Wesley faculty members Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, Ph.D., Michael Koppel, Ph.D. and Paul K.-K.Cho, Ph.D., are advancing theological scholarship in the area of trauma studies.
In coordination with Academic Dean Phil Wingeier-Rayo,Ph.D., these professors are planning a total of three virtual webinars on trauma in the coming months.
The first virtual event will be held October 7, 2021, as part of the Dean's Forum series, and is offered as part of Wesley's programming for National Hispanic Heritage Month. Two leading academics in trauma studies will address the challenges that Latinx/Hispanic communities face in the era of COVID-19 in this webinar, which require Zoom registration at http://ow.ly/a5gz50GcVIT
In the first part of this interview with Dr. Paul K.-K. Cho, we learn of his interest in trauma studies and findings of his research.
WTS: We have you, Dr. Koppel and Dr. Dombkowski Hopkins to thank for three upcoming virtual webinars dealing with the issue of trauma in different contexts. How did your interest in trauma studies begin?
Dr. Cho: My interest in trauma studies began when I was a college student at Yale, where I had the fortune of studying the relationship between literature and trauma with Shoshana Felman. I recall vividly the sense of recognition discussing the possibility that language can fail and that trauma can expose the limits of language. I continue to think and study the relationship between trauma and language.
My study of trauma matured more recently—by which I mean that it expanded (to the study of trauma theory in other relevant fields, such as psychology and sociology) and became more focused (on the relationship between trauma and the Hebrew Bible). And I am currently working on a reading of the book of Job informed by trauma theory.
WTS: What is your definition of "trauma" for this discussion? Does context impact that definition?
Dr. Cho: The concept of trauma resonates at multiple levels, and I want to honor all those resonances. At the same time, I do want to provide more technical definitions of trauma for specific discussions. For example, trauma when we are talking about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) might highlight certain psychological symptoms, such as hyperarousal or constriction. Or trauma for a sociologist may refer to the constructed narrative about a group trauma.
At the same time, we may casually describe an event as traumatic when it might be more appropriate to call it a potentially traumatizing event (PTE), since trauma, strictly speaking, is not an event but refers to the wound the experience of such an event may inflict. So, yes, context matters. And it will be important to provide working definitions of trauma, especially in public discussions like the ones Wesley will be hosting in the coming months.
WTS: You have been conducting research in this area over the past several years? What surprising insights have you learned in your research? What do you hope to accomplish with your trauma studies?
Dr. Cho: I am fascinated by the connections among trauma, the body, and language. The relationship between trauma and language—specifically language as that human faculty that facilitates the construction of meaning-making systems—has been a point of interest for nearly two decades and continues to fascinate me. More recently, I have come to appreciate the profound connection between trauma and the body.
Paying attention to the body, among other things, helps us recognize the different bodies that experience trauma, whether we are talking about gendered bodies or racialized bodies. (I say gendered and racialized in recognition that these are in whole or in part socially constructed identities.) And paying attention to language, again among other things, helps us recognize the cultural embeddedness of trauma. Yes, trauma afflicts all human beings, has since time immemorial; but those who are afflicted are particular bodies who live and have their being in particular cultural contexts. The framework defined by the three terms (trauma, body, and language) has guided the programming for our grant from AAAS: “Moving Toward Wholeness: Traumatized Texts and Bodies” and is the reason that we have engaged in bringing attention to the textual as well as the embodied realities of trauma.
WTS: The Dean's Forum on October 7 is entitled," Latinx/Hispanic Communities, Trauma and Resilience in the Era of Covid-19." Brown and Black bodies have been most affected by COVID-19. Are there any learnings arising from the Latinx/Hispanic communities on how to build resilience in the face of such trauma?
Dr. Cho: One important lesson arising from the pandemic is the deathly reality of racism and the ways in which it continues to adversely affect Brown and Black bodies and communities.
One important lesson for all of us, though not necessarily for those who already live in this reality, has been the awakening to the seriousness of the issue. I hope that the entire Wesley community will come to learn and to stand in solidarity with one another on this matter. It also bears noting that Brown and Black communities have been resilient, for decades and centuries, and I hope that the Forum will provide one opportunity for us to recognize, celebrate, and learn from this resilience.
WTS: What has your research shown that enables individuals and communities to find healing and resilience? What should we know to make ourselves more "trauma resistant" or, if not possible, more able to recover from trauma? And how can we help those we care about, our community, our society?
Dr. Cho: Judith Herman identifies three steps in the road toward recovery from trauma: establishing safety for the victim, reconstructing and lamenting the trauma story, and reconnecting with supportive friends and family.
I would like to underline that churches and other religious congregations can participate in establishing a safe and supportive environment in which a trauma victim can be and reconnect with persons and groups.
I would also encourage anyone, or any congregation interested in working in this area, to seek professional guidance to better understand what safety might mean for trauma victims and for the congregation, especially for those who are most vulnerable among us, such as children. It has also been shown that being a part of a supportive and connected group builds resilience.
Join us for "Latinx/Hispanic Communities, Trauma and Resilience in the Era of Covid-19," October 7, 2021, 4:30-6:00 pm EDT. Be sure to register for this important Zoom event at http://ow.ly/a5gz50GcVIT
Our guest speakers will be Boston University School of Theology's Dr. Cristian De La Rosa, Associate Dean for Students and Community Life, Clinical Assistant Professor of Contextual Theology and Practice and Co-Director, The Places Latinas Program on Theology, Leadership, and Research; and American University's Ernesto Castñeda, Director, Immigration Lab and Associate Professor of Sociology.