How does building resilience during times of hardship nurture faith?
I’ve experienced my share of personal hardships throughout life. Parents divorcing. Family members dying. Failing out of college. Major depression. My own divorce. Economic uncertainty and struggle.
I’ve also been impacted by societal hardships—situations and occurrences that have affected our collective reality and led to communal trauma. Columbine. September 11th. Sandy Hook. The proliferation of school shootings. The uptick in shootings and police violence against Black and Brown bodies. Me Too. And now, COVID-19.
My life is not that different from other peoples’ experiences. Suffering is a part of the human condition. To be alive is to experience suffering. It’s a fact of life, one that so many try to outrun or ignore. But we are broken beings who live in a broken world. This makes suffering a reality of our individual and collective lives.
In times of hardship, I turn to my faith; a faith that was passed down from generation to generation. A faith that is informed by survivors of slavery and immigrants from the Caribbean to the United States. A faith that is intimately woven into the fabric of my life and my leadership. The faith that was nurtured in me was a faith that was born out of struggle. Its primary marker is resilience and this faith has the power to sustain me during the darkest moments. It’s not a flimsy faith. It’s a faith that is deeply rooted in the stories of my ancestors and the stories of God and God’s people throughout history.
As I’ve grown in leadership and connected with people around the world, I have noticed a faith rooted in resilience and remembrance of the long history of struggle people of faith have endured is not the faith many churches nurture in the communities who gather. And this, is a problem.
I served as the Director of Young Adult Ministry for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) from February, 2013-August, 2016. During this time, I had the incredible opportunity to visit various types of young adult ministries across the country. I learned from leaders who served in diverse settings—congregations, camps, campus ministries, and more—and was able to engage young adults in their unique contexts.
One of the ministry settings I was introduced to was that of our Federal Chaplains. Federal Chaplains—those serving in the military and justice system—engage the largest and most diverse young adult ministry in our church. In 2017, the average age of those who serve in the military was 27 years old. 44% of those enlisted are people of color. Because my work was primarily focused on those between the ages of 18 and 30, the cohort of leaders serving enlisted service members was an essential group to engage.
Over the course of a year, I visited multiple military bases to meet with chaplains and learn from their leadership. They shared stories of their vocational calling, and I was introduced to another aspect of ministry in my church. To say I was impressed by these leaders is an understatement. I was overwhelmed by their hospitality and the ministries they were curating within one of the largest and toughest institutions on the planet.
The chaplains arranged time for me to meet with young adult service members who were people of profound faith. After each visit, I would return to my car and sob. These young people, who cared so much about this country, had a belief in a better world for all people. At 19, 20, and 21 years of age, they made a commitment most of us would never make.
I saw firsthand the primary role of military chaplains to accompany the service members, supporting their families, celebrating life moments, attending to grief and death, and building the resilience of those enlisted.
This last piece of their call—building resilience—is something that has stayed with me over the past seven years. This area of ministry was the only one where I specifically heard faith leaders share building resilience was a priority in the faith formation of those they served.
The language of resilience is prominent throughout the military. It makes sense those serving as chaplains use this language. It is contextual and understood by military leadership. What is most profound about this language and the initiative around building resilience? Military chaplains understand their role in helping service members excavate their lived experiences and reflect on their pain to deepen faith, make meaning, and find hope in the most difficult circumstances. I believe the work of our military chaplains offers important insights for faith leaders and faith communities, especially in times of crisis.
Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape. Those who serve in the military must be resilient. The trauma, hardships, and suffering they witness or have to enact has the power to destroy the human mind, body, heart, and spirit. Over and over again, I heard from these chaplains the absolute importance of helping service members develop a moral compass, supporting them as they sometimes make decisions that go against their personal convictions, and accompanying them as they carry out the work that they have undertaken.
The focus on resilience I encountered with military chaplain ministries has stayed with me because I have not experienced this focus in other ministry settings. Due to the difficult nature of military service, it makes sense those charged with tending to the spiritual lives of people would proactively engage this area. I would argue that—due to the difficult nature of life and the fact that struggle is an intrinsic part of the human experience—we too need to engage the work of nurturing resilience within our communities of faith, now more than ever before.
Questions for Reflection:
Why is resiliency important for faith communities to explore?
What would it look like for faith leaders to take seriously the call to build resilience as an essential part of faith formation?
How might the leadership of military chaplains inform our ministry in the time of COVID-19?
 KIM PARKER, ANTHONY CILLUFFO AND RENEE STEPLER. “6 facts about the U.S. military and its changing demographics.” Retrieved April 21, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/13/6-facts-about-the-u-s-military-and-its-changing-demographics/
For additional reflections about faith in these times, check out the Love Big Collective with Rozella Haydée White, a community of people learning to love self and others in ways that bring about life-giving and justice-centered restoration, hope, and wholeness.
Rozella Haydée White
Rozella Haydée White is a public theologian, spiritual life coach, leadership consultant, inspirational speaker and writer focused on nurturing life-giving love in this world. She engages issues of faith, justice, self awareness and love, mental illness, and the radical and transformative love of God as embodied in the person of Jesus.
Author of #LoveBig: The Power of Revolutionary Relationships to Heal the World, Rozella is known as the #LoveBigCoach. She is the owner of RHW Consulting and believes that everyone is gifted and has the power to transform themselves, their communities and the world when they take seriously their healing, fall in love with themselves and others, and align their actions with their values.