Anthony L. Bennett on Engaging Trauma in Sermons
Many urban pastors deal with trauma. Some preach without benefit of pay or formal training. This Baptist church gathered its associate ministers monthly to learn about trauma and exegete Scripture to engage people hungry for healing and justice.
Anthony L. Bennett is lead pastor at Mount Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He co-chairs CONECT (Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut), which helps faith-based and civic organizations work toward broad social change. In this edited conversation, Bennett talks about Mount Aery’s 2017 Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship to “edify, equip, and engage a biblical response to trauma.”
How would you describe your 2017 Vital Worship Grant?
Its purpose was to edify, equip, and engage a biblical response to trauma, starting with our associate ministers—although other leaders were also welcome to attend. The project director was Nancy Kingwood. She is a Mount Aery associate minister, Mount Aery Development Corporation’s executive director, and federal trainer on trauma-informed systems approaches.
Our ministers met monthly for ninety minutes to learn about prophetic preaching and homiletics. Sometimes Rev. Nancy led conversations about tools of healing. We talked about how to pray, meditate, and engage in the spiritual practices that we tell others to do. We focused on how to exegete and proclaim Scripture to engage the congregation during the preaching moment and call them to act for justice.
Congregation members gathered quarterly to learn about trauma and prophetic preaching. Members shared their thoughts about how sermons prompted them to change and work for justice. During the grant, the congregation also participated in dramatic Scripture readings and sermon vignettes.
What is trauma?
Initially, people think of trauma as something like the physical aftereffects of a car accident. But in conversations, Bible studies, and other church settings, we explain that trauma is the emotional, mental, spiritual, or physical impact of and response to violence. That violence may be verbal, physical, spiritual, or cultural. People understand it intuitively, but not fully till we connect it to their life experience and define it as trauma.
How many preachers are on staff at Mount Aery Baptist Church?
There are fourteen of us in all. I am the only one fortunate enough to do ministry as my full-time career. We have one part-time paid assistant pastor. Of the remaining dozen, all are volunteers, and nine are women. Trauma is a reality in urban ministry, and we all have our own stories of trauma in our personal and professional lives. Our women in ministry have to deal with trauma because of their gender, though that stuff is mostly outside of our congregation.
Do preachers deal with any specific traumas?
Every congregation has fallout from miscommunications. Many pastors work in the midst of burnout, stress, and trauma. I grew up in South Central Los Angeles and was blessed that my parents stayed together. My father didn’t go to church, but when I was called by the Holy Spirit to preach, my father charged me to also care about what happens beyond church and to be a public witness. I’ve been involved in many social justice issues.
Clergy are often first responders in that they’re called to the scenes of fires, natural disasters, shootings, conflicts, and death. They’re not always trained to deal with vicarious trauma or to address community and historical trauma. As Rev. Nancy often says, “You cannot heal what you do not address.” Part of our grant was providing sacred space for associate ministers to process their own trauma.
Despite the trauma that anyone in urban ministry deals with, there’s also tremendous joy, strength, determination, and resilience in our churches. Those blessings come from the gospel of Jesus. We also have the narratives of our ancestors, who found healthy ways to deal with trauma.
Can you say more about historical trauma?
My parents are from Mississippi, where, in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, white parents would bring their children to lynchings of black children. People in my congregation lived through the lynching era. This evil manifests itself now as the kind of domestic terrorism seen at the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Most shootings in mosques, synagogues, and churches are by white men. The way United States culture works is to normalize violence against people of color and always give white people the benefit of the doubt. People respond by saying “Oh, we should learn more about Islam or Judaism or mental health. Maybe we should get our churches together for a diverse worship and potluck.” This response fails to address the white nationalism that is the cause and root of such incidents.
Most black and brown people just want to survive. Even if you don’t talk about skin color, you always think about how it affects everything. There are also the traumas related to adverse childhood experiences, poverty, gender, and sexuality.
How can preachers without much theological training prophetically proclaim Jesus as good news in a broken world?
Many of our ministers work as volunteer preachers while holding down other jobs. Some haven’t had the benefit of much formal theological training. So during our grant project I used a teaching typology from Warren Wiersbe. He was a Baptist pastor, professor, radio minister, and prolific author who explained how Scripture can be a picture, a mirror, and a window. In sermons, we first encounter a biblical text as a picture. It functions as a mirror when we get insight to relate the text to our lives. It becomes a window when God gives us the vision to see how to proceed based on the text.
I also reminded our associates what James A. Forbes Jr. said about prophetic preaching. He had multiple degrees and was senior pastor of Riverside Church in New York City. But in his book The Holy Spirit and Preaching, he wrote that it is the Holy Spirit’s anointing that protects preachers from burnout. This anointing makes the difference in sermons that respond to traumas with prophetic witness. These anointed sermons witness to the redemptive love of Jesus that calls us to radical discipleship.
Can you give a picture-mirror-window example?
Here’s one from 1 Kings 19 about Elijah’s season of loneliness. Chapter 18 tells how God worked through Elijah’s prayer to end a three-year drought at Mount Carmel. Chapter 19 gives us a picture of Elijah hiding in a cave, terrified that Jezebel will have him killed. This biblical picture is something we can recognize in our own lives. So often after victories, we let others’ views determine our self-worth. We respond by isolating ourselves.
The text becomes a mirror when we see that, like Elijah, we’re prone to think, “Woe is me! I’m the only one still trying to serve God.” We give up, wish we could die, and deprive ourselves of what we need to keep going.
The text becomes a window when we notice that God sent an angel to provide bread and water and remind Elijah to eat. I asked our associate ministers, “What are the nutrients we need as preachers?” One thing is fellowship. Elijah thought he was the only servant of God, but God reminded him that there were still seven thousand Israelites who had not bowed to Baal. At Mount Aery, we remind ourselves that our congregation may be rare, but we’re not unique. We live into this reality when we become conversation and action partners with other congregations working to address trauma and injustice.
Did this picture-mirror-window example from 1 Kings prompt any realizations for your associate ministers?
One admitted that he struggles with letting others’ perceptions define him rather than believing he is who God anointed him to be. He sometimes says to himself, “You are a man who used to deal drugs. What right do you have to preach?” Others felt safe to share traumatic personal experiences and trauma triggers. Some said that studying Scripture together rather than writing sermons alone helped them experience God’s compassion in the face of evil.
How has this grant changed sermons and congregational response at Mount Aery?
Our sermons are not about our own bad experiences, but we do try to weave that in. It has made worship more meaningful. I’ve seen growth in our preachers. Not every sermon hits 100 percent. But neither is every sermon about the abstract mountaintop glories of God. Johnny Ray Youngblood was my mentor when I was on staff at St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York. He often said something that’s true here at Mount Aery too: “Sometimes people’s call and response may be what they do when they think ‘Thank you, God, that this preacher is finally relating your Word to our lives!’”
The people who plan prayers, music, praise, and other worship elements are starting to work with each other and with preachers. Planning worship corporately enhances our worship experience. It helps inspire worshipers to act.
Because of the grant, more congregational members have gotten involved in our drama, health, and meditation ministries. We’ve learned to meditate in worship services as a way to respond to trauma. People have adopted healthier habits through our health fairs and 40 Days of Health and Healing campaign.
Read Introduction to the Art and Practice of African American Preaching by Frank Thomas and Those Preaching Women: A Multicultural Collection, edited by Ella P. Mitchell and Valeria B. Davis. Read Rest in the Storm: Self-Care Strategies for Clergy and Other Caregivers and Addicted to Hurry, both by Kirk Byron Jones.