From Elle Dowd
Discussing Tragic Events in a Youth Community
This past week has been a difficult one for our communities. The shooting of Mike Brown brings forth all sorts of emotions and questions. Yet, despite the overwhelming tragedy in Ferguson and its troubling aftermath, we can be consoled with the knowledge that our God is no stranger to heartbreak. Jesus enters into our messes. Jesus is present with us in our grief. And in this way, Jesus models for us the ministry of presence. Jesus shows us that to serve, the most important step is the first step: Show Up.
We may feel intimidated by these discussions. We may feel inadequate to lead them. But our youth need a safe space to tell their stories and process their feelings. They need us to come forth as servant leaders – leaders who are ready to cry with them, to struggle alongside them, to listen to them. Many of the questions that come along with these discussions do not have easy answers. Enter into them anyway.
There are no road maps for these discussions. Each discussion will be different depending on your context. (For example: What is the racial makeup of your parish? The racial makeup of the surrounding area? The schools your youth attend? How close, geographically, are you to Ferguson, MO? Do you have youth/children who have family members in law enforcement? Youth/children who have family members who have died because of gun violence? We must keep in mind all of these questions and be sensitive to them). You will need to adapt things to make these discussions your own, but I have a framework to get you started. Below I’ve written some steps to consider and attached a page of resources for further inspiration.
Danielle Dowd is the Diocesan Youth Missioner for the Diocese of Missouri
A Framework For Discussing Tragedy with Youth and Children Written and compiled by Danielle Dowd the Diocesan Youth Missioner for the Diocese of Missouri
1. Show Up
This is the hardest and most important step. Show up. These conversations are difficult but we absolutely need to have them. Your ministry of presence is vital in these difficult times. In times of tragedy, people, especially young people, look to their leadership for how to respond. You are part of their faith community. You have made promises together, in baptisms. You have eaten at the Lord’s table together. You have worshipped alongside each other. Because you have been present already in their lives in those ways, you are now called to continue your ministry of presence by giving youth and children an opportunity to wrestle with these difficult questions and emotions.
2. Create a Safe Space
Invite your youth and children into a sacred time together specifically for these issues. Tell them that you are going to talk about what has been going on in Ferguson. Be aware of the physical space you choose to do this in. You will want the space to be comforting and inviting. Ideally, a space should be private (while keeping in mind safeguarding guidelines) and quiet.
3. Provide Outlets for Emotion
You may consider a format such as this:
Information – Give a brief synopsis of the known facts in the situation. Think about how you might explain the situation beforehand so that you may be intentional with your language, keeping in mind your context. Give a list of guidelines that you agree on for talking about difficult subjects. For example, you may want to state something like, “This is a safe place. Everyone has the right to have their feelings heard here.”
Questions – Open up time for questions. In this case, there are a lot of unanswered ones. Come prepared to answer questions with the most current, accurate information you have available. Expect frustration from teens when there are not clear or easy answers. Affirm their feelings by saying things like, “I can hear that you’re frustrated. I’m frustrated too.” Then listen.
Discussion and Truth Telling – Ask the youth how they feel about what happened. Ask them how this relates to them, personally. What sorts of other, related, issues does this tragedy bring up for them? Affirm their feelings by reflecting them back to them. After you ask a question, do not be afraid to sit in silence for awhile. Allow them to have the time to formulate their ideas and verbalize them. Do not feel the need to fill the silence. Depending on the context and personality of your group, some groups may talk a lot while other groups might not talk at all. Give them the time and space either way.
Ritual and Reflection – You may want to have different “stations” around the room where your youth can process in silence. Perhaps one station is an art station with finger paints, newspaper articles, paper, scissors, glue, where youth can paint and collage their feelings about what happened. Perhaps another station is a meditative station with a
single candle lit where they are encouraged to breathe deeply. Perhaps another station is a labyrinth. Maybe another station is a prayer wall (a large sheet of butcher paper with various markers) where they can write or draw prayers. Perhaps another station is a list of Bible verses about God entering into our sorrow with us (see attached resource). Give youth time to go from station to station as they wish. You may want to play some quiet instrumental music during this time.
Litany – After youth have time to quietly reflect in the different mediums, come back together for some sort of prayer. You may want to use the prayer “A Litany for Children Slain by Violence” in the resource list below. Maybe you could even do a “prayer of the people” type prayer where the youth could write petitions themselves in one of the ritual stations. You may want to put the candle in the center of the room, hold hands, and recite a prayer of healing together.
Distribution of Resources – When you have finished your prayer together, reaffirm to the youth and children that you are there for them if they have any questions in the coming weeks and months. Then distribute appropriate resources. In this case, I would send home a note to parents with an adapted copy of either “Talking with Children About Tragedy” or “Talking with Children About Violence.” I would also include numbers or emails where people providing pastoral care or counseling can be reached.
4. Follow up
This is not a onetime talk. When we are talking about intersecting issues of violence, tragedy, race, and privilege; it is a lifelong, ongoing discussion. If certain personal things were brought up during discussion, remember to ask youth about them in the future (ex. next week, remember to ask “Susan, you mentioned that your grandma lives in Ferguson. How is she doing? How are you feeling?” or around Christmas time “Jacob you mentioned that you had a relative die last year in a gun related incident. I know holidays can be hard when you’ve lost someone. I’m here for you”) . Commit those details to memory and follow up. Schedule a time to get milkshakes one on one (in a public space) with youth that seem particularly affected. Refer youth to counseling resources when necessary. If you are in need of further resources, please contact me.