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Rev. Emily C. Heath Headshot

Wise as Serpents: Finding Trained Trauma Chaplains in the Wake of a Crisis

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Yesterday, just hours after the Colorado shootings, I began to read stories of "chaplains" being sent by evangelical Christian groups to the scene. Immediately, I felt my blood pressure rise.

Last summer my southern Vermont community was hit hard by Hurricane Irene. Towns were flooded, families lost their homes, and entire businesses were literally washed away. In the aftermath, all of us got involved in the rebuilding. As a local pastor, I spent a lot of time talking to people who had suffered devastating losses, and connecting them with needed resources.

One afternoon a few days after the flood I saw people walking in town wearing t-shirts that said "Chaplain". I stopped to introduce myself to them, and they flashed official-looking badges and identified themselves as Red Cross trauma chaplains. But something seemed off. I went home, pulled up webpages, and started investigating.

I was a trauma chaplain. I spent three years in seminary, and then completed numerous units of Clinical Pastoral Education, a supervised training program for would-be chaplains. CPE, as any clergy person who has done it will tell you, is rarely fun. But it's meant to train clergy to be able to serve others in the most devastating hours of their lives with compassion and grace. And above all, it's meant to train them to, like doctors, "do no harm".

I served first in the emergency room of a Level One pediatric trauma hospital and later as a staff chaplain in other hospital and hospice settings. I now serve as a chaplain to a fire department. During my time I have sat with a child who just lost parents to drunk drivers, a mother who literally watched her son bleed to death from a gun shot wound, and countless wives who just lost husbands to heart attacks. And there have been many, many more. Every time I have walked into a trauma situation I have given thanks for every hour of training I have completed.

What I found out about the "Red Cross trauma chaplains" who had come to my town was not only surprising, it was dangerous. The organization that had given them the legitimate-looking badges is not actually connected to the Red Cross or any public safety community. It requires no accredited theological education and no clinical training. It does, however, offer its own, questionable, training. One pastor who attended several years ago left in disgust after the group's leader reportedly made violently homophobic comments and talked about carrying a gun and extra ammunition into trauma areas.

But what is possibly even more disturbing is that the mission statement of this trauma response organization, and others like it, makes clear that they see disaster situations as opportunities for evangelism and conversion. In a crisis situation, where there is often chaos, it's pretty easy to come to town, say you are a "trained trauma chaplain", flash your badge and get assigned to help people who are at their most psychologically and spiritually vulnerable. The potential for doing harm, to the point of spiritual abuse, is high.

But not all chaplains are like that. The United States military, for example, requires their chaplains to hold a graduate theological degree, and to complete clinical training. Board Certified Chaplains, often found in medical settings, are required to undergo even more rigorous review. And local public safety organizations, such as police and fire departments, have become more wary about the qualifications of whom they let assume their chaplaincy.

All of these organizations also make sure that chaplains understand what their job entails. A chaplain does not try to convert those who have survived a disaster. Rather, a chaplain provides spiritual and emotional support by meeting people where they are at and helping them find the resources that they need. The chaplain may be a Catholic priest ministering to a Muslim, or a rabbi serving a Baptist, or a minister serving an atheist. It doesn't matter. In any of those situation, the agenda cannot be dictated by the chaplain's beliefs. It must be dictated by the needs of the traumatized person.

When this is done well, the result can be reduced traumatization, increased hope, and substantive stabilization. When done poorly, it can be nothing short of religious exploitation.

In situations like the shooting in Colorado, it's important for local clergy, and local government and public safety officials, to carefully investigate the religious agendas of spiritual caregivers. Look for someone who is trained by accredited sources, who has chaplaincy experience in the military or a medical setting, who is connected with a legitimate credentialing body, or who is already affiliated with your local public safety chaplaincies.

I learned the hard way last summer that in times of crisis there are plenty of spiritual "wolves in sheep's clothing". There are also plenty of good people who simply are not trained for the task at hand. Both types can do incredible damage. The Scripture of my tradition advises us that Jesus told us to be "wise as serpents, gentle as doves". It's a good reminder when deciding who should have access to those who have been severely traumatized.

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