We need more shepherds to walk these dark valleys

An essay on how to care for the victims of shootings—by someone who has counseled more than 90 families in 10 years

Joy comes in the morning for trauma survivors.

Joy comes in the morning for trauma survivors.

We need more shepherds to walk these dark valleys
An essay on how to care for the victims of shootings—by someone who has counseled more than 90 families in 10 years

by Howard Dotson

My journey as a chaplain and crime-victims advocate began in the summer of 2005. Just blocks from our small congregation in West Los Angeles (Palms Westminster Presbyterian), we lost three young adults in three days. I was with two of the young men just a half hour before they were killed. William and Julio were holding shoe boxes on a street corner to raise money for their friend Anna who had been shot and killed two days earlier. I urged them to get off the street and let us raise the memorial funds through a bank account. But they were adamant; they wanted to make a stand against gun violence and to honor the memory of their friend. Shortly thereafter they were shot and killed.

Since then, I have provided pastoral care and counseling for dozens of bereaved homicide-victim families. Some patterns that quickly emerged were “gang banger stigma” and the lack of support from local congregations. Families felt shame, as the media and even friends rushed to judgment, assuming their child was a gang member and that their child was involved in something that led to their own death. 

Often these families didn’t receive any support from their churches until the funeral. In LA County, it can take 10 days before a body is released from a morgue. Ten days is an eternity for a bereaved family to walk without emotional and spiritual support from their faith community.

Another challenge I discovered was a cottage industry of self-appointed spokespersons for the family who often have ulterior motives and are out there for the media attention. They neither effectively coordinate with law enforcement nor engage the support systems that are in place for the bereaved families.

In 2015, there were over 355 mass shootings (when defined as shooting incidents involving the reported injury or death of four or more people—note that the narrower definition used by the FBI supplies a much lower number). We need to prepare more of our teaching and ruling elders to respond to traumatic acts of violence in their community.  Many homicides and suicides do not reach the threshold for a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance team to respond in our communities. At the 221st General Assembly (2014) in Detroit, the Presbytery of Nevada sent an overture that called for PDA to offer a trauma counseling consultation. It was approved by the General Assembly, and a training was scheduled at the 2015 Big Tent in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was cancelled due to low registration. 

Why are so many of these families walking this dark valley of grief without compassionate shepherds? How might our Presbyterian congregations be more prepared to offer emotional and spiritual support for the bereaved crime-victim families in our communities? One of the reasons these bereaved families do not receive support is because our pastors and congregations are not  prepared and equipped to offer spiritual care for families traumatized by violence. In seminary, most of our teaching elders take an intro course to pastoral care and counseling and complete an internship in Clinical Pastoral Education (some do more than this), but trauma counseling is not generally covered adequately.

What if we had a presbytery and a Presbyterian camp in every region of the United States that was prepared to offer a therapeutic camp for the survivors of gun violence like the ones Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, has hosted?

In January 2014, we offered a therapeutic weekend at Zephyr Point in Lake Tahoe for survivors of the Sparks Middle School shooting. With the support of PDA and Ferncliff, we invited young adult survivors, who had gone through previous therapeutic camps, to mentor our middle school survivors. Many of the parents said that this weekend was more effective than any previous therapy.

How might your congregation and presbytery be more prepared to respond when a traumatic act of violence affects your community? Here are some ideas.

1. Host a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance training for your presbytery or synod.

2. Earn a certificate in trauma counseling from San Francisco Theological Seminary.

3. Invite your local ecumenical or interfaith networks to recommend clergy and lay leaders to your police departments and county DA offices for referrals for bereaved families who lack congregational support.

4. Invite clergy, social workers, and therapists in your community to provide some continuing education in trauma counseling and organize the faith community’s role in the referral system.

5. If a crime victim family does not have a congregation supporting them, your congregation could offer to host a candle light vigil for the bereaved family and friends. It is important that the family is consulted and they bless the event. The homicide detective or crime victim advocate can help with this consultation.

6. Offer to assist with setting up a memorial fund for their loved one. Your church can provide some legitimacy and transparency. People are reluctant to give because of the potential for fraud.

7. Think beyond the immediate trauma and grief. These families could benefit from compassionate friends who walk this longer journey with them (the holiday season, their loved one’s birthday, the anniversary of their death, and the life milestones their loved one has missed). 

The healing journey for crime victim families can be very long and complicated. The criminal justice process can take years, and confrontation with the false promise of closure after a conviction is often when families truly begin the bereavement work. These families need compassionate companions to walk with them through this dark valley.

Howard Dotson is the interim pastor of First United Presbyterian Church in Loveland, Colorado.