From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
CLERGY RALLY TO SPIRITUALLY SUPPORT BOMBING VICTIMS
05 May 1996 13:05:04
95136 CLERGY RALLY TO SPIRITUALLY SUPPORT BOMBING VICTIMS
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
"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
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 PCUSA.NEWS@pcusa.org Web page: http://www.pcusa.org
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