Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors
Search in posts
Search in pages

Resurrection love: Caring for bodies this Easter

This Easter, I am focused on a little body. It’s been a while since I’ve raised four children; I’m out of practice caring for small people. But now as I babysit my 1-year-old granddaughter, I’m back to feeding, changing diapers and wiping goo off a little face. These are tasks I’m eager and willing to do, because my granddaughter is easily lovable.

It was not as fun or easy to care for my grandmother and my parents as their bodies grew old and their minds fuzzy. Their bodies suffered — from mobility issues, incontinence, dementia, pain and other indignities of aging. Caring for them in their frailty required me to dig deeper into my love, patience and respect for them.

My experiences bring to mind the story at the heart of Alice McDermott’s “The Ninth Hour.” As a Little Nursing Sister of the Sick Poor, Sister St. Saviour and other nuns in the novel serve an Irish American neighborhood in early-20th-century Brooklyn. It is a parish of those who are poor, abandoned, shut-in, unloved, widowed, orphaned.

These Nursing Sisters practice the fully embodied resurrection love of Jesus — sometimes despite the church —  touching wounds, feeding and healing bodies, offering compassion for broken minds and hearts.

It is profoundly loving — but to Greek and Roman ears, profoundly troubling — to believe that the fullness of God can dwell in a human body. Why would the perfection of divinity deign to deal with such messiness?

Jesus knew what it was to be in pain, to be lonely and to grieve. His healing ministries tended bodies young and old, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics, lepers, and those with infirm spirits. He made it his business to touch society’s cast-asides.

Through his own incarnation, Jesus endured the horror of crucifixion, the agonizing death of a criminal, an outcast. But through this final physical act of sacrifice, Jesus is resurrected and promises each of us resurrection of the body, joy and eternal life.

On Easter, he overcomes death to offer new life and the love that transforms our suffering world. Our task is not to flee embodiment but to fully embrace it with the divine love that he modeled for us.

While the sisters in McDermott’s novel are not saints, they exemplify Christ’s Easter love, a sensory offering of sacrifice.

Their story is set in crumbling tenement houses, seedy bars, funeral homes and sour-smelling alleys. In the nitty-gritty of their ministry, the nuns change diapers for shut-ins, shave the faces of old men, cleanse wounds, clean up bloody vomit, birth babies in dirty apartments, and diagnose ringworm, edema and anemia. They comfort the lonely and the bereaved.

At 64, Sister St. Saviour deals with her own arthritis, swollen legs and constant need to pee. Yet she, like the other sisters, ministers to her flock daily, walking for blocks in the cold and damp New York air to serve those confined to their beds.

“It would be a different church if I were running it!” she declares at one point.

Sister St. Saviour is funny, brave, compassionate, realistic and unafraid to break rigid church rules. When a young man named Jim loses his job and commits suicide, she instructs the nuns to disguise his final act so that his body can be buried in the church cemetery. The sisters know how important care of the body is, even in death. To Sister St. Saviour, mercy is more important than church dogma.

That Jim is afforded a Christian burial comforts Annie and Sally, his widow and young daughter. The nuns give them work in the convent’s basement laundry, a place of cleanliness, structure and protection. Sally has a peaceful childhood, raised lovingly by the sisters and her mother, and eventually decides to take orders herself.

But on an overnight Pullman train from Pennsylvania Station to the order of sisters in Chicago, where she will explore her vocation, Sally encounters an ugly side to humanity, facing sexual advances and a swindler, and witnessing child abuse, fear and evil.

She knows that her vocation is being tested and wants to respond mercifully like the nuns would, but she is overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of her fellow travelers. Sally can’t imagine loving people she doesn’t like or trust, people who mean to do her harm.

She is going to have to give her life to others, she realizes, “in the name of the crucified Christ and His loving mother.”

She remembers that one of the nuns, Sister Jeanne, said that “love stood before brutality in that moment on Golgotha and love was triumphant. Love applied to suffering, as Sister Illuminata put it: like a clean cloth to a seeping wound.”

The train ride reveals to Sally that she wants to offer only a sanitized love. She wants to wear a clean, starched habit and wants a clean cloth, “immaculate and pure,” to place against humanity’s wounds. She wants to pray the hours, speak softly and offer relief to a wretched world.

But she also wants, “in some equal, more furious way, not to be mocked for it; not to be fooled.” When she arrives at the station in Chicago, she tells the waiting nuns, “I’ve thought better of it.”

Like Jesus, Sally is expected to love the unlovable — and she is unable to do it. The demands of Christly love and sacrifice prove too much.

Resurrection love is not repulsed by the realities of bodies, as Sister St. Saviour knows. Rather, it continues Jesus’ work of touching the untouchable, feeding the hungry, healing the sick and caring for those cast aside by society. Such redemptive love restores human dignity and respect and believes in the resurrection of the body, even if those who offer it must sometimes endure scorn.

This Easter, how can we practice the realities of love? Not an idealistic, clean-cloth love but the earthy, embodied love of Jesus that restores and heals bodies and requires forgiveness, humility and sacrifice. Which bodies need our care? The incarnated and resurrected Christ has shown us the way.

In 2011, the Rev. Paul Abernathy, then an Orthodox priest fresh out of seminary, started a neighborhood ministry in the Hill District, a predominantly Black section of Pittsburgh that had long suffered from economic decline. He did what he could to make an impact: providing food and clothing, offering comfort or a prayer when someone was in distress. But he soon realized there were even deeper needs.

“What really struck me early on,” Abernathy said, “was the immense amount of suffering.”

A person would come in asking for help getting a doctor’s appointment or a bus pass and would end up talking about eviction, gun violence, systemic racism, unemployment, food insecurity, abuse, addiction or incarceration. 

The serious experiences that came up all represented ongoing traumas. It reminded Abernathy of the post-traumatic stress he had been warned about when he was an Army staff sergeant in Iraq. Moreover, the traumas affected everyone in the neighborhood.

a man walks across the street
A man walks in the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“Even if someone didn’t have a direct experience of trauma, that trauma was all around, all the time,” he said.

Abernathy, who is African American and was raised Catholic, attended a Black Baptist church in college before converting to Orthodoxy in 2002. He became convinced that unless that underlying suffering could be addressed, any efforts to help his constituents wouldn’t last.

“I’ve seen too many people get jobs and lose jobs,” he said in a 2016 TEDx talk. “I’ve seen too many people get into housing and lose housing. Why? Because they have been traumatized to the point that they are not healthy enough to sustain the opportunities that were placed at their feet.”

True community development, he came to believe, first required healing.

The Hill District has long suffered from economic decline.

Abernathy found two researchers at nearby Duquesne University who were specialists in trauma counseling and community mental health and facilitated a series of discussions with them and community members.

He learned that 65% of African Americans have a lifetime exposure to trauma — long-term, repeated experiences that are stressful or frightening. He learned that trauma can be passed from generation to generation, with tangible effects on health. According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the average life expectancy in parts of the Hill District is nearly 20 years less than in the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.

These discussions ultimately led to the creation of the Neighborhood Resilience Project, a multifaceted, faith-based community outreach program headquartered in the Hill District, with Abernathy as its CEO and his wife Kristina Abernathy as its chief development officer.

What are the underlying issues impacting your community?

Father Abernathy
The Rev. Paul Abernathy leads a daily prayer service.

Now in its 12th year, the project offers wide-ranging services, from a food pantry, support groups and educational seminars to a trauma response team that’s dispatched after incidents of gun violence. The project serves people not just in the Hill District but throughout Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. It’s also attracted attention from a number of communities elsewhere, all seeking to learn from a model Abernathy calls trauma-informed community development.

Food, clothing and dental checkups

On a recent Wednesday morning at the Neighborhood Resilience Project’s headquarters, a three-story building on the northern edge of the Hill District, social worker Kathy Pehanich is meeting with a woman who recently lost her job and came in for help with paying her rent and utilities.

Resilience Project building
The front of the Neighborhood Resilience Project

Pehanich’s office is cramped — not much bigger than a walk-in closet — with cinder block walls painted white and hung with prints of several Orthodox icons. (Orthodox iconography can be seen on walls throughout the site: St. Luke the Evangelist, St. Thais of Egypt, Christ Pantokrator, Holy Mother of God, St. Nicholas and others.) Pehanich was a drug and alcohol counselor earlier in her career; she began volunteering at the Neighborhood Resilience Project one day a week and now is part of the paid staff.

Much like an emergency room staffer, Pehanich never knows who might walk in next — perhaps a job seeker needing help getting a birth certificate, a tenant with a rent payment overdue, a woman fleeing domestic abuse. In the winter especially, Pehanich fields calls daily from people needing a place to sleep, and she works the phones in hopes of getting them beds at one of the city’s homeless shelters.

Some regulars show up a few times a week just to socialize, have a cup of coffee or attend the daily Orthodox service at noon. The steady flow of clientele creates a sense of community that Pehanich didn’t sense when she was a substance abuse counselor and saw each client once a week at most.

In the basement, volunteers and staff have formed an assembly line, stuffing food items into plastic bags for the Backpack Feeding Program. The Neighborhood Resilience Project delivers more than 1,200 bags each week to 25 area schools, rec centers and other sites, where they’re distributed to children who need them.

“For some kids, their only meal is what they get at school,” said Bisrat Tesfagiorgis, who oversees the effort. “Our program works to make sure that the children are fed over the weekend.”

Bisrat Tesfagiorgis and a view of downtown Pittsburgh from the Hill District.

In the early years of the program, the food items (ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese, animal crackers, small boxes of cereal, boxed juice) were delivered in a backpack — hence the program’s name. But getting more than a thousand students to return the backpacks for reuse each week proved unrealistic, so now the food is packed into plastic grocery bags.

The building’s lower level also houses a food pantry and a clothing pantry (socks in particular are always in demand). Tesfagiorgis remembers a recent incident typical of the multiple ways the Neighborhood Resilience Project can help.

A man showed up one day, upset about the death of a close family member. “We were talking,” Tesfagiorgis said, “and I was just trying to pray, asking, ‘How can I be helpful?’ Then he said, ‘I wish I could go to the funeral, but I don’t have anything nice to wear.’ So I brought him down here,” she said, gesturing to the clothing pantry. The man quickly found a suit and a pair of shoes, and — at least for the moment — his mood noticeably brightened.

clothing pantry
Employees at the Neighborhood Resilience Project sort donated clothes.

On the third floor, a health clinic staffed by volunteer physicians and dentists provides free care to a clientele that largely has no health insurance. With two exam rooms, two dental rooms and a medical lab, providers can offer a range of primary care services and make basic medications available at no cost.

For more advanced care, the Neighborhood Resilience Project can refer a patient to one of its partners — a local cardiologist who has agreed to see patients for free, for example, or another free clinic that happens to have a pulmonologist on staff. In addition, according to patient care specialist Paige Sarkaria, many area hospitals offer financial assistance.

“We can refer a patient to a hospital for, say, an imaging procedure, and then we help them apply for the hospital’s assistance program,” she said.

Like most of the services of the Neighborhood Resilience Project, the clinic has grown. In 2022, it recorded 244 patient visits; in 2023, that number jumped to 421.

dental clinic
Retired dentist Diane Karnavas (left) and a dental student Sadiya Khatoon (right) work with a patient.

The health outreach isn’t confined to the Neighborhood Resilience Project building. A team of trained community health deputies spends time out on the streets, educating residents about health issues.

During the peak of the COVID pandemic, more than 100 deputies, often with Abernathy in the lead, went door to door to talk about how to stay safe from the virus — a special challenge in neighborhoods where multiple generations live together in crowded homes. They also recruited Black volunteers to take part in Moderna vaccine trials at the University of Pittsburgh, mindful that the pool of participants in such trials too often is predominantly white.

Psychological first aid

Perhaps the most innovative service that the Neighborhood Resilience Project provides, and the one that best exemplifies its trauma-centered approach, is the trauma response team. The team’s job is simple yet ambitious: to provide a healing presence — psychological first aid, they call it — at the scene of gun violence.

Each morning, four staff members gather in a room on the top floor of the Neighborhood Resilience Project building and begin to sift through the available information on any new homicides in the county.

The intel comes from social media, police reports, news stories online and tips from police or social workers. Ultimately, the staff may conclude that a deployment is needed, and the call goes out to a team of volunteers (who, like the staff, are trained in public safety, CPR, first aid and mental health first aid).

The staff and volunteers gather at the building, undergo a briefing on the details of the situation, pray together and then head out in one of two 31-foot RVs emblazoned with the Neighborhood Resilience Project logo.

How can your ministries embrace being trauma-informed?

trauma response RVs
The trauma response team uses two RVs and a van when they respond to violence in the neighborhood.

They park near the scene for several hours; some team members go out canvassing, introducing themselves to people they encounter, while others wait in the RV in case someone knocks on the door and says, “I need to talk.”

The RV has water bottles, food, a private room and stuffed animals (“trauma teddies”) for helping comfort children. The idea is to serve as a sympathetic ear to whoever needs it: a family member of the victim or perpetrator, a bystander — anyone who has been affected. Sometimes they help the person notify relatives. Sometimes they pray. Often they hand out a card with the Neighborhood Resilience Project phone number and a list of other available resources.

Andre Jacobs is program manager for the trauma response team. A native of Pittsburgh, he served three deployments with the Marines in Afghanistan and suffered afterward with PTSD. He credits his faith with helping him recover — “I had to have the courage to say, ‘I’m not OK, God,’” he said — and sees his work with the trauma response team as a way of giving back.

“I would just be foolish not to pass on the teachings and understandings that I now have,” Jacobs said. He also makes sure that the team isn’t known solely for its work at the scene of tragedies; they’ve also set up a hamburger grill on occasion at various neighborhood locations — “you know, just to put a few smiles on faces,” he said — and they conduct educational programs to help raise awareness of the trauma that often underlies violence.

A team approach to reducing violence

The Neighborhood Resilience Project is also taking the lead on a countywide project to reduce gun violence. Allegheny County sees more than 120 homicides per year on average, according to county data, and while Black men make up just 6% of the county population, they are the victims in 66% of the homicides. Gun violence tends to be geographically concentrated, according to Abernathy.

“There are 30,000 blocks in Allegheny County, and of those 30,000 blocks, gun violence happens in 0.3% of them. About 90 blocks.” Several of those hot spots are in the Hill District.

What challenges should be addressed in early collaborations?

A small mural laments young lives lost in the Hill District.

In early 2023, the county’s Department of Human Services pledged at least $50 million over five years toward its new Community Violence Reduction Initiative, with an emphasis on a public health approach — treating gun violence as a disease and addressing its underlying causes.

It’s in sync with the trauma-informed approach that Abernathy embraces, and in fact, the Neighborhood Resilience Project was chosen to be the countywide convener of the effort. The Neighborhood Resilience Project hosted the first summit on violence reduction last June, bringing together 200 partners from organizations throughout the county.

“We talked about what collaboration looks like,” said Quinten Boose, the director of violence reduction at the Neighborhood Resilience Project. “We talked about the hot spots, the data, the generational traumas, the root causes — how are we as a county going to address that.”

Boose is a former Pittsburgh city police officer with experience as a special victims unit detective and crisis negotiator; in 2023, he finished a master of public policy and management degree at the University of Pittsburgh. His job in the countywide project is to corral hundreds of partners from dozens of community and government organizations to work together.

It’s early in the process, but Boose is especially intrigued by an approach called the Omaha 360 model, which heavily emphasizes the collaboration of multiple stakeholders. A primary component of the model is weekly meetings involving law enforcement and residents, to reduce the disconnect between police and community members. Omaha 360 led to a 74% decrease in gun violence over a 10-year period in Omaha and has since been used as a model by other cities.

How do you foster a culture of continuous learning in your collaborations?

Meanwhile, the Neighborhood Resilience Project overall is proving to be a model for other communities throughout the country. In addition to his TEDx talk, Abernathy has given numerous media interviews, convened two trauma-informed community development institutes, and hosted officials from such locations as Richmond, Virginia; Indianapolis, Indiana; Sarasota, Florida; and the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.

Some have replicated the Neighborhood Resilience Project in their communities or begun a variant of it. They are exploring ways that they, too, can adopt the Neighborhood Resilience Project’s goal: to heal neighborhoods, one block at a time.

Questions to consider

  • What are the underlying issues impacting your community?
  • How can your ministries embrace being trauma-informed?
  • What challenges should be addressed in early collaborations?
  • How do you foster a culture of continuous learning in your collaborations?

As a clinical psychologist, I spend much of my professional time helping make sense of what happens when things go wrong. Anxiety, depression and other struggles can dominate conversations with my clients.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where the same can be true for many of us. Wars are raging around the globe. Here, in one of the world’s richest countries, millions live in poverty. Our government seems to be in a perpetual state of chaos. It is easy to reside in a kind of existential dread that permeates our hearts, minds and souls.

While it is important to reckon with the reality of the suffering that exists in the world, it is also important for us not to become overwhelmed by it. Joy is an essential antidote in a suffering world.

Proverbs 17:22 (ESV) tells us, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” For believers, joy is not just a perk of the Christian life; it’s a spiritual resource that helps us carry out our work in the world.

A dictionary might define “joy” as a state of happiness in response to external circumstances. But our kind of joy is one that rests in the knowledge of what God has done and will continue to do. Our kind of joy is not dependent on what is happening in the world; it is a commitment to see good and recognize the presence of good in the world and in ourselves, regardless of our circumstances. Joy is the product of our ever-present knowledge of God’s movement and work in our lives.

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that joy means we ignore all the bad. While some of us may have a tendency to use our faith to try to pretend our trials away (a process we mental health professionals call spiritual bypassing), the joy I’m suggesting does not negate the presence of evil or suffering in the world.

In fact, tapping into joy in our lives is what helps us fight injustice and work toward good for all. Joy keeps us going when we want to give up and keeps us fueled for the journey ahead by reminding us that suffering is an experience and not a destination.

As many cultures that have experienced historical violence and trauma can attest, joy is often the thing that helps us survive the unspeakable. As the proverb says, joy is a medicine and a healing balm, and when we lose it, our vitality dries up and disappears. It is no accident that we find moments of laughter at memorial celebrations, no accident that we spent the first few months of the pandemic lockdowns making jokes on the internet. Joy reminds us that we are alive when things feel perilous.

Because we live in a world that can exhaust and overwhelm us, we must be intentional about organizing our lives in a way that allows us access to the gift of joy. Ross Gay writes in “The Book of Delights” about his decision to find delights intentionally on a daily basis. He says of the process: “I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight.” We must remember that joy and sorrow can, and will, coexist.

To be intentional about accessing joy is to make a practice of holding sacred time for the things that help us feel most content, at peace and close to God. For some, it may be physical exercise or spending time with our most beloved friends or family. For others, it might be time in nature, crafting or cooking. For others, it might be listening to music, committing to a devotional or other spiritual practice, or playing a game.

In her book “Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto,” Tricia Hersey proclaims that resting is an explicit resistance to a capitalist society that demands we treat our bodies as dispensable and our souls as inconsequential. While joy and rest are not the same, joy can most certainly be found in rest. And rest can help us be more open to the joy in our lives.

There is no single right way. The point here is that to have joy as a resource, we must decide to make it a part of our lives. We must actively seek out joy rather than waiting for it to come to us.

When I am helping clients navigate depression or recover from burnout, I often ask them to identify the drains and wells in their lives. Drains are things that deplete and exhaust us. Wells are things that energize and excite us. Wells refill our proverbial cups, while drains cause them to empty.

Both are necessary parts of our lives. But when we are able to identify the wells, we can be intentional about having access to them all around our lives so that we never have to get empty. This is the power of joy! Our ability to access it regularly and often allows us to operate from a place of overflow rather than depletion. Simply put, joy sustains us for the journey.

For each of us, this is an individualized process. Ask yourself: What lights me up? What makes me feel most alive?

What would it be like to organize our lives around our joys, just as biblical cities were built around wells? What if those wells in our lives — those things that sustain and revitalize us — become nonnegotiables, so that all the mundane tasks of our lives have to fall into place in relation to them?

To organize ourselves around joy in this way is to participate in a reparative process, declining to sacrifice ourselves and our spirits to an unjust world, instead claiming a holy retention of our goodness and our “godness.” To recognize the reality of our goodness is to acknowledge that we are deserving of light, joyful, playful moments. Those moments can then become the home base from which we navigate the world.

Joy keeps us going when we want to give up and keeps us fueled for the journey ahead by reminding us that suffering is an experience and not a destination.

When people mention how they are sleeping, I perk up. They may be about to reveal something significant about their level of stress.

Yes, this could sound creepy. Inquiring about sleep habits is not part of my getting-to-know-you routine. I have been conducting interviews for several jobs lately. I don’t ask candidates how they’re resting.

When extending hospitality with event participants or guests in my home, however, I do ask. They might raise a concern about the environment — temperature or noise — that I can address. Most often, I congratulate those who are resting well and commiserate with those who are tossing and turning.

Outside of hosting and traveling, conversation about sleep is uncommon. But when the topic does come up, I start listening closely. I lean in further if people mention dreams. I am not a physician or a therapist, but when resting and dreaming come up, I sense that people are offering me a deeper glimpse into their lives.

Sleep patterns and dream narratives can reveal the depth of tension that a person is experiencing. A comment about sleep can reflect deeply troubling stress at home or work or church or in the neighborhood. It is a signal that I should be more attentive.

If I am the person’s pastor, I likely will ask questions about whom that person trusts to share dreams with.

If someone in the systems I lead is talking about disrupted sleep, I don’t try to interpret what is happening in that person’s soul. When my role is team leader, I listen for clues of the stress the person is experiencing. I explore what conditions are amplifying it.

If work is playing a role, I might offer suggestions on navigating the stress or offer to intervene in the situation. When I have leadership responsibility for the overall system, I consider the possible effect of what’s happening on everyone in the system, not just on the person speaking with me.

What clues do you monitor to gauge the level of stress in people in your areas of responsibility? Do you pay attention to when people are responding to emails or whether they’re accepting appointments during scheduled vacations? Do you notice when people don’t turn on their cameras in video conferences or are continually checking messages during meetings?

When you pick up signs of stress, what can you as a leader do? Sometimes, I am a primary cause of the stress. Change is stressful, but it also can be necessary. Seldom can I make the stress go away. But I can always listen.

If a person is sharing about stress, I try to listen carefully and deeply. I do my best not to defend the organization or diminish the person’s experience. I acknowledge the difficulty of the situation.

If the conversation is mostly about work stress, I might point out factors that the person is not considering. I might apologize for the effect on the person. I might pledge to make changes. I might acknowledge the challenges and indicate that I don’t see improvement coming anytime soon.

Later, I will step back to examine the situation. I will listen to others. What is stressing the team? What is stressing me? How might those stresses be acknowledged or mitigated for everyone?

I don’t know of any tension-free places to live or work. Paying attention when people are sharing about the intensity of their stress is not the same as accepting responsibility for fixing it. People under stress may not want to surrender their agency; they may just be looking for acknowledgment. They may want to feel less alone. They may not know what they want.

Responding to the stress in people’s lives is balanced by an organization’s mission and the responsibility to follow through with its commitments and priorities. Leaders are responsible both for the mission of the organization and for the morale of the people. The same actions rarely achieve progress on both mission and morale. In fact, aiming for progress on both with the same actions might result in progress for neither. Leaders need to have in mind a mix of actions. When signs and symptoms of stress appear, leaders should consider putting more energy into the morale-lifting actions that are likely to alleviate the stress.

In the stories in Scripture, Jesus displayed a finely tuned sensibility to the stress in people’s lives — from the death of a loved one to not catching enough fish to feed the family. He also challenged religious leaders to pay more attention to God’s purposes. Jesus was not leading an organization, but he was on a mission. He tended to people while making progress toward Jerusalem. The stories that we have indicate that he knew how to help people take their next faithful steps in living.

In a world where everyone is carrying plenty of burdens, I recognize that I cannot work solely on my task list but must listen carefully to the stresses behind the stories that colleagues and constituents share. Listening in itself is not enough, but without it, I will not appreciate what is happening and consider adjustments that I can make.

How are you sleeping? How are your colleagues sleeping? How are your participants and constituents sleeping? What clues might we pick up by paying attention, and how can we respond?

What clues do you monitor to gauge the level of stress in people in your areas of responsibility?