I work as a chaplain at a private, nonprofit, intentionally Christian agency that offers residential treatment for boys and girls ages seven to nineteen. The majority of the residents are wards of the state, waiting to be adopted or to enter foster care. On average, the youth stay in the program six to eighteen months, allowing for significant relationships to be built. I offer spiritual care to the clients through pastoral counseling, weekly worship services, Bible studies, and off-campus volunteer opportunities. All spiritual activities are voluntary, but about 90 percent of residents participate in those functions. Because the spiritual events are voluntary, I can be very intentional about sharing the gospel and my own personal faith in Jesus.
Many of the residents have experienced horrendous abuse and neglect and struggle with issues related to substance abuse, sexual exploitation, cognitive impairment, conduct disorder, impulse control and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many of these youths have significant mental health challenges due to long-term exposure to trauma. Consequently, trauma-informed spiritual care guides conversations and plans for weekly worship services.
Worship resources that address how trauma impacts faith formation—especially in those who are living away from family in the foster care system—are very difficult to come by. But, through trial and error, I have created a few effective worship elements appropriate for traumatized children and teens. Trauma-informed spiritual care has physical, emotional, and mental components that address impulse control and sensory integration.
Time is spent creating not only a safe physical space, but a safe emotional space. The worship center is open and warm, lights are dimmed, the rows of chairs are spaced to allow room to wiggle, and the volume of the music is moderate. The back of the worship center is open and free of chairs for residents who need to take a break. We use simple vocabulary during the worship service and explain the elements and movements as we proceed. For many residents this is their first significant exposure to the Bible, Christianity, and worship.
A special service we offer several times a year is called “Why, God?” It focuses on lament, which invites the Holy Spirit to enter trauma’s dark and painful spaces. One example of a resident being moved by lament is sixteen-year-old Sophia (name changed for privacy). Sophia’s story is fairly typical of what I encounter.
Sophia’s dad left the family before she was born, and she doesn’t know if he is alive. Due to her mother’s drug addiction, Sophia was removed from her mother’s home and put into foster care. Her mother’s parental rights were eventually terminated. Sophia was in foster care for a couple of years but ran away from her foster home and met an older man. The man showered her with gifts and compliments and called her his “girlfriend.” He pretended to be her boyfriend but was actually a pimp. Sophia was drugged and became a victim of sex trafficking.
Several months later Sophia was arrested for shoplifting some nail polish, and while in juvenile detention the social worker assigned to her case recognized that she was trafficked and admitted her to the residential facility where I serve as a chaplain. Sophia was placed in a treatment unit that specializes in caring for teenage girls who have been exploited and trafficked. Sophia’s early and constant exposure to trauma directly impacted her mental health. She has generalized anxiety disorder, depression, reactive attachment disorder, and PTSD, and she is a recovering addict. I started visiting her weekly. When I asked Sophia where she thought God fit into her life she shared that she would feel better about accepting God and his love when she felt better about herself. “I don’t think I could take rejection on that kind of scale,” she said. “I couldn’t handle it if God rejected me.” Just a few days after this conversation she was attending a “Why, God?” service.
The “Why, God?” service grabbed her attention. The Bible lesson was Jesus’ lament on the cross as told in the books of Matthew and Mark, when Jesus cries out with the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus, God’s very self, was verbalizing lament. In the middle of the service Sophia blurted out (as residents frequently do) this observation: “Oh, wait a minute. Jesus just said he feels abandoned! If Jesus feels safe to say that out loud, then I can say it too! I know God is there, but it is so hard to feel it. God is with me even if I feel totally alone! So you’re telling me that the acceptance I have been looking for in all the wrong places has been right in front of me this whole time!”
About two weeks after the service, Sophia, a skilled artist, gave me “Psalm 22,” a painting she created.
“Why, God?” worship services often include a memorial response/activity. During the memorial services, small electric candles with butterfly stickers are given out. Residents are invited to share memories and how they may have seen God moving in the midst of the loss. During a time of open reflection with a candle in his hands, one boy said: “My parents are here and didn’t take care of me, but I know that my Heavenly Parent will always take care of me.” Memories are celebrated and mourning big losses—losses of family, home, and independence—is legitimized.
The butterfly candles are a tangible reminder of the promise in Revelation 21:5: “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’” The young man created some art for me to use in our worship time.
“Why, God?” worship includes an introduction to Psalm 13. Despite the incredible challenges and the long list of losses the residents have had to process, I never cease to be amazed at the incredible faith of these young people and the creative abilities they use to express it. Residents are eager to share prayers, art, and poetry.
A Retelling of Psalm 13
Hey God, I’m still here. Are you there?
I feel so alone, I feel crushed, I am trash, I am worthless.
Broken. Everyone has left me. Alone.
My head is full of noise, shame, and guilt. I scream loud to ignore.
My body hurts, broken, itchy, torture. I cut. I bleed to forget.
Everyone had left me. Rejected. Alone. Abandoned.
No one cries for me. I don’t cry for me.
Do you see me? Can you find me? Do you love me?
You see me. You found me. You love me.
My heart is broken, you are the glue.
Stick me to your unbroken heart. Listen.
My scream becomes worship.
You scream for me, through me, with me. Love.
Your blood covers my blood. Your scars cover my scars.
You see me. You found me. You love me.
—By a resident, used with permission
There is a willingness to sit with the mystery of “why” and yet boldly hold on to faith in a God that loves them, is with them, knows them, and sees them. Lament gives vocabulary to youths who are carrying a heavy load of grief and loss—loss of independence, loss of family, loss of home, loss of innocence and childhood. “Why, God?” services seem to loosen some of the power of trauma, allowing children to come to their Creator God with confidence that God hears and sees them. Rather than God being some faraway, abstract being, God is present and tangible, and God eagerly listens.