Black Pastors of Portland meet to heal gun violence trauma
A suicide and substance abuse prevention group and a group of Black pastors in Portland teamed up this month to try and wrap their hearts, if not their heads, around the fallout from the city's increased homicide rate.
Billed as a Healing Trauma and Resilience Summit, community members met at Emmanuel Temple Church in North Portland on Friday and Saturday, Dec 10 and 11. They held a town hall meeting, several discussion groups and a praise service, in an attempt to address the emotional distress of Portland's emergent big city gang violence and tit-for-tat shooting situation.
Portland's number of recorded shootings has more than doubled in the past two years. In terms of killings, 2021 may be its deadliest year on record, with 68 homicides recorded by the end of October. East and North precincts recorded the greatest amount of gun violence.
Shon Neyland, one of the summit leaders, said he has been shocked by the rise in violence and said the gathering had a practical aim: finding ways to heal.
Neyland,senior pastor at Highland Christian Center, has conducted funerals for gang members gunned down by rivals.
He recounted burying the daughter of a parishioner whose other children became a target for extended revenge. Six months later, the man's nephew was shot dead.
"Then there was the idea of retaliation," he said."'Should we try to react, retaliate?' So, trauma begets trauma. Now the father who just buried his daughter can't even grieve, and mourn, because he has to worry about his other children's safety."
When Neyland's parishioners started nervously asking about security at the nephew's funeral, he drew on his military experience.
Rising from an enlisted member of the Air Force to a colonel, Neyland spent 20 years as a command chaplain to nine regions in the Pacific.
"Because I'm a veteran, I'm used to more warlike situations," Neyland said. He did worry about more shootings and, on the day of the service, as did the funeral director would not proceed until Neyland had disbanded a group of 75 young men who gathered at the cemetery. Neyland, who, as an officer, worked on the launch of nuclear weapons into space, kept his cool.
"So, on the spot, the Lord just dropped into my spirit, I did a grave-side (service) for them, without the body and without the true family who was authorized to be there. They accepted it, they moved on, and then the true funeral could come in."
Addressing basic needs
Because of his studies at the National War College, Neyland is the lead writer with three other pastors on a 20-page draft strategic plan.
He says this strategy document "focuses on empowering a community that has for years been disenfranchised, through the poverty, through the criminality, the incarceration, and even the lack of health care, which we've seen highlighted in the pandemic for those of African descent, Hispanics and indigenous groups."
Being military-minded, he breaks the strategy down into mission, vision and priorities. The four priorities are Community Health; Collective Community Engagement; Leadership Development and Financial Management Training.
Community health, for instance, addresses the stigma against acknowledging mental health problems and seeking health. Financial management addresses the stress young Black men have around money.
For community engagement Neyland gave the example of his church, Highland Christian Center, giving away 59 iPads this summer to youths who completed 80% of a summer camp program, paid for by an Oregon Community Foundation grant.
"They all completed it, because you're getting hot meals, you're getting fun activities, but also messages on self-esteem, academics, career choices.… We brought in guest speakers. So we can emphasize the importance of technology, and the importance of learning web-based training data," he said. "The older kids get more out of it. The young kids said, 'Oh, I'm going to play a game.' But it's up to the parents to use it correctly. to say, 'No, we're going to make this an educational tool.'"
Neyland believes that trauma spreads outwards from a shooting to affect everyone in the community. People won't leave their homes, or they have anxiety that can turn into depression.
Darryl Turpin, director of equity and cultural engagement at Lines for Life, agrees.
"Trauma rewires the brain biochemically," said Turpin, one of the speakers at the summit."The brain is rewired to do one thing and one thing only: survive. So, a lot of people who are suffering from trauma, whether it's grief, whether it's community violence, are doing what they know to do, which is survive. What we've seen with the continuation and perpetuation of this community violence is that trauma begets more trauma, hurt people hurt people. It's just a continuing, vicious cycle. And trauma produces high-risk behavior, criminal behavior, smoking, drug addiction, mental health issues. The root of it is trauma and grief, and it's just perpetuating itself in this community."
Turpin said that a core facet of the healing process for Black communities of today is internalizing that they possess the same strength and resiliency their ancestors used overcome chronic trauma.
"You should never hear about trauma for Black people unless you talk about the word resilience," Turpin said, explaining that resilience has developed throughout generations of Black Americans out of necessity amid centuries of systemic racism.
The effects of racial trauma, Turpin said, can include stress and anxiety disorders as well as unhealthy coping behaviors that may increase their likelihood of encountering dangerous situations.
Turpin has spent over two decades facilitating holistic and culturally proficient programs tailored to address the social and economic factors perpetuating adverse health outcomes for specific populations, including young Black men.
As the founder and co-president of H.E.A.T. (Habilitation, Empowerment, Accountability, Therapy), Turpin provides cognitive-based mentorship and empowerment curricula to Black men aged 18 to 29 who have experienced interactions with the American criminal justice system.
Lines for Life
Dwight Holton, chief executive officer of Lines for Life, said although the event took place in the midst of an outbreak of violence and trauma, it was the culmination of an extensive outreach effort that began years ago. "The Coalition of African and African American pastors thought it was imperative that the community start embracing the reality of trauma, especially from recent gun violence, and treating it as an emotional health issue as a wellness issue for all of us," said Holton, who attended the summit. "Not just reacting to the daily flow of gun violence, but starting to build resilience in healing trauma."
The groups already knew each other. Lines for Life started working more intensively a couple of years ago in the Black community, trying to build and empower access to better mental wellness. "The preachers came to us and said the reality is that in the Portland Black community, there are very few people who don't know someone who's died from gun violence. With over 70 homicides this year, most of them in the Black community and Spanish speaking communities, it's a tight-knit group. Where I live in inner Southeast, people don't think about this all that much. But here, people talk about it all the time." Holton said.
He said people have lost fellow members of congregations, cousins, their neighbor's son. "That is a traumatic experience for people and it has a collective trauma in the community at large."
Resources related to suicide prevention and mental health support.
Clackamas County Crisis Line
Provides 24/7, free, and confidential support.
Crisis Text Line
Text HOME to 741741 24/7 crisistextline.org/texting-in
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Text: teen2teen to 839863
Senior Loneliness Line
The Trevor Project Suicide Prevention Lifeline for LGBTQ youth
Trans Lifeline's Peer Support Hotline
Veterans Crisis Line
1-800-273-8255 press #1
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