Charm City Blues: Baltimore and trauma-informed community

I’ve been in Baltimore for going on three months. It’s hardly any time at all. There’s a part of me that doesn’t feel entitled to what I am feeling tonight. I’ve fallen in love with this city pretty quickly. It has been a refuge for me, a place to start over. As a Steelers fan, I am predisposed to wanting to hate this city, but there is so much more to life than sportsball and the people of this city are pretty lovable. Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods. Baltimore is more so. I work in three neighborhoods separated by mere blocks. They each have a distinct flavor to them despite their proximity and overlapping concerns. Baltimore is about twice the size of Pittsburgh. It has all of the amenities you would want in a major metropolis while feeling interconnected enough that you could easily find yourself running into the same crowds of people all over the city. “Smalltimore” is what some of the locals call that effect.

The “locals” are good people. They care about their communities. I talk to them every day. The same blue collar mentality that I find and love in Pittsburgh exists here. Maybe it’s just the circles I run in, but there is a civic-mindedness that pervades this city. They believe in hard work, helping your neighbor, and enhancing the quality of life in their communities. The mentality cuts across race and class. People seem to genuinely believe that they can make a difference in their city and they are hopeful.

What doesn’t cut across race and class is opportunity. I’ve heard police commissioner Anthony Batts speak on several occasions and he consistently mentions that Baltimore has a race problem. It is sadly another way that Baltimore and Pittsburgh are alike; there are completely different experiences of the city based on your race. There is, in essence, a Black Baltimore and a White Baltimore.

I spend most of my time in Black Baltimore. I work in neighborhoods where one in every three houses seems to be vacant. Or seems like it should be. I work in the neighborhoods where the schools are being closed. I work in the neighborhoods where underemployment creates major obstacles. I work in neighborhoods where the old fear the young and the young seem to fear nothing. I work in traumatized communities. Not just communities with traumatized individuals, but traumatized communities that are over-policed and underserved. I work in communities where drug deals happen out in the open. If I know where the drug dealers are after two and half months, I’m pretty sure the police do as well. I work in communities where violence happens on streets, but also in homes and interpersonal relationships. I work in communities that have unbroken patterns of abuse and trauma.

Violence is what happens when grief has nowhere else to go and black Baltimore is tired of grieving its young men. That is not a justification for violence. At my core, I believe that violence is the ultimate dehumanizing act and yet when individuals and communities have been on the receiving ends of all sorts of violence – physical violence, economic violence, racial violence, psychological violence – those individuals and communities assert their own humanity by declaring they will no longer be trampled. That is what you are seeing in the streets of Baltimore tonight.

I’ve been watching the Baltimore Police Departments Facebook feed all night. They consistently refer to those out in the streets as “criminals”, once referring to them as “people without regard for life”. This is labeling that is incredibly unhelpful. These are citizens of a major city and they are angry. To call them criminals and thugs dehumanizes them and gives the police blank check to use violence against them. The “supporters” on the Facebook feed reinforce this notion. “Animals!” “Thugs!” “Terrorists!” “Turn the hoses on them!” “Run them over!” “It’s time for deadly force!” People from the safety of their computers, who truly do have no regard for human life, are egging the police on in this tense moment. Not helpful. It would be more helpful if the police understood themselves as part of a system that has helped to negatively impact the esteem of people in these communities. It would be helpful if police understood their own traumas that they may be acting out on other people. It’s not helpful for police to perpetuate “us and them” narratives.

Almost every meeting I attend has a police presence. They aren’t there for security, they are there to introduce themselves to the community and try to build some positive in-roads with neighbors. They know that there is an image problem. They know that there are trust issues. I do genuinely believe that most of them are good people. One or two that I’ve met have grown up in Baltimore city and they want to make their city better. I applaud that. I think of the story of the centurion in Luke 7. He was a good man despite being a part of the most violent of police states. But that doesn’t change the fact that he was a centurion, an occupier. In many cities, the police forces do not feel like fellow citizens caring for communities. They feel like occupying forces there to stamp down insurrection. Jesus was amazed by the faith of the centurion. Sometimes I’m amazed by good cops. I have to remind myself that they are people too.

I’m sad tonight. The air in Baltimore is heavy. The tension is palpable. In a few hours I will go into work. I feel a renewed sense of purpose around my work. My job is to enhance the ability of these neighborhoods to respond in positive ways to the traumas of their communities. There will be much work to do. I may help clean up in some of the riot areas. I may touch up the paint on the playground equipment we had volunteers work on this past weekend. I’ll probably just sit with some neighbors and ask them how they are doing. I’ll listen because first and foremost, traumatized people need to be heard. And then we’ll talk about gardens. Or youth activities. Or farmers’ markets. Or anything that reminds them and me that tomorrow is going to happen. Because that’s also what traumatized people need… hope.

The Trauma-Informed Life

Yesterday I attended an event that crystallized some thoughts I have been having. It was a symposium hosted by Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute as a part of their social determinants of health initiative. The focus of the symposium was healing from community trauma. The thesis of the entire event was that we need to develop trauma-informed systems to combat environments in which both children and adults experience traumatic experiences on a regular basis. Unless we have schools, courts, hospitals, churches, and governments that are sensitive to the needs of those who regularly exposed to jarring experiences, it was continuously argued, we will not only be ineffective in dealing the issues in urban communities, we also run the risk of re-traumatizing those we had hoped to serve.

I have been acutely aware of the ways that my own experience of childhood trauma are impacting my health as an adult. Many of the issues that have around depression, self worth, and even my health seem to represent what the research suggests are the normal signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m also aware that the trauma visited upon me was mostly done by others who had also been traumatized in their youth. patterns and cycles of trauma that go un-addressed are almost destined to repeat themselves. I see other friends dealing with adult repercussions of childhood trauma. So many of close female friends have dealt with childhood sexual abuse and molestation that I almost assume it now when I make female friends. So many of my African American friends count what should be called “abuse” as discipline that it’s no wonder that we’re all confused about what love really is.

As a nation we’ve been traumatized by images of war and terrorism on our television screens.  Film history teaches us that the rise of the horror genre in American cinema came in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. What a strange thing the human mind is that we would use violence as a catharsis for violence! There was a renaissance in the genre in this country after 9/11. It’s not a coincidence. We  deal with the chaotic violence of the world through images of controlled violence. Is it any wonder that the NFL, violence in a neat controllable container, is so popular? We do sometimes forget, however, that the players are not actors. We remember when their violence bleeds over into real life.

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When I was in late elementary school, I started having nightmares. The antagonist in these dreams was Chucky, the main villain of the “Child’s Play” series. Chucky was a two-foot tall doll who came to life and went on murderous rampages. I don’t think I actually watched any of the movies, but the premise terrified me. I do not like murderous dolls! One of the things that helped me in that period was watching behind-the-scenes documentaries about movies. I watched how special effects were made. I watched how shots were done. I was particularly in puppetry and creature effects as I was a puppeteer at the time. There was something about knowing how the scary effects were made that helped me to overcome my fear. And, more importantly, it’s helped me as a parent to talk to my kids when they see something scary on TV.

“Dad, is that real?”

“No, Buddy. It’s not.”

“Okay, then I won’t be scared.” (actual conversation)

Being trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive is, for me, a new way of thinking about the world. Everyone has experienced some level of trauma so it’s best to come into interactions gently, particularly as we’re getting to know people. This gentleness needs to increase exponentially as we become aware of the potentially traumatizing experiences one may have had in their lives. When I come across some of the young people that I see in the streets of Baltimore, I have to assume a certain level of traumatization that I didn’t necessarily have to assume with interactions in a suburban bookstore. That assumption shouldn’t lead to fear. It should lead to humility, gentleness and an openness to listen.

Trauma is another way of thinking about the privilege conversation.  Every layer of privilege that we have is a shield from traumatic experiences. Being white shields one from the traumas that black people experience. Being male shields me from the trauma that women experience. Education, wealth, health, and environment all shield us (to a large degree) from adverse experiences. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t matter how many layers of privilege you have if you’re in a car accident or in the wrong place at the wrong time. What it can protect you from is the day in, day out traumatization that occurs in many of our urban centers, especially people of color. To paraphrase one of yesterday’s symposium presenters, there’s nothing “post” about the PTSD for someone living in poverty. The trauma is a present and recurring reality, not something in the past.

Over the next few days I want to try to write about ways we develop trauma-sensitivity in some of the systems I know best. I’ll be writing about the trauma-informed self, the trauma-informed family, the trauma-informed church, and the trauma-informed community. Maybe someone else will chime in on trauma-informed schools or courts and I can post that here as well. I’d love to have this feed into some larger conversations. I think this line of thinking is very important.

Self-Discovery

This post is a part of the UNCO synchroblog. April’s them is “UnEarthed”. You can read the other posts in the series here

Therapy often feels like an archaeological dig. Well, it feels like how I imagine those digs go; you find a spot that seems reasonable to start digging, sometimes you don’t find anything and you move, other times you hit something. Now sometimes what you hit is some thing small. A piece of bone. A shard of a pot. The tip of a spear. Those things are valuable. But then there are other times when what you discover is a part of something much larger.

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The larger thing I have been unearthing over the last few months has been my lack of self love. It’s been really important to acknowledge that facet of myself and to begin to look at all of the ways that it manifests in my life. The big discovery that I have been having as of late is the way that this has been reflected in my sense of call.

We clergy types talk a lot about our “calls”. We feel called to a particular place, a certain context, and/or a specific population. It is not merely a career choice, it is a Divine mandate on our lives and woe unto us if we do not heed the calling of God! We are Moses at the not-so-burning bush. We are the Peter and Andrew called to be fishers of men. Sometimes we are Saul blinded on our way to Damascus. Other times we are Jonah, covered in fish vomit and going reluctantly. No matter the circumstances, it is God’s call and we invest much of ourselves into pursuing it. It becomes our raison d’etre.

Maybe that’s me, but I doubt it.

I based a lot of my self worth on being a pastor. Too much. When I preached a good sermon or had a good visit at the hospital, I felt my life had worth. When things went poorly, it was easy for me to make the leap from “that didn’t go well” to “I am a failure”. In fact, that it is a road I know very well. I know it because I have ben on it for a long time.

I have always been an introvert, but I have also always loved to be up in front of people. I did plays and skits as a younger kid. I did puppetry when I started getting more shy. I loved giving presentations in school. We did a trial in an American history class in high school where I was a lawyer. I don’t remember the case, but I totally hammed it up! My teacher loved it. I had a small role in a play my senior year. It was a very small role, but it got one of the biggest laughs of the play. Being a pastor guaranteed for me that at least once a week I would get a chance to perform. I don’t mean “perform” as in be inauthentic. When I say “perform”, I’m referring to the act of being publicly evaluated and deriving my worth from that evaluation. In my career, I have opportunities to speak in front of large groups of young people. If you can win over 600 middle schoolers, that’s pretty much undeniable proof that your life has merit!

Do you know what the irony of this post is? It’s another form of performance. I’m hoping that I will get some “likes”. Maybe a repost or two. Maybe even a retweet! Oh the sweet, sweet validation of being retweeted! I have this deep seated need to be seen and deemed worthy. This is what happens when your father opts out of your life. It is a thing I hope to never do to my kids. I would rather perform for them than have them perform for me.

My mother gave me a little laminated card when I was in my teens. It was something I think she picked up at church. I don’t remember everything that was on it, but it had this phrase that, oddly enough, has stuck with me: Despite my performance, I am deeply loved.

Despite my performance, I am deeply loved. It doesn’t matter what kind of work I do, it doesn’t matter how much recognition I receive. At my core, I am created in the Divine image and infinitely worthy of love. Not more worthy or less worthy than you, for we all have infinite worth. When I dig deep I can find that truth in me. It’s been covered up by years of rejection, trauma, fear, and failure, but it is down there, needing to be discovered again and again.

Despite my performance, I am deeply loved. Despite your performance, you are deeply loved. May we experience this as truth.

Resurrection and Self love

I’ve been thinking of how to put a bow on my Lenten affirmations. I will say that it has been the most meaningful discipline I have undertaken in a long time. Something in my brain fundamentally shifted by affirming myself and being grateful for the things in my life. I was changed by this Lent in a way that I’m not sure that I fully understand. I am looking at the world with different eyes.

But what can I say this Eastertide? What does the resurrection say to me as one who is growing in love for himself in order to love the world more fully? The answer is simple, but it requires a higher christology (Understanding of who Jesus is) than I usually have. But then again, maybe it doesn’t…

Simply put, the resurrection as it is understood in Christian thought is an act of self love. Certainly we can talk about the distinct persons of the Trinitarian community. The “Father/Mother” loved the “Son” and raised Him from the dead. But In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God and the Word was God. Jesus spoke intimately of his connection to God, particularly in John’s gospel. Seven times Jesus claims I AM status, the same “name” that God gives for God’self to Moses via the non-burning bush. The author of Colossians calls Jesus the image of the invisible God. The Nicean creed speaks of Jesus being “homoousios”-  of the same substance- as God. So Jesus is made of God stuff. And God didn’t want to see God stuff dying and dead. The resurrection was God removing the dead parts from God’s self, because God loved God’s self.  The resurrection is actually a radical commitment to removing death first and foremost from One’s self. We wouldn’t call the resurrection selfish. If there is an opportunity to remove death from one’s life, why not take it? It is the most loving thing to do.

I have found that the most loving thing that I can do for myself is to remove from my life those things that feel to me like death. Not hard things. Not challenges. Death things, things that don’t affirm my worth, things that make me feel shame and guilt. Things that tell me that I’m not good enough. Things that tell me that I’m unworthy. Some of those “things” are relationships. It’s not to say that those people were death or that they were killing me, but that the ways I viewed myself in relation to them were toxic to my health. Some of things are habits. There are ways in which I slowly kill myself each day either by what I do or by what I leave undone. To recognize those patterns and to consciously work on breaking them is, for me, a practice of resurrection.

My goal here is the goal of Easter. It is the goal of life, lived freely, abundantly, fearlessly, and openly. I desire this because a life lived this way is a life lived towards others and allows me to see the image of God in them. You see, when I see God in others, the God in me acts with self interest. The God in me desires to see death removed from those who also carry the image of God inside of them because God loves God’self. There have been times in the last year or so where others have had to break relationship with me to remove the death from their lives. I grieve that, but I understand it. We should be actin in a way that removes that which is dying from the lives of others.

Yesterday, months and months of community effort resulted in the closing of a nuisance bar. This establishment had served underage patrons with frequency which lead to all manner of lewd behavior in the surrounding communities. That establishment was death in the community and I have spent much of my work life in the last two weeks taking up the fight that had been going on long before I arrived in Baltimore to see this life sucking business shut down. The pronouncement by the liquor board that refused to renew their liquor license felt like a proclamation of resurrection.

In a world where police deal death to black bodies, extreme scrutiny of the police state is an act of resurrection. In a world where Trans people commit suicide or are bullied to death on the regular, protection and inclusion of our Trans family feels like resurrection. In cities where schools are closed and discounted as “failing”, tutoring and after school programs feel like resurrection. In homes given citations because widows can’t afford to make repairs, new drywall feels like resurrection…

And in the self-loathing mind of a depressive, abuse victim, affirmations of his (or you know, “her”) own worth feel like resurrection. Because resurrection is about self love. God’s love for God’s self. And the God in me sees the God in college kids who party on York Road and wants to remove the death from their life. The God in me sees the God in the black boy gunned down and wants to see death removed from his neighborhood. The God in me sees the God in the policeman and wants death removed from his problem solving toolkit. The God in me sees the God in the person whose sexuality or gender have been sources of persecution and wants to see them be freely who they were made to be. The God in me sees God in the struggling student and the anxious widow and wants them to be treated with dignity.

And the God in me, sees the God in me and says “Rise! Rise from your self doubt, and self loathing! Rise from your fear and and anxiety! Rise from your past failure and shame! Rise and be the father, friend, organizer, pastor, community member, artist, lover, partner you were meant to be! Rise and help others to do the same cause that’s what you do! That’s what God does!”

As I’ve been wrestling with this post this week, this song appeared came through my iTunes. Thank you Kendrick Lamar. There’s something about a black man singing “I love myself” that is incredibly uplifting!

Lenten affirmation, day 40

tonight I affirm a direct contradiction to my greatest fear. What is that fear, you ask? Well…

Go in peace!

And may the God who walks on wounded feet, walk with you on the path.

May the God who serves with wounded hands open your hands to serve.

May the God who lives with wounded heart open your heart to love.

May you the face of Christ in all you meet and may all you meet see the face of Christ in you

That’s my benediction. I said it most Sundays for five years. I fully believe that I can see the face of Christ, the image of the Divine, in the face of others. I rarely see it in myself. I believe the grace and love that I preached every week was for everyone but me. Grace is for other people. I have to be perfect. Flawless and without blame. And woe unto me when I don’t meet my own impossible standard for myself. The self-flagellation is brutal. 

Tonight, I simply affirm this: I am not the exception.

I’ve included a selfie every night this week. When I see myself, I see a gangly teenager, awkward, ugly, and unloveable. This week I have looked at my own face and looked for the Divine spark in me. Sometimes I see it. 

I am thankful for my babies who are the best reflection of me. I’m thankful for playgrounds and sleepy parents. I’m thankful for road trips and music. I’m thankful that the panic didn’t last long. I’m thankful because I have so much more than I realize. 

  

Lenten affirmation, day 39

my second to last affirmation is a response to my second great fear: the fear that my needs are a burden to my loved ones. Tonight I affirm the validity of my needs. I am not a burden to those that truly love me and even when i am, I am a burden worth bearing. I have the right to make my needs and desires known and respected. Voicing my needs is not merely whining. I am not dead weight.

I’m thankful for safe travel and kids who are worth every mile of the drive. I’m thankful for a productive week. I’m thankful for this day that mocks the power of empires. I’m thankful for friends who allow me to be a little irreverent on holy days. I’m thankful that I am cared for. I’m thankful for gray days that help me to appreciate the sun.  

 

Lenten affirmation, day 38

i want to take my last three days of affirmation to write against my three biggest fears. So first, I affirm that I am not incompetent. Yes, some things in my life have come to me via relationships or happenstance, but I am skilled and knowledgeable. I do many things well. I do a few things excellently. I am not the weakest link. 

Today, I am thankful for tax professionals. I’m thankful that I’m not one. I’m thankful that I got to spend so much of my day out in the sun. I am thankful for good colleagues. I’m thankful for the “new commandment”. I’m thankful that even when I don’t get to preach on my favorite church day, I can help others think through what they will say.