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Sherrye Willis and Angela Johnson on Faith-Based Healing from Trauma

Ten African American churches in Texas are focusing on helping youth understand and heal from trauma. This knowledge helps adults become more aware of their own trauma and is changing worship practices.

Sherrye Willis is the founder and president of  Alliance for Greater Works (AGW) in Grand Prairie, Texas. Angela Johnson is the AGW managing director. This nonprofit in metro Dallas used a 2018 Vital Worship Grant to help ten congregations promote healing through trauma-informed worship. In this edited conversation, Willis and Johnson explain that adults sometimes find it easier to face their own trauma when churches focus on trauma in youth.

What does Alliance for Greater Works do?

SW: We partner with communities throughout Texas to eliminate inequities in marginalized communities. Our alliance strengthens and positions leaders and organizations to transform communities. We address the real, often hidden issues that create hunger, unemployment, housing insecurity, health problems, and inadequate education. AGW envisions a world where everyone is empowered to be all that they were created to be, regardless of their ZIP code.

Describe the ten congregations you worked with to promote healing through trauma- informed worship.

SW: These churches—Baptist, Methodist, nondenominational, and Seventh-day Adventist—are African American congregations in north central Texas. Their combined membership tops 36,000. They came together originally during a three-year grant from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. We saw a bond develop among these churches. Together we created a website, African American Faith-Based Mental Health Education and Awareness, to share resources and identify local free or sliding-scale sources for counseling and medication.

How do you define trauma so anyone, including youth, can understand it?

AJ: Many people have experienced trauma but don’t know what to call it. In our trainings, we explain it’s important to learn about trauma because it is stored in our bodies and minds. Trauma affects our feelings, behaviors, and relationships. Trauma impacts individuals, families, communities, and national cultures.

Next we ask people what they think when they hear the word “trauma.” Then we share the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) definition of trauma: “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

SW: A traumatic incident is often a point in time that causes you to be not who you were. You may become imbalanced or have nightmares. For example, my car was hit head-on and swirled out of control to face oncoming highway traffic. Even though I was not physically hurt, it took a year or more to recover from the effects. Sometimes I still feel afraid in heavy traffic.

Is trauma always an individual experience?

AJ: Individuals experience traumas such as accidents, domestic violence, neglect, sexual assault, or losing a parent. But there are also collective traumas, such as natural disasters, school shootings, community violence, and misconduct within churches. The churches we work with are also affected by historical traumas like racism when certain segments of society are attacked in the media or treated differently by authorities.

SW: Because African American churches in Texas include diverse ethnicities, such as Asians, Native Americans, and Latinos, our partner congregations recognize they need to understand and discuss traumas related to immigration and the current political climate. We’ve seen that many African Americans rely on faith, family, and social communities when faced with trauma or emotional distress. Others simply isolate themselves. AGW works to create faith-based resources that empower and encourage people to seek medical or therapeutic treatment when necessary.

In your grant project, what worked well to teach congregations about trauma?

AJ: Preachers and Bible study leaders drew on the many biblical examples of trauma, such as stories of war and genocide in the Old Testament; tremendous loss in the book of Job; and parts of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death. These biblical stories help people see that God understands and cares about trauma and that healing often comes through prayer, worship, and applying God’s Word. We’ve had good success with public service announcements, newsletters, church workshops, and study groups.

SW: These churches use existing resources from National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) Faithnet to observe Mental Health Month in May and Minority Mental Health Awareness Month in July. We’re tracking how these congregations include mental health and trauma in sermons and youth programs.

Why did you focus on helping youth rise above trauma?

SW: Since 2014, the ten congregations have been learning that we need to focus on mental well-being as much as physical well-being. Still, many people grew up equating mental health challenges with something demonic or “bad/wrong.” This stigma can prevent adults from opening up about their own depression, anxiety, or trauma.

AJ: During our grant year we, in partnership with four of the ten churches, hosted the Stay Woke and Be Heard Mental Health Youth Summit. We learned that youth want to talk about anxiety and the traumatic issues they grapple with. Those who live in marginalized communities face violence and lack of quality resources. Many youths live in food deserts, and their families don’t have transportation to access grocery stores. Growing up with a lack of access to quality affordable food can also affect developing brains and our mental well-being.

After consulting with our partner churches, we decided to focus our Vital Worship Grant project training on youth and trauma, and AGW launched Healing Youth Alliance. This one-day, in-person, faith-based training is designed to support the mental health and wellbeing of our youth. It helps congregations dismantle practices that create or resurface trauma for church leaders and youth ministry.

We noticed that when you talk about trauma from the standpoint of helping children and youth, then adults relax. And when they learn about traumas affecting our youth, sometimes they say, “Oh, wow, that happened to me too when I was young.”

How might specific worship practices retrigger trauma?

AJ: If someone has experienced physical abuse or sexual assault or misconduct, then being hugged or hearing loud voices, shouting, or clapping can set off alarms in the mind or body. The worshiper might suddenly go from smiling to crying. That’s why it’s important for church leaders to understand signs of trauma and point people to available resources for healing. That resource might be a quiet place for reflection, prayer, or stronger faith. It might also be a listening ear, professional counseling, or medication.

SW: The way church leaders present God makes a difference. If you see God as a judge looking to punish bad people, then you tend to think that what happened to you makes you a bad person. You think of the trauma as somehow your fault. As a result of our grant project, pastors have altered their homiletics. Congregations are making behavioral health resources available without stigma or shame to those experiencing mental health issues.

But aren’t hugging, strong emotions, and loud sounds part of many African American worship traditions?

SW: Feeling free to cry, shout, dance, or clap is important for many black Christians. Doing so creates deliverance for many people. We do not ask church leaders to change their traditions, but simply to be aware of how certain worship elements might affect some congregants. If you have someone in worship who is affected by loud sounds, then have someone with them in worship to help them understand their reactions. And worship leaders can try to balance emotional styles and sound levels. We can all be wounded healers.

You can educate people about trauma through sermons, Bible studies, small group discussions, and trainings such as AGW offers. It’s important to keep educating people so those new to the congregation learn about trauma, its effects, and avenues for healing. Treatments for mental health challenges and traumas are similar.

What first steps can you recommend for African American congregations that want to plan trauma-informed worship?

AJ: The first step is to become aware of mental health, mental illness, and trauma. Next, seek to understand what your congregants are going through.

SW: Be sure to address these topics in sermons and curricula for all ages. All behavior—whether cognitive, emotional, or social—has meaning. Trauma often involves loss of connections, because when something bad happens to you, you don’t necessarily want to open up because of shame, pain, and culture. This is particularly true in African American communities, where you’re taught “what happens in this house (or church) stays in this house.”

Remember that healing from trauma begins in relationships. Also, when someone experiences trauma, they often lose a sense of control. To heal, they need to start regaining a sense of control and meaning. That means we must not seek to control the pace or method of their recovery.


See the grant poster from Alliance for Greater Works’ 2018 Vital Worship Grant. Book AGW to present its Helping Youth Rise Above Trauma course. Register to browse resources from African American Faith-Based Mental Health. Read The Church Leader’s Counseling Resource Book: A Guide to Mental Health and Social Problems, by Cynthia Franklin and Rowena Fong.