We’ve all seen it, whether in a movie or in real life.
A man stands in front of a group and announces, “Hi, my name is Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.”
The group responds with a uniform, “Hi, Joe,” and Joe goes on to tell his life story, complete with embarrassing and shameful truths of his life with alcohol and the triumphs and failures of living sober.
Whatever the trauma (abusive relationships, addiction, traumatic loss), stories are a crucial piece of recovery.
When we tell our story and hear the stories of others, we realize we aren’t alone in our struggles. Once we realize that others are living with the same brokenness, we begin to accept that we are a part of a team. A team that will cheer for us in our victory and support us in our failures. When we see that others have not only survived our hardship but are thriving on the other side, there is hope that we, too, can survive and thrive. But it all starts with a safe place and someone willing to step up and be the first to share their story.
This is the concept behind Lutheran Indian Ministries’ Sacred Ground, and it is how LIM approached the trauma of suicide on a college campus.
TRAGEDY ON CAMPUS
The news spread quickly that a student had taken thir life on campus. The student populatin was clearly shaken. The suicide of a loved one had touched most of their lives already, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to endure. Add to the fact that it occurred right before spring break, the faculty and staff were concerned other studentes would follow suit in what is called a suicide cluster. (Suicide in close-knit communities are 2-4 times more likely after one has occurred.)
The campus and community needed healing, and we were ready!
Bob Prue (Rosebud Sioux) and Bill Paris, already on staff at the Haskell LIGHT House Campus Ministry and prepared with Sacred Ground training, were joined by fellow LIM missionary, Rick McCafferty (Inupiaq), who flew from Seattle to be the Sacred Ground facilitator. Word quickly spread across the campus that the Light House was a safe place and that there were people ready to listen.
“It’s hard to get people to show up and talk about grief,” Bob explained. “Especially college students who are still figuring out who they are in the world.” But on the evening of the first get-together, 16 students showed up at the ministry center.
One student seemed visibly shaken by the recent events. In the middle of Rick’s story, (in which he told about his own struggles as an Alaska Native man growing up in a Native community, andthe suicides he had experienced and the hurt the student must have been feeling before taking their own life), this student ran out of the room.
“I’ve done this long enough to know that means something,” Rick stated. “So, I followed the student to make sure they were supported. The student just kept repeating, ‘I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I didn’t know there had been so much pain!’”
“It isn't easy to have these conversations,” Rick continued. “But it started the healing. All of these students were dealing with their grief in their own way, but they were doing it as a group, supporting each other.”
What happened on the Haskell campus is just one instance, where we happened to be in the right place when tragedy struck.
NOT AN ISOLATED INCIDENT
The news stories are never ending. Young Native people are killing themselves across the country at an alarming rate.
Suicide across the country is on the rise, regardless of age, race, or wealth. But if we break it down by ethnicity, American Indians and Alaska Natives are the second highest group committing suicide (13.42 suicides per 100,000 people in the general population – white: 15.85, black: 6.61, Asian/Pacific Islanders: 6.59 [American Foundation for Suicide Prevention]).
If we, then, consider that Native Americans and Alaska Natives make up only 1% of the total population, we see the incredible magnitude of the problem.
Hopelessness, despair, loneliness, abuse, addiction, trauma. These are the clouds that descend on our Native young people and lead them to suicide as their last option. Due to generations of trauma (see: https://www.lutheranindianministries.org/news/the-effects-of-trauma), Native youth have a lot stacked against them, and the first step to changing this is helping them find a safe place where they can tell their story and begin the recovery and healing process.
At LIM, we are planting the seeds of hope in Christ while preparing the soil so hope can take root by assisting in the healing of generational trauma so spiritual growth can take place through the work of the Holy Spirit.
We continue to reach out to grieving communities to offer support and assistance with future Sacred Ground conferences in Arizona, Montana, and North Dakota, along with Haskell (as a follow-up this event). We can’t wait to tell you more about how your support and prayers are helping make it possible to bring together different tribes for the benefit of all Native people.
Maya Angelou wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” We woule add, there is no greater joy than sharing your story and feeling the weight of your grief lifted and placed on the shoulders of Jesus.