Therapist-author Sheila Wise Rowe talks about what it feels like to suffer the trauma of racism.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – People of color who suffer racial trauma can find comfort and wholeness through three paths – lament, community and true reconciliation – said counselor and author Sheila Wise Rowe.
As an important point of context, Rowe comes at this work from a lifetime of Christianity, and she was talking to a Christian audience in February 2020 at Calvin University. Her advice is suffused with Christian belief. But later, answering a question, she acknowledged there are also other legitimate paths to healing. Her work is informed by behavioral and biological sciences.
What seems to unite the three tenets of Rowe’s recommendations for healing is captured in one word, honesty – honesty with God, self and others.
When we lament, we are “being honest with God” concerning how we really feel about what happened, “and all the while making a commitment to deepen our relationship with God.” Lament is crying out to God for help and is also a manifestation of praise. In lament there is hope.
Rowe talked about King David of the Old Testament and his Psalms of lament to God. In one Psalm David writes: “Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For we sink down to the dust. Our bones cling to the ground. Rise up. Come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.”
“That’s our heart’s cry,” Rowe said. “I’m not saying that God doesn’t care, or whatever, but we feel that, we feel that, and we wonder, ‘What are you doing?’” David’s questioning of God was part of his honest relationship with God, she said.
“And so, the call for us as people of color is to come into the real and not deny it anymore. … we allow the Lord to meet us in the mess and to do his mysterious work of opening our eyes.”
She said white people also need to say prayers of lament.
In this category Rowe mentioned two things: safe spaces and soul care.
- SAFE SPACES: “I know safe spaces have been maligned, but as a place to really heal, to share and refuel” they are “absolutely essential.” Rowe advised her audience: “We need to look for them. They’re all around us.” Or people can create safe spaces. “These spaces go a long way in helping us to heal, because they affirm life and beauty” and help with reconciliation, Rowe said. In her book she gives as one example a church that was important to her and her husband’s family. Another example from the book is a monthly “family dinner” where African Americans, people from the African diaspora and people in biracial relationships connect and share a meal.
“The next step would also be the spaces where white folk are either joining with us or processing things together, but that’s going to take some time to get to that place,” Rowe told her Calvin audience. “The focus of my book really is around our need to heal, and to the degree that we have white allies, brothers and sisters in Christ – wonderful. But there’s a place where that needs to happen later.”
- SOUL CARE: It is vital for a person’s well-being to know when to work hard, as in exposing injustice, and when to rest, de-stress and advocate for the needs of others and one’s own needs. There are many ways people can care for their hearts, minds and bodies and their relationship with God and people. Rowe said a church can help someone feel “cared for, wanted and connected.” She mentioned a “sister circle” of women who are important in her life. This circle is “a core group” in her life. She turns often to therapists. “I love to do art. That’s a big thing. I live by the ocean, so I get to go on the beach. Those things are really important to me and feed me. They help to sustain me.”
She said it is widely acknowledged that, “so often, as traumatized people, we’re just making it … on a wing and a prayer.” A story in her book concerns a woman who never dealt with the pain of her husband’s death. When her daughter asked why she hadn’t taken care of herself then, the woman said she couldn’t because she had a family to raise at the time and a house to manage, and no time for self-care. “That’s often what we say to ourselves,” Rowe said. But she indicated the danger of not taking care of oneself is too critical to ignore.
Rowe said lament and community are necessary steps toward true reconciliation, which requires forgiveness.
But people sometimes go in haste to forgiveness while skipping a vital step in reconciliation: repair. This forgive-and-move-on impulse overtook a woman who was in a church where many people were gunned down, Rowe said. The woman immediately forgave the killer – until she saw a documentary about the killings, and then her anger came out. She realized she had definitely not forgiven the shooter and perhaps had only done so, or thought she had done so, as an act of obedience.
“We do have to engage in forgiveness. It is a part of our human process. But we engage in the truth of what happened,” Rowe emphasized, “and the pain of it, and not masking the pain. It hurts. It’s devastating. And then you work, with the Lord, to the place of forgiveness. And beyond that is repair.”
To illustrate the role of repair in forgiveness, Rowe said if you kick her out of her house on to the street and you move in, “I can forgive you, but you can’t keep living in my house. That’s not repairing the relationship,” she said. “Then you have to engage in repair with me. Repair will help for an authentic relationship.”
“We’re going to have to look at, how do we really undo the damage that has been done for people of color” in the United States? she asked. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed an act that offered a formal apology to Americans of Japanese descent who were forced into internment camps during World War II. The action also gave $20,000 in reparation payment to each person.
Rowe said that amount of money “was really nothing” in light of what each person endured. She added: “But they got something.”