Stone in the belly: Transforming trauma in community

Note: This is the first of a series of blog posts on a Healing and Rebuilding our Communities workshop that three AFSC staff took at Stony Run Friends Meeting in early May 2013. - Lucy

"Unless pain is transformed, it will be transferred."            - Richard Rohr, quoted by Amy Rakusin

When I was in Burundi after the World Conference of Friends in 2012, I visited a Peace Village outside Bujumbura where Hutu and Tutsi refugees were living. AFSC staff Triphonie Habonimana and Florence Ntakarutimana of Healing and Rebuilding our Communities (HROC) program served as my hosts. They brought together perpetrators and victims of the decades-long conflict that had participated in the trauma healing workshops that HROC conducts in Bujumbura and elsewhere, sometimes in partnership with AFSC. The participants gathered in a small Friends church in the village and told me how the workshops had impacted them.

Just a little water/stressEach of them told stories of transformation: victims talked of forgiving horrendous acts perpetrated on them, and perpetrators talked about how they had reconnected with those they had harmed and had been healed from the shock of their acts. Listening to these stories of such deep and seemingly lasting change, it sounded like the workshops must work magic for there to be such healing. I wanted to learn more.

In mid-May three of us from AFSC participated in one of these three-day HROC workshops in Baltimore at Stony Run Meeting, led by one of my hosts in Burundi, Florence Ntakarutimana, as well as Americans Amy Rakusin and Bill Jacobsen.

During the workshop a woman who was a trauma nurse talked about how, with physical trauma, the wound often needs to be abraded, opened, exposed in order for there to be healing; if the wound isn't cleaned and opened, it festers and can get worse or cause the loss of a limb, or even death.

This is true with wounds of the spirit, too. People can suffer spiritual death if they hold their wounds too tightly; they can let their hearts turn to stone.

Water/stress overfilling glassIn one activity on the first day, Florence provided a vivid demonstration of how stress and trauma operate in individuals and impact the community. She put a large glass on a tray in the middle of the room, with a pitcher of water next to it. She said, "Things happen that cause stress."

"In Burundi, it's sometimes not so easy to get breakfast for your children. They go to school without tea. One day you might not have bread."

She filled the glass about a quarter full of water--the water was the stress, and the cup was the person without bread for their child.

She said, "You don't have bread, but the next day you get some and feed your children. You feel better."

Florence poured most of the water back out of the glass. She said, "You feel better, but not all of the stress is gone, the stress you've known."

Florence said, "Normal stress comes and goes."

"But let's say, I am here in the United States and I get a phone call that my first born is in the hospital." Florence filled the glass nearly to the top with water. 

"And then I get another call, my son has died. Now I have no more space to hold the stress." Florence filled the glass until it overflowed, the water spilled out onto the tray.

Water/stress and wood"Then I return to Burundi and my husband is hit by a car and dies. This kind of stress is hard, it makes a hard place in my belly." She added a piece of wood to the cup and more water spilled out onto the tray. The wood represented repeated, difficult events in one’s life, but not necessarily ones that people planned.

Florence said, "And some stress is like stones, it breaks me."

"What if some parents raped their own children and killed them… this is like a stone, a stone in one's heart."

Florence put a large stone into the glass. The water overflowed into the tray.

"This kind of stress is beyond what we can hold, beyond our capacity to hold."

"This is traumatic stress. Sometimes we experience or perpetrate such hard things, sometimes our heart is broken, there are scars and they remain. Some wounds are fresh, others aren't fresh, but they are still there."

Water/stress, wood and stone"Some are caused by natural disasters, but the hardest are those that people planned. This kind of stress causes trauma, because of what we have heard, what we have seen, or what we have done. There is also cumulative stress; all together things are so hard to bear. When you live on the edge of stress, it can be what seems to be a small thing that puts you over the edge."

"What if your parents experienced trauma and haven't healed, then you could be born with a stone in your belly, and that makes it hard to bear stress, to be resilient."

Florence invited us to look at the tray. The tray holding the glass was full of water. "The family and community around the person who has experienced or is experiencing stress and trauma also is affected because the trauma, the pain, the stress overflows into the community."

Sharing, she said, is critical in the healing process. In order for people to heal, it is important for them to expose the trauma they’ve experienced to the light and re-discover the threads of human care and connection. "The more we are able to open our hearts, the more we can let love in," Florence said. As people share in community, the more all can sit together in the mystery and face what is unknown together.

This was the first day of three. In the next two days we explored how the stones of trauma can be softened and melted. We learned how the water in that overflowing glass can be replaced by healing waters from the community through sharing and that as each person heals, they can support the healing of others.

On that first day I was already beginning to see that through this very intentional and powerful, but quite simple, process the healing that occurs isn’t magic, but is miraculous nonetheless.