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  • Writer's pictureRev. Dr. Ron Bell

‘I wasn’t breathing’: Tragedy leads to trauma ministry, book

Key points:

• Murder of George Floyd prompts questions about mental health and trauma issues.

• St. Paul church’s DNA changes through emphasis on healing ministry.

The Rev. Dr. Ron Bell. Photo courtesy of the author.

The Rev. Dr. Ron Bell.

Photo courtesy of the author.

The morning after George Floyd was murdered, I received a call from a local news reporter asking me to give a comment on behalf of the Black pastors here in Saint Paul/Minneapolis. She meant well, but her request could not have come at a worse moment. I had no comment, I had no breath. The trauma of having just witnessed another Black man murdered as a result of police violence left me breathless.

That’s what our bodies do when we encounter trauma. We often hold our breath, and in doing so, we prevent our brains from masterminding effective thoughtful solutions; we prevent our bodies from regulating and relaxing. Holding our breath, and remaining in an unending traumatic episode, is dangerous for us both emotionally and physically. I wasn’t breathing.

In the hours that followed Floyd’s death, the city was in an uproar. The same roads to the church I’d taken daily for the last two years were now lined with protesters on one side and police, tanks, dogs and National Guard troops on the other. The police were literally shooting tear-gas canisters over the traffic in order to reach the protesters shouting for justice on the other side. Some in the crowd appeared to be launching water bottles and rocks back across the traffic at the heavily armed police presence.

Yet there I was. Stuck in traffic, at an intersection witnessing this, while choking on tear gas and praying the entire time that the light would change quickly from red to green. I wasn’t breathing. In the days that followed, we discovered quickly that Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church, the only predominantly African American church in the Minnesota Conference, the church that sat proudly in the only and oldest Black neighborhood in Saint Paul – the Rondo neighborhood – and the church that I had been tasked to pastor for the last three years, was about to go through a metamorphosis.

In the previous year, Camphor had just celebrated its 100th year of ministry. We decided that as a congregation our theme for the new year would be “it’s T.I.M.E.” The T stood for theological depth, the I stood for intentional community partnerships, the M stood for missions and the E stood for evangelism. We had committees and budgets for each of those initiatives and teams lined up to lead. However, as a result of those 9 minutes and 29 seconds that Derek Chauvin chose to hold his knee on George Floyd’s neck our entire DNA changed. I’ve read that at birth the caterpillar has within itself all the DNA of the potential butterfly it will eventually become, but those genes are turned off. Something happens in the cocoon, where this one species that has served its time well, done all that it was designed to do, must in fact die. It’s the death of the caterpillar, positioned in a perfectly orchestrated structure, that allows for its life’s work to be fuel for something new. Those elements are what switch the butterfly DNA into action.

That transformation is what I experienced in the months that followed George Floyd’s death.

I could no longer read Jesus’ interaction with the unbelieving father in Mark 9:24 without questioning the limits of my own faith. I couldn’t read it without being concerned with how little control we really have over protecting our youth and the trauma of that realization. I could no longer read Jesus’ conversation with the Canaanite mother in Mark 7:28 and not wonder what trauma she carried for simply wanting to save her daughter and being shunned because of her ethnicity.

George Floyd, with his dying breath, called for his mother. As a parent of two beautiful Black boys, 6 and 9 years old, I could no longer read the text without thinking that I had to do something to address mental health and the complex trauma that we all carry.

In the months that followed, we set up trauma healing days at Camphor. We invited every Black and Brown counselor, therapist, psychologist we could find to join us at the church to serve the community. We created trauma healing bags and gave them out to over 1,000 children in the community. We started conversations on creating a trauma healing center at the church, and I even enrolled at Rutgers School of Social Work to get certified in trauma and crisis care.

The DNA of the church has changed as I changed. We are no longer that caterpillar. We have regular healing circles now for the community. We have a network of therapist and relationships with counseling centers throughout the state. We are beginning to breathe again. I have written a newly published book, “The Four Promises: A Journey of Healing Past and Present Trauma,” because over the last year I have experienced firsthand what it is like to not breathe. I know what it is like to be so wrapped up in trauma and anxiety that it becomes impossible to think critically or to communicate well. I know what it’s like to be stuck.

I also know what it feels like to do the work, to create processes and healthy circles so that you can heal. I know what it takes to give yourself permission to be fully present and to demand the right to retell your own stories in ways that empower you. I know what it’s like to work through trauma and begin to heal. This book is for anyone ready to do that work. It is a resource for those struggling, those stuck in complex, vicarious or even racialized trauma. This book is designed to help you breathe again. I am a United Methodist pastor. I am also the son of a United Methodist pastor, who pastored for 40 years before he died. Heck, my godparents are even United Methodist pastors. What I know from experience is that every pastor is struggling with unhealed trauma. Ministry has a way of exasperating and magnifying what is happening internally, whether we want it to or not. That’s why this book is important.

Until we begin to acknowledge and uncover the trauma lurking on the inside, we cannot be fully healed. It’s time. It’s time to breathe again.

Bell is lead pastor of Camphor United Methodist Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His book, “The Four Promises: A Journey of Healing Past and Present Trauma,” is published by Space For Me LLC.

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