I received an email the day before stating that over three hundred people registered for the conference. Theoretically, this means that the dining hall’s multitude of attendees shouldn’t surprise me. It still does. In the room are graduate students from George Fox, at least one Concordia alumnus, people who work at churches and non-profits, and peppered clusters of MU students, staff and faculty. Apparently someone even flew in from Ohio to attend. I find my seat, and Dr. Paul Metzger, a Multnomah University professor, is introduced. Applause peals against the quietude for exactly four seconds, and Metzger opens the conference with the American Psychological Association’s definitions of both “trauma” and “resilience.” Everyone around me takes feverish notes. The projector screen’s words are black on a clean, white background.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” The APA goes on to say, “Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.” The APA’s definition of resilience is stated in similar terms: “Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.”
A picture of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” appears on-screen. Dr. Metzger discusses the story behind the painting alongside possible interpretations, and I take in my surroundings a bit. Roughly 25 octagonal tables approach hominine critical mass and sprawl evenly across the room’s surface area. I’m at one of the six rectangular tables perpendicular to the wall in the back where I enjoy a large vantage of the room overall. The table lodges six women and one other man beside myself. Every one of us has some kind of encased fluid to drink —whether coffee, water or tea. Purses are slung over chair-backs or set carcass-like on the ground. The only other male individual sitting by me is at the head of the table facing away from the stage. This means he does a contorted, sideways elbow-lean onto the tabletop and looks and writes in oscillating spurts.
After “The Scream,” Dr. Metzger talks about The Institute for Theology and Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins (New Wine), which is putting on the conference. New Wine focuses on the ways that the Christian community can bring the truth of Jesus to the outside culture in meaningful and engaging ways. A huge part of these “relational bridges,” as Metzger and New Wine call them, is listening. “We have to be open and engage with other people,” says Metzger. “Listening is one of the main forms love takes and is key to helping people deal
with trauma.” One can see a general feeling of “Yeah, that’s good” on everyone’s faces. At the side of the room, someone lingers in front of a pod of cereal dispensers wearing a fluorescent-yellow sweater.
Dr. Metzger points out that the Apostle Paul was one of the most resilient characters in all of scripture. Paul went through a lot of difficulty, and he remained resilient because of his focus on community, his ability to use his suffering for ministry, and his relationship with God. This particular question struck me: “How might God work in the midst of your suffering to make your life distinctive?” After asking the question, Dr. Metzger pauses, and the room draws in; I lean in with it. He follows the question with a joke that Dr. Brad Harper won’t leave him alone long enough to find out. Eruptions of laughter — people adjust in their chairs and do a back-arching, upward head-tilt to get a glimpse of whoever it is he’s talking about. Metzger finishes by sharing how he hopes each of us will walk away from today more able to recognize, understand and handle trauma in the spaces in which we work and live.
Dr. Metzger introduces Ben Sand, who is the speaker for the first plenary session and also CEO of the Portland Leadership Foundation, a multifaceted organization that serves marginalized individuals and families all over the Portland metro area. The foundation does everything from awarding college scholarships to hosting mentorship programs and working with the Department of Human Services to connect foster children with caring, local families. A new set of slides comes onto the screen revealing the talk’s title as “SHOWING UP.” The slide has a minimalist aesthetic with a black background and one thin, white line stretching from the left-bottom vertically upward to about one-quarter from the top. A small white half-circle is falling off the right side of the screen a quarter way down from the top corner. Sand’s name and job title are in very tiny print near the bottom of the slide, a sign seeming to mirror his extraordinary humility.
Sand begins by telling the story of his father’s death when he was six years old and how, after that happened, his family was thrust into a very difficult situation. His story is vulnerable and moving. When he gets to his high-school years he dramatically — with body motions and everything — shares how after years of traumatic events, he was approached by a guy named Kevin who loomed over him in a weight room, walked up thug-like, stuck a finger in his face, and said “Ben… I’m going to be your friend for the rest of your life.” The audience bleats a depressurizing laugh. Sand says that at that time, he had no idea that Kevin was part of Young Life or that Kevin had heard a word from God regarding him. Sand simply thought Kevin was insane.
After that day in the weight room, Kevin kept pursuing Sand and seeking a friendship with him, but Sand kept avoiding Kevin at all costs. This cat-and-mouse game goes on, Sand tells us, for months until Kevin shows up at his football game. Ben spies Kevin on the sideline, glances over at him, and Kevin points at him in the same way he did in that weight room several months prior. “At that point,” says Sand, “something snapped, and I decided I was going to follow Kevin Parker.” He started going to Young Life meetings and, after a long while, became a follower of Jesus.
At this point in his talk, Sand points out the importance of giving others someone in their day-to-day life whom they can follow. He repeats the phrase “Everything I know about (blank), I learned from (blank)” roughly a dozen times, each time filling in the blank with its respective life-skill and person. You can feel passion sizzling from his lips with each word. “The best thing about Jesus,” says Sand, “is that he had a radical commitment to forming uncommon relationships.”
Sand goes on to share how he used Acts 6 to structure the mission and vision of the Portland Leadership Foundation, and a guy at another table does that head-lifting squint that’s typical when trying to read these types of important, highly successful statistics from far away. The Portland Leadership Foundation has transformed the lives of hundreds of local youths since its founding in 2009. It does this every year “through the development of multicultural leaders and the growth of service organizations.”
It’s easy to miss how deceptively simple Sand’s
message is. The key to the transformation of one’s life according to Sand is merely relationships. Caring, intentional, real-life relationships with people you normally wouldn’t interact with — according to Sand, this is what the gospel looks like played out in our everyday lives. There’s uproarious applause when Sand finishes speaking. The plenary session ends with a Q&A.
After the plenary, I decide with two others at my table to go to a session titled, “Trauma, Gender and Religion.” The three of us head out a set of glass double doors toward a building next to the one we are in. The morning sky, which earlier seemed like trauma in meteorological form, with harsh rain and blustery wind, has pacified now. It’s the mellow, almost atonal, gray that’s typical of the Portland sky at rest. When I get to “B4,” the classroom is already largely filled, and several colleagues and I begin grabbing chairs from a nearby room.
I settle into an overfilled classroom and sit on a section of floor saved for me, again, in the back. The room’s already gotten warm, so doors are propped open to dialyze the stuffy, inside air. At the front of the room are five panelists. They sit facing the room from left to right in the following order: MU professor Dr. Brad Harper, Pastor Trudi Sang from Tigard Christian Church, Gyokuko Carlson, an abbess at a local Zen temple, and two final panelists who go by J. and Sara who are connected to Abbess Carlson.
The moderator asks the five panelists her first question: “How has your faith tradition been damaging?” One member answers that their personal faith tradition “gave no answers to help with my child who came out as homosexual except to tell them ‘Stop it!’” Another points out that their tradition taught them strong “us-versus-them” paradigms that took decades to overcome. Another tells a story of an experience from their upbringing saying, “Even though the Christian faith tradition we were raised in taught that everyone was a sinner at birth, they still acted in a way that accepted a certain group’s sin but told another group they couldn’t be accepted.”
I notice that the room is so full that people glance acrobatically in every conceivable direction in order not to make eye contact. The scene resembles an overfull, housewarming party where everyone’s trying to guess a room’s square footage. Switching postures to half-lotus on the floor, I return my attention up front. Dr. Harper rests his chin on his palm; each individual finger snakes vertically up his cheeks. In the room are significant amounts of man-buns, suit jackets, flannel and skinny jeans. Raincoats made by The North Face and Columbia rest on the backs of chairs in a cornucopia of bright-color varieties. Someone upfront is telling a story about how their faith tradition led them to one of their greatest regrets — a counseling session, during which, they implied to someone with AIDS that his disease might be a punishment for past actions. That person was never seen again.
After the official questions, an audience Q&A begins, the last question of which is, “What is helpful?” Three things are listed unanimously in response: 1) listen well, 2) prayerfully walk with people, and 3) as early as you can, ask people to share their stories with you.
We give the panelists a final round of applause. As I funnel out of the warm room, I feel like a huge gift’s been given to me. You can tell that the five panelists have cultivated much trust between one another and that their relationship is the result of a lot of time and difficult, honest conversation. It’s a rare vision into the meat of beautiful and hard-won relationships.
The workshop felt like an embodiment of the idea from Sand’s plenary talk. These five panelists cared about each other deeply and had the types of “uncommon relationships” Sand alluded to earlier. The conference has many other workshops and plenary talks today. I slide on my bunched jacket and begin a short, contemplative jaunt to the trauma-and-resilience-themed, interactive art exhibit in Travis-Lovitt Hall, excited for what I’ll get to witness next. I look up. The faceless, gray sky seems just a little bit warmer.