Two years into lives defined by unpredictability, isolation, and grief, people are carrying the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic, each in their own way.
In congregational life, “We’ve got people who are desperate to be together in person,” the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Stevens says, while some congregants don’t feel safe in a room with others. “And how do you hold them both at the same time?” Stevens wonders. People in both camps will carry the pandemic’s weight as trauma, which will silently shape congregations as Unitarian Universalists discern how to be together in a virus-altered world.
Grief is a healthy, normal response to change. But trauma is “purely instinctual and cuts off our ability to be thoughtful,” says the Rev. Sunshine Jeremiah Wolfe, congregational field staff for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Central East Region. Each person has a window of tolerance for processing intense emotions in a healthy, helpful way. When a difficult event pushes someone beyond that window, they experience trauma, a physiological reaction that triggers the fight-or-flight response and can disrupt relationships.
Whether from the pandemic, national events, or other reasons, UU congregations experiencing trauma can only heal by acknowledging trauma’s effects, adapting to its presence, and being mindful of each other along the way.
Today, Stevens is minister at Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse in Moscow, Idaho. In 2005, when she was a new minister serving at Kitsap UU Fellowship in Bremerton, Washington, the congregation experienced several difficult events. At the same time, the wider world was in turmoil: “They sometimes call it the year of the natural disasters,” she recalls. With each event—a tsunami in Indonesia, Hurricane Katrina, or a congregant’s diagnosis—more congregants requested pastoral counseling, while others distanced themselves. Stevens also noticed that within days of a new challenge, “There would be a really strange conflict, like an email fight between two people who were normally pretty solid,” she says. Trauma was manifesting in her congregation. “Sometimes when we feel powerless,” she says, “we look to assert power in the sphere in which we have power and influence, which might be the congregation.” Stevens now anticipates trauma’s myriad expressions, its unpredictability, and its messiness.
Worship, at the heart of congregational life, should ideally shift to accommodate trauma. “It’s not just about ideas or shaping the perfect sermon,” says the Rev. Leslie Takahashi, author of the forthcoming book Truth, Trauma, and Transformation: A Dialogue about Healing and Fatigue. Ritual helps. And because trauma resides in our bodies, practices that “let people move and express in our services,” such as movement and singing, offer important outlets, she says.
Options, too, help people with trauma in a congregation. It’s important for people living with trauma “to feel a sense of agency, empowerment, and choice,” Takahashi says. Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church in Walnut Creek, California, where she’s lead minister, has shifted from virtual-only services to a multiplatform model. People can watch the service online or attend in person in the sanctuary, fellowship hall, or outside on the congregation’s patio.
“Knowing that we don’t know who’s impacted and who’s not, you have to prepare for everybody potentially having a traumatic experience they’re recovering from,” says Wolfe, who also advocates Sunday morning options. Their ideas include quiet rooms for breaks, and color-coded badges indicating whether people are okay with hugging or talking to others that day.
Wolfe also recommends offering tablet devices during worship so congregants participating virtually can chat in real time with those in low-contact rooms at church. That combination “isn’t as intense as being in a room with a bunch of folks for coffee hour,” they add. Such innovations help “all kinds of folks who have experienced church as too intense or really hard to navigate,” including neurodivergent people.
Right now, two very different swaths of UUs are particularly vulnerable to trauma—those for whom trauma is new and those for whom it has existed in some form for a long time.
“For communities of color, for LGBTQ communities, for folks living with disabilities, most of these traumas are not new,” Wolfe says. Takahashi notes that those communities, along with financially insecure people, have experienced more actual impacts over the past two years than other UUs.
By contrast, the people currently struggling with deep anger and disempowerment are those in the majority culture who hadn’t faced chronic adversity before March 2020.
Takahashi urges UU communities to express compassion for everyone by prioritizing ways for congregants to connect, such as small groups. Stevens adds: “We evolved to help each other calm down after a traumatic event.”
As UU congregations reassess how to worship and be in community—while doing the justice work we value—Stevens encourages them to embrace vulnerability through emotional honesty, to extend extra grace to others, and to choose hope.
“Radical hospitality is not, ‘Welcome to everybody and here’s how we do things here,’” Stevens says. “Radical hospitality is, ‘Welcome, what do you need to feel safe and included?’”