How Can a Church Care for the Trauma-Afflicted?

The rate of opioid overdose in Maricopa County, Arizona, was exploding. So in 2018 Tracy Cruikshank, former director at the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, the third largest health department in the nation, began considering collaborative solutions within a large — and largely untapped — population: churches.

And why not churches? Nearly 2,000 faith organizations exist in Maricopa County alone. From a holistic perspective, faith organizations are already anchored to hope, flourishing, and transformation — the elements of any recovery or prevention program. Cruikshank knew that for an effort of this scale, faith organizations and government agencies would need to work interdependently.  Not the first to encounter the challenge, she knew she would need help from someone connected to faith communities, someone who could inspire faith leaders to think beyond programs, conventional methods, and of course, the stigma of substance use.

Cruikshank enlisted the cooperation of Sanghoon Yoo, founder of the Faithful City, a social service ministry at Arizona State University, and founding board member of the Arizona ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Consortium. Yoo was passionate about trauma-informed care, an approach to care that understands trauma’s impact, recognizes its effects, and plans potential paths for recovery. A few pioneer faith organizations in Maricopa County were applying trauma-informed principles to their policies and service models. Yoo was instrumental in training and mentoring all of them.

With Yoo’s help, Cruikshank assessed the readiness of local churches for trauma sensitive work. Feedback from participating local church leaders highlighted two prominent themes: 1) They wanted prevention and recovery training for all substances, not just opioids, and 2) they wanted a reciprocal relationship of trust with government agencies — not as an ideal, but as a prerequisite.

Progress, however, was halted by the pandemic in 2020, and opioid overdose deaths rose by 65 percent within three years. The Maricopa County Department of Public Health received CDC funding to award grant money for county programs centered on substance-use prevention and recovery. Four years after their initial collaboration, Yoo and the Faithful City were awarded grant funding to develop trauma-informed training for faith organizations — the Belonging Project.

The Belonging Project offers a six-hour training that blends theology, neuroscience, evidence-based practices, ACEs awareness, harm-reduction strategies, and insight from experts across sectors to explain neurobiological responses to unresolved trauma and how trauma can lead to substance use as a coping strategy. The principles of trauma-informed care — safety, trust, collaborative support, choice, and acknowledgement of experiences and issues broader than your own — provide a simple framework for the work.

“When faith communities (or any community) view substance use through a trauma-informed lens, they see people as human beings rather than human problems,” says Yoo. “When we observe Jesus’ interactions with desperately hurting people, we see mercy first. He accepted people as they were. He didn’t treat them like problems.”

Faith communities haven’t always reflected the mercy of Jesus. “The Christian symbol is a cross,” says Yoo. “But we’d like to dismiss the suffering of the cross.” When Christ followers place demands on a suffering person without first considering that person’s previous experiences of abuse, pain, and depersonalization, they can quickly become the very barriers that keep suffering people from experiencing belonging. Perhaps we’re more comfortable with this reality than we care to admit.

Sitting with suffering is uncomfortable and it’s complicated. We’re wired to avoid situations where we’re unsure of answers, where there aren’t formulas and guaranteed outcomes. The writer of Hebrews 10:24 says, in the Message translation, “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out … spurring each other on.” Loving others is always an endeavor in creativity.

To be attuned to the suffering around us and responsive to those needs is not light work. So the Belonging Project aims to nurture empathy, collectively and individually, for human suffering, by working to reduce the stigma around substance abuse. This way, the helpers can really help — by slowing down, listening, and connecting. These trauma-informed practices also help develop the perseverance necessary for constancy and commitment.

Ascend Church in Tempe, Arizona, is one of 34 faith organizations in Maricopa County to receive the Belonging Project training, and one of 11 organizations recognized by the Faithful City for their contribution toward the movement for trauma-informed care in Arizona.

“We recently assisted a man who was seeking substance use recovery,” Ascend pastor Dave Beach says. “Rather than rushing to get him into a rehab facility, we slowed down and assessed some of the root causes of his addiction. We applied ‘connection before correction,’ and located a program equipped for his specific needs. The trauma-informed lens broadened my perspective from quick recovery to sustainable recovery. I’m willing to take the time with those seeking help.” He says incorporating trauma-informed principles into Ascend’s ministries has created a culture of patience.

Also recognized by the Faithful City is FIRE Revolution, an outreach ministry for survivors of sex-trafficking. FIRE’s executive director, Rev. Chaplain Jessica Knight, a trafficking survivor herself, says her approach to the ministry focuses on building relationships with the women she meets, a key piece of trauma-informed ministry. “My acceptance and ‘no judgment’ approach must be genuine to build trust with the women,” Knight says.

She begins with her relationship with God, Knight says: “My very first work is asking the Holy Spirit, ‘How can I reconnect this woman with her human design?’ Survivors experience deep rejection, darkness, and dissociation, so guiding her from an identity of commodity to human is long work. The leap from human to child of God is shorter. It usually seems rational to her to reconnect with the Light that cast out all her darkness.”

Although FIRE Revolution is supported by dozens of churches, Knight is still surprised by how many churches do not acknowledge trauma when it comes to ministry: “If you don’t acknowledge trauma, you can do more harm than good.” This is, perhaps, the most uncomfortable reality faith communities must accept when considering trauma-informed training. Some faith leaders fear a fixation on trauma, but faith leaders using the trauma-informed approach find awareness and acknowledgement of suffering are the first step to redemption. It’s hard to see hope if you’re trying to ignore pain.

Yoo says that’s true for faith leaders, too, which is why his ongoing mentorship with leaders who have been through the Belonging Project training encourages faith leaders to acknowledge their own unresolved trauma, struggles, and internal challenges.

“Trauma-informed care starts with you — with each and every Christ follower,” Yoo says. “Ignoring what’s going on within ourselves gets in the way of helping those who are suffering. When we bring our whole being to Jesus daily, we better understand what’s going on inside, and we’re better equipped to serve others.”

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