Putting Pain into Words

Liz Walker tells a Tufts audience about a community effort to help those suffering from the effects of trauma
Liz Walker at Tufts University
“Psychological or spiritual wounds—just like physical wounds—need light and air; if not they fester,” Liz Walker said at the Tisch College Civic Life Lunch. Photo: Anna Miller
October 11, 2018

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How do we deal with trauma in our own communities? The Reverend Liz Walker and her church, Roxbury Presbyterian, are doing something about it, helping people face the pain they feel. Walker, well known to many Bostonians from her long run as an anchor on the WBZ-TV news team, has been a pastor since 2011 in a neighborhood that has suffered a disproportionate amount of violence and shootings.

“The residual effect of violence is trauma, and our neighborhood has been compared to Afghanistan for the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder,” she told a packed audience at the Rabb Room on October 9 at a Tisch College Civic Life Lunch. “It affects your ability to reconnect to the world.”

With others, Walker founded the Cory Johnson Program for Post-Traumatic Healing, which seeks to help community members come to grips with their suffering and begin healing. Johnson was a twenty-seven-year-old member of her church who was killed in a random shooting in 2010. “Hurt people, hurt people, that’s kind of a mantra we speak in our community,” she said.

The last Thursday of every month the church hosts a free dinner and an open discussion where anyone can talk about any pain they are experiencing. “It is a safe space to talk about pain,” Walker said. “Your brain actually begins to change when you talk about something, when you release something deep down inside you,” she noted. “Psychological or spiritual wounds—just like physical wounds—need light and air; if not they fester.”

Initially, the program was just for those who had suffered from violence, but it has expanded to include people affected by racism, homelessness, and other forms of trauma. Between thirty and fifty people come every month. “All kinds of people, talking about all kinds of deep, deep pain—and there is something cathartic about that,” Walker said.

“My idea of grace is being in traffic, and giving somebody a break,” said Liz Walker. “You don’t know them, they don’t deserve it—that doesn’t matter. Grace is that unearned gift. That’s grace, the gifts you get in the world. . . . And I would suggest we need more of that than anything else.” Photo: Anna MillerPain is widespread, she said. Walker pointed to the recent Congressional testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who said that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school, and said that soon afterward thousands of people began to share their own stories of abuse.

The program has partnered with Boston Medical Center, a regional trauma center, which provides counselors on site for the monthly meetings. Now eight other faith communities are starting to offer similar programs.

The program doesn’t have a facilitator, aside from Walker setting basic ground rules. “We invite you to step up to the mike and speak your pain,” she said. “The magic of it or the spirit of it is that people come back and a real community has formed.”

Walker was a top television news anchor and spent years doing humanitarian work in South Sudan before becoming a pastor, but said what she’s doing now “is the most challenging and the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.”

Much of the Civic Life Lunch program was a dialogue between Walker and the audience, mostly made up of Tufts undergraduates. One asked her about her definition of grace. Walker responded by talking about how to bring grace into our daily lives—and not exactly in the way you might expect a minister to do it.

Consider this, she said: you’re in the exit off 93 South, heading to Storrow Drive, dutifully crawling along bumper to bumper in the exit lane, when someone who did not follow the traffic rules tries to cut in front of you at the split. She’s been there, she said: angry and not wanting to budge an inch to let this miscreant in. But grace, she said, was letting it be, letting that person in, feeling no ill will.

“My idea of grace is being in traffic, and giving somebody a break,” she said. “You don’t know them, they don’t deserve it—that doesn’t matter. Grace is that unearned gift. That’s grace, the gifts you get in the world. . . . And I would suggest we need more of that than anything else.”

Walker ended by saying someone had once said that if you can do one thing—“one true, honest, authentic thing to move the world forward—that counts. That’s how I look at it now. I hope and pray this program will continue going after I’m through with it,” she said. “It’s my passion, because we all need to heal.”

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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