I have come to see my life as a journey in trauma informed care. Recently I was invited to join a coalition of therapists and other mental health practitioners called Trauma Matters Delaware. I wear two hats with TMD: my veteran one and my clergy one. When I joined TMD it dawned on me that in many ways I have spent most of my life learning about trauma care, both by caring for myself and for others.
I divide my life into the following chapters: my upbringing in Wilmington; higher education, military service, theological training and campus ministry, Miami years spent as a pastor, teacher,and counselor; returning home to Wilmington in 1999 to be pastor of Hanover PC; then finally volunteering for several religious and community organizations after retiring. Not until recently did I recognize a theme that runs through these chapters: seeking better health after experiencing trauma.
Let me cite some details.
Where It All Began: Vietnam, 1970
In 1965 I enlisted in the Navy to avoid the draft and getting sent as an infantryman to Vietnam. That didn’t work well. In 1970 I drew a “brown water navy” assignment. I lived ashore in the Mekong Delta with three other Americans at a Vietnamese coastal patrol base. We used wooden junks to search sampans, and much too often for my liking we went ashore on foot to reconnoiter, the very kind of duty I had dreaded. I had a spiritual awakening in April of that year, a dramatic meeting with the spirit of Jesus, and I resolved that if I survived I would become a teacher of religion. Returning home in January of 1970 I had some light symptoms of post traumatic stress: hypervigilance and fear of walking in the woods. In 1975 when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese I experienced moral injury, feeling guilty for abandoning my South Vietnamese comrades in arms. I felt I would go crazy from regret and remorse, but found relief finally by talking with a pastor. Shortly after this I joined the National Conference of Vietnam Veteran Ministers. Very few members were chaplains in the war. Like me, they became ministers because of what they had experienced in the ‘Nam.
Alice and I lived in Miami, Florida from 1981 to 1999. I started out as a campus pastor at the University of Miami, but after serving four and a half years in that capacity I became a “tent maker,” pastoring two small churches, teaching in a brand new seminary, serving as a part time chaplain to a children’s hospital and an immigration detention facility where folks without papers were incarcerated (no other word for it), and practicing as a marriage and family therapist in the evenings. At one time I juggled four jobs at once.
Here are some details from that period:
I founded Chapter 248 of Amnesty International at the University of Miami. Working with a Swiss A.I. chapter we wrote letters requesting the release of a prisoner of conscience in Benin, Africa. He was eventually released but lost his sanity when he was excluded from employment.
Because of my fluency in French I was able to minister to Haitian detainees at the Krome Avenue Detention facility at the edge of the Everglades, a made-over Nike missile base. Depression was rampant, as detainees didn’t know how long they would be confined. They were prisoners without sentences, and some could see no future at all because they were stateless. They couldn’t be deported because no country would receive them. The AIDS epidemic was just winding up, and some detainees with that strange and terrible disease were isolated. Staff were advised not to touch them. I couldn’t bear to keep the rule.
Alice and I lived a half block away from a large children’s hospital. I wore a beeper which summoned me when there was a crisis there. Usually that involved the death of a baby. Most of the families spoke Spanish and were Catholic. I wore a clerical collar and got used to their calling me “father.” Baptizing dead babies wasn’t mentioned in seminary, but I did what was needed.
I pastored a very small church in North Miami Beach for eleven years. There were about fifty members there. Counting the children in our preschool there were 25 nations represented. Many folks these days are upset about immigrants wanting in! I want to say: Have you lived in a city of immigrants? Why are you so stressed? What are you afraid of? This was wonderful! Our preschool director had at least a dozen different religious celebrations on the calendar. A Haitian Salvation Army pastor who became a PCUSA pastor took over at that little church when I left. It was renamed “All Nations Presbyterian Church.”
In 1992 category 5 Hurricane Andrew headed straight for our home, then made a ninety degree turn in the last half hour, striking Homestead instead. There were only eight deaths attributed to the storm, but the property damage was so extensive that many families were living in trailers and dealing with reconstruction fraud for years. I was leading the Counseling Ministry of South Florida at the time. Donations poured in and over the next two years we did more than 2000 hours of individual and family counseling.
Perhaps you remember that a Ryder rental truck carried the bomb that exploded a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. On account of our recent experience in trauma related counseling our agency received a grant to send four counselors over a two year period to support the pastoral counselors there who were burning out. I was on the team. We saw first hand how severe secondary traumatic stress can be!
Returning to My Hometown: Wilmington, Delaware
I hadn’t been back in my home town very long before the two towers fell and life began to change worldwide. I had been active online even before there was an internet. I perceived that online communication would be used to foment inter-religious hatred, so I decided to launch a counter offensive. I started the blog, Interfaith Reflections, and a technical blog called CyberKenBlog, to acquaint interfaith peacemakers with easy to use and inexpensive tools and techniques. About this time a friend from India who had joined Hanover Church reported to me that East Indian friends of hers were experiencing rude treatment in restaurants. Fear of strangers was obviously on the rise in Wilmington. We decided to host pot-luck vegetarian suppers at Hanover where we shared our feelings about what was happening in our country, and also, how our faith was helping us face the challenges. By the time I retired from Hanover we had hosted six of these suppers, which comprised twelve religious traditions. We took the email addresses of attendees and formed a listserv, Many Candles One Light. There are now more than 200 interfaith activists in MCOL.
Freedom to Pursue My Life’s Deepest Purpose After Retiring
The Quakers have been a great consolation to me following my war trauma. I enjoy their practice of silent meditation, and I admire their historic commitments to peace and justice. In 2015 the August issue of The Quaker Journal was about veteran suicide. I was shocked to learn that about 22 veterans a day were taking their own lives. I asked several Quakers from the Wilmington Friends Meeting and a number of local Vietnam vets to join with me in seeing what we might do to address that problem. The outcome was the Interfaith Veterans Workgroup. We just became a 501C3 non profit. we are intentionally interfaith because we recognize that faith communities are a very important resource for veterans suffering from post traumatic stress and moral injury, especially the latter. I invite you to visit our website at http://ivw.website.
Two years ago a Quaker friend invited me to join the staff of New Beginnings-Next Step, a peer support group for citizens returning from Delaware prisons. NB-NS meets at the Quaker Meeting House at Fourth and West streets in Wilmington. As I sat week after week listening to the challenges which men face returning from prison I realized that in many ways they resemble ones that returning veterans face too, like reconnecting with loved ones, coping with bad memories and a short temper, maintaining intimate relationships, making new friends and having to leave some old friends behind, forgiving oneself for moral failings, finding a new identity and a new purpose for living. Currently with the help of IVW colleagues I’m investigating non-clinical methods for relieving symptoms of post traumatic stress and moral injury. These include weekly group hikes, writing groups, visual arts and music, religious and spiritual rituals and fellowship, and deep breath meditation. I invite readers to keep up with my discoveries at the group page of IVW, here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/237928829966077
Well, that gives you some history of my long journey related to trauma-informed care. It has taken me most of a lifetime to realize that’s my purpose, my reason for being on the planet. The circle is closing, and it feels right; or if you are a Presbyterian perhaps you might say “predestined”?