Sermon: Trauma at the Welcome Table

This is the last sermon in a Back to the Basics series on “Who’s Got a Place at the Welcome Table?”

Isaiah 2:2-4; 25:6-8

Jonathan Hershberger’s story:

Every morning, during third period at Central Christian High School in Northeast Ohio, we convened for chapel. One Spring morning, a visiting pastor spoke of secret sins – and that we never know what someone may be struggling with. As he spoke, he slowly removed pieces of his crisp, clean suit, revealing tattered clothes underneath. On my drive home that afternoon, I silently obsessed over his words, my own secret sin, and contemplated whether I would attend the same speaker’s workshop the next day – on the Christian Response to Homosexuality. My carpooler – a good friend who attended my church – sat with me, blissfully unaware.

During my adolescence I believed each of the following things at one time or another:

·         Satan is tricking me to believe I’m attracted to men.

·         I am going to Hell if I cannot stop having feelings towards men.

·         God hasn’t healed me yet, so I must be doing something wrong.

·         God requires that I be celibate.

I believed these things even though I did not go to a vehemently anti-gay church. In fact, my religious communities were largely silent on the topic. In the silence, I believed there were no gay Mennonites. I was Mennonite, so I couldn’t be gay. It wasn’t a possibility.

At the workshop the next day, the pastor taught us that homosexuality is a sin, but that we must approach “them” with compassion. We should be kind and, perhaps, even offer them the hope that they can be healed. I stayed behind after the workshop and, shaking, I told him that I “struggle with this” – pointing to the paper we received with the key points of his talk. He was gentle and kind, as he prayed with me and promised that God could heal me. I embraced this truth. I prayed to God constantly to change me and felt increasing shame as I remained unchanged. The shame was intensified by the barrage of “gay jokes” my peers made. I made significant efforts to hide my “sin” from most people, only admitting it in anxious whispers to a select few, for fear of judgment or worse.

During college and my early 20’s, I slowly learned to embrace myself as a gay person. And, as I came out, I found time and time again that I was not wholly welcome in the communities that had raised me. Perhaps, partly, this was because of my unwillingness to be silent about those faith community’s open discrimination in ways that directly impacted my church membership, education, employment, housing, and my sense of self. The most impactful experience was being told that I could no longer work at Camp Luz, the Mennonite camp where I had worked at for four summers and attended my entire life. I was devastated at the loss of that community and began to doubt the progress I had made in accepting myself.

Since then, I’ve rebuilt my sense of self and support network. And, still – the thought creeps up, “Was that visiting pastor right about my sin?” Or I hear a song from my church camp days and am immediately stricken with grief. More conservative religious language distresses me and, quite frankly, I avoid spaces where I may be exposed to it. During a recent meeting, Sheri mentioned that she once considered inviting a pastor friend, with a more conservative theology, to speak at FMCSF after she had been invited to speak at his congregation. I admitted that – I probably would not have attended that service. Even at FMCSF, a place where I have felt deeply welcomed and embraced, I have had experiences during worship that caused me to mentally disengage because something reminded me of my past traumas. This can lead me to ask – “How do I fully embrace the widening welcome table, knowing that people filling the new seats may have perspectives or styles that are painful to me?”


As Jonathan’s story so beautifully and painfully shows, when each of us sits down at the welcome table — or decides whether or not to approach it — we bring with us everything that has formed us to that table. We don’t come as blank slates. We come as people who have been deeply inscribed by our experience of life thus far.  And for some of us — I would say, for all of us, to some extent — that experience includes trauma. Pat recently said something that I thought captured the link between the theme of this series and trauma. She said: “When you widen the welcome table, you have to expand your capacity for understanding the trauma that people are bringing with them – for holding it with compassion, and working with it in the community. We’ll need to become more trauma-informed if we’re going to have a wider welcome table.”

We did a whole series on learning about trauma three years ago. I think that’s so important because I have come to believe that we can’t understand most of the big predicaments of our day — and how those show up in our community — without knowing something about trauma.  A simple definition of trauma is “your body’s reaction to experiencing or witnessing something deeply disturbing.” Notice, this is a bodily reaction at first, not an intellectual or emotional reaction. The trauma may bleed into our thoughts and emotions eventually, but initially it’s our bodies’ response to threat. Our bodies’ response to “too much, too fast, too soon,” as one therapist described trauma. And our bodies — and the bodies of all animals — respond to threat through a “fight” response (punch), “flight” (I’m out of here!) or “freeze” (maybe if I’m really silent and still the Big Bad won’t notice me). Sometimes trauma — especially if it’s ongoing or really big — doesn’t get integrated — “metabolized” — and it can get stuck in our body and our psyche, where it will stay until it is addressed. This unintegrated trauma can manifest itself as constriction, pain, disease, fear, dread, anxiety, unpleasant… thoughts, reactive behaviors. (List adapted from My Grandmother’s Hands.)

For example, if you were attacked by a dog when you were 3, you may not even consciously remember the event. But your body will remember it, and that trauma could end up manifesting as an irrational fear of dogs. Just looking at a photo of a dog could bring up constriction or jitteriness in your body; it may cause your heart to beat more rapidly. If a dog comes toward you, you may immediately see the dog as dangerous and loudly ask the dog’s owner to “Keep that thing away from me.” The dog owner may well think, “What’s the matter with them?” That kind of over-the-top reaction often points to unconscious and, thus, unhealed trauma. 

Trauma is not just individual, it’s also collective. Several of us in this church are taking a course where we are looking at the collective trauma known as white-body supremacy and how it has traumatized  people of color, white people and police officers. In the course, we’re reading the book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies. Written by an African-American therapist, Resmaa Menakem, the book, to my mind, does more to address and heal the roots of racism than almost any other book I’ve read.  

African Americans and Native Americans and Jewish people, in particular, have experienced generations of collective trauma — centuries of assaults to their physical, emotional and spiritual survival.  But, Menakem says, a different but equally real form of racialized trauma lives in the bodies of most white Americans. In his book, Menakem traces a history of white-on-white violence in Europe and the U.S. that, he believes, left lasting traumas on white-bodied people. As he says: “When the English came to America, they brought much of their resilience, much of their brutality, and, I believe, a great deal of their trauma with them. Common punishments in the ‘New World’ English colonies were similar to the punishments meted out in England, which included whipping, branding, and cutting off ears… In America, the Puritans also regularly murdered other Puritans who were disobedient or found guilty of witchery… Well before the United States began, powerful white bodies colonized, oppressed, brutalized, and murdered other, less powerful white ones. The carnage perpetrated on Blacks and Native Americans in the New World began, on the same soil, as an adaptation of longstanding white-on-white practices. This brutalization created trauma that has yet to be healed among white bodies today.”

I think Menakem is onto something. A Native American Mennonite man said much the same thing to me years ago. He noted the European history of the Crusades and the witch hunts and the Inquisition and the centuries-long colonization and oppression of the Irish by the English and the widespread use of torture and and burning people alive to punish them for being heretics — and he felt strongly that white people — including Mennonites! — carried this multigenerational trauma with them in their bodies to this continent and to their relationships to Black people and Native Americans.

All these different collective traumas are passed down from generation to generation. This intergenerational trauma gets encoded in abusive family systems; in oppressive structures, institutions and cultural norms; and in our very genes. “Recent work in human genetics actually suggests that trauma is passed down in our DNA… Our very bodies,” as Menakem says, “house the unhealed dissonance and trauma of our ancestors.”  

That was a lot. Let’s take a deep breath together.

So, to bring this home to us. For a long time, our congregation, I think, has been trauma-informed when it comes to LGBTQ trauma (with the exception of the “T” — I still think we may not be super informed about trans trauma). Many of us who identify as straight, get — to some extent — the pain of being rejected and judged for something so fundamental to our selves as our sexuality. Many of us have been harmed by conservative Christianity, from which we have needed to heal. So when an LGBTQ person walks up to our welcome table, we often understand the trauma they may be bringing with them.

I think we’ve also done good work around understanding the trauma that Jewish people may be bringing with them by educating ourselves about the harm that has been caused by centuries of blatant and subtle Christian anti-Semitism. While I think we still need to do more, we’ve done quite a lot of work to understand Jewish pain and Christian complicity in that trauma.  

But do we understand in the same way the trauma that a person of African descent may carry with them when they walk up to our welcome table? The trauma a Native American person may carry? The discomfort that any person of color or a person of a different class may carry into our space? 

For those of us who are white, do we understand the trauma we may be carrying into this space? Much of what is now called “white fragility” — defensiveness, an inability to truly take in the pain of people of color because of our guilt and shame  — much of this comes, Menakem believes, from unhealed radicalized trauma that white people carry in our bodies.  

If we are LGBTQ, do we understand how trauma may keep us from feeling comfortable sitting at the table with a more theologically conservative person who may happen to be an immigrant or a person of color or a working-class person? Can we wonder if trauma is at work when the thought of singing praise songs — which our youth recently asked us to do — causes us to immediately feel like “No way! That music drives me crazy!”

As Pat was working with her own trauma a number of years ago, she said she came to realize that even though the trauma we have is not our fault, we are ultimately responsible for it — for the ways it shows up in our bodies and psyches. And we are responsible for healing it. Otherwise, she said, “trauma will run the show.” And if we aren’t aware of the trauma others may be holding in their bodies, we may be dismissive or judgmental about what’s showing up — like “what’s their problem?” rather than “I wonder what pain is causing this reaction?”

I have seen many of you work through trauma and have seen the healing and peace that has brought to your lives. I would not be able to show up as a “calm, non-anxious pastoral presence” in this community (at least some of the time) if I had not done some trauma healing work 25 years ago, even though I didn’t know to call it that at the time. And I don’t believe true peace will be possible in our selves, our families, our communities, our country without this healing work. The vision of Isaiah that formerly threatened and traumatized people would voluntarily beat their weapons of defense — their swords — into plowshares — that’s not possible without healing trauma. The banquet where all the nations of the world who formerly warred with each other now sit down at the God’s welcome table together to eat a mouth-watering feast of fatness and feast of wine is not possible without this healing.

Being trauma informed is necessary now more than ever. Because trauma is running the show in our country right now. And none of us are unaffected by it. 2020 has been nothing but deeply disturbing. It has been a year of too much, too fast, too soon. I won’t name all the things we’ve had to contend with: You know them. In your bodies. Are you experiencing any of these things? Anxiety, inability to sleep, a short temper, hyper-vigilance (like taking in the news all the time), withdrawal, fatigue, cynicism, lack of empathy, restlessness?  These are common responses to trauma. Kazu Haga, founder of the East Point Peace Academy, says that when we are running trauma, we tend to lose the ability to see nuance and instead see everything in black and white. “Something is either threatening or it’s not. Something is either right or it’s wrong.” Does that sound familiar? When we are running trauma, “everything feels escalated…The brain floods your body with adrenaline and cortisol… You begin to feel that the next threat is around every corner.” Sound familiar? 

Trauma is rampant in our body politic these days. Traumatized people are lighting buildings on fire. Other traumatized people are showing up armed on the steps of state capitals, demanding that the government not tell them what to do with their bodies — that is, wear masks. Traumatized people come up with conspiracy theories about all manner of made-up threats — talk about hyper-vigilance! — and other traumatized people readily believe these theories. A deeply unconscious, deeply traumatized man is leading our country and he came to power and keeps it by incessantly activating the fears of traumatized white-bodied people. Trauma, Menakem says, is contagious. It actually passes from body to body like a virus.

But here’s the good news. Settled bodies also are contagious. A calm nervous system is also contagious. We feel that, when we are with bodies that are calm. We often naturally calm down in their presence. I know there’s times — when we used to meet in person — that I would walk into a Sunday morning agitated in body and spirit and once you began showing up, I calmed down. 

One of the beautiful rituals we have in our Christian tradition for calming our bodies is anointing. And it’s a ritual we practiced regularly back in the days when we touched each other.   I invite us to do this now. Especially as we head into this last month leading up to the election, I think we need to especially take time to calm our bodies, to soothe our spirits. So I invite you to take oil or water and, while we play a beautiful version of “Balm in Gilead,” do whatever you want with it that might feel soothing to you. If you’re with others, you may ask them to anoint you. You may want to place the oil on your head that’s thinking too many thoughts all the time; place it on your heart, if you are feeling grief or sorrow; place it on your neck, if it feels tight or constricted. You can turn off your video, if you want. And — of course — you don’t have to do this at all, if you don’t want to. You can just breathe and take in the music. 

May the peace of Christ be with you. May the peace of Christ be in you.