Trauma, Forced Immigration, and the Role of the Church

Date Published

January 1, 2019

Home / Blog / Trauma, Forced Immigration, and the Role of the Church

Published by Calvin Seminary


The focus of this summer’s Loving Your Neighbor conference centered on how church leaders can best minister to those marginalized because of their status as immigrants. Professor Danjuma Gibson, on his lecture centered on trauma, began by focusing on those individuals displaced by forced immigration – specifically those who had little to no say about when they left and with no option to return home. The experience of the migrant forced from their home can be traumatizing in a way that is unique compared to others who have a choice.

When exploring the root of trauma experienced by a migrant, Gibson points to the degree of choice they had in their displacement experience. Questions like “Was the decision to leave a decision I chose?”, “Am I able to return?”, or “Was I welcomed in my new ‘home’?” are important as we consider the experience of the migrant. Often times, those forced to leave have this decision imposed upon them without notice, leaving deep wounds. Migrants enter communities and churches carrying the deep pain of being taken from their home, often separated from people they love and a place they know, to a new location where they are met with suspicion.

The migrant’s lack of choice leaves them especially vulnerable. Being aware of the trauma is important for church leaders. But how does trauma manifest itself? Gibson uses his knowledge of psychotherapy to help his audience understand how trauma occurs and why those who are marginalized and displaced are particularly vulnerable.



“I think psychotherapy is inherently Reformed,” quips Gibson, drawing a chuckle from the audience conference-goers. He pauses for a second, smiles, and continued with a quote from John Calvin from his Commentary on the Psalms. It begins:

“I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, ‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul,’ for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life of all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”

Calvin goes on to say this is not unique to the Psalms, but that the prophets, with their various commandments, also encourage us to explore our inmost thoughts for the purpose of bringing the hidden to the surface.

As such, in the case of our migrant brothers and sisters (and for the benefit of our ministry with them) it is important to have a working knowledge of trauma and the underlying spiritual, emotional, and psychological effects it has on individuals and groups. Gibson offers a framework which provides a basic understanding of what leads to trauma: dis- attachment, which can lead to loss-pain, and thereby can lead to grief. This formula is not true of all those who are forced from their home, but it is prevalent. Each step toward trauma provides insight for the ministry practitioner on how to mindfully work with the migrant in your community. Gibson spent time on each stage, engaging with the conference audience on their experience and exposure to each step.

Attachment: Growing up, we are taught to attach. We attach to other people – family members, people in our community – but we also create attachments with non-people: objects, places, symbols, etc. This need to create attachment does not go away as we get older.

Loss-Pain: When studying the effects of trauma, it is important to note what dis-attachment occurred, which lead to a feeling of loss. In forced migration, many attachments are disturbed; Gibson gave examples of material and relationship loss. Those who are forced to leave their home may feel a loss of function or of their role within a community. They may experience a shift in the very way they think of themselves. The pain that can result from such a disturbance is felt deeply.

Trauma: The pain of such dis-attachment can lead to feeling a loss of control. This, in turn, can result in a feeling of stuckness, not knowing how to proceed. While such pain can affect people of all ages, the pain of dis- attachment has a more pronounced effect on children.


As migrants who are experiencing trauma enter communities and churches, these communities must think through how to respond to the trauma many migrants are experiencing. How should ministry leaders respond? What pitfalls do they need to avoid? Gibson provided some helpful do’s and don’ts when it comes to creating a supportive and healthy community for our migrant brothers and sisters.

First, it is important to avoid a gospel of happiness. When church leaders avoid the pain of others, it sends an inaccurate message about the message of Jesus. In fact, Jesus entered into the pain of humanity. Further, Christ invites us to enter this pain as well –an image made clear through the practice of communion. By serving those who are grieving, we are invited to serve just as Christ served us.

Gibson challenges church leaders to take this message to heart. “Faith and Christianity does not take away pain,” he reminds the audience. “There is no way to address pain except to go through it.” Gibson encourages church leaders to suffer with those who are suffering.

However, the Church’s response should go beyond standing beside our refugee sisters and brothers; Gibson recommended making space to tell the full story of those who are experiencing trauma because of forced migration. Because trauma so often begins with a sudden change in people’s narratives, giving those who are suffering trauma space to tell these stories can serve as a moment of healing. Instead of offering the message of “when are you going to get over this?”, it allows the refugee to own their story, to provide control where it was lost.

More broadly, Gibson encouraged the leaders at this conference to fight against xenophobia and bigotry prevalent in today’s culture. This is more than a political issue; it is, in fact, a biblical and theological issue. In doing so, it is important to look closely at the practices in our own churches that may be excluding others.

Gibson reminded the Loving Your Neighbor attendees that as Christians, the biblical story uniquely equips us to the engage with this ministry, to commune with those who are hurting, and to help them begin the process of healing. The effects of trauma are real and create significant pain. As communities looking to work with those who are the midst of this pain, we can lean on both our faith as well as our knowledge and resources in the area of psychotherapy. By doing so, we will create places of healing that respond to our call to mirror the example we find in Christ.


By Matthew Cooke
Director of Communications


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