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When Monsters Are Real

Pat Verbal

On March 24 of 1998, Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson stole away more than the lives of four girls and one teacher in Jonesboro, Arkansas. They robbed their entire community-and perhaps their country-of a false sense of security and innocence in small town America. They pillaged their future and they spent their childhood on their bloody massacre.

And left to pick up the pieces were church ministers such as Chris Perry at Central Baptist Church in Jonesboro. Mitchell Johnson was part of Chris' youth group.

At the first youth group meeting after the shooting, Mitchell's younger brother Monte spoke haltingly about the stigma and shame of knowing that his brother is a murderer. He was scared to go back to school and feared rejection.

At that moment, Chris asked his youth group, "Can Monte find friendship here?" And there was a roar of applause that seemed to wrap Monte in healing.

A good first step. And yet so many miles to go.

What would you do if you were in Chris' shoes?

For Pastor John Valtierra at the Potter's House Christian Fellowship Church in Beaumont, California, violence swept into his church without warning the spring of 1997. One of his young church members, Anthony Martinez, was a loving child who had dreamed of becoming a preacher just like Pastor John. He'd even written a school report on his favorite person-Jesus Christ. One day as Anthony played in his back yard with his little brother, an evil man abducted him at knife point.

"Our congregation put their lives on hold while we joined the search for Anthony," says Valtierra. "We're a family church that regularly evangelizes in the community. Printing fliers and going door to door comes naturally to us."

Following their lead, people in the town of Beaumont and the neighboring city of Banning got involved. Each night, local news stations broadcast Anthony's family desperately pleading with the kidnapper to release their son. Despite all the media coverage, all the searching, and all the prayers, the 10-year-old's naked body was discovered in the a rocky ravine 17 days after the abduction. To date no arrest has been made.

We'd like to believe that such incidents are rare and will never happen to one of our children, but the frequency of violent acts toward children are increasing at a frantic pace. Violence invades our children's lives today in neighborhoods, schools, and even homes. As one Beaumont teacher commented during a TV interview about Anthony's abduction, "We've long taught children to say no to strangers. Now we must teach them to fight for their lives in their own back yards!"

At church we lead children to trust in God's love and protection. How can we give children an accurate view of the dangers in their world even in the face of a loving and powerful God? How can we help children understand that God is still God-even when their world is spinning out of control? What can you do when the monsters in this world wrap their vile hands around your children's world?

COMFORT CHILDREN

Whether children are the victims or witnesses of a violent act, they may not know how to express their feelings, so watch for behavior changes. Children caught in violence may be trying to express...

  • "I don't trust anyone."
  • "I don't feel safe."
  • "I'm afraid to try something new."
  • "I feel angry inside and want to hit someone."
  • "No one listens to me."
  • "I'm scared that no one can help me."

Kids need special attention when they've been traumatized by violence. Child victims have received that special attention at The Kids' Place established by donations from local churches and businesses in Edmond, Oklahoma. Following the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, these people looked for God's promise to bring good out of evil in those dark days. They believed grieving children could talk through or play out their concerns and fears if provided a safe, confidential, and supportive place.

The Kids' Place staff is there to guide and nurture children-not to teach, direct, or "fix" them. Children share their memories and create tangible items that'll help them remember loved ones. Volunteers pick up families who need transportation for age-appropriate group sessions led by trained facilitators. And there are always lots of hugs waiting for kids when they arrive! For more information on The Kids' Place check out their Web site at www.kidsplace.org

STRENGTHEN FAMILIES

The most powerful antidote to violence is a resilient family. Parents who demonstrate secure, trusting relationships and consistent lives help kids cope with crisis. Anthony's family drew strength from a healthy church. Sadly, most families don't have that kind of support. Many families caught in violence abandon any faith they had, and couples often end up divorced. Offer critical care to families who experience violence.

1. Train caregivers. Before violence ever strikes, prepare your people to help its victims. Laurie Farquharson of the Wekiva Presbyterian Church in Longwood, Florida, weekly trains lay ministers to befriend people with special needs. She says, "We are caregivers; God is the cure giver."

Laurie's church is part of the St. Louis-based Stephen Ministries (314-428-2600)-a national program that has trained 29,000 people in 6,300 congregations to care for hurting people. Volunteers are teamed with people who need support. Sessions can last from a few weeks to several months. This ministry doesn't take the place of a family therapist, but it can offer a God-centered approach to a tough situation.

Encourage trained people to get involved. When a child in a church in Richmond, Virginia, suffered sexual abuse from her father, the church stepped in to assist the mother with finances, a Big Sisters program, and a court-appointed guardian for supervised visits. Promise Keepers men visited the father in jail and led him to accept Jesus as his Savior. With careful support, the family unit was eventually restored.

2. Comfort the entire family. Violence happens to more than just one family member. Grandparents, teenagers, aunts, and uncles can also be traumatized. When violence strikes, meet with church members immediately to pray for the families and coordinate efforts to address their needs. Church-based programs such as Mom's day out, foster parent groups, grief and divorce recovery support groups, marriage enrichment, after-school clubs, and home visitation can offer needed support to families in crisis.

3. Know when to refer. Get acquainted with several Christian therapists in or near your community. Call them to ask questions and seek wise counsel regarding a victimized family. Ask these experts for helpful books and tapes that you can recommend. Locate support groups in other churches that families can plug into.

4. Encourage routines. Mourning is a natural part of any loss, and grieving children often feel that the people they love are pulling away from them. Pastor Valtierra felt it best to resume normal activities as soon as possible after Anthony's funeral. Families, especially children, found security in the healthy flow of school, worship, work, and play. His sermons suggested that parents answer questions when the children asked, but not before.

One afternoon Pastor Valtierra found his daughter crying in her room. She said she missed Anthony. He agreed that they all missed him very much and referred her to the hope that Anthony's life symbolized. Because Anthony was a Christian, he assured her they would see him again.

When violence strikes the children in your church, remember that your church is built on a rock. Jesus promised that the "gates of hell" would not overcome it (Matthew 16:18).

Pat Verbal is a children's ministry consultant in Orlando, Florida. To contact her, call 800-406-1011.

SPEAK THE TRUTH

Through Scripture we can communicate to boys and girls the truth about violence. Tell kids...

  • It's not God's fault. Evil entered the world through sin in Genesis 3 and will be destroyed when Jesus returns (Revelation 21:1-8). God doesn't cause violence. People, who listen to Satan, do violent things. Chris Perry says, "We've fostered open dialogue, and we've addressed our feelings about God. We've really hit it face on: 'Who pulled the trigger? Did God pull the trigger?' And the answers have been 'Absolutely no.' "
  • Violence isn't the way to show anger. It's okay to get angry, but talking through your problems is better than hitting (James 1: 19-20). Returning the evil that's done to you won't make you feel better.
  • There are things you can do to be safe. Be wise and listen to trusted adults (Proverbs 19:20). The police and courts can help you. Obey your parents (Ephesians 6:1).
  • God sees and cares. You can be honest with God about your fears and choose to trust him. When the Apostle Paul faced evil, he wrote in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 (LB): "We were really crushed and overwhelmed, and feared we would never live through it. We felt we were doomed to die and saw how powerless we were to help ourselves; but that was good, for then we put everything into the hands of God, who alone could save us."

WHERE IS GOD?

A trained grief counselor helps you re-establish kids' trust in God when violence shakes their world

By Anthony M. Sirianni

"I wasn't prepared for any of this!" Unfortunately children's ministers everywhere are expressing this comment too frequently. Church leaders are dealing with the aftermath of violence in cities such as Oklahoma City; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Edinboro, Pennsylvania.

For the children in these communities, their lives are forever changed by violent acts. It's sometimes hard for them to understand how God can help them through this pain. Some children may even hold God responsible for these tragedies and turn their backs on God.

You can be instrumental in helping traumatized children experience a healthy, spiritual healing process. Are you prepared to deal with the trauma of violence? Follow this advice to help kids see the loving face of God in a world filled with shadows.

•First, know yourself. Given the scope of unexpected tragedies, the entire community-including ministers-needs to heal. As a grief counselor, I've found that the healing process starts by understanding and dealing with your own feelings first. You can do this by

*being in touch with your feelings;
*expressing your feelings appropriately;
*tracking where you are in the grieving process and your beliefs about God;
*understanding that it's okay to talk about grief and not talk about God;
*comfortably expressing your feelings with children;
*accepting your's and others' feelings;
*modeling appropriate behavior; and
*praying.

• Listen to children's hearts. Help children understand where God is in the midst of their trauma. Just as children's reactions to grief are individualized, so are their reactions to God. These are some typical reactions from children.

*"Get away from me God! You made this happen!"
*"God is there for me. He'll take care of this."
*"Why did you do this God?"
*"I hate you God."
*"There is no God. If there was, he wouldn't have done this."

These reactions to God are another dimension of the grieving process. Just as the grieving process isn't linear, neither are children's reactions to God throughout this process. Children's feelings about God may vary from minute to minute, or they may experience a variety of feelings simultaneously. Children can experience these reactions to God in varying degrees of intensity as they sort through the confusion created by the trauma. See the "Grieving Stages" (below) to understand where children may be in their grieving process.

Let children know that it's okay to feel whatever they're feeling about God. Children shouldn't deny or judge their feelings. Instead they can bring their feelings to God for healing and they can trust that God is there to help them.

•Understand God's role in healing. Find strength in knowing that God is your most powerful ally in helping children heal. It's important to understand the role God plays in healing. Call upon the power of the Great Healer as he has ministered to you. One of the best ways to help children trust God again is in being a good role model by

*demonstrating your trust in God despite the trauma;
*reminding children that God was in their lives before the trauma and will always be there;
*seeing God at work in your life; and
*being "real" and expressing feelings about God appropriately, which will enable children to express their feelings.

•Get involved with kids. Lead children through activities that help them express and work through their feelings about God. These activities focus on prayer and Scripture, which are essential for healing.

JESUS IS HERE

If children are angry with God, encourage them to see themselves at a different age, perhaps before the trauma. Tell them to picture themselves in a safe place. Have them picture Jesus and then invite him to heal them and help them with their pain.

COLOR ME BLUE

Have children use art forms to express their feelings. Connect children's feelings about God and the trauma to Bible stories. Give children pictures of Bible stories where Jesus healed people. Ask children to draw themselves into the "picture." Have them draw a picture of what this Bible story would look like today.

Ask them how God fits into their pictures.

Also, have children draw a series of pictures about the trauma. Have them draw three pictures-one about what their lives were like before the trauma, one about the trauma, and another one about their lives in the future.

Lead children in discussing how God fits into their pictures. Sensitively interpret the pictures to determine if they might generate new healing activities. For example, if children draw flowers, you might suggest that they take flowers to the cemetery.

JOURNALING

Once you walk children through the above activities, have them write about any feelings that surfaced during the activities. Connect small groups of children with an adult. Have children tell what they wrote so they can "let go" of their pain.

DAY TO DAY

If children are having trouble sleeping or are haunted by nightmares, encourage them to use a religious "security blanket" for a while. Taking a visual reminder of God's presence-such as a Bible or cross-to bed can comfort traumatized children. These symbols provide children with something tangible to re-establish trust in God.

No matter what you do with children, plan for positive closure. However don't create an emotional experience without knowing what to do with it. If you truly feel underqualified, connect children with other support resources such as teachers or psychologists. Don't try to duplicate what others are doing; instead, subtly reinforce their efforts.

You can help children find God again by enabling children to express whatever they're feeling about God and helping them work through those feelings. Your rewards are many. You'll see children run and play again. You'll see them grow in God's light. And you'll know that you've had a hand in their healing process.

Anthony M. Sirianni, a hospital chaplain in New Brunswick, New Jersey, specializes in counseling dying or grieving children.

GRIEVING STAGES
As children travel through grief, their faith in God may be impacted in these ways at each stage.

STAGES-REACTIONS TO GOD
Shock-God doesn't exist.
Denial-God will take care of things; there's no need to deal with feelings.
Isolation-God is deliberately rejecting me.
Anger-I hate God and formal worship.
Bargaining-God is angry and punitive; good behavior will result in God making things better.
Depression-At the extreme, I want to be with God and stop living to ease my pain.
Acceptance-I can deal with and share my feelings about God and start accepting God in my life again.


Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change. Originally published in July-August, 1998 in Children's Ministry Magazine.

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