Last week, with the grandeur of Pikes Peak and the beauty of the golden Aspen trees as the backdrop, ten persons met for a four day retreat. The United Methodist Church General Board of Higher Education and Ministry partnered with Centered Life: Education, Counseling, and Spiritual Care of Colorado Springs to offer the program “Resiliency Care Support for Post Traumatic Stress and Cumulative Stress.”
This event was a pastoral care and resiliency program for endorsed United Methodist chaplains and spouses serving in specialized ministries who are exposed to post traumatic and cumulative stress.
In the previous six years the United Methodist Endorsing Agency (UMEA) has reached out to military chaplains and their spouses who have experienced the challenges of reintegration after returning from war. The retreat centered on equine assisted learning. The event provided opportunities for the chaplains and their spouses to share their sacred stories. It was a time of conversation, relaxation, mutual support, worship, refreshment, healing and growth.
This year UMEA broadened the focus. Military chaplains returning from war are not the only ones affected by post traumatic stress, so too are chaplains who serve in other difficult settings. Often hospital chaplains confront the after effects of the horror and hardships of violence in their communities. As people who have been wounded by shootings and other forms of brutality enter emergency rooms, chaplains provide immediate crisis care to the wounded and to their families.
The hospital chaplain’s care does not end here. In the face of traumatic events, they also provide long term care to the first responders, the hospital staff, and to the wider community. Because of this, hospital chaplains often experience trauma and cumulative stress as well.
Last week, a military chaplain and hospital chaplains from Dallas, Orlando, Baton Rouge, Kansas City, and Michigan converged at the John Wesley Ranch near Divide, Colorado to be in a community of support, care, and healing. The journey toward healing and restoration began and concluded with worship. But, what occurred in between?
Partners of Florissant, Colorado, owner and chief wrangler Reverend Pam Roberts (Association for Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor and Licensed Profession Counselor ), along with four top notch wranglers, partnered with four program leaders who have passion and experience in offering healing and restoration to those impacted by stress. The program consisted of an intentional integrating group process, equine engagement, counseling, spiritual reflection, fellowship, and relaxation on a ranch in the mountains of Colorado. It was a powerful time working and learning from horses as the participants built resiliency.
In a way, each person became a horse whisperer. A “horse whisperer” is defined as a horse trainer who adopts a sympathetic view of the motives, needs, and desires of the horse, based on modern equine psychology. I would suggest that it was more than understanding equine psychology. Each horse provided a theological perspective about the Holy and community.
During the four days, the wranglers and program leaders partnered with a talented group of chaplains and their spouses – all of whom have been impacted by the pain and stress of violence where they serve in ministry. The group openly shared many stories about how the horses were teaching them something about their souls. One experience, in particular, I would like to share.
We conclude our week at the horse ranch with a “memorial service”, during which we bury a regret, shame, guilt, or a burden. Each participant is invited to take a half mile walk that symbolizes our journey in life. Along the way, we consider those things in life that we desire to bury; possibly an experience, a relationship, or an action. During our walk we may find a flower, pine cone, rock, branch, or even horse manure, that may be for us a symbol of that which we want to bury. Our walk concludes at an open meadow. In this meadow Pam has buried her horses that have died over the years. There is a hole dug near a tree where each person has the opportunity to bury that which has wounded their soul.
This year our memorial service was different than in years past. The horses accompanied us on our journey. As one of the chaplains buried his burden, he shared from deep pain and in tears about a difficult relationship. After covering his burden with a shovel of dirt, he stepped away. One of the horses followed him to where he was standing and stood next to him. After a moment the horse laid his head over the chaplain’s shoulder. This powerful moment reminded us that even when our souls are wounded, we are not alone. The Holy reaches out to us through community.
Horses are part of a herd. The herd (or community) teaches us that;
- When one hurts, we all hurt. Whether it was through the violence of war, sexual trauma, robbery, or shootings; or a house fire, automobile accident, or tragic death of a loved one, we have persons affected by trauma. The impact of trauma reaches beyond the person affected. It extends to the family and community.
- We are in community, together. As we heard each other’s sacred story and encouraged one another, we learned how connected we are. As the horse stood next to the chaplain, that moment reflected to this chaplain that he was not alone, that in community we can experience the transcendent love of God.
- The horse whispers to us. Over the course of two days on the horse ranch, Pam and her wranglers encouraged and taught the chaplains and spouses how to listen to the horse as the horse reflected their soul; the inner feelings, hurt, pain, compassion and spiritual fatigue of each person.
- In brokenness, we find healing in community. We began and closed our week’s experience by celebrating the Eucharist. As we shared in the bread and the cup, we were reminded of the Good News, that Christ died because of our human brokenness and that through this sacrament, we receive visible grace knowing that not even violence and death can separate us from God’s presence in our lives. We also realized that each time as we sat around table, we broke ourselves to one another through story. As we live out this grace, we can bind one another’s wounds and discover healing for our own. This is Eucharist! This is community!
In the midst of our deeply conflicted world, we are called to bring a culture of Shalom, called to bring healing in places of pain, called to be reconcilers in places of conflict, called to be in community. Explore with us a holistic approach that seeks to transform body, mind and spirit of individuals, groups and communities affected by the wounds of trauma and violence. I invite you to learn more about JustPeace and the Soul Care Initiative.
Discover the power of a horse’s whisper!