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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2012 Archives > September-October 2012 > Sec Fea- After Evil -Processing tragedy

After evil rears its head ...

Churches help youth process tragedies emotionally and spiritually

By Carrie Madren

Bobby Turnbough (left) and Zack Zelik meditate at a candlelight vigil station at St. John's United Methodist Church in Santa Fe, N.M. The vigil was part of the church's way of helping youth process grief after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
Bobby Turnbough (left) and Zack Zelik meditate at a candlelight vigil station at St. John's United Methodist Church in Santa Fe, N.M. The vigil was part of the church's way of helping youth process grief after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Cindy Klick's son was in Columbine High School when, in 1999, two teen shooters killed 13 people and themselves, shocking and devastating the suburban community of Littleton, Colo. In the days following, the then-youth administrative assistant at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in nearby Highlands Ranch, Colo., helped comfort not only her son but dozens of students at the church — many of whom didn't go to Columbine but knew friends who were there.

Many struggled with a fear of the unknown, she recalls. "It was ‘If that could happen at their school, could it happen at mine?'" remembers Klick, now director of youth ministries at St. Andrew. The large membership church opened its chapel for prayer and had Stephen Ministers and other members who were counselors on hand.

"There were youth who were just totally freaked out in terms of being able to handle what happened," remembers the Rev. Mike Ratliff. Now associate general secretary for young people's ministries at the General Board of Discipleship, Ratliff was youth ministries director at St. Andrew in 1999.

As youth struggle to process a tragic event, he says, churches can become havens of physical, emotional and spiritual comfort as well as a place for them to ask questions and open up.

After the recent theater shooting in nearby Aurora, Klick says her youth had a sense that it could have happened to any of them. Some had gone to showings of "The Dark Knight Rises" at other theaters.

Offer safe space

An important first step is to give youth a space to process, explains Ratliff. That might be holding a special prayer service, he says, or keeping a chapel open for prayer. Makeshift memorials provide an opportunity for youth to participate and have a time of prayer; a church could also offer a place for youth or children to do something creative such as make cards, write notes or put together flowers.

After the Aurora shooting, St. Andrew held a prayer vigil around a labyrinth.

Churches can provide a safe space for youth to talk about the events and how they have affected them, agrees Marcey Balcomb, a youth ministries specialist in the Western Jurisdiction. "When they talk about it with friends at school, it tends to be a drama, but when they sit down with adults in a setting they're comfortable with, it's easier for them to ask questions and wonder about what happened."

Balcomb saw fear in the students, as well as a deep sadness after the Columbine shooting and another 1998 school shooting in Springfield, Ore., that left two students dead.

"In a place that's normally a good place to be — a school setting — things can happen that are out of their control," she says.

Wanting to make sure youth could process their feelings and understand what led up to the violence, three weeks after the Columbine shooting Balcomb brought youth and adults together at First United Methodist Church in Portland, Ore., to explore positive solutions to handling anger. Balcomb and another youth director took a group of students to 26 different churches around the Oregon-Idaho Conference to give presentations, do skits and lead small group discussions. There was time for journaling. Each session ended with a candlelight prayer vigil.

Offer local tie

Unfortunately, Ratliff says, young people have become somewhat desensitized by seeing tragic events so often on the news. Youth may react differently if they see or hear about something than if they know someone who was involved. "[Reactions] can vary from ‘isn't that terrible' ... to real distress," he says, depending on how close they are to the event.

Churches far from the tragedy can help youth address the issue by relating it to something that has happened locally — such as a local teen car crash or another event — to help raise the sensitivity.

"One of the most important things a church can do is build meaningful relationships between young people and adults so there are significant relationships in their lives that give young people a community of people to be able to process with," Ratliff adds.

It's also important to help youth move forward from the actual incident and sad feelings towards positive thoughts, "and not just dwell on the negative," Balcomb says.

Anniversaries of tragedies can be difficult, notes Klick. And down the road, "sometimes people need to reprocess things," she says. "I don't think the way you feel about something at 14 is the way you process it as an adult."

Carrie Madren is a freelance writer based in Great Falls, Va.

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