Sister Jean Abbott: Helping the Dear Neighbors of Gulu

Sister Jean Abbott

Sister Jean Abbott, CSJ

by Sister Mary Flick, CSJ

Sister Jean Abbott is not a typical health care provider. But her work as a trauma therapist is a sorely needed healing ministry in these times of globalized terror.

S. Jean has spent more than a decade as a therapist to survivors of war’s deepest wounds, most recently at the St. Louis Center for Victims of Torture and War Trauma, which she founded in 1998.  Since retiring in 2012, she has taken her healing ministry internationally.

What motivates her is a desire for balance in the world. “Some people in the world inflict torture and actually enjoy it. Some heal and enjoy it. I am one of them. I cannot just listen to the pain. I get into it,” she said. “When you see someone healing, something inside of you heals.”

It’s that healing and that desire for healing among the people of war-torn Uganda that animates her work today. S. Jean will be hosting three therapeutic counselors from Gulu, Uganda for a month of intensive training at the Carondelet motherhouse, beginning Sept. 19. Their visit is made possible, in large part, through a $20,000 gift from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

Gulu's Deep Hurt

Gulu is a natural location for her to begin her international ministry. The Sisters of St. Joseph opened a mission in Gulu in 2008. In the past two years, Jean has visited the Carondelet missionaries twice there, for three and then five months.

When I visited Gulu,” Jean recalled, “members of Caritas Counseling (Catholic Charities) took me deep into the bushes and on dirt roads to visit the villages. I didn’t have the language. I was an old white lady, meeting these young, dark Africans, hurt and wounded. I knew counselors belonged there. But they would need training.”

So S. Jean envisioned bringing counselors to the states to receive advanced trauma therapy training that they can then take to outlying villages in Uganda.

Their hurt is deep. The people of Uganda have endured a 26-year war instigated by the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Kony. He and his men have gone into villages, kidnapping children and killing adults. The girls were used as prostitutes and “wives.” The boys were taught to shoot – or be killed. Meanwhile, the Ugandan military have run concentration camps, which they called “Internally Displaced Camps” for those fleeing Kony’s advancement. As S. Jean described it, “If you left, you were considered a rebel. If you stayed, you lived in fear of an attack by the LRA.”

Among these traumatized people, many of the children who have been freed from their captivity have returned home – and suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder. “The villagers are happy to have them back – and afraid of them,” S. Jean said. “Villagers don’t know when they will be triggered to act out violently.”

“These people need smart, good, well-trained people to be there working, to teach them healing for themselves and for others. Many of the churches are forming Forgiveness groups. But you can’t just say, ‘Forgive.’”

For this trauma therapist with a worldwide vision and a great-hearted love, the act of forgiveness is an experience of the whole person: body, mind and spirit. The question S. Jean asks is, “Where in your body is it hard to forgive?”

Body-Mind Healing

The kind of therapy that Jean uses is still being developed. It is a psychosomatic therapy, involving the body as well as the mind.

“If you are hurt by a black man, and later, you see a black man coming toward you, you don’t think. Your body reacts before your mind says, ‘It’s okay,’” S. Jean related. There is a fear reaction in the body before the encounter.

During her time with the Center for Victims of Torture and War Trauma, she often worked with survivors of the Serbo-Croatian War, members of the Bosnian community who make up St. Louis’s largest immigrant population in recent years. One Bosnian concentration camp survivor would develop terrible headaches at work because of the beatings he had experienced while in in the camp. Having endured long periods of time with his hands tied behind his back, the man kept his arms close to his side during his factory work shift.

“Working with fear is more than having my client tell me how that feels,” S. Jean said. She often uses hypnotic trance or yoga or other mind-body techniques as part of her therapy. And so she asked this Bosnian survivor of torture, “When your hands are tied, show me where you feel the fear. What does your body want to do?” Under hypnosis, the young man put his hands above his head, as if protecting himself from the beatings. But in his camp experience, his hands were tied and he could not defend himself. And so even in the U.S., years away from threats of beatings, at work in a factory, his middle-age man endured headaches with his arms held closely at his side.

“The body remembers,” S. Jean said. “I can tell myself, ‘I’m safe,’ but there is fear all through my body. Therapy has to address that.”

And so, knowing she can never do enough for the people of Northern Uganda, she is bringing three therapeutic counselors to St. Louis. The province’s gift will cover airfare, visas, room and board, and training costs.

New Experiences 

“But,” S. Jean said, “I also want to take them horseback riding – there are no horses in Uganda. I want to find someone to donate cowboy hats. I want to take them bowling and show them things they have not had a chance to do. While I’m giving them vigorous training, I want them to have some fun. I want them to meet a thousand friendly faces.”

It hasn’t been easy getting her would-be students to friendly St. Louis. Originally, five therapeutic counselors, natives of Uganda, were invited to come for training. However, after two rounds of visa applications, only three were issued visas by the American Consulate in Uganda. “The consulate doesn’t believe that five Africans will return to Gulu to live and work,” she said. “My word is not enough.” Nor was U.S. Senator Claire McCaskell’s word. S. Jean asked McCaskell to write the U.S. Counselate on behalf of her proposed project. The response was the same: “They will give visas to whomever they want to give visas,” S. Jean said.

She sees her efforts at bringing even three Ugandans to Carondelet as essential in furthering her healing ministry.

“It has been said that a person has to be out of the situation before he or she can heal," S. Jean related. "That means half of the world cannot have therapy. My job is to figure out how to bring relief to people who cannot get out of their situation. To give them a choice rather than have them instinctively react to experiences that cause flashbacks. Therapy and healing are not just for the privileged.”

They are for the dear neighbor, without distinction.

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