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In a frank exchange, pastors discuss the pain and trauma of the twin pandemics

COVID-19 and racial disparities are difficult enough alone. Taken together, they’re brutal

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Pedro Lima on Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — A nearly hour-long plenary to cap the second week of the Intercultural Transformation Workshops focused on the pain and trauma clergy and lay people alike have been carrying for the past six months during the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice, including the killings of African Americans at the hands of police and Wednesday’s grand jury decision on the role of police in the killing of Breonna Taylor of Louisville, Kentucky,  on March 13 in her apartment.

Responding to questions by the Rev. Samuel Son, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s manager of diversity, a three-clergy panel — the Rev. Dr. Noé Juarez of Highland Presbyterian Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; the Rev. Kate Murphy of The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; and the Rev. Adriene Thorne of First Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York — discussed ways of serving in intercultural ministry during these this very difficult time. Their ideas included holding an online service of lament and organizing a children’s march supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Rev. Adriene Thorne is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York. (Screen shot)

The idea to hold the march came from Thorne’s daughter. “We thought we’d have a dozen people,” she said during Saturday’s plenary to about 70 online participants. “We now have a band, and a city council member is coming … We are not forgetting the church outside the wall, that level of ‘yes, and.’ We are going to keep working at turning the boat [at church], but I am going to get into the streets with people because they are ready to go.”

On Wednesday, The Grove Presbyterian Church plans an online service of lament for its members and friends. “We’re inviting people to bring their broken hearts to the community,” Murphy said. “There will be no preaching, no putting a bow on anything — just a time for folks to cry out. While these [headline-generating] racial injustices are happening, there is no shortage of private local tragedies, of violent deaths even in our community, and COVID on top of that. We hope this will be a faithful and healing way to respond.”

the Rev. Dr. Noé Juarez

Juarez, who was born in Peru, said he and his family had planned to return to his native country this fall for mission work. The pandemic has delayed those plans. “I had to realize this could be a long waiting period,” Juarez said. While he waits, he’s been revisiting books he read years ago. “Find something to sustain you in the long run,” he advised conference participants. “Go back to your roots, your basic convictions of faith, what is meaningful to you.” For him that also meant boning up on Hebrew and Greek. “I’ve been trying to find opportunity,” he said, “in the midst of trauma and pain.”

“This week was a rough one, wasn’t it?” Son said at one point. “It’s OK not to be OK … We pastors also have pain and trauma.”

Murphy said she’s made “intentional spiritual friendships, people who share a common understanding of what we are aiming for and who the Lord is, people you can be real with when things are hard, or to rejoice with when things are good.” The church, she said, should be a “friendship factory,” citing what Jesus tells his disciples in John 15:15: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”

The Rev. Kate Murphy at a community dinner pre-pandemic. (Contributed photo)

“A sign of health in a congregation,” Murphy said, “is genuine authentic healthy friendships. That takes time, and you have to set aside time [to deepen friendships] without feeling guilty about it. It’s soul-nourishing.”

A self-described introvert, Thorne said she sits with pain and trauma “a lot. In times of trauma, I sit with that trauma. I have cried so much this week. I pray with a group every Saturday morning. Being in grief and lamenting is one of the ways I get through.”

“While you are struggling, I carry hope for you,” Thorne says to congregants. What makes the current situation difficult is that “right now, there is nobody to carry anything for anybody, because we are all broken down,” Thorne said.

Pastors generally trust their intuition, Murphy said, “our ability to pray and to show up in a way that will be loving and healing.” But lately, “I am suspicious of my own intuition. White people need to absorb pain and trauma in order to get it.”

“I try to ask this question: ‘What do you need your pastor to do right now?’ I don’t say, ‘How are you?’” she said. The trick is “not letting myself be so paralyzed that I don’t show up. … It’s important to try. If I try and fail, that embodies love. If I wait in the corner, I am more interested in looking like a good pastor than being a good pastor.”

“I have learned,” Murphy said, “that if we are going to be an authentic and healthy intercultural church, we have to trust the Holy Spirit is building these relationships, which won’t be real if people aren’t telling the truth. The things that are uncomfortable can still be holy.”

As the pastors were speaking, participants — most of them pastors and church leaders themselves — commented in real time using the Zoom Chat function.

“The fear of getting it wrong is real,” one said, “and it prevents us from engaging in honest relationships.”

“The desire to over-function and solve the problems of others is a possible damaging response in the midst of pain and anxiety,” wrote another.

“We white leaders need an immense amount of humility,” wrote a third, “the capacity to de-center ourselves so that we can re-center the most marginalized or traumatized. We may not always know what tools to use but creating space for others to feel seen and heard is essential.”

The Presbyterian Intercultural Network and the Presbyterian Mission Agency, along with the presbyteries of Charlotte and Sacramento and Stockton, sponsored the Intercultural Transformation Workshops, which concluded Saturday.

View Saturday’s Facebook Live plenary here. Read stories about workshops held following the two plenary sessions here, here, here, here and here. Read about the Sept. 19 plenary session here.

The workshops and accompanying study guides are available here.

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