By Lesley-Ann Hix Tommey
Since landing in New York City as field personnel in October 2017, I have spent most of my time learning about homelessness and best practices in caring for folks who have experienced trauma.
The Living Well program at Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries is a trauma-informed group for women who have experienced both domestic violence and homelessness. RMM is part of a consortium of faith communities around the city who host a Life Skills Empowerment Program. There are groups just like ours but for veterans and for people returning home from incarceration, and all of the programs follow a similar structure: twice-weekly meetings for 14 weeks, a shared meal, mentor support, truth telling and life skills training. Ours is the only one in New York City that focuses on domestic violence, one of the leading causes of homelessness in the city.
For women who are lucky to have survived physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, financial abuses, the road to healing is long and painful. We have many great days together, and there are a lot of bad days too. Together, we bear witness to the brutal brokenness they carry, and we struggle to process what has happened in their lives, understanding triggers that come crashing unexpectedly into their day and finding the courage to set goals for their future. Showing our participants how gifted, light-filled and valuable they are is the biggest hurdle we aim to clear every semester. They’re not convinced they’re worth it, but we know they are.
Whenever we get to the conversations about forgiveness during our Living Well cycles, I hold my breath. Having survived unimaginable trauma at the hands of another person, it’s so important that our participants understand forgiveness does not validate the violence. Never is the trauma people cause fair or justifiable. Never does anyone deserve that experience. Insensitive, calloused harm of others, violent expressions of power and control, degradation of another human being is sin and rips our world apart, seeming to pull us far from any possible shalom.
Still, forgiveness is a necessary part of healing because, as our Living Well graduates explain, not forgiving leads to a build-up of resentment and anger and contributes to more triggering experiences. One graduate, Elaina, told me recently, “Unforgiveness will kill you.”
“But how do we get there, when we’re not ready to forgive?” I asked our graduates at a recent alumnae event.
It’s about you, not that other person, they responded.
One thing I have learned from working with survivors is that our healing is out-of-reach until we are willing to put ourselves first. We have to recognize that we are worth healthy boundaries, saying “No,” not taking responsibility for others’ emotions, and asking ourselves “What do I need?” before we can ever begin to heal.
Forgiveness is not a one-time event. Several of our graduates talk about a practice of release they build into their day. Whenever one alum encounters disrespect or feels her anger rising, she breathes deep and repeats, “I bless you with love. I let you go.” At the end of her day, another alum prays, “Forgive me for how I have disempowered others, or for how others have disempowered me.”
Ultimately forgiveness is about self-love. When we first meet women at Living Well, they assume a posture that protects their hearts, and throughout our time together we grow and work on heart openers (just like yoga poses) by building safe community, developing trust and uncovering their unique strengths and gifts. By the end of the semester, it’s powerful to see how their posture has changed. Their hearts are open, not exposed, but open because they’ve begun to recognize the stunning gifts they have within them, and they feel lighter after being able to speak their truth.
Every time our Living Well group moves from despair to full of hope it seems like a miracle. Bearing witness to brokenness can be heavy work, but we loudly claim each other’s worth, truth and goodness in holding that safe space together. So by the end of the semester, joy overflows. And in these practices of forgiveness, our survivor community “builds a realm of new possibilities” together.
Lesley-Ann Hix Tommey is a CBF field personnel serving in New York City. Learn more about and support her ministry at www.cbf.net/tommey.
Lesley-Ann’s long-term presence in New York City is made possible by the CBF Offering for Global Missions. Join God’s mission in the world. Give to the Offering for Global Missions. 100 percent of your church’s gifts will be used to send CBF field personnel to share the Good News of Jesus Christ around the world. Go to www.cbf.net/transform and order your free OGM resources today.