In the Disney movie “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel aches to be “where the people are.” The song “Part of Your World” has been a defining reference for me and how I do ministry. I’ll often reply to questions about how to equip people to follow Jesus with saying that we need to be where the people are. Pastors are often in the black hole of their offices. I can’t understand what life is like without being with the people. If I don’t watch out, once I get to the surface, I’ll end up calling a fork a dinglehopper and using it to comb my hair.
That being said, the act of knowing and defining is tricky business. What I’ve noticed is that often people know something intimately (unlike Ariel and all the people stuff) but need a name to call it. Naming is powerful. In fact, God speaks things into existence and then Adam’s first job is to name the animals. Scripture, ahem, speaks to the power of speaking.
There’s an experience of memories that aren’t ours but that shape us and become ours that needs a name. That is even more so in communities that have been oppressed. At the Women and Worship conference, Judy Aaron introduced the term “historical trauma.” Oddly enough, I’d heard someone use it just the week before and thought about the concept but never explored the term until Judy’s workshop. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, PhD defined Historical Trauma as “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations, including the lifespan, which emanates from massive group trauma.”
Judy Aaron speaks from the Native American tradition and led the workshop through an exploration of what it was like for her to navigate the “Indian world and the white world” growing up and as an adult. Her own discovery of the definitions and framework to talk about it seemed to me to be liberating as she presented what it means to be in both worlds, constantly, as a United Methodist pastor and a person in Oklahoma.
As I reflected on the power of naming and defining for generations of wounding, it deepens my commitment to be where the people are, not only in the physical space of their lives but to meet people where they are with the woundedness we cannot see. All of us have wounds, but when individuals and families come from marginalized communities, we often want them to give up their fins and take on legs without even a bandage to acknowledge the gaping wound. We demand that they adapt to us, to act as if hurt doesn’t exist because “we didn’t do it.” Our role as followers of Jesus should be to meet people where they are without requirement of adaptation or expectations of a fresh dressing to hide wounds.
As much as I love The Little Mermaid, the movie has deep problems about what it means to be human. Her transformation cost her everything that had made her. And exploration about what that says about women is another conversation. For now, I focus on what that says about the other, those who are different in some way. (We are all different in some way.) We cannot ask anyone to be a blank slate for us white folks. People come with their dinglehoppers and I don’t get to ask them to make it a fork.