God

May 04, 2016 by Josh de Keijzer

"Many People Have PTSD Because Of The Church"

Church attendance is undergoing radical changes in the U.S.A. According to a continuous stream of Pew Research Reports, the religious landscape in America is being re-shaped as we speak. The nones and dones are on the rise. Recently I interviewed Kathy Escobar about faith shifts in America. Her message to people who undergo these shifts is that it is important to lean into these changes and embrace them because it is inevitable. But there is more going on than changing belief systems.

“No wonder,” says Teresa Pasquale, trauma therapist and author of ‘Sacred Wounds,’ “a lot of people are leaving the church because the church has not heard them but instead hurt them. It’s not so much about this or that doctrine, it’s about trauma.” Do we hear this right? People traumatized by what we understand to be the body of Christ? Apparently so. I was intrigued and needed to know more. So I had a conversation with Teresa, an articulate professional therapist who has no beef with the church other than that it should return to its core identity.

Teresa, you are a therapist. Can you tell me more about what you do?
“I specialize in the area of addiction and other mental health disorders that are exacerbated by trauma. But trauma and post-traumatic disorder are my focus area. I worked for about 10 years with comeback veterans and survivors of military and sexual trauma for the department of Veterans Affairs but also worked with addiction and trauma victims when I was in Florida for about 6 years.”

One way or another they have been traumatized or had their faith fragmented because of that hurt. My book discusses ways to begin the healing process from that trauma.

“I have also worked with refugees and asylum seekers who were coming to the U.S. for protection from violence and torture in their home countries. There is a wide spectrum of trauma and there are many ways it shows up in people’s lives. Most recently I’ve started to deal with religious and spiritual trauma, with those that have been hurt by their faith of origin and are now looking for healing and some guidance in their own spiritual journey.”

So are you exclusively focusing on people who are traumatized by the Church now?
“I would say I still do a range of things, but with my book, ‘Sacred Wounds,’ I may have started to focus more on understanding and specializing in religious and spiritual trauma. It is for people who have been hurt in a faith setting or in a spiritual community. One way or another they have been traumatized or had their faith fragmented because of that hurt. My book discusses ways to begin the healing process from that trauma.”

Religious trauma. Let’s talk about this concept. What exactly is it? Ten years ago it didn’t exist, or, if it did, nobody knew of the term.
“Yes, it’s only in the past 5 years or so that the term was coined. A handful professionals have been doing studies with specific groups of people to determine what exactly this is. Generally speaking, religious trauma occurs if you have been hurt in a faith context maybe with the church you grew up in or maybe in a religion or spiritual faith you found in adulthood that cheated, manipulated, or forced you into a certain mold.”

“Oftentimes the way that people are hurt is through negating who they are as a person. Such people have been taught they are not valuable or valid as a human being because they are lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gay, queer. Any of these categories make up a huge contingent of people that I have come across who suffer deeply because who they are is negated. This is often done by certain religious groups, specifically fundamentalists.”

My suggestion that Gandhi cannot possibly be in hell, was met with shock and subsequent condemnation. The situation became rather awkward as the leaders tried to “save” me.

“Christianity being a religion is one of them. It has a high incidence of trauma victims. We are talking about emotional, but also physical and sexual trauma. It happens especially in religious groups with very strict rules for behavior and groups that operate under a very dominant leadership model. When I first started talking about religious trauma, people thought I was merely talking about clergy abusing children. Well, sure, clergy abusing children is one way in which people use their power to exploit someone, but it is by no means the only way in which that happens.”

“Initially, the term religious trauma was unknown. Nobody realized that when someone got hurt in the church this was actually a traumatic experience. But for some people it is downright post-traumatic stress disorder. That is PTSD! Besides trying to heal spiritually, there is emotional and psychological treatment that people have to have access to in order to begin to heal. So to know that it is trauma is important and so is the need to vocalize it. As long as we had religion, we’ve had people abusing it as a means of power and control over people whatever it looks like.”

You are no stranger to religious trauma yourself. Can you say more about that?
“My primary trauma was sexual trauma in my adolescence. I talk about that in my first book, ‘Mending Broken.’ My religious trauma was secondary to that and has been complicated by my own traumatic experience. What happened to me was that I was publicly shamed at a Christian youth camp for not falling into line with the official rules of belief. My suggestion that Gandhi cannot possibly be in hell, was met with shock and subsequent condemnation. The situation became rather awkward as the leaders tried to “save” me. Eventually my mom had to come and basically rescue me.”

Do you find that a large number of people have been traumatized by the Church?
“Yes, I do! We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface because so much trauma is still wrapped in silence and secrecy. Many people with religious trauma are still in a place where the abuse takes place and therefore it is unsafe for them to vocalize it. So we are just beginning to hear some of the voices of those traumatized and we will only ever get to see a fraction of the trauma. There is probably 3 to 4 times more traumatized people than we imagine. You can get an idea of the number of traumatized people by looking at the number of people who were previously involved in a religious group but are now unaffiliated.”

At the root of what Jesus created was not just the ability to love unconditionally but also to provide a place for the marginalized and to speak up for them. The more the Church is able to be that, to be the voice of those who have no voice instead of creating an institute, the more it will actually transform the world

So let’s talk about the Church. With so much religious trauma should we say that the Church has failed?
“I would say, it’s Yes and No. For me, coming from a contemporary setting and background, things are never quite so black and white. I think that the way we have shaped the Church as a place where people are supposed to follow a certain set of rules rather than a community where people are living out unconditional love to both neighbor and self, is one of the main problems. The Church has walked away from the root and the core of what Christianity was intended to be.”

When you criticize the Church, it sounds like your criticizing its institutionalized part.
“I think that it is a combination of factors of secrecy and silence and of lifting the leaders up to a place where they cannot be questioned. Fundamentalist environments are especially prone to this and groups where there are leaders who become god-like figures when they are given an unending supply of power. When we not only create systems but also outlets without check and balances for people who are seeking power for negative reasons, we are setting people up for abuse. The better the Church is able to look at these things critically the more it will be able to create an organic, intimate, and interpersonal experience where people can be authentic and where everyone is able to become radically effective.”

How could the Church play a positive role in an age in which religious trauma is coming to the surface?
“The acknowledgment on the part of the Church that abuse is actually happening is a first important step. Secondly, the Church needs to look critically at its own system in large and small ways to spot areas in which it is alienating people. The Church needs to acknowledge and be aware, even when people think it is not happening in their own context.”

The title of your book is ‘Sacred Wounds.’ How can wounds be sacred?
“There is an inherent divinity to the place that gets hurt and so there is sacredness to that hurt. Secondly, hurt from a religious context comes from a religious, i.e. a ‘sacred’ place as well. But in the third place, the wound is sacred because it can be an occasion for growth, transformation, and grace. Jesus is the Wounded Healer. And in the same way, the things that hurt and wound us the most,  allow us to find a new version of ourselves and a better understanding of the world around us, once we move through them and overcome them. In this way we can show up in the world and be there for others providing empathy and courage.”

What does religious trauma have to do with Jesus?
“At the root of what Jesus created was not just the ability to love unconditionally but also to provide a place for the marginalized and to speak up for them. The more the Church is able to be that, to be the voice of those who have no voice instead of creating an institute, the more it will actually transform the world.” Am I correct if I conclude that your work in religious trauma has at heart a very deep connection with the message, work, and person of Jesus? “I would say so. It would be my greatest hope; that is ultimately the aspiration of every Christian. My book is not intended to help people leave the Christian faith; it says ‘We can do this better; we can be there for people who are hurt. We can do a much better job than we are doing now.’”


Buy Teresa Pasquale's book on church trauma here.

By Josh de Keijzer



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