Spiritual First Aid during a Time of Crisis
Drawing from her past experience of shelter-in-place in Central African Republic, Ann Plantinga Kapteyn offers insights and resources for coping with trauma during COVID-19 pandemic.
During our current stay-at-home order in Michigan, my mind keeps returning to the last time I lived through a shelter-in-place order. That was five years ago, in the Central African Republic (CAR) on my first of many trips there to work with local Bible translators. One Sunday, while my colleagues and I were in church singing a hymn titled, “Unto Death I Will Follow Jesus,” we started hearing machine-gun fire in the distance. Instead of going out for lunch after church as planned, we returned to our guesthouse and ended up having to stay there for a whole week as gunfire and explosions sounded from all over the city. That Sunday was the beginning of a week-long skirmish between a rebel group and the French military, and all residents, especially foreigners, were advised to stay inside and keep their heads down. Finally, toward the end of the week, U.S. embassy personnel transported me and other Americans in an armored vehicle to the airport, where a private jet picked us up and took us to safety in Cameroon, where we caught commercial flights back home to the U.S.
Just four months before this experience, I had facilitated a trauma-healing equipping workshop in Cameroon. We used the Trauma Healing Institute’s Scripture-based materials to equip a group of Cameroonian church leaders to better minister to congregants who had experienced trauma. We learned about the importance of listening to each other as we tell our stories, the importance of naming our losses, writing our own laments, and bringing our pain to the cross. All of this was interwoven with Scripture, singing, skits, and art exercises. This workshop equipped laypeople to help others deal with traumatic experiences from their pasts, but I didn’t realize it was also helping me build resilience for future traumatic experiences, like what I was to experience just four months later during my week-long lockdown in CAR.
After that week in CAR, I returned home to Michigan, and my extended family knew just what to do to help me process this experience. We all went to a cabin together, and then they asked me to tell them the whole story. So I started from beginning. I told them about curling up in a ball on my bed that first night as I heard the helicopters overhead and the machine guns just outside the window. I told them about how the next morning I carried my mattress from the house where I was staying by myself and moved into the dining room of some missionary women I didn’t even know because I couldn’t stand being alone. I told them how we started running out of food, but after praying for God’s provision, a woman knocked at the door with a platter of the most delicious fruits and vegetables for sale. And I told them about the close and comforting fellowship I enjoyed with the eleven British, French, Cameroonian, and American guests who were all sheltering together in the same compound. It was such a relief to tell the whole story to loving family members in the safety of the cozy cabin in Michigan.
The two shelter-at-home experiences I have had share some similarities, but they are also very different. While the experience in Central African Republic was short-lived (for me, not for my Central African friends), this coronavirus crisis shows every sign of continuing into the coming weeks and months. Just telling our stories to loved ones won’t be enough; we need information about normal reactions during times of crisis, and we need practices to help us cope. The Trauma Healing Institute has recently published a very simple and beautiful guide for improving emotional and spiritual health after a time of disaster. It’s a booklet called Beyond Disaster: A Survivor’s Guide to Spiritual First Aid. It was written with a natural disaster or a war in mind, but every chapter and Scripture passage will apply equally well to this time of pandemic. It combines meaningful Scripture passages and sound psychological principles to offer a guide for understanding and dealing with our strong emotions and for relating to God in this situation. The booklets (less than $1 each) or a free PDF are available at disasterrelief.bible, and translations into many languages are either completed or ongoing. If you or someone close to you is looking for a simple, holistic resource with practical ideas for staying healthy in a time of crisis, you may benefit from Beyond Disaster. The booklets offer strategies to help people cope in the short-term, guidance on what to expect during the process of recovery, and resources to begin a journey toward emotional and spiritual healing. It might be a good resource for a family or a virtual church group to work through together as we seek to support each other during these anxious times.
Many around the world are experiencing anxiety as we are confined at home with questions about our physical and economic future. But God hasn’t left us without resources, the most precious of which are God’s Word and the people around us. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity to reach out and reach up as we walk through this crisis together.
Ann Plantinga Kapteyn is a translation consultant for Wycliffe Bible Translators and the SIL International. She is also a training facilitator for SIL’s Global Trauma Healing Services.