Professor Jan Holton: learning the healing power of the Christian narrative from the Lost Boys of Sudan
By Ray Waddle
Editor, Reflections Magazine
To grasp the power and mystery of human resilience, Jan Holton had to see it face-to-face.
And that she did, when she met some of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” a group of 3,500 male refugees (and some Lost Girls) who resettled in the U.S. after enduring civil war and hardship back home in South Sudan.
A decade ago, Holton, assistant professor of pastoral care and counseling at YDS, interviewed and befriended some of the Lost Boys, helped resettle them, eventually visiting their previous refugee camp in Kenya and their traumatized Sudanese homeland.
“How do people in war and disaster zones endure or even recover from such traumatic circumstances? I had been pulling and tugging at that question for years,” said Holton in a recent interview. “Then I met this extraordinary group of refugees.”
They had endured unspeakable difficulties as children living through civil war. They had witnessed family or friends killed, or been under constant threat themselves, fleeing the violence without adult supervision. Experts, Holton says, had every reason to expect these now-young adults to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They did exhibit symptoms at times, but PTSD did not prevail. Holton marveled to see them adapt to their new American milieu and often thrive.
What she learned from the Lost Boys has deepened her respect for the healing power of the Christian narrative that nurtured them—and for the notion that a far-away culture can teach Americans about community and resilience.
She describes her sojourn toward a deeper understanding of human nature and Christian faith, and its relevance to American congregations, in a new book, Building the Resilient Community: Lessons from the Lost Boys of Sudan.
“Ten years ago, the connection between trauma, the practices of the Lost Boys, and the behavior of our own communities might have been more difficult to see,” Holton writes.
“But Columbine, 9/11, Virginia Tech, Katrina, and the Iraq War have brought the reality of trauma to our own backyard in such a way that we can more easily see a glimpse of our circumstances reflected in those of the Lost Boys.”
Fieldwork took her to a Dinka tribal community of South Sudan, the Lost Boys’ home area. There Holton found a potent value system built from Christian faith and strong community traditions. New sources of resilience, rooted in an obligation of mutual care, revealed themselves.
“What I have discovered is a startling concept of community that reflects their sense of deeply ingrained obligation toward the other and a powerful faith narrative that empowers them to participate in God’s promise of healing and redemption,” she says.
“This disposition lays a foundation for resilience in the face of adversity and has helped mitigate the effects of their traumatic experiences.”
The Lost Boys had survived much together as they fled the civil war of the late 1980s and early ’90s. But three elements of their experience mitigated the trauma. They drew on their cultural traditions of looking out for each other, creating a sense of security and trust. They articulated a strong sense of justice together. And they bound their experience into a collective trauma narrative. The results confounded western therapeutic notions that assumed only individual narratives, not collective ones, could benefit people coping with trauma.
Holton had already done research on the effects of trauma in Bosnia and Nicaragua when, in 2000, she connected with the Lost Boys. Holton was a graduate student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville when more than 60 Lost Boy refugees arrived there. Ordained as a United Methodist elder, Holton worked with the local Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program as a liaison with churches to help the refugees find jobs, get housing and function daily in their startling new surroundings.
Her work later expanded overseas—in the refugee camp in Kenya in 2003, then, after she joined the YDS faculty, in the Lost Boys’ Sudanese homeland in 2008. Amid harsh conditions of poverty, heat and disease, she learned the depths of the Sudanese Dinka’s faith in Jesus as the ultimate healer, and their lively belief in God’s promise to redeem them.
Her book explores components of that faith narrative—she describes them as exile, faithful remnant, redemption—which reinforces the Dinka belief that God brought peace to the region with the 2005 ceasefire. The Lost Boys themselves are part of this sacred narrative: they are the “remnant” who escaped to the (Christian) U.S., where their plight was embraced by churches, and where, the Dinka believe, American political awareness of their suffering was heightened and proved to be instrumental in achieving the ceasefire.
Holton cautions that the Lost Boys should not be regarded as messianic figures, and the Dinka faith narrative is not perfect or utopian, but she says the lessons from Sudan can help our own churches see their faith in a new light.
“We all have narratives,” she says. “Every church has a narrative. It’s there, it’s already embedded. But we can become better aware of it, make it explicit, strengthen it, nurture it, or challenge it if we need to. … The gospel story itself is a narrative of resilience—we just have to figure out how to draw more from it and claim God’s promise for a hopeful future that is found there.”
One’s own everyday narrative about how God relates to us will frame a congregation’s or individual’s reaction and level of resilience when disaster strikes, she suggests.
In America, whenever violence or suffering erupts, the tendency is to ask: Why me? Why is God doing this to me? Prosperous societies tend to believe they can control their own security, which makes it even more of a shock when cataclysm hits.
The Dinka faith narrative implies a strong, unfolding partnership with God, Holton believes. When catastrophe strikes, the response is more likely to be: God is here; what is my job? God is at work here; what do I do to be helpful to others?
“When we partner with God and something is expected of us, it empowers us to respond,” she says. “The belief is: God’s job is to redeem, and God’s love for us is so immense that God will never leave us, and that promise fills our hearts so much that we simply must respond by being accountable to others.”
Holton plans to take her examination of trauma and resilience into even worse landscapes. This summer she will visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the scene of perhaps the deadliest conflict since World War II. Some six million people have died in warfare there since 1998. Holton will focus on the brutally traumatized conditions of women, who have been raped in the hundreds of thousands.
Across three continents, Holton’s own narrative so far has been a discovery of the many faces of redemption, the power of God to touch hurting communities in ways that are “beautiful and unique.”
“I’ve learned how people find ways to live out of redemption, not out of brokenness,” she notes. “It happens in ways I cannot even fathom—I can only give a theological answer and say there is no limit to how God can redeem a situation.”