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Religious Leaders Join Together
In First 'STAR' Trauma Recovery Training

By Chris Herlinger, Information Officer, Church World Service Emergency Response Program

Photo from STAR TrainingHARRISONBURG, Va. - Like other clergy in New York City, the Rev. Andrew Nunez has experienced a difficult six months.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City, he has had to tend not only to his regular duties, but deal with the nagging anxiety experienced by his parishioners in a small Mennonite congregation in the Bronx, and by members of other churches that belong to the Evangelical Garifuna Council of Churches. The council is a group of congregations of Garifuna immigrants - descendants of Caribbean slaves who have since left Honduras, Belize and Guatemala for life in the United States.

While the New York Garifuna churches are small in number, collectively they have not been immune to the challenges posed by Sept. 11 - some congregants have lost jobs and some knew people killed or directly affected by the terrorist attack. And all of this comes amid a context of greater economic hardship in the Bronx and other urban centers during an economic recession.

"People are expressing their anger; people are losing their jobs," he said. "We’re trying to see how we can help those in our communities."

So it was appropriate that Rev. Nunez joined other pastors and caregivers at the first of a series of trainings that are a joint effort of Church World Service (CWS) and the Conflict Transformation Program of Eastern Mennonite University (EMU).

The Seminars on Trauma Awareness & Recovery (STAR) are being held at the EMU campus in Harrisonburg and build upon the work of CWS’s Interfaith Trauma Response Trainings that have been held in the New York City and Washington, D.C., areas since Sept. 11.

The focus of the STAR trainings is to equip religious leaders in New York, Washington, and other cities with new tools to deal with the ongoing trauma caused by the events of Sept. 11 and help individual congregation members, the congregation as a whole, and as appropriate, the surrounding community.

STAR is also a way for clergy to leave New York and other cities for a week and have time to reflect and meet other religious leaders in the quieter surroundings of Harrisonburg.

The training events will be held monthly for the next two years. The two-year program is being supported by Church World Service and the denominational members of the CWS Emergency Response Program Committee.  Church World Service is a ministry of the 36 member communions of the National Council of Churches.

The STAR curriculum focuses on trauma and healing as well as an introduction to broad justice, security and peace-building issues and frameworks, and on day four of the first training, held Feb. 18-22, the rich range of the curriculum was evident. EMU faculty introduced the concept of "study circles" to the 10 participants; study circles are a way groups of people - in congregations, for example - can meet on a regular basis and discuss critical topics in "a democratic and collaborative way," said EMU Professor Lisa Schrich, who teaches conflict studies.

Participants, including Rev. Nunez, 39, took turns as facilitators for groups, delving into questions of how the United States should respond to the crises posed by Sept. 11. There were no "right answers" stressed; the idea was to give participants time and practice to oversee discussions that could elicit insight and dialogue, rather than just mere debate.

The exercise was a practical tool the clergy and other religious leaders could use with their congregations and communities. "I’m really looking forward to taking this back with me and seeing how it works," said Susana Albo, a community organizer who works with the religious community in the Bronx.

Time was also spent reflecting on some of the ways participants dealt with Sept. 11 and its aftermath. For Rev. Nunez, the tragedy elicited signs of hope: the sight of Christians, Jews and Muslims working together. "That was exciting and I think that changed a lot of attitudes of how we can work together," he said.

But there was also the horror of the event itself. The Rev. Konrad Kaltenbach, 66, long-time hospital chaplain and a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who lives in Washington, N.J., related his experiences as a chaplain at Ground Zero in the days following Sept. 11.

Saying that he and other chaplains have had to minimize what he called "God-speak" at trauma-related events, he recalled that he has learned much from agnostic Jews who have taught him the limits of religion in moments of trauma. "You have to respect death," he said. "It sounds strange, but you have to respect death." Recalling his work at Ground Zero, he said: "Silence has to be more important than babble."

Photo from STAR TrainingRelating personal experiences was a vital part of the training, as was reflection on the larger security issues surrounding Sept. 11 and how U.S. religious communities can begin the work of peace-building. Joanna Flanders Thomas, a South African who has done extensive prison ministry in her home country and who now works with the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, said that while she is "always looking for the hope," she and others who are not U.S. citizens felt as outsiders in the days following Sept. 11 - a "lack of inclusion" which exacerbated their trauma.

Such an international perspective is a critical part of the STAR program, as Jan Jenner, director of the CTP’s Institute for Justice and Peacebuilding, said at a luncheon that allowed participants to hear the perspectives of international students studying in EMU’s Conflict Transformation Program.

"This was a world-wide trauma," Jenner said, echoing Thomas’ concerns and introducing the luncheon. "It (Sept. 11) was a world-wide incident."

Students from Pakistan, India, Kenya and Guatemala, all countries affected in varying degrees by war, attended the luncheon. They offered their perspectives on Sept. 11 and how it has affected the world community. It has not been an easy time, they said. Willi Hugo Perez of Guatemala, who has been involved in peace-related work in his country, said of Sept. 11 and its aftermath: "When you try to build peace, you feel this whole monster of violence is taking over again."

How to tame the cycle of violence remains a challenge; in a final session held at a Presbyterian retreat center in Massanetta Springs, just outside of Harrisonburg, Professor Schrich was joined by Professor Jayne Seminare Docherty and the two offered a "framework for peacebuilding" that included an exploration of the roots causes of conflict. "Understanding (what drove those who perpetrated the crimes of Sept. 11) doesn’t excuse what happened," Schrich said.

Photo from STAR TrainingBy the end, participants were tired but exhilarated: Rev. Nunez said he "really appreciated" what he had learned, particularly what he called the "trauma process" and bringing more clarity to a host of issues, including peace-building. "I feel I’ve got more confidence now," he said.

Carolyn Yoder, coordinator of the STAR Program, said the first group "bonded well" and brought a host of experiences that coincided well with STAR’s goals; she said among the most important skills learned may be those of helping develop dialogues within congregations and communities. "There is a way to discuss critical issues that’s not divisive," she said. "Many feel that their voices are being stifled and in a ‘dialogue format’ you can give voice to everybody who wants to be heard."

"That’s what’s most exciting to me - to allow all voices to be heard," she said. "In a national crisis, that in itself is a type of trauma healing."

In addition to CWS and EMU's Conflict Transformation Program, STAR's sponsors include the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Lutheran Disaster Response, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, United Church of Christ, American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., Church of the Brethren, Mennonite Disaster Service and Reformed Church in America.   Contact is Carolyn Yoder at 540-432-4636 or by e-mail at star@emu.edu

See also http://www.emu.edu/ctp/star-project.html

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