When my friends ask how I am doing these days, I say, “I am good. No complaint.” That’s my honest answer. However, I have been a troubled soul recently with the unrest we are facing every day in the nation. With extreme tiredness, little sleep, and exhaustion, I just murmur words after words as I can’t organize my thoughts well. I am frequently and enormously dysregulated but I am compelled to share my heart right now as the founder of AZTIFC (Arizona Trauma Informed Faith Community) movement for my African American brothers and sisters as well as the whole community.
I Thought We’re Doing Well
Three and half years have passed since AZTIFC was launched. It has been in an exponential growth as being reported many times before (Link). We established a statewide annual trauma informed community conference (Building Resilient Church Conference) mobilizing 50 national and local speakers with 13 tracks of field concentration, seven regular regional gatherings with various workshops and authentic fellowship, hundreds of trainings and presentations reaching and bridging all social sectors together. I thought we’re doing well. These days when I do basic introductory training on ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and trauma informed care, I see some faces with an expression, “I know what you are talking about already.” This is great as it tells me that the awareness of ACEs has been rising.
But when the national trauma emerged with the horrible murder of George Floyd, I felt I failed. I got frustrated, upset, and discouraged because of not only the police brutality but also many judgmental voices from people whom I thought they already knew how to respond to the situation. As I cry out with my African American friends and AZTIFC community members, I speak up here again, “Black Lives Matter!” All the persecuted and oppressed voices matter!!
What’s Wrong with You VS. What Happened to You
As I thought we’re doing well, I believed people know what to say when they face (re)traumatized survival responses like fight, flight, freeze, or flock. We all are trained to say, “What happened to you?” instead of asking, “What’s wrong with you?” We are also taught that reactive behaviors are physiologically correct, regardless of how annoying, illegal, or immoral. If someone commits illegal and/or immoral action, s/he must accept the consequence of that behavior. I am against any violence from any side for any reason. Violent riot or looting cannot be justified in any circumstances.
However, if you only focus on human behaviors that are symptoms or solutions of deep root causes, you are not trauma informed. You might be trained but the knowledge is in your head, not being transferred to heart (soul) and hand (lifestyle) yet. I know it takes time so I am not here to blame or criticize. But the current situation and responses from people tell me that the movement has a long way to go to complete its mission.
“What happened to you?” cannot stay only at the interpersonal level. Collective violence and accusation by African American citizens from the nation’s profound historical trauma and systematic injustice should embarrass and frustrate all of us. Again, the illegal behaviors and materialistic damages need to be met with justice and recovery. But we are to be patient, empathetic and compassionate, providing enough time and safe space where our (re)traumatized, angry and wounded brothers and sisters can be regulated and related by love than counter-violence. Rather than asking, “What’s wrong with you?”, we must ask, “What happened to you?”, and/or “What is right with you?”
Regulate, Relate, Reason
I love Dr. Bruce Perry’s teaching with his brain science and traumatology expertise. I use his 3R (Regulate, Relate, Reason) in my training all the time as it greatly summarizes the bottom-up approach of trauma informed care. When someone shows (re)traumatized survival brain responses, we cannot expect to have a logical dialogue before we have a three-step process of 3R. First, the brain stem needs to be regulated by providing ‘safety.’ Second, the limbic system must be related by ‘feeling loved’ instead of being rejected, abandoned, or threatened. When a person with reactive behaviors becomes grounded and regulated by safety and love-filled relationship then, we can move toward the third step of reason stage, expecting better function of the prefrontal cortex to engage in a logical dialogue and a willful choice for next action.
Today it looks like the whole nation is seriously (re)traumatized and dysregulated. We all might need to make prior efforts to create a safe zone where people are not harmed or threatened physically, emotionally, and in all other dimensions. We need to construct a judgment-free place where all the stories and voices are heard to be ventilated and validated with enough time and patience. We need to raise courageous trauma informed caregivers who build a safe and secure relationship with unconditional love and constant care although being offended and falsely accused.
From an African American leader, I learned a historical trauma and epigenetics lesson recently. When his people hear the phrase “law and order,” they are severely triggered and re-traumatized because what they had to go through in the history as brutal aggression was used against them to keep the law and order. Speaking the right words, doing the right things in one’s own sense and logic do not resolve the issues of racism and social injustice. Unless we don’t establish restorative justice with healing from broken trust, systematic oppression, and fear-driven violence, we may continue the vicious cycle of reactionary accusation, mistrust, dysregulation, aggression, and discrimination.
My Life Commitment and AZTIFC
A few days ago I participated in the panel discussion on racism with other white and black faith leaders. 33 years ago of that day, I was in the national protest against political injustice in South Korea. It was my senior year at college when we spent more time outside the classroom, fighting against dictatorship. One million people came out to the street on that day, which was the funeral march for the student from my college, who was killed by police violence. The protest and resistance had continued for decades before but on that day we made a victory against the government.
I was not a frontline fighter. I was a coward participant. But all college students suffered for years. Many young people’s lives were sacrificed from both sides of college and police. I came to America from a country that has suffered from over 500 invasions by imperialistic nations, the Korean War that destroyed 5 million people’s lives, and constant ideological and political dictatorship and conflict that sacrificed many people’s lives for decades. I have been carrying humongous survival guilt throughout my life, justifying my overwork day and night to live a life of integrity, godliness, and serving the community.
But I felt my life was a total failure in my traumatic season that started eight years ago. I was ready to give up my life five years ago. Then, my encounter with God’s unconditional love and trauma informed care movement made a dramatic turnaround of my life, ending up founding AZTIFC (Arizona Trauma Informed Faith Community). My life was given up not long ago but it was re-generated to build a community where people will be unconditionally accepted, loved, healed, restored, and raised as trauma transformed servant leaders with resilience and post-traumatic growth. This community will resist against racism, sexism, interpersonal and institutional abuse, systematic oppression, and social injustice. But it will pursue safety and transparency, reconciliation, cultural humility, humanization, and restorative justice.
In this movement, I find science and my faith come together, not discouraging truth-seekers and Jesus-followers. AZTIFC is not only for Christians but all faith traditions and professional fields are welcomed and we work together, not compromising our own belief and conviction. As a Christian leader, I just want to encourage my fellow Jesus-followers as I know many of them are suffering and mourning.
I love my God who always provides delicious bread at the right time. As I opened today’s common prayer (www.commonprayer.net), I found the right segment to share, finishing my writing.
Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder wrote, “The work of God is the calling of a -people, whether in the Old Covenant or the New. The church is then not simply the bearer of the message of reconciliation, in the way a newspaper or a telephone company can bear any message with which it is entrusted. Nor is the church simply the result of a message, as an alumni association is the product of a school or the crowds in a theater are the product of the reputation of the film. That men and women are called together to a new social wholeness is itself the work of God, which gives meaning to history.”
Lord, you call us out of captivity into the freedom of your beloved community. As we pass through the wilderness spaces of our lives, grant us ears to hear you, eyes to see you, and hearts that ache for you, that we might not turn away from the brothers and sisters who help us remember who we are. Amen.
Thank you for listening patiently today,
Love you all!
Rev. Sanghoon Yoo, MSW, MDiv
The Faithful City
Arizona Trauma Informed Faith Community (AZTIFC)