The public outcry over family separations came from all fronts, from the far left to the far right politically. The book of Lamentations 2:11 captures how many felt: My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out on the ground because of the destruction of my people because infants and babes faint in the streets of the city. Anyone with a heart for children was enraged, and those with a history of childhood trauma were emotionally triggered. This injustice led to a groundswell of folks loudly proclaiming, “This is not America.” But it is America.
We have a history of racially traumatizing behavior toward the most vulnerable. Enslaved families were routinely separated and sold off. Indigenous children as young as five were taken from their parents and placed in government-run boarding schools. And for close to four years during World War II, Japanese families were detained in government internment camps. Black, Indigenous, and other people of color live in the perpetual nightmare of racial trauma. We’ve prayed about it, but the answer is delayed for months, years, and decades.
In 2 Samuel 21, we read of the lament of Rizpah, a traumatized mother grieved by an act of vengeance. King David handed her children over to the Gibeonites, who brutally murdered them and exposed their bodies on a hill. By law, they should have had a proper burial, but it was not allowed. Instead of leaving powerless, Rizpah took sackcloth, a sign of mourning, and spread it out on a rock near the place where her children were slain. There she sat from the beginning of the barley harvest until the rain poured down on the bodies. Rizpah sat in the scorching heat of the day and the cold darkness of night. Each day she used her voice and head covering to scare away vultures. At night she was terrorized by howling jackals and wild animals lingering in the shadows. She kept watching. She waited. She wailed. She was a witness who refused to be moved.
This is the heart cry of those of us who carry unresolved grief that is as deep and wide as Rizpah. We sit in that place of pain until God hears and answers. Sometimes we are consciously aware, and other times not. It’s several years later before we discover that our losses are like those of Rizpah, and we have refused to move on. Glenn Schiraldi writes, “In trauma, we don’t only lose something, we also lose our way. Hard-earned gains and dreams for the future seem irrevocably lost. Development is seriously impaired. Grieving is about finding our way again.”
People of color have difficulty finding our way because our racial trauma has gone unprocessed and is ongoing, and now we have multiple losses and compounded grief. Some people of color live with decreased physical, psychological, and relational health; reduced access to employment, housing, and education; adverse cognitive-emotional processing and quality of life because of unprocessed and compounded grief. The telltale symptoms of compounded or complicated grief are denial, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, preoccupation with anger and rage, ambivalence, unresolved guilt, or shame about the significance of the trauma.
The journey of healing from racial trauma includes lamenting, processing and grieving those compounded losses in a way that is not linear; there are no fixed stages—it’s more like moving through a figure eight. We may repeatedly cycle through grief, and then at some point, we’re able to live with the loss without it overtaking us.
Professor Emmanuel Katongole “conceives of lament as ‘a complex set of practices or disciplines—a way of seeing, standing, and wrestling or arguing with God, and thus a way of hoping in the midst of ruins.” The prayer of lament requires that we no longer hide or deny our racial trauma and pain. This type of prayer may take different forms: we may weep, complain, or scream; all can help expose how we truly feel. King David’s prayers of lament serve as an example of how, when faced with racism and injustice, we can also cry out to God. One prayer of lament is found in Psalm 44:24-26: Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.
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Liza is an almost second-generation immigrant from Colombia. She has lived with the complexities of unprocessed and compounded grief and is now experiencing healing through lament. The day after the presidential election, something changed in Liza. She went to work and was to lead a staff meeting; instead, she told the staff, “We’re not going to do a staff meeting. We’re just going to sit and cry.” The meeting was awkward for Liza because she was one of only three people in visible distress; the rest were silent and seemed to be unmoved. Liza realized how emotional health and community openness is prevented when Christians are taught to wear a smile all the time—even if it is a mask. How can we help each other understand that tears and lament are healthy and healing?
Over a year later, as Liza sat in her car and listened to reports of the separation of refugee and immigrant children from their parents, she became overwhelmed with grief, anger, and fear. She was blindsided by her pain. She used her jacket to muffle the sounds of her sobs. It felt like 1994 when Proposition 187 passed in California, establishing a screening system that prohibited undocumented immigrants from accessing essential health care services and public education.
Liza could hear the panic in her mom’s voice as she said, “We gotta get our papers in order! We need to get naturalized right away before they start kicking Latinos out of this country.” It’s almost twenty-five years later, and asylum seekers are literally fleeing for their lives from a county where the United States is complicit in its downturn. Yet many in the United States and the church want to turn the refugees away at the border.
Liza walked through life with a suitcase full of unprocessed grief and chronic stress, and she carried this into her marriage and her parenting. She subconsciously decided that the first language of her kids would be English, not Spanish. Then one day while in prayer Liza had an epiphany, the painful truth that she loved hearing Colombian Spanish, but she did not want her kids to face the racism their Grandma endured because of her heavy accent. Liza cried out to the Lord in lament, angry about why she had to deal with the legitimate fear that her kids would be treated poorly or thought of as less than.
Liza uncovered how her self-defeating coping mechanism had unintentionally cut them off from their own culture and heritage. Liza no longer wants to pay such a high price for what she can’t control. She regrets that her kids could’ve learned Spanish earlier. But now they are. Liza knows that the Lord is for her and her family. He overcomes systemic oppression and heals individuals and communities, and she can join him in that work.
Liza has friends who understand the importance of tears and lament rather than only railing in anger or proclaiming that God has a purpose in pain. These kinds of relationships bring hope in the midst of hurting. These friends mutually lament and grapple with racism, microaggression, and the resulting pain, anger, trauma, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Liza believes that there will always be a remnant who speaks the truth and persevere even if nothing seems to change.
Rizpah did this when she insisted that King David acknowledge her pain, grief, and cry for mercy and justice. When David heard of Rizpah’s tenacity in guarding her loved ones, he finally granted her justice. The bones of Rizpah’s sons, King Saul and his son Jonathan were finally buried in their family tomb. After Rizpah’s sons are treated with dignity, the blessing of the Lord was released on the land (2 Samuel 21). I wonder how the church’s refusal to recognize the grief and pain of people of color, its refusal to lament, and confront injustice have affected our land.
Taken from Healing Racial Trauma by Sheila Wise Rowe . Copyright (c) 2020 by Sheila Wise Rowe. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com