You might find it useful to offer this outline to youth group leaders/schools to help create a space for young people to respond/voice their feelings about yesterday’s shootings. It was put together in response to a shooting in the States but is generic enough to be used in response to any violent tragedy. (Apologies for the font size. Cut and paste it into Word to alter it)
A frame-work for discussing tragedy with young people
Following the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Danielle Dowd (the Diocesan Youth Missioner) put together a framework to help local churches open up discussions with young people. I have adapted this so that it could be used following other tragedies, from sudden death to global disaster.
We are rarely prepared for tragedy when it strikes. It comes unexpectedly through personal tragedy, through unimagined outrage or accident affecting the community, through war, terrorism or natural disaster which causes national or global shock. Tragedy, on whatever scale, brings forth all sorts of emotions and questions and young people need a safe space where they can articulate their emotions, fear and questions. Yet in all this we can be consoled with the knowledge that our God is no stranger to heartbreak. Jesus enters into our messes. Jesus is present with us in our grief. And in this way, Jesus models for us the ministry of presence. Jesus shows us that to serve, the most important step is the first step: Show Up.
We may feel intimidated at the thought of having discussions with young people about tragedy. We may feel inadequate to lead them. But our young people need a safe space to tell their stories and process their feelings. They need us to come forth as servant leaders – leaders who are ready to sit with them, cry with them, to struggle alongside them, to listen to them. Many of the questions that come along with these discussions do not have easy answers but we need to enter into them anyway.
There are no road maps for these discussions. Each will be different depending on your context and the closeness of your young people to the tragedy. (For example: Do they know people who were involved? Are there family members who are in the emergency services/armed forces and were caught up in it? We must keep in mind these possibilities and be sensitive to them). You will need to make adaptations, but this framework offers a way to get started.
1. Show Up
This is the hardest and most important step. Show up. These conversations are difficult but we absolutely need to have them. Your ministry of presence is vital in these difficult times. In times of tragedy, people, especially young people, look to their leadership for how to respond. You are part of their faith community. You have made promises together, in baptisms. You have eaten at the Lord’s Table together. You have worshipped alongside each other. Because you have been present already in their lives in those ways, you are now called to continue your ministry of presence by giving young people an opportunity to wrestle with these difficult questions and emotions.
2. Create a Safe Space
Invite your young people into a sacred time together specifically for these issues. Tell them that you are going to talk about the tragedy. Be aware of the physical space you choose to do this in. You will want the space to be comforting and inviting. Ideally, the space should be private (while keeping in mind safeguarding guidelines) and quiet, comfortable to sit together in a relaxed way without prying eyes*. Maybe there are comfortable couches to sit on. If bring several big pillows and blankets and invite the young people to curl up on the floor in a circle. Bring simple snacks and drinks to share.
*If the door is closed, please keep in mind safeguarding guidelines. There should never be a child or youth left alone with an adult.
3. Provide Outlets for Emotion
Consider the following as you prepare for the session:
Information – Give a brief synopsis of the known facts in the situation. Think about how you might explain the situation before-hand so that you may be intentional with your language, keeping in mind your context. Give a list of guidelines that you agree on for talking about difficult subjects. For example, you may want to state something like, “This is a safe place. Everyone has the right to have their feelings heard here.”
Questions – Open up time for questions. In this case, there are a lot of un-answered ones. Come prepared to answer questions with the most current, accurate information you have available. Expect frustration from teens when there are not clear or easy answers. Affirm their feelings by saying things like, “I can hear that you’re frustrated. I’m frustrated too.” Then listen.
Discussion and Truth Telling – Ask the young people how they feel about what happened. How does this relate to them, personally? What sorts of other, related, issues does this tragedy bring up for them? Affirm their feelings by reflecting them back to them. After you ask a question, do not be afraid to sit in silence for a while. Allow them to have the time to formulate their ideas and verbalize them. Do not feel the need to fill the silence. Depending on the context and personality of your group, some groups may talk a lot while other groups might not talk at all. Give them the time and space either way.
Ritual and Reflection – You may want to have different “stations” around the room where young people can process their thoughts and feelings in silence. These might include:
Give time for the young people to go from station to station as they wish. You may want to play some quiet instrumental music during this time.
Prayer – After time to quietly reflect in the different mediums, come back together for a time of prayer or reflection such as:
Distribution of Resources – When you have finished your prayer together, re affirm to the young people that you are there for them if they have any questions in the coming weeks and months. Distribute the Bible verses or any poem or other resource which you feel might be helpful for them in the coming days.
4. Follow up
This is not a one-off discussion. When we are talking about intersecting issues of violence, tragedy, race, and privilege; it is a lifelong, ongoing conversation. If certain personal things were brought up during discussion, commit those details to memory and follow up sensitively and appropriately. Offer time one on one (in a public space) with any young people who seem particularly affected or refer them to counselling resources if necessary.
Some Verses for Use In Reflection and Ritual Following Tragedy
Psalm 23 (NRSV)
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
Isaiah 25:6-8 (Message)
But here on this mountain,
God will throw a feast for all the people of the world,
A feast of the finest foods, a feast with vintage wines,
a feast of seven courses, a feast lavish with gourmet desserts.
And here on this mountain, God will banish
the pall of doom hanging over all people,
The shadow of doom darkening all nations.
Yes, God will banish death forever.
And God will wipe the tears from every face.
He’ll remove every sign of disgrace
From his people, wherever they are.
Yes! God says so!
Isaiah 43: 1-2 (NRSV)
But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you.
O Israel, the one who formed you says,
“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
I have called you by name; you are mine.
2 When you go through deep waters,
I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
you will not be burned up;
the flames will not consume you.
Matthew 5: 1-10 (NRSV)
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Revelation 21: 1, 3-4 (NLT)
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”