The Healing Power of Listening
What I Learned from OpSafe Camps It was my privilege in 2018 to meet Pastor Jonathan Wilson, a faithful servant of the Lord and missionary to Japan for over 30 years now. During the tsunami in Japan in 2011 God led him to develop five day, VBS- style camps for churches to provide psychological first aid for kids who experience acute trauma from natural disasters or wars. This became Operation Safe International (www.opsafeintl.com). The following is a description of how the camps operate, the psychological basis, why they are effective, and how the lessons learned there apply to Christian homes and churches. There is also one final, incredible application for us as Christians.
How OpSafe Camps Operate
Traumatized children ages six to twelve attend the OpSafe camp for three hours each day for five days. (Children younger than six cannot remain attentive and those older than twelve do not remain engaged, so this sorting is critical for success.) They are arranged in crews of five with a crew leader. (Crew leaders are selected from the set of those persons, teenage and up, who will stay with their crew throughout the camp and who can remain in contact with the children post-camp to encourage them.) The children are presented with a story about five cute animal characters, one per day, who go through trauma and respond to it. The children identify with and bond to the characters, internalizing the story for themselves. Each day there is a theme which presents a biblical message such as, “Fear not!”, or “You are not alone!”, or, “You are loved!”, which the children repeat often. They visit five separate work stations for twenty minutes each, in turns, as a crew, with their leader, where they have the story, a craft, a snack, a game, and a heart talk. A camp director and five station leaders manage the process.
At first glance it might seem that something this simple would be of little use for dealing with trauma, but the powerful effect is by careful design. Children learn by stories, singing, hand work, eating, playing and conversations with older adults.
OpSafe Camp Theory and Practice
OpSafe is based on a valid and up to date understanding of human psychology viewed from a firm Christian and Biblical perspective. Those with a subconscious prejudice against psychology (as I had), may be refreshed to learn (as I was), that the secular study of the human mind over the decades has led to some conclusions that fit rather well with the Bible. God did create the mind didn’t He?
Psychologists have discovered that the trauma of children normally results in one of two outcomes: either they grow from it or it leads to the destruction of their lives. The difference between the two is the child having one older person they feel safe with, who they can talk to and tell about what happened to them. The trauma must be verbalized to another person. When they verbalize their experience to an empathetic person the trauma event moves into their psychological past and they can begin to forget about it. The event stops replaying in their mind. Failure to find a safe someone to tell will, in time, lead to self-destructive behaviors by which they try to comfort themselves and escape the memory playing in their mind. The bottom line? Traumatized children need a safe place to tell a trusted person their troubles.
Children brought together with a few peers and a trusted crew leader in a safe space will relax. By the end of the camp they bond to their peers and leader. When given an opportunity to tell each other about their trauma in that setting, most of them do so in mutual empathy and are thereby relieved of it. This sets the stage for them to be able to reflect on their experience and apply the lessons learned to future living. A stronger person emerges.
Pastor Jonathan operated the OpSafe camps for over 20,000 children, carefully collecting and analyzing data for each child. The results demonstrated the camp’s ability to successfully provide psychological first aid for the majority of the children. Most needed no further help, and the few that had developed PTSD were able to be identified and referred to professional help.
Mongolian believers with callings to serve in North Korea were interested in being trained to operate these camps in Mongolia to gain practical experience. Though Mongolian children were not subject to acute trauma, like earthquakes and tsunamis, they were subject to chronic or “every day” trauma, such as dog bites, getting lost, domestic violence and abuse, shaming, etc. Jonathan completed the training in 2018. In 2019 and 2020 numerous camps were conducted with great success. Our family supported, encouraged, and participated actively in these camps.
The things I learned during the OpSafe training and implementation have led me to a greater understanding of myself and humanity, and are profoundly impacting my parenting and ministry.
First, all children experience trauma, even those raised in the best Christian homes. Second, all children experience trauma because it is relative. It doesn’t take an earthquake to traumatize a child; raising your voice in anger will do it for some children. Third, all children need someone to talk to.
Therefore, if I want to really help my children grow from their traumatic experiences, I need to be available to them and become a good listener. After taking an online assessment I found out that I was just an average listener; and it turns out that most people are average listeners. Like anything else, it takes training and practice to become an effective listener. Every Christian should aspire to this.
God tells us in the book of James that we should be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.” God emphasized that by giving us two ears and one mouth showing that we should listen twice as much as we talk. God has provided more key instruction in the book of James, who says, “Confess your faults one to another and pray for one another that you might be healed.” Confessing is telling and praying is empathizing. Wow, God had it there all along! Pastor Jonathan said to me, “This is what pastors have always been doing.” The Bible calls it, “one anothering.” We can all do this for one another.
I realized from all of this that I too experienced trauma as a child, but never had anyone to tell about it to. “Why didn’t you tell your parents?,” you may say. I didn’t feel safe with them because I feared their anger. Instead of growing from the trauma, I began to explore ways to comfort myself and became addicted to sinful habits that threatened to destroy my life, and were completely unknown to my parents. Why is it that many children have break-through experiences at regular summer camps? Maybe because gathering around a campfire or talking with a camp counselor is the first time they felt safe enough to tell someone about their traumatic experiences. Why is it that many children do not feel safe enough with their own parents for them to be the ones they confide in?
Should it not be our goal as Christian parents to be the one our children will turn to in time of need to pour out their souls to? Every parent should strive for that honor. I would suspect that there are numbers of secular parents who have succeeded in this far beyond their Christian peers. Parents should be open to others being listeners for their children if they are not able to be.
It is time that we as believers and leaders of homes, marriages, families, and churches finally develop the appropriate listening skills and emotional capacity to be listeners for one another. I have wondered for many years how to really help people. I suspect this is one of the best ways God has for us.
But there’s more. Perhaps there’s Someone else to listen to.
Listening to Jesus
The most incredible thought is that Jesus Himself might need someone to talk to about His trauma. After all He’s a human person, and He did experience trauma at the hands of His own Father who poured His wrath out on Him for our sins. But it also says He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He had to walk around looking at all our sins and ugly treatment of each other for thirty years! How traumatic was that? What if that’s one of the things He did with Mary and some of the other women that made Him feel so close to them? Were they His empathetic listeners? What heights of privilege would it be to be the person who served Him in that way? He ascended before He had time to do much of that with any of the disciples. Maybe that is what it means when Paul talks about the “fellowship of His sufferings”? (Philp 3:10) Maybe that’s what it means when it talked about Anna the Prophetess and the Apostles, “ministering to the Lord”? (Acts 13:2, Luke 2:27) Anyone of us could serve Him in this way. Wow!
Lord, let us become skilled listeners for You and others.
Lord, let it be so.
Timothy Shell is a graduate of WCFS. He and his family have been serving as a missionaries in China and Mongolia since 2003. They are now serving as transplanted missionaries back in the United States as they wait out their “extended COVID leave.”