Q & A with Sr. Barbara Paleczny, helping South Sudanese overcome trauma

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Sr. Barbara Paleczny, a Canadian School Sister of Notre Dame, has lived in South Sudan for nine years, after earlier ministries in Canada, Great Britain, Bolivia and the United States. Her work has focused on spirituality and social justice concerns and includes co-founding the South Texas Coalition Against Human Trafficking and the Center for Spirituality and Lay Leadership in Ontario. She has also led or directed numerous retreats.

Paleczny, who has two doctorates, has a passion for education. She is a member of Solidarity with South Sudan, a worldwide network of religious congregations of sisters, brothers and priests who work together in South Sudan to train leaders, nurses, teachers, midwives and others in the world's youngest country.

Newly independent from neighboring Sudan in 2011, South Sudan erupted in civil war at the end of 2013. Intense fighting between government militias and rebel groups has not deterred Paleczny from staying in South Sudan, where she also teaches in-service programs of Solidarity with South Sudan's teacher training college, especially in remote areas of the country. 

Although she has lived in Malakal in the Greater Upper Nile area and is now based in Juba, South Sudan's capital, Paleczny travels throughout the country. Much of her current work focuses on healing through workshops focusing on trauma/psychosocial support, serving teachers; medical staffs; groups of men, women or youth; religious and political leaders; and those with special needs — groups all affected by the trauma of the country's ongoing civil war. A special focus of her work is training others to lead these workshops. 

Paleczny, 72, is also an artist and author. Among her writings are the books Clothed in Integrity: Weaving Just Cultural Relations and the Garment Industry and Surprising Daughters of Hope.

GSR: You are dealing with the problems of trauma. Tell us about those.

Paleczny: The core of what I do is based on the belief that the body tells the truth — the body keeps score of how we really are. Bodies "remember" stress and trauma just under the surface. We hold that tension in. When a traumatic event happens, adrenaline helps us to protect ourselves. If trauma is not resolved, however, adrenaline may continue to affect the body. 

Eventually, the body needs to readjust. What helps? We use the Capacitar Method, which combines simple exercises from around the world, such as tai chi, Pal Dan Gum, tapping, eye movements, healing touch and imaging. By providing better circulation and more oxygen, these exercises help to slow down the production of adrenaline so that the brain can say, "Safe now. The danger is past."

This is a popular educational method for wellness and healing. We do it for large groups and small, and it works even if participants don't understand why it works. Often, people who have suffered stress or great loss or trauma have trouble sleeping, as well as headaches and joint pain. Many have nightmares. When they have done these exercises, people feel better, sleep better. We wake up the body to do its own work. The body is made to heal.

You went through your own traumatic experiences. How do they relate to your teaching?

I've been in four major battles with the bullets and the bombs, such as the experience in Malakal, where I and others of the Solidarity team were trapped in a tiny space during a four-day Christmas siege in 2013. We could hear bullets and bombs everywhere. We prayed mantras, repeating short refrains like "Prince of Peace."

Eventually, the fighting stopped. But it was a difficult, difficult moment. A week later, we were evacuated to teach in another area. Many more battles were fought over Malakal, which is close to oil reserves.

So your own recovery was based on these exercises?

Yes, and my health has been better every year since I have started doing these exercises. Drawing has also helped. Drawing is one of the great surprises of my life and, to express hints of my inner depths, I paint mainly my dreams, my inner feelings and dreams, in watercolor, acrylic or oil. 

Of course, quiet hours of prayer and the love of others heal me, too, even of the secondary trauma that can creep upon us so easily. Since we are all compassionate, we tend to take in others' suffering, and we need to hold our own need for healing very gently.

Can you tell that I love life? So many in South Sudan, even on the street, tell me, "You're such a strong woman, even though you're so old!" Being in South Sudan must agree with me because I find that I'm getting healthier as the years go by.

What about South Sudan? Is there something in the culture that allows people to recover from trauma?

It's a spiritual culture, and in the religious practice, there is a great emphasis on praying together, singing together. Church experience is extremely spiritual and a real social event, with a lot of drumming and singing. These contribute greatly to healing.

But it's also true that South Sudanese tend to hold their pain quietly within, buried, and so trauma continues to harm people. I truly believe that everywhere, people make culture, and we can change it, too. A culture of courage is the other side of the coin to the dominant culture of taking revenge. If people can get engaged not only in healing, like in the workshops we do, but also in talking openly to see what is the best they can do in this crisis, as Nelson Mandela did, they find hope and begin to create at least some practical ways forward.

What about your own spirituality in this context?

I experience Christ incarnate in relationships and deeply within myself, amid the suffering. It can take a toll. I have enough peace for thousands, and when I need peace, I lean on others. I feel great energy and connection here as I sense the power of others' prayer from around the world every day, but South Sudan is a difficult place. I can get tired — very tired. I need time for contemplation and rest like everyone else.

In 2013, I went to the Holy Land for personal "being away with God," and in 2016, I went to Malta to be "in a cocoon" — a long, personal, silent retreat. Those were wonderfully graced times for me to rest, renew and be transformed.

In those moments, I realized, as I have before, that God is the heart and love of my life. My greatest blessing is that I have experienced God's great love and power all my life. This isn't to say things are perfect. Every day, I mess something up. I make mistakes. I pray every night, "God of the cosmos, can you bring good out of this?"

She laughs and with a flick of her hand, says, "Of course I can." We laugh together.

What else keeps you grounded spiritually?

Jesus. Jesus is healer and teacher. And I experience how we are all the living body of Christ. All peoples and all creation. We are all one, more than we can imagine. The mystery of each person, each universe of being, is sacred for me. I believe Jesus is always present, healing us. Truly present.

I pray to Jesus, "I believe you, your love, promises and power. I trust you. I love you." To each person of the Trinity, I pray the same. And they tell me, "Barbara, we believe you. We trust you. We love you." Together, we dance for joy. 

[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is cherlinger@ncronline.org.]