Christopher Harris, senior pastor of Bright Star Church of God in Christ, refuses to stand by helplessly as gun violence on the streets of Chicago claims thousands of lives and causes deep physical and emotional wounds to many thousands more.
Since 2009, his Bright Star Community Outreach (BSCO) organization in the Bronzeville district has worked to achieve sustainable violence reduction through various prevention and intervention strategies.
But it wasn’t until he brought in Israeli trauma and resiliency experts from NATAL to train local faith leaders and social workers that he acknowledged his own scars.
“While Israelis worry about missiles, we in Chicago are counting body bags and toe tags.”
“Most of us had been counseling for years but we didn’t realize until the NATAL training that first of all we had to deal with our own trauma. That was pretty amazing,” says Harris, one of 12 participants in the first five-week training session at BSCO in November 2016.
NATAL is training another 10-person cohort this summer.
Harris encountered NATAL, Israel’s multidisciplinary trauma and resiliency center, during an American Israel Education Foundation trip in 2012. Up to that point, trauma counseling wasn’t part of BSCO’s work.
“A light bulb went off in my head,” Harris tells ISRAEL21c. “While Israelis worry about missiles, we in Chicago are counting body bags and toe tags. Who does the trauma counseling for the families of the victim and the perpetrator? Not many, if any at all in our communities.”
“Black and brown people don’t really go to counseling,” Harris explains, because of issues of accessibility, affordability, trust and stigma.
“But they do trust and talk to faith leaders. I said, on that day in Israel, I want to provide that kind of training based on the Israeli model.”
NATAL Executive Director Orly Gal sent three professionals to Chicago to assess the situation.
“When they asked youngsters from the age of 14 about their dreams for the future, many said they just want to live to the age of 20. I will never forget that,” Gal tells ISRAEL21c.
NATAL personnel worked with BSCO to create a tailored version of its approach for Chicago as an added initiative for BSCO’s TURN (The Urban Resilience Network) Center.
“In Israel, we run a helpline and also raise awareness of trauma and teach professionals and organizations about dealing with trauma,” says Gal. “We have a unique model you won’t find anywhere else and it’s very interesting for people from abroad because it can match different kinds of trauma, not just terror and war.”
In South and West Chicago, trauma mostly stems from violence on the street and at home, says BSCO Chief Operating Officer Rodney Carter, who was in the first training cohort. NATAL adapted its model according to what trainers learned from local clergy.
The TURN Center surveyed 1,800-plus youth in 19 Bronzeville-area middle and high schools. Responses revealed that two-thirds of the students worry about the safety of their family and friends, and 35 percent display clinical-level symptoms of depression.
“We need to encourage people in Bronzeville that they can change the situation,” says Carter. “One of the barriers we discovered is a lot of people in underserved communities have lived their whole adult life with trauma and don’t realize they have it. Our community ambassadors have educated over 7,000 people about our work and about trauma in general.”
One TURN Center ambassador, Pastor Rene Chandler, describes in the video below that soon after finishing his five-week training with NATAL his own son was shot on the street. Another participant, Pastor Jamaine Parish, tells of a shooting he witnessed at his doorstep and how the training prepared him to help his traumatized young children.
Helpline for Chicago
In summer 2017, the TURN Center implemented a toll-free helpline modeled on NATAL’s helpline in Israel. Call-takers strive to aid in the recovery process of people suffering from loss and trauma, directing them to support services at the center and elsewhere.
“We found there are many good services in the Chicago area but many of these services aren’t aware of each other’s existence or don’t have good working relationships. A helpline is a good way of including all the services in the support system,” says Sigal Haimov, NATAL’s director of professional programs and model development, who oversaw the helpline training and based her PhD thesis on the experience.
“The training was designed to be both theoretical and experiential, so we experienced the process by dealing with our own personal trauma, which is very powerful,” Carter tells ISRAEL21c.
Haimov says opening old wounds is difficult yet transformative.
“For example, we did a simulation of a caller, the mother of a young girl. One of the group got very angry that we weren’t concerned enough with the child’s needs. I asked her to notice how angry she was because normally she’s a warm, compassionate person. It took her some time to understand it had something to do with herself. She realized that the girl represented her own childhood. She has worked for years in trauma-related cases and every time she fights for the child’s rights she didn’t realize she was fighting for herself.”
Carter says each trainee “now has increased sensitivity when walking others through their journey of healing and recovery because they’ve been through the process themselves.”
The helpline caught on more quickly than expected, Carter reports. “Already we have 30 people who regularly call. In less than a year, two individuals have successfully gone through the process. We’ve evaluated that they are at a much better place than they were in the beginning.”
BSCO gets funding for the TURN Center from United Way Metropolitan Chicago, Northwestern Medicine and University, University of Chicago Medicine, Cigna Healthcare and some corporate and philanthropic donations. Harris says much more support is needed to sustain and expand this important resource.
“The TURN Center brings us all together and strengthens our community,” says Carter. “NATAL has given us tools people can take into their own individual churches, giving faith leaders a whole new approach to preaching and counseling. We have 100 faith leaders across Chicagoland who are interested in being part of this work.”
Harris, who leads frequent trips to Israel for faith leaders, sees the NATAL-BSCO partnership as a sterling example of how Israelis and Americans, Christians and Jews, blacks and Jews can work collaboratively “to heal people and bring hope to people who are hurting. Our goal is to replicate it across the country.”
The TURN Center was NATAL’s second major project in the United States, says Gal. The first is the Wounded Warriors project, a helpline offering emotional assistance for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts since 2012.
“We are also working with nine hospitals in New Jersey this summer after winning a bid to train paramedics and social workers,” Gal tells ISRAEL21c.
Among recent visitors to NATAL in Tel Aviv were disaster-relief and management professionals from Indonesia; mental-health professionals and organizations from the UK, US and Switzerland; and Jehangir Khan, director of the UN Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force and UN Counter-Terrorism Center.