John Garland: When Our Church Offered Therapy to Traumatized Migrants, We Witnessed the Healing Power of Scripture

John Garland is the pastor of San Antonio Mennonite Fellowship in downtown San Antonio.


Traffickers had trapped Mayra, a Honduran woman, and her three children in a southern Mexican house alongside a crowd of other migrants. The traffickers had stolen her money and her phone.

Her wide-eyed six-year old son was slurring his speech. Her two-year-old daughter was throwing tantrums and retreating into a shell. Her slender preteen daughter was being groomed for sex, and Mayra’s own pregnant belly continued to swell. She had come this far to save her children from the horrors of her hometown, where three of her siblings and her husband had been murdered. But she found herself paralyzed in a place full of drug use, sexual violence, and noise.

What Mayra felt she could do was pray and sing the praise songs she learned in church, which she converted into whispered lullabies. Huddled on a dirty mattress in a corner, she prayed the “full armor of God” over her children each day for weeks. She tried to shield them with her pregnant body and transform the commanding passage of Ephesians 6 into a blessing: “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.”

Normally it takes a month for a family to get from Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador to the southern border of the United States. Immigrants ride freight trains and buses and walk for miles through cities and wilderness. Along the way, they are targeted for robbery, kidnapping, and sexual exploitation.

Despite these dangers, asylum-seekers from these countries have been coming to the US in increasing numbers. Most turn themselves in at the southern border and, after initial immigration screenings for fear and credibility, many are taken to detention centers while they coordinate with US-based family or sponsors who will provide plane or bus tickets to their next destinations. Upon leaving, the travelers are strapped with tracking devices and given mandatory check-in dates. But logistical kinks are numerous, and migrants often find themselves in cities like San Antonio in need of temporary shelter until they can get to their final destination.

The church that I pastor in San Antonio has, for years, hosted asylum-seeking families as they pass through. We hear their stories in the small guesthouse behind our church or in our own kitchens. Upon arrival, they sign our guestbook and tell us their religious affiliation. The vast majority of these families arriving at our church—nearly 80 percent—are evangelical Christians.

All migrants fleeing danger experience varying levels of trauma and violence. We hear stories of hunger, rape, murder, and torture. They desperately want to pray, to hear words of encouragement and blessing. When we encounter them, they often ask to read the Bible, and they often memorize significant verses. Our church’s program, called Semillas, aims to equip these migrants with a safe place to begin their healing and learn trauma-healing practices that they can use with their own families and communities. Semillas (referencing the “seeds” to which Jesus compares the Kingdom of God) uses the therapy techniques of partnering psychiatrists and groups like the American Bible Society’s Trauma Healing Institute.

Our approach begins as simply as kneeling—to assume a non-threatening posture as we meet the men and women—and gathering vital information. We move through migrants’ stories at a pace that feels right to them and ensure that they feel physically secure, using weighted blankets and strategic spaces in the church that are neither too open or too tight. Once they feel safe, we can address their spiritual and emotional injuries through Scripture.

It takes time and is far too labor intensive for one pastor, a white male pastor nonetheless, to manage alone. That’s why we have trained church and community members to use these techniques. The Good News of Christianity confronts trauma head-on, calling the Church to be a healing communion for broken bodies and spirits.

Many of them, like Mayra, already know full well how to wield Scripture against despair.

‘Surely he will save you from the trap.’

Mayra, whose last name is being withheld for security reasons, braced herself against fear and anxiety using the New Testament. The beginning of all trauma-healing is the establishment of felt-safety. She struggles with reading, but her father, Jorge, had taught her Bible verses when she was young. She held those verses in her heart.

“Let us put on the armor of God,” Jorge said each morning and made his family memorize Ephesians 6. They lived in a city where gangs rule. Along with Mayra’s brothers and a sister, who were gunned down, their pastor was killed. Her father became a lay-pastor, and with the “belt of truth” buckled around his waist, preached fiery sermons at church and in local bars. “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” he often quoted, “but against the spiritual forces of evil.”

Mayra, a widow, had managed a fruit stand in Honduras. When the gangs came demanding her service as a lookout she refused, knowing that refusal meant death. The next morning she and her children fled.

In the trafficker’s house in Mexico, Mayra tried to channel her father’s courage, but she wept at night. She had tried so hard to provide for her children but felt that all she had given them was a dirty mattress at the gates of Hell.

Then she found a forgotten phone that still had minutes. She dialed Jorge back in Honduras. “Papa,” she said. He was elated. My daughter, did you make it? Where are you?

She could barely speak. She had been so strong singing her lullabies and now could not find her voice. Tears rolled down her face.

Her father understood. “Repeat after me,” Jorge said. “She who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.”

Silence.

“I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.’”

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Source: Christianity Today