THE CARNAGE IN THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO (DRC) IS STAGGERING.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, more than five million people have been killed there in one of the most deadly conflicts since the Second World War. A million women and girls have been victims of rape by armed military groups, and three million refugees remain displaced—with one million being displaced from their homes since more recent anti-government uprisings erupted in 2016.
It’s been more than 20 years since the beginning of the DRC civil war. The bloodshed and chaos has long passed its peak—even in the eastern border region surrounding Goma, the epicentre of the conflict. Today, the nation is still broken by war, with the impact even reaching 800 km north of Goma to the city of Isiro. It’s in this city of about 180,000 people that a group of local church leaders, sponsored by Wycliffe Canada, are facing head-on the darkness and death spawned by war.
Guided with the Scripture- and psychology-based book Healing the Wounds of Trauma: How the Church Can Help, since 2011 a team has trained hundreds of Congolese church leaders in their province to share the healing that only Jesus can provide.
JOY IN THE MIDST OF DESPAIR
Joy was evident during a trauma healing workshop for church leaders one year ago in a crowded classroom in downtown Isiro. In the trade languages of Lingala and Swahili, the more than 40 future trauma healing counsellors sang choruses with lines such as “God is with us all the time, for all the years” and “faith in God protects us from our enemies.”
Dancing along to the songs, the workshop participants celebrated their trustworthy God, a stark contrast from the streets outside, where a reminder of the struggles of daily life is on display. Residents of all ages walk the streets, with the searing Congo sun beating down on them. Some are selling goods, but others walk the streets waiting for a job.
“They have nothing to do,” says Bishop Jean David Awilingata Modibale, one of four trauma healing master facilitators on the team. “This trauma healing program came at a good moment in time. Otherwise there could be a great number of people that would kill themselves.”
Despair is in the fabric of society here. Cut off because of poor roads, the region is in economic disarray. Public services like hospitals and prisons are not supported by the government. Medication that could stop preventable deaths is unaffordable to a population that lives in crippling poverty. The nation’s life expectancy rate of 58.9 years (2016 est.) is one of the worst on the planet.
Military groups in the region, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), are weaker than they once were, but still cause havoc in the surrounding rainforest. The LRA survives by operating mines where rare minerals are abundant—and by pillaging villages and stealing produce from fields. LRA soldiers often murder and rape innocent people.
PRINCIPLES IN HEALING
Despite the immense scope of trauma in northeastern DRC, surprisingly there is still hope, thanks to the trauma healing program. The group gathered for the January workshop was among the workforce of counsellors that will share the 11 Scripture-based lessons from the trauma healing book with their communities in workshops and one-on-one. They know intimately the material that has so far been translated into the local languages of Lingala and Swahili, and have all found some healing themselves from their trauma.
“When you have really understood what trauma healing is all about, then it touches you,” explains Modibale. “And you are able to translate the concepts into your mother tongue and express them in your mother tongue, even if we do not follow a word-by-word translation of the book.”
The first lesson that counsellors share with those traumatized in their communities is about why God allows suffering. The lesson presents a theological understanding of suffering and gives participants the space to process and discuss this difficult question.
“It is pointed out that we are not alone, but God is close to us even if we do not feel it in our suffering,” explains Pastor Calliste Duabo, the co-ordinator for the trauma healing project.
“We study the story of Joseph, who was hated by his own brothers and sold into slavery. But God used that so when finally the famine struck Egypt, he could reconcile with his family and help" them survive.
Through studying several Scripture passages—in the mother tongue if they’ve already been translated—the God of the Bible is revealed. In Scriptures such as Romans 8:35, traumatized people see that God is all-powerful and trustworthy no matter how difficult the circumstances.
As Romans 8:35 (GNV) puts it, “Who, then, can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble do it, or hardship or persecution or hunger or poverty or danger or death? . . . No, in all things we have complete victory through him who loved us!”
With an understanding of God’s character, healing of deep heart wounds can begin. Depending on the severity of the trauma, though, it can be a long process. Crucial to healing is letting your pain and bitterness out. The traumatized person is encouraged to mourn and lament to God however much it is necessary. One way to do so is through art. Duabo, who lost three of his children in one week, found this to be helpful.
“The drawing that first came to me was a tomb and a casket,” he explains. “This was because the spirit of grief was controlling me. So through this drawing, I started to free up my emotions, even through worship songs of lamentations, according to David as we see in the Psalms.”
Equally important in the healing process is forgiving those who wronged you. In the Isiro region, forgiveness is especially difficult for the many ethnic groups who have feuded for generations.
“There are always people looking for trouble because something in the past has happened,” explains Duabo. “The trauma healing really helps people to forgive one another and put things behind them.”
Forgiveness, though, isn’t always immediate. But it’s crucial in the process of healing. With such hideous acts of violence and sexual abuse, sometimes the victim may not want to forgive the perpetrator because they don’t want to condone their behaviour. But by not forgiving, the victim can’t be set free.
“Even if they will never come and ask for forgiveness, or if they are no longer there, if we hold something against them, we are chained up,” says Modibale. “It is very important for the people to see that we ourselves, too—even Christians—have really nothing to bring to God to negotiate our salvation with Him.”
TAKING YOUR PAIN TO THE CROSS
Along with forgiving those who wronged them, those traumatized also need to accept the forgiveness offered by Christ through His crucifixion. It’s there, at the cross, where true healing from all earthly suffering and torment takes place.
“It’s really by His total love and compassion that He made it possible for us to be reconciled with God,” says Modibale.
For this reason, a key focus of the trauma healing program is for participants to take their pain to the cross. They do this by writing down their most painful burdens and memories on a piece of paper and nailing it to a literal cross, or dropping the papers into a box at the foot of the cross and then burning its contents. (If someone is illiterate, they can still participate by bringing twigs to the cross to represent their burden).
Afterward, participants are given the opportunity to share their burdens with others. It’s important that every person has the space to empty their soul and let any emotions they feel about the pain come out.
Lastly, before burning the papers at the foot of the cross, the participant repeats, “I’m handing over my suffering to Jesus who died on the cross for me.” The burning of the papers shows that God can turn suffering into ashes, replacing it with joy (Isa. 61:3).
ONLY THE BEGINNING
In the coming years, the Isiro trauma healing team plans to continue to grow the trauma healing program by training more and more pastors to share the lessons with their communities. Currently nine language groups in the region are receiving trauma healing care. Future plans also include translating the Healing the Wounds of Trauma manual into 10 more languages.
The next step for the team is to train facilitators to counsel children, through unique “children-focused lessons” from the book Healing Children’s Wounds of Trauma.
“Children have a totally different conception of the world. So they need to be approached and ministered to differently, so that they can be healed,” explains Modibale. “The impact is going to be tremendous. . . . They will build the society of the next generation.”
As Modibale and the rest of the trauma healing team expand their training, hope is placed in long-term healing. It doesn’t happen overnight. The torment their nation has experienced is deep, and transfers from generation to generation. Yet, Christ’s love is powerful. He doesn’t abandon the weary.
“Love overcomes evil,” says Modibale. “We do not give up hope, even if the night is very, very long. We see that the day is coming when Congo will be governed by a righteous new generation.”