This piece appeared in the Church of Ireland Gazette (monthly magazine), in June 2021.
Trauma and torture are not lightweight topics to discuss. When Places of Sanctuary Ireland recently organised a seminar entitled ‘Trauma-informed Pastoral Care’, for clergy, lay chaplains and pastoral workers who work with refugees and asylum seekers within their worshiping communities or in the context of their wider social outreach, we weren’t certain what the uptake would be. It was the first time we had organised such an event. We are all too aware of the ongoing stresses of Covid and ‘screen fatigue’ due to the number of meetings taking place online. We took a step of faith in organising the seminar, in the hopes that we were offering something that would be relevant and helpful for those who engage in the work of pastoral care.
As it happened the seminar booked out quickly and on the day we had 40 participants, lay and ordained, from many different church contexts, joining in online from around the island. The seminar was led by Aisling Hearns of Spirasi, the national centre for the rehabilitation of victims of torture in Ireland. The seminar included basic facts and definitions relating to the international protection process in Ireland, torture and human rights law, understanding the physical, psychological and emotional dimensions of trauma, as well as practical suggestions for relating sensitively to who have experience trauma as a result of torture or other factors that led them seek international protection. Below three of the attendees share their reflections on the seminar.
The Revd Colin McConaghie, Rector, Carrickmacross
It seems to me the more we try in our own small way to welcome refugees and asylum seekers to Ireland we discover how much we have to learn. For those seeking to make Ireland their new home their journeys are often ones of unimaginable difference to our own journeys. This seminar was in truth a real eye opener.
It reinforced my belief that we as Christians are called to play our part in ensuring that asylum seekers and refugees are not only made welcome in our churches and our communities but that we are at least in some small part able to understand the sort of help and support that is needed. By offering our church as a ‘church of sanctuary’ here in Carrickmacross we want to offer a welcome and open door to all living in our community. If each of us plays a small part, mighty things can happen. As we read in Hebrews 13: 2 ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’.
Mary Daly, Domincan Sisters, Dublin
The day was an ‘eye opener’ for me as to the reality for people who are seeking asylum in Ireland. In some ways the input was nearly too much to hear because of the horrific reality for so many people. Yet I was grateful to have heard it.
So much of what I heard about torture is mindboggling for me, I cannot take it on board. The word ‘unspeakable’ stays with me in relation to the experience of people seeking asylum, especially after hearing that an aim of torture is to destroy the victim’s identity, to obliterate their personality. I cannot even try to comprehend how they can now and forever have to live with so much that they have endured. And also the reality that their own awareness of their trauma might only come to mind into the future, or never.
Another fact which was completely new to me was the notion that a person seeking asylum could have experienced trauma in at least three situations: in their home place, on their way here and since arriving in this country. Previously I had only thought in terms of the terrible situations, and the ensuing trauma, which they were now leaving behind. Before the seminar I had not reflected on the reality that manifestations or symptoms of trauma could be misinterpreted especially when they were perceived as socially (for lack of a better word) unacceptable here, e.g. aggressive behaviour. I am more aware now that people seeking asylum have the added challenge and difficulty of coping with uncertainty as to how they will be treated. It makes me think about my expectations and treatment of the people I meet, and especially how I can be judging them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ survivors.
The seminar, opened a door for me and has made me more aware of the culture shock, the racism and the many challenges for people seeking asylum here.
The Revd Andrew Robinson, Minister, Cork, Youghal, and Kinsale Methodist Churches
‘Trauma-informed Pastoral Care’ covered with helpful depth of analysis the variety of issues at play as refugees, trauma, and faith-based initiatives engage each other. Just the definitions distinguishing asylum seekers from refugees proved helpful to me. The webinar served as a necessary reminder of how much there is to learn and how essential continued learning is if the church is to provide some measure of assistance (however small) in ways that truly do help.
I could go about how this webinar impacted my thinking. Right now, I offer two observations: the first, the ‘tripling of trauma’ as refugees and asylum seekers make their way to foreign shores: the trauma of their home, the in-transit trauma, and, finally, the host country trauma—psychological scarring incurred when wounded people are treated carelessly or thoughtlessly.
The second teaching that left an indelible impression upon me was the cultural and contextual factors at play that render asylum seekers and refugees incapable of processing their trauma. Again, this brought home how nuanced the issues in play are and how imperative it is that those seeking to assist do so armed with as much wisdom on these issues as possible.
As the network grows, we hope that we can offer more opportunities for learning and sharing, and in future an annual celebration and gathering of faith groups within the Sanctuary network. In relating to those who have experienced trauma in their journey of seeking safety and a new life, churches have the opportunity not only to show care and compassion, but also to learn from and be enriched by those who have lived through such journeys. Becoming a Church of Sanctuary is a process of ‘learn—embed—share’. If your church is already engaging in this work, we would love to be able to share and amplify these ‘good news’ stories. If your church would like to make a start on the journey, but are wondering how, the first step is simply openness. If we are open to possibilities, it’s not long before we will find God’s Spirit at work in our midst.
Would your church be interested in becoming a Church of Sanctuary? Please contact the Revd Abigail Sines, [email protected], to learn more about the Sanctuary journey.
Places of Sanctuary Ireland is an all-island network of towns, cities, communities, schools, universities, churches, and other places of worship. Those within the network share an ethos of welcome and hospitality, so that wherever people seeking sanctuary go they will feel safe and will find people who welcome them and understand why they are here.