over all others. People in the community, not the elected or appointed leaders of an organization, take responsibility for caring for one another.
Mutual aid is deeply rooted in counter-cultural theory, invariably so during times of major crisis. Since TIC is as much about social justice as it is about spiritual, emotional, and physical healing, it enables mutual aid as an effective tool to do the right thing in the right place in short order.
When structural or siloed institutions are absent or fail, human altruism and community selflessness come as the vanguard. During crisis time, already vulnerable communities experience what is known as intersectional vulnerabilities. COVID-19 has again proven that some people and communities are more vulnerable. They need greater support from members of their own communities and those community organizations that work with them with sharpened advocacy skills and agility of movement.
It will take a long time before we will call ‘business as usual.’ Until then, the members of the faith community have a vital role to play, despite their own vulnerability. What we need today is the learning, training, and practice of trauma-informed care with a willingness to migrate from mutuality in mission to mutual aid in mission.