Earlier this month, a woman in my congregation wrote to church leadership asking us to hold a special service for victims of sexual assault and abuse. In the email, titled “A Plea,” she implored us to “do something to bring comfort and hope to all of us who are so deeply troubled right now.”
“The pain is palpable everywhere I go,” she wrote.
There was no denying this. As a chaplain for the YMCA of Austin, lately I have been holding space for people of all genders and backgrounds who are in deep grief, anger and trauma over abuse (sexual and otherwise). Their pain has been underscored by the recent Supreme Court hearings and coverage on social media.
My colleague Rev. Brian Ferguson and I worked with lay leaders of Wildflower Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in South Austin, to quickly organize a “service of sharing and support” for the following Tuesday evening. We kept it simple: soothing music — songs with titles like “Comfort Me” and lyrics like “How could anyone ever tell you, you are less than whole?” We skipped the sermon in lieu of ample time for extemporaneous sharing. People sat in a circle near where the pulpit would have been, lighting candles before telling devastating and strength-filled personal stories, some aloud for the very first time.
We all listened, sang, and prayed together. That was it. Yet afterward I slept well for the first night in weeks.
Few things are more healing than beloved community and being heard.
“I hadn't been crying the way I thought I should lately,” Maria Milner wrote on Facebook after attending the service. “Instead, the tears were just always falling forever, but the emotion I felt was numbness. I thought I was broken. It turned out, I just needed the warmth of other hearts to remind me that mine was still beating.”
Our hearts are still beating. The warmth and presence of others remind us. We need those reminders in hard times — and we need them in daily life, too.
At the TownLake branch of the YMCA, where I serve, our mind-spirit programs often revolve around this kind of heartfelt sharing and listening. We hold a monthly Joys and Concerns Circle, a type of small-group ministry adapted from my own Unitarian Universalist tradition. During this circle, each person gets to speak, uninterrupted, about what is on their heart.
“Focus on emotions,” I remind the group each month. “We have plenty of other chances to talk about thoughts or events. This is a time to share what you might not be able to name anywhere else.”
After all have spoken, we go around and offer connection and affirmation (“Jorge, I really relate to what you said about …” or “Jean, thank you for being so honest about…”). However, we promise to resist advice-giving or attempts to fix. The gift is in simply listening with care. We do something similar in our Single Parents Group, too, and in one-on-one pastoral care sessions.
Over and over, these simple listening practices prove powerful and transformative, for Y members and for me (someone who is more naturally a talker).
They remind me of the Rev. Kate Braestrup’s memoir "Here If You Need Me," in which she wrote: “I’m here to be with you while you freak out, or grieve or laugh or suffer or sing. It is a ministry of presence. It is showing up with a loving heart. And it is really, really cool.”
We can all do this for each other, at home, in faith communities, and in perhaps less obvious places like a YMCA. We can listen like lives depend on it. I believe they do.
Rev. Erin J. Walter serves as the Community Engagement Director for the TownLake YMCA and the affiliated community minister for Wildflower Church in South Austin. Doing Good Together is compiled by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.