Monday, February 8, 2010

Religion and CISM and Public Schools

Last week, after a 9th grader shot another in the back of the head in Madison, Alabama, the mayor of Madison urged people to pray for the victim and the students at the school.  Local churches sent counselors.  The city and the school system worked with local clergy as well as crisis responders to provide support for those affected. 

To some extent, there is a great divide in this country with regards to the role of churches and clergy in situations like this one.  In the South, in poorer communities, and in heavily African-American communities you are much more likely to see churches stepping up to offer support.  In the North, particularly in affluent northern White communities, this is less common.  Where you fall in these groupings probably has a lot to do with how you feel about this practice. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I am White and have only worked in northern schools, although of varying degrees of poverty and varying racial demographics. So, do I think this is a good idea?  Like most things, it depends.  But I certainly think it can be if it's done well. 

The potential problem, of course, comes in trying to do an effective job of meeting people's spiritual needs in a public school setting.  I say it's a potential problem because I have seen it done both really well and really poorly.  I think we can all imagine what doing it poorly might look like.  Students come for counseling and are greeted by someone who tells them the deceased is going to hell, or to heaven, or that they should adopt that person's faith to find comfort.  Not only is this bad from a constitutional standpoint, it's not good crisis response.  This is not a good time to proselytize, and offering simple platitudes often turns out to be much less comforting than people think.

When this sort of work is done well, it is done by lay or clergy-people who have been specially trained both as chaplains and as crisis responders.  They understand the psychological process that people are going through as well as the spiritual need.  A good chaplain will follow the lead of the person they are talking to in exploring the role of faith in their thinking.  They will answer questions about God with questions about what the person themself believes.  They will offer prayer only when asked, and yes, they will be asked.  It is this training that allows chaplains of one denomination to serve in the military, hospitals or prisons and assist people with a wide array of beliefs.  They are not faith dictators, they are faith facilitators.
Every community and every culture in the world has particular expectations for the role of religion and the clergy in their lives.  If, as seems likely, that role is very prominent in Madison, Alabama, it would be wrong not to involve the religious community in supporting the children.  Furthermore, people who have experienced trauma often find themselves with strong spiritual needs, either because they want comfort or because they have serious spiritual or theological questions.  A good chaplain can help with that.  As with anything in a crisis, however, it's important that everyone knows exactly what their job is and how to do it, and sticks to that.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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