From the Worldwide Faith News archives


Date 05 May 1996 13:05:04


                          by Alexa Smith 
LOUISVILLE, Ky.--Just days after Easter, clergy in Oklahoma City are 
drawing upon theological imagery and psychological theory to care for a 
city grappling with what one expert calls "pure unmitigated evil." 
     "To call the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma ... pure 
unmitigated evil would not be too strong," says the Rev. Ruth H. Bersin of 
Burke, Va., an Episcopal priest who led the first crisis response team into 
Oklahoma City from the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) 
in Washington, D.C., at the request of the state's attorney general and the 
     "Evil because the impact is so far-reaching and so devastating. Evil 
because lives have been destroyed.  Evil because it was calculated and 
intentional.  Evil because the perpetrators of such a crime are forever 
outside the human community and probably have been so deeply hurt 
themselves that they are numb to the stuff of life that makes us human," 
Bersin told the Presbyterian News Service in a telephone interview.  
     "This is beyond the capacity of rational beings to absorb.  This is 
beyond our ability to fathom both in terms of pain and in terms of the hate 
that would cause such pain." 
     But what clergy do fathom right now is that  they are facing an 
unknown number of funerals and memorial services.  They are facing years of 
pastoral caregiving to people suffering from sleeplessness, panic attacks, 
shock and exhaustion -- with an anniversary of the trauma coming every 
year.  And they are facing tragedy right in their midst while trying to 
speak hope for the future. 
     "Here we just celebrated Easter. ... The questions of why and how are 
difficult," said the Rev.  Pat Kennedy of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, 
who lives just blocks from the bomb site.  "And there really isn't a 
satisfying answer ... but we live in the hope of [the] Resurrection all the 
time. ... 
     "And I have seen God's people reach out and touch people." 
     The Rev. Mark Heaney said one way 10 clergy responded to potential 
conflict in the city was to attend a Muslim prayer service in the city -- 
despite rumors then of ties between Islamic terrorist groups and the 
bombing.  "[We wanted to say] we weren't going to point any fingers or 
single out any groups," he said. "And they [the Muslim community] were very 
grateful for that." 
     But within congregations, Heaney says, people are talking in small 
groups about their experiences during the past week -- some who escaped the 
building, others who have someone missing and still others who witnessed 
injuries on the city's streets from flying glass and concrete. 
     "People need to talk and keep talking," he said. 
     Bersin said clergy will most likely do more listening than talking 
over the next few months.  But there is power, Bersin says, in symbol and 
in liturgy that may carry people through a recovery process that can 
"almost be likened to the journey of Christ through hell between the 
Crucifixion and the Resurrection. ... He died," she said, "and then walked 
among the damned before he rose to be the Redeemer of all." 
     Facing down flashbacks, nightmares, numbing and hyperarousal, known as 
post-traumatic stress disorder, may  be understood as spiritual wrestling 
as well, says Bersin. 
     "These are normal responses to a very abnormal situation. Images will 
persist until they have their say and the process of facing them down can 
be likened to Jacob wrestling with the angel until he received a blessing," 
she said, adding that some will recognize and claim new strengths as they 
heal -- and that is redemptive. 
     Others' lives, Bersin said, will be shattered forever. 
     Dr. John Ruskoe, dean of the chapel of Oklahoma City University and a 
United Methodist pastor, told the Presbyterian News Service that an 
interfaith pastoral response team is being organized now by the Oklahoma 
Conference of Churches to provide training and resources for clergy in the 
     Grief management is the intended beginning, he said.  But the goal is 
to take recovery week by week and to respond to clergy needs. 
     "Repeated funerals can be very demanding, certainly time-consuming and 
draining," said Ruskoe, adding that clergy will also have to prepare 
parishioners for multiple burials. "What we hope to do is give supportive 
networks for those clergy needing backup or support." 
     Heaney says it is frightening to face the kind of hatred that 
justifies killing innocent people -- and it is even more frightening to 
face if it turns out to "stem from our own midst." 
     Bersin agrees.  "We tend to live our lives in the midst of evil and 
pain with the assumption that 
 it won't happen to me and it won't happen here.'  This event has torn that 
false assurance from us," she says, adding that trust is the most 
fundamental aspect of human personality. 
     Bersin is adamant that clergy must model self-care in order to care 
for others well -- they need to get enough rest, meals, exercise and 
     "Our reframing of such tragedy needs to be done in the context of 
God's abiding care," she said, citing scripture that says that nothing will 
be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ.  "To face evil is a 
spiritual trial ... and the good news in the midst of so much bad news is 
that we have spiritual resources. 
     "In the midst of Eastertide we are reminded there has never been a 
more horrific evil than the nailing of the Son of God to the cross ... yet 
it is not the end of the story," Bersin says.  "Some people will wonder if 
this is God's will. I believe such a thought is blasphemous." 
     She went on, citing William Sloane Coffin's words about his own grief 
in the book "The Courage to Love": "Coffin show[s] us that consolation lies 
in knowing that such evil is not the will of God, but rather that God's 
heart was the first of all our hearts to break." 
     NOVA provides training for professionals, who then work  to debrief 
traumatized communities. 

For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
  Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
  phone 502-569-5504            fax 502-569-8073  
  E-mail   Web page: 


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