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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Healing Retreat for New Orleans Pastors

A four-year-old dream became a reality for Rev. Don Boutté, executive director of Churches Supporting Churches (CSC) in late June, 2009 when 29 New Orleans pastors gathered in Alexandria, LA for a mental and spiritual health retreat.

On his very first visit to CBC, Boutté told CBCs task force that mental health was one of his top three concerns. He was dealing with suicide, homelessness, gang violence, divorce, and school truancy on a weekly basis and didn’t know where to turn for professional help that was no longer available from New Orleans’ boarded up clinics and medical offices. He was not alone in his struggle. Other CSC pastors faced similar problems, while simultaneously dealing with a personal loss of family, home, job and congregation.

The CBC task force tried to find solutions. James Craig went on-line and discovered that the University of Missouri was training Gulf Coast peer counselors through its International Center for Psychosocial Trauma. CBC paid for Rev. Clifford Jones, associate pastor of St John Baptist, to attend their week-long course. At the same time, Sandy Bauer contacted some of her social work colleagues in New Orleans to see if they could find professionals to whom CSC pastors could make referrals. Later, Bauer used a week of her sabbatical to visit New Orleans with her colleague, Linda Ralph-Kearn, to survey both needs and resources.

Following their trip, Bauer and Ralph-Kearn met with the co-chairs of CBCs task force to discuss ways to respond. Bill Stayton and Marcus Pomeroy also attended the meeting. The conversation moved to a discussion of Boutté’s wish, shared at the Baptist Peace Fellowship Summer Conference, that the CSC pastors be given training similar to the clinical pastoral education courses provided in most seminaries. Stayton offered to take this idea to Morehouse School of Medicine where he had just accepted a position. He proposed a series of four three-day retreats covering not only the ways pastors could respond to their constituents but also the ways they could find healing for themselves.

Stayton was successful in communicating this need at Morehouse and he received offers of help from other professors as well as funding from a special Katrina fund at the School of Medicine.

The first retreat enabled the pastors to share, sometimes for the first time, the pain they were experiencing, according to Bauer who served as an evaluator for the funding source. In a recent report to the CSC Task Force, she identified several themes that emerged: tension between needing to care for others and needing to care for themselves; dealing with loss; coping with trauma; a sense of injustice; and questioning--as well as drawing strength from—their faith.

These themes were addressed in the three components of the retreat: Spiritual and Theological Renewal (in which Pomeroy was a resource leader); Mental and Emotional Health Renewal (led by Dr. Ruth Shim of the Morehouse School of Medicine); and Personal and Relational Renewal (in which Stayton was a resource leader). Each session began and ended with “Consciously Resting Meditation” led by Dr. Kofi Kondwani of the Morehouse School of Medicine. Dr. Walter Fluker, chair of Leadership Studies at Morehouse closed the retreat with an inspirational talk. It is noteworthy that all of the Morehouse participants donated their time, an $8,400 contribution according to Stayton.

Boutté described the retreat as a “phenomenal success.” In a letter to Bauer, he said: “The pastors engaged in a way that I could not have imagined would have happened. The self-disclosure that occurred during the sessions was inspiring and healing. The pastors left the retreat feeling invigorated and empowered.” Pomeroy added that many pastors hoped this sense of empowerment would enable them to change the face of New Orleans.

Stayton is already seeking funding for three more retreats. Meanwhile, for Boutté as well as the CBC task force, the first retreat has proven to be a hopeful response to a dream born in the agony and frustration of ministering to a people who have been marginalized and dispossessed since Hurricane Katrina.

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