On June 17, 2015 several members of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat in a basement to share in Bible study. They welcomed a visitor to their Bible study that night — a visitor who would later murder nine of the people in that room.
Often, when I am faced with difficult life situations, my dad will ask, “What is the life lesson in this?” In the days immediately following the race-related mass shooting, I grappled with this question.
There was a heaviness I could not explain. I felt sad. I felt afraid. I felt violated. I felt vulnerable. It felt as if I were grieving the loss of a family member, both in the form of the victims and the larger church community. Then I felt guilty, because I could only imagine what the families of the victims were experiencing.
After processing with several family members and friends, I realized that I wasn’t alone in experiencing these emotions. So I began thinking, “How might many of our clients — especially those with ties to the black church — be feeling? What do counselors need to know? What can we do to respond to this tragedy?”
What occurred in the days following this horrific tragedy was an opportunity to have a conversation about racial relations in the United States, a conversation that we often avoid because of the discomfort we can feel. Furthermore, a conversation ensued about the black church, its history and its role in many African American communities.
This is an important conversation for counselors to have as well. It is important for counselors to be aware of how many of our clients may be affected by this tragedy. We must educate ourselves about what many of our clients may be experiencing. Then we must prepare ourselves to respond.
As counselors, we are charged, through the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies, endorsed by the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development and the American Counseling Association, with evaluating our awareness, knowledge and skills. In the wake of the Charleston tragedy, we are challenged to evaluate our own attitudes, beliefs, knowledge and skills as they pertain to the black church.
Often, our attitudes and beliefs are formed from images we have seen. During this time, we must ask ourselves, “What images of the black church have I seen, and how do they shape my perception?”
For some people, images of the black church may be connected to pictures of the Martin Luther King Jr. preaching in many pulpits. For others, images of the black church may be related to Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the conversation that occurred during the 2008 presidential election. For others, perceptions of the black church may derive from the televised “homegoing” service of legendary singer Whitney Houston. And now, for others, that image will be associated with Charleston.
We must ask ourselves how these images inform our attitudes and beliefs about the black church, and how these attitudes and beliefs might impact our interactions with our clients, especially those who may need to process trauma related to the tragedy in Charleston these many months later.
The black church is an institution, a place of worship and so much more. A number of books can help counselors learn more about the black church. However, as we know, our clients can be our best teachers.
Historically, the church has been an epicenter for spiritual, economic, educational, social, and political development in many African American communities. Therefore, many of our clients may be experiencing a unique form of grief related to the loss of a sacred space.
The black church was formed out of a desire to be able to worship without experiencing oppression and racial hostility. In fact, during slavery, no more than five slaves were allowed to gather together without supervision. So, slaves would gather in secret in places such as swamps and wooded areas. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was one of the inaugural predominately black congregations and denominations. But recent events may have many clients wondering where they can safely seek solace.
We must also be willing to integrate spirituality into our counseling sessions. The Competencies for Addressing Spiritual and Religious Issues in Counseling, developed by the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling, are a helpful guide for counselors.
However, in general, African Americans are less likely than other racial/ethnic populations to seek help for mental health concerns. Many African Americans prefer to seek help for a variety of concerns from their pastors rather than from counselors. Historically, pastors have been pillars in African American communities. They are often community leaders, activists and spiritual leaders. Thus, it is incumbent on counselors to collaborate with African American pastors in their local communities. Counselors might meet with pastors and offer to speak in their Sunday morning services, co-sponsor a mental health day or provide referral resources.
A huge part of our identity as counselors and ACA members is advocacy. I have often heard from counselors and students that advocacy can feel overwhelming. However, there are opportunities for advocacy on micro and macro levels.
For instance, advocacy can happen within our counseling sessions. An important part of advocacy is honoring all the pieces of a client’s identity. One significant piece of some clients’ identities may be the black church. But at this moment, that identity may feel very vulnerable and fragile.
Many of our clients may wonder if their counseling session is the space to process these emotions. Moreover, many of our clients may feel unsure that their counselors will understand. We have an opportunity to provide our clients with a safe space to bring these worlds together. We owe it to our clients.
And we owe it to South Carolina Sen. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Jr., Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Ethel Lance and the Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor. May their legacies always inspire us to do our best work.
Janeé R. Avent is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.