A recent article from Dr. Paul Metzger, a friend and mentor, prompted me to think more deeply about my own advocacy work on behalf of children who have emotional disturbance and mental health issues as a result of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Something in particular he said has stuck with me. In talking about Jesus as our example for advocacy, he wrote:
Sure, Jesus could have done it all. Certainly, he alone suffered and died once and for all to save the world from sin. Even so, he made sure to include people wherever he could. He respected and loved them and invested in them. As a result, Jesus created a movement, not a monument to himself. Through his Father and the Spirit, his disciples would do greater works than he did (John 14:12), turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6). (see Lessons from Baltimore and the Bible)
I know this is true on an intellectual level, but it is SO easy to get stuck in the patterns that the world uses to advocate (and often fundraise!) for those you are attempting to help. It is very easy to think about the good that can be done by creating a monument to self, especially if you have already justified your behavior because of the good that you are doing for others.
Now, here’s the problem for me when I don’t advocate WITH those who have ACEs, but instead I just advocate FOR them… beyond just not following Jesus’ example in ministry, I miss out on the blessedness that comes from entering the struggle and learning from those I am attempting to help. And, those I am communicating with, most often churches and ministries that I am hoping to educate about the effects of toxic stress on the brain, how it has damaged those with ACEs, leave with the impression that they should follow the example I have set: ministering to those with ACEs, rather than ministering WITH them.
I was discussing my dissatisfaction with this model the other day with Jim Sporleder, the now retired principle of Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington. He is a man of faith and was instrumental in implementing a trauma-informed disciplinary system and educational model in a school that went from being dysfunctional to exemplary. The transformation is documented in Jamie Redford’s excellent film, “Paper Tigers.” Jim got to listen to me rant for a little while about my dissatisfaction with how churches are too quick to excuse people with “particular issues” (addictions, disabilities, etc.) into specialized groups where those with the “problem” identified by the church as asked to minister to one another, leaving the majority of the church unaware and unaffected by those they are supposedly ministering to.
Jim sympathized with my concern, but emphasized how changing this paradigm was likely going to be tough work. I have hope, however, because there are an increasing number of people in Montana, where I minister, who are becoming aware of the prevalence of ACEs, and that it isn’t an issue that is “out there” in our communities that needs our engagement… it is in our churches, our families, and our schools. The issues raised by exploring the needs of children with emotional disturbance that has resulted from early childhood trauma, are those all people struggle with: how do we wrestle within ourselves to do the right thing rather than the thing that seems natural to us? How do we distinguish between the defenses that we have put up to protect ourselves from the evils from without from the spiritual and emotional bars that lock us within ourselves and prevent true relationship?
I am far from solving the dilemma of how I continue my work of advocacy with those who have ACEs (my score is 3 out of 10… find yours here) without simply creating another niche ministry. I want to participate in a revolution in the way churches view ministry to vulnerable populations, including the emotionally disturbed. We owe it not only to Jesus, but to ourselves, to get past the posturing that we in the church “have it all together” and the world will be better off if others just look more like us. Jesus went out to be among the people, minister to others and well as with them, and now has left his charge for us to go and do likewise.