The Words of the Wenger Family

Strengthening the Resilience of a Community through Trauma Healing and Conflict Transformation

Ruth Wenger
January 30, 2009
Moderator, New York City Council of Mennonite Churches, USA
Address to the World Summit on Peace
New York, USA

My comments today grow out of a program called STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience), which was developed at the Center for Justice and Peace-building at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, in collaboration with Church World Service in New York City, to train religious leaders and care providers of all faiths in trauma and conflict transformation post 9/11.

It is closely connected with my work at New York Disaster Interfaith Services, a federation of faith communities dedicated to collaborating across religious lines to prepare for and respond to disasters in ways that promote healing and new growth for individuals and groups. My comments will reflect this history.

Susie and the Arab stores

Several days after September 11, Susie, a long-term resident of the Bronx (a borough of New York City) widely recognized in her diverse neighborhood as a community organizer, called her pastor:

Susie: Pastor, I need your help. I am so angry about what happened here. I am so angry. I am just full of rage and hatred and anger for what those people did to us. I want to get my friends together and go out into the neighborhood with baseball bats and trash the Arab stores over on Jerome. I want to get back at them. But I can't do that now. You teach us that Jesus said we need to love our enemies. But what am I supposed to do with all the rage and anger and hatred I'm feeling inside?

Pastor: It's perfectly normal to experience all these feelings when something like this happens. Joe (a community health worker) is coming in tomorrow to do a workshop on how we as a church community can help each other and our neighbors get through this. Can you hold off for a little longer?

Susie: Yeah, I guess I can tell my neighbors just to boycott the stores instead of trashing them.

Joe's workshop included a de-briefing component, followed by some very elemental training in self-reflection, active listening, and presence. He suggested that participants could help each other and their neighbors through the three H's: Hush. Hug. Hang around.

The next day, Susie put up flyers in the neighborhood inviting residents to a "prayer vigil" in a sheltered public-access walkway of the local hospital across the street from her basement apartment. Thirty people showed up, including a Muslim man who said, in tears as he removed his headpiece, "We are human beings, just like you. We are very sad about what happened. We just want to live in peace."

Trauma affects individuals, groups and communities. The ripple effects can be met and managed in ways that challenge and transform, or in ways that damage and create more victims.

Our work starts from the premise that trauma of any kind will lead to changes in a system, whether within an individual, among members of a group, or among communities. The trauma itself does not determine the direction of the changes. The direction of the changes is determined by the way the trauma is interpreted by the individual, the group or the community.

Someone has said that if trauma is experienced and interpreted primarily as a threat, it leads to aggression and violence. If trauma is experienced primarily as a loss, it leads to depression and despair. If trauma is experienced primarily as a challenge to be reckoned with, it can lead to new insights, along with new energies that lead through healing to growth and transformation.

While many traumas present elements of all three -- threat, loss, and challenge -- the leaders and caregivers of a community can influence the direction of change by helping their members process their responses in ways that lessen the possibility of violence.

Unaddressed, unhealed trauma can contribute to an ongoing cycle of violence, especially if the trauma event is seen as originating in human intention. Victims of violence, if not supported in finding their way toward healing and transformation, will almost inevitably create new victims. They will "re-enact" the violence they have experienced, either projecting it outside themselves and onto others, or directing it inward toward themselves, moving into hopelessness, an inability to cope and move on, or self-destructive behaviors.

Susie had learned a peaceful way of moving through her very real emotions in response to trauma, which resulted not in more violence and victimhood, but in a measure of understanding and resolution.


Resilience is the ability to recovery readily from change or adversity.

Trauma is an experience that produces psychological injury or pain. Traumatic events and experiences impact individuals, groups, and communities. Responses to trauma may include psychological, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, spiritual, and societal effects. Most traumas are resolved through natural healing processes, but trauma which does not heal can lead to outcomes which cause further harm, either to the self or others.

Resilient communities are communities that work together to meet human needs and human rights without obstructing the needs and rights of others. Leaders can help their communities focus on meeting needs and protecting human rights in a way that recognizes interdependence, fosters relationships of partnership rather than domination, and limits all forms of violence. Both structural and direct forms of violence disrupt or deny people's efforts to meet their human needs, and inevitably increase the burden of trauma on individuals and communities.

Conflict Transformation seeks to prevent, reduce, transform, and support recovery from violence in all forms, recognizing that issues of justice, human security, and spirituality will impact and be impacted by strategic processes for trauma healing in individuals and communities.

Peace-building: The vision of peace-building is a society -- a global community, a nation, a neighborhood, a company, a family -- that promotes health and well-being for all its members, not only for those at the "top" of the power ladder -- whether the elite of a nation, the head of a family, the president of a company, or the leader of a local community.

Leaders can help their communities make interpretations and choices that promote well-being for all their members, through resolving conflict non-violently and supporting sustainable peace. Their capacity to help will of course depend on their own experience and skill and commitment to building peace within as well as peace without.

Two types of leaders can emerge during times of crisis; and their leadership will greatly influence their community's response to trauma and conflict, especially across religious lines, as these lines often draw tight boundaries around identities and therefore around resilient responses to "what things may come":

Malignant leaders (What not to do)

Escalate anxiety by magnifying dangers, blurring reality and fantasy, and barraging the public with constant reminders of looming, unspecific potential threats.

Manipulate by withholding, distorting, or misrepresenting facts, goals, and situations.

Engage in name-calling and label dissenting views as unpatriotic or traitorous.

Dehumanize by using "us/them" and "good/evil" dichotomies.

Positive leaders (What to do)

Evaluate realistic dangers, separate fantasy from reality.

Value freedom of speech and the ability to question what is moral.

Raise questions that explore the humanity of "enemy" groups.

Provide a spiritual and moral compass leading the search for a "third way" through trauma (neither passiveness nor violence).

Help individuals and groups to live by their highest values.

Seek to restore ties to families, clans, and other groups that support reconnecting to reality.

Help individual and groups to view trauma as an invitation to spiritual, emotional, and societal transformation rather than having their identity as victims or acting out against others.

Communities and leaders can develop their capacities for conflict transformation through education and practice, learning to move through trauma rather than getting stuck in repetitive cycles of victimhood and violence.

Leaders can support resilience as they look for and respond to the range of physiological, emotional, behavioral, spiritual, and societal effects of trauma. It is crucial to manage these responses wisely, rather than to suppress them, as they will almost inevitably re-emerge in more intense, perhaps more destructive ways.

Normalize panic, denial, shock, fear: "It's normal to feel panic, shock, denial, fear when something like this happens."

Help name the loss: "We lost some of our most precious possessions in the flood."

Recognize the anger, shame, humiliation and guilt: "Anger is normal response that helps us make things right again. We refuse to live this way any longer!"

Encourage expression of grief and fear, including their own: "Now is the time for us to hold each other as we weep together in our pain."

Call on individuals' assets, strengths, and deeper purpose: "We have been through tough times together before. Let's take stock of the resources we have that will help us meet this challenge."

Encourage a desire for fairness, discouraging revenge: "What they did was harmful, unjust, and immoral. How can we take care of our feelings without harming others in return?"

Present the gray areas and complexity of the situation/humanize the enemy: "What's going on here that we need to ask about?

Denounce "justified" violence: "Violence of any kind always carries a cost. We can choose other ways to respond."

As their communities are able to move through trauma, leaders may help them integrate trauma experiences into new self/group identity:

Create rituals and safe places to grieve and memorialize over time.

Help the group get clearer about their losses as well as their remaining resources.

Ask questions about the aggressor: What has been their experience?

Help identify risks that could be taken in encountering "the other," and create a structure of accountability for aggressors/offenders.

Teach the importance of interconnectedness and tolerance

Create opportunities to face offenders in a safe place, if appropriate (this needs to be handled very carefully, but can be highly effective in healing, for example, Truth and Reconciliation-style processes).

Educate about forgiveness -- healthy forgiveness that does not traumatize

Support ways to make the situation "right," addressing harm done to victims and requiring accountability for "wrong" done within the community.

Facilitate initiatives where involved individuals can create a new, collective narrative about the events.

Be available to assist in reconciliation.

Encourage individuals to share their stories of healing, transformation, and hope.


Trauma happens. Conflict often results. Resilient individuals, groups, and communities will be those who have worked at peace-building ahead of time, through increasing their capacity to wage conflict non-violently, reduce violence, transform relationships, and build resilience.

A key component of that peace-building process is understanding trauma and its potential to perpetuate a vicious, energy-draining cycle of violence, or transform pain and suffering into a fruitful transcendence which generates well-being for individuals, groups, and communities. 

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