I recently returned from a second trip to Louisville, Kentucky, with purpose of providing trauma healing training to African refugees who live there. Our first trip was eye-opening and inspiring. It caused me to see something in my own country I hadn’t seen or been exposed to and opened my heart to caring for the complex needs of refugees worldwide. This trip has continued to teach me and this time I leave taking ownership and sharing the burden.
Louisville is the tenth largest resettlement city in the country. While USA resettled 70,000 refugees in 2015, there is a goal to increase this by 10% in 2016. Often refugees will settle in places where they already have friends or family, one reason Louisville is an attractive choice for Africans from countries like Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. We had the privilege of meeting with key organizations like Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM), established in 1990 by 2 Christian women who saw the needs of refugees in their town and wanted to help. Now, one of 2 resettling agencies in the city, it is providing initial intensive services for individuals and families with their main goal of self-sufficiency. Refugee families are given a travel loan from the government for relocation, which needs to be paid back. This can become a hardship if they do not find employment. Agencies like KRM assist with everything from case management, English classes, employment search, to culture orientation (ie. setting up a bank account, medical insurance). Their personal, individualized assistance is too vast and broad to articulate, which also gives us a picture of the needs of refugees who resettle: they come with little and need everything.
We received invitation to come address a key, but often missing piece in assisting refugees: trauma. These individuals have come from places affected by war and violence. By definition, they have been forced to leave their homes to find safety and refuge. Often, they spent years living in refugee camps or other meager conditions with one main goal: survival. They have witnessed and endured varying degrees of violence, loss, abuse, poverty. Their daily goal of survival as individuals or family does not give them the opportunity to heal from the grief, loss and suffering. They then experience another significant loss in the transition to a new country and culture, often separated from loved ones who were their support system.
Our goal of this trip was to provide a trauma healing group so that a key group of individuals can not only address personal healing, but eventually be trained to facilitate trauma healing groups with others in their communities. An employee at Kentucky Refugee Mission said: “What you are doing over the next couple months will help us for years.” She sees the effects of trauma, but with the first goal being stabilization and survival, she knows firsthand that trauma is still overlooked, even in settling in a new safe, country.
Jean de Dieu and Pauline Nzeyimana have invited us to partner in their work. Through Gate of Hope Ministries International, they assist, equip, educate and support African refugees who relocate to Louisville. Jean de Dieu is also the pastor of Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA), a Kinyrwandan and Swahili service for those from African communities. To spend time with these individuals is to witness the essence of Christianity.
One of the best classrooms during our time in Louisville is Pauline’s van. As we drive around the city, we hear her share stories of lives being changed, activities of advocacy for the needs encountered, dreams, vision and ideas for more ways to meet those needs, and the discouragement and burdens that she and Jean de Dieu carry. We overhear phone conversations: a woman who recently come feels lonely and overwhelmed, or a call to listen to another who is sharing news or plans of their family or the community garden project, which will provide 35 families with plots of land.
Their home is also a classroom as we witness them providing selfless hospitality and time for visitors. Jean de Dieu and Pauline give humbly and sacrificially. Pauline names it her “calling” and says when she is tempted to doubt and question why she is not working elsewhere since she is highly educated, she reminds herself of something her father shared with her and her husband shortly after the war in Rwanda: telling her she and her husband were spared for a reason and God has work for them to do.
The fruit of their sacrifice is evident. Resettlement agencies rely upon them for many things, especially the personal connection they have within their communities. They care for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40): often widows, orphans, single mothers who come with nothing but need everything, many having physical conditions and layers of trauma.
We were invited in to share their burden of caring for who the world may see as “the least of these.” Pauline’s dedication to counseling a group of women, investing in them, gathering them weekly for hours of prayers every Saturday, and soon providing plots of land in a community garden, is bearing fruit. They have a strong community that has already brought healing. They share stories of how they have challenged each other, spoken truth to each other, come alongside each other and it is bringing healing. This weekend was another investment and gave time to cast a vision to take them to another place in their healing. The church and prayer group are strengthening their faith, their trauma is being addressed and finally they are being given a purpose through the vision that they will become trauma healing facilitators.
One woman who attended the trauma healing group provided a testimony and shared: “Blessed are those who bring others closer to salvation. You are blessed if you are doing all you can to bring others closer to God.” She talked about her surprise at the sacrifice made by us who came to train them. She then said “This trip and what our mothers did for us is what God wants all of us to do. They are just showing us an example…” She talked about being a widow. “I felt like I’m nothing…I felt no one loves me in the whole world, lonely, helpless…I felt useless, but God works miracles. When Jean de Dieu was telling us we are needed for this work, I felt like he was talking to me. God called me when I was suffering. I was a widow. I was counting my own days…ready to die anytime…Jesus found me at this point. I am glad He gave me more days to live and brought me here.” She thanked God for what He is preparing for them….”This is the beginning of a bigger thing for God’s work…”
Sitting in the training this weekend, walking with the women, taking their photos of faces that convey stories of strength, courage, power, resilience, suffering, hope, and faith, I realized: This is part of God’s Kingdom. Building God’s Kingdom does not necessarily look like a Billy Graham Crusade: something massive and grandiose that seemingly has large, tangible results. Building his Kingdom is one by one, little by little. He came for the sick, needy and broken. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom. Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are they that hunger and thirst….Blessed are the pure in heart, peacemakers…Blessed are those who are persecuted…for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:2-10) They are the physical representations of a spiritual reality. They are worthy, so worthy, of any time and attention because He uses the weak to shame the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27), and because those who acknowledge they have nothing, are those who will inherit His Kingdom (Matthew 5:3). Jesus Himself said when we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick or imprisoned, we are doing it for HIM. Might we add, when we support the sojourner who is struggling with newness, we are doing it for HIM (Matthew 25:35-40).
These women have a deep, unwavering faith. It has been tested and tried. Their faith has produced joy and impulsive worship. Their dancing reveals depth of survivor, restoration and praise. They may be physically weak, but never too weak to sing, dance and pray fervently and for long periods of time. They will move, build, and strengthen God’s Kingdom. They will be change agents in their homes, churches, and communities and in this world. They will first continue to enter in with each other. This will then have a ripple effect and multiply. One by one, little by little, this group of ladies the world and culture may cast aside will be healing agents of change and restoration. Therefore, the honor and privilege are ours to go and invest and witness God’s work in and through them. In turn, they are agents of healing and restoration in me because they give me hope and remind me of my purpose and the important mission of the Kingdom.
To learn more about the trauma healing curriculum and approach, visit the Trauma Healing Institute of the American Bible Society, which has been translated into 150 languages and is being used worldwide.