‘Trauma Healing’ Brings New Life for the Traumatized in Africa

Sandra* was one of those women who seemed to have it all together. She confidently walked into the dusty, nearly bare room, dressed in the latest fashion—short, curly hair, jeans, and cute glasses—very unusual in her conservative North African country.

While Sandra’s appearance was atypical for a trauma healing workshop, her self-assurance was not. Like many others sent by their local church to learn how to share the gospel among traumatized people, Sandra arrived believing she was already in a position to help others heal. She had buried her own traumas deep—out of sight, out of mind, never happened. Her ascent as a prominent women’s ministry leader was proof her inner wounds couldn’t fester any longer.

But Sandra needed healing too.

Abuse as a child and teenager led to a chaotic and wild young adult life. When Sandra accepted Jesus as her Savior, she was ostracized from her family. Christ was a comfort, but loneliness and familial shame meant more mental burdens to carry. But no one had offered to help her lift them. Church leaders in her culture, like herself, don’t share their problems with others. They fix other people’s problems.

Not Your Average Ministry Training

Sandra and the twenty-three other women walked in and furrowed their brows. The program was being held in a classroom, but the twenty-four chairs they were meant to occupy were set in a circle—no desks and no whiteboard. Faces grew more concerned as the women were asked to put away their Bibles and notebooks. Of all the ministry training events they’d been to, Trauma Healing was turning out to be different.

Trauma Healing: Multiplying Healing to Wounded Hearts is a trauma healing program that invites participants to share their traumatic pasts, when they are ready, in a safe environment with others who have also had stressful experiences. Those who are not ready to share aren’t forced to do so. In the seven-day Trauma Healing program, people with heart wounds progressively move toward healing while experiencing community, developing a sense of purpose, and increasing their faith as they learn more about who God is and how to care for themselves and others who have been hurt.

After the program, participants are encouraged to share the comfort they have received from God with others who are hurting. As a leader in her church, Sandra was one of twenty-four women from four language groups in her North African country chosen by her local church to attend Trauma Healing. Ideally, Sandra will go back to teach women in her church how to share the good news in an environment where women live in the daily sorrow of harsh treatment and difficult lives.

Although both the healing and the training aspects of the program are advertised before participants arrive, many, like Sandra, simply want to be trained. They believe the first half isn’t for them.

The Healing Power of Silence

There’s no hiding behind a book in a Trauma Healing group—everyone tells Bible stories, discusses them, and participates in dramas that help them experience the characters’ emotions. The primary Bible example used in the first session of the Trauma Healing program is the story of Joseph—betrayed by his family, falsely accused, and seemingly forgotten in the most dire of circumstances.

Everyone, then, is given the opportunity to tell her own stories of hurt and be listened to without receiving advice or judgment. Silence from the listening end of the conversation is not normal in a culture that values giving advice.

Sandra and the other women pair up to share their personal stories. Near silence from the partner who listens is a monumental step in the healing process.

“No one has ever listened to me like that before,” one woman said with tears in her eyes.

“I didn’t even know I had so much to say—I’m usually interrupted halfway through my story.”

Another said, “I didn’t know it was ok to just share my pain. We’ve been doing it wrong in church—we give each other too much advice that doesn’t work anyway!”

“Identifying the hurts we carry is an important first step that enables us to lay them down and be released from them.”

Verbalizing their hurts is the first step toward healing. Drawing them is the second. Identifying the hurts we carry is an important first step that enables us, when we’re ready, to lay them down and be released from them. During the third session of Trauma Healing, participants are asked to draw their heart and all the traumas inflicted upon it.

It’s not an easy task. These North African women do not have one trauma on their hearts. Their lives are full of ongoing, cumulative trauma: oppression and abuse by spouses and family members, sickness without adequate medical care, and political unrest that sometimes results in communication blackouts, roadblocks, and violence. (I recently asked a North African law student about trauma-related statistics by world-renowned organizations, and she laughed, saying “[Africans] know those numbers aren’t anywhere near the reality.”) These traumas are obstacles to non-Christians hearing and understanding the gospel. For believers, like Sandra, trauma creates an obstacle to spiritual growth.

When the women regrouped, pained hearts scribbled uniquely on each piece of paper, Sandra stood up immediately. She had crudely drawn a heart with flamboyant colors. Teardrops, crooked lines, and chaotic images filled the heart.

“This is my heart—full of pain,” she said. “There is so much pain from my past—the abuse I suffered at the hands of my family because I’m a Christian, the stress I have over my daughter’s future . . . .” She could barely finish. Tears streamed down her face as she stood in the center of the circle holding her picture out to us. “Thank you for letting me share my story with you.”

Pain for a Purpose

Each night of the seven-day program, the women called home to share the day’s Bible story with whomever God placed on their hearts—perhaps other hurting women in their church or maybe an unbelieving family member. Purpose brings healing, and these ladies found that as they passed on the comfort they had received from God, they were in turn comforted.

Their personal stories make a natural connection to God’s redemptive story through Jesus. They are able to say that God has brought ultimate healing—temporal and eternal—through the trauma Jesus had to endure on the cross. If Christ had endured anything less, the breadth of healing available to the traumatized—to us all—would forever be insufficient.

Sandra went back to her hometown to start Trauma Healing groups with her husband. She trained six believers in her local church, who then led their own friends through trauma healing. At last count, the trainings in her hometown have resulted in forty-seven new believers.

“Sandra’s life displays what happens when we allow God to use what others intended for harm for the salvation of many (Gen. 50:20).”

Sandra and her husband have recently moved near refugee camps to train believers in those camps. Almost twenty groups with over one hundred new believers have resulted. Sandra’s prayer and goal is that those groups will move towards becoming local churches.

Only someone like Sandra could do this. Where foreigners can’t venture, Sandra can. What foreigners can’t understand, Sandra can. Sandra, fluent in the heart language and the pain of the people, is uniquely positioned to be the bearer of Christ’s good news. Her face is radiant when she talks about non-believers in her area, saying, “I understand their pain. We have to share these stories with them. They need to know that God loves them and sees them, as I have learned that he loves and sees me.”

Sandra’s life displays what happens when we allow God to use what others intended for harm for the salvation of many (Gen. 50:20). She discovered that though trauma grieves God’s heart, he gives it purpose for his glory and her good. Ask God to continue using the Trauma Healing program to bring peace for believers like Sandra and eternal healing for people who don’t yet know him.

For more information on the Trauma Healing program, email Trauma Healing coordinators.

*Name changed

Margot Gladding and her family live in England and serve on IMB’s global Scripture resource team. They have previously served with the IMB in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.