Traumas can be turned into compassion
By Mary Stamp
By combining faith and psychology, Unyong Statwick, an ordained interfaith chaplain and certified Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) educator at Providence Sacred Heart in Spokane, turned trauma in her childhood and adult life into tools to be present with patients and families in their times of trauma in hospital stays.
As a certified CPE educator—formerly called "CPE supervisor"—Unyong trains students to engage the whole of their life stories into tools to help them accompany people in health crises.
CPE is interfaith professional education for theological students, ordained clergy and laypersons. Through supervised encounters with people in crisis, they deepen relationships and self-understanding. Patient and family encounters along with feedback from peers and the certified educator heighten awareness. Students also engage in theological reflection about the real-life situations.
Providence Sacred Heart has intensive and extended programs. The extended program is four hours of class and 15 hours of clinical work each week for 30 weeks from September to April. The intensive program runs 12 weeks each quarter with one week break between units.
Unyong, after earning a master of divinity degree in 2003 from the Assembly of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Mo., decided to study CPE. While waiting to do that in the summer of 2004, she earned a master's degree in professional counseling at the seminary.
She was then hired as staff chaplain at Mercy Hospital in Springfield and worked there until 2018. During that time, she earned a doctoral degree in psychology at the Institute for Professional Psychology, completing it in 2010.
Deciding to focus on ministry, Unyong finished training as a CPE supervisor in 2015, started as a supervisor in 2016, and became a manager until 2018. When the program closed, she came to Providence Sacred Heart in January 2019 as certified educator to supervise and train students in the Accredited Clinical Pastoral Education program.
There are currently three local students and one from Walla Walla doing the 12-week residency units, and five students joining on Zoom from Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., Illinois, Montana and California for the extended unit program.
Unyong grew up in Gwang-ju in southern South Korea, graduating from college in 1985 and teaching middle school English and Korean history a year and a half. Then she married an American and moved to Tennessee.
Her husband wanted to go to Bible college and be a missionary. She expected to be a minister's wife, but her now ex-husband became depressed and dropped out of seminary and ministry. They separated in 1998 and divorced in 2002.
Unyong chose to study psychology because of the mental illness of family members. Her ability to understand the trauma she experienced gives her sensitivity as a chaplain.
Her father, a soldier in the Korean War, defected to South Korea. He suffered PTSD, drank heavily and was abusive, dying of complications from drinking when Unyong was 11.
Two older brothers were mentally ill and had violent tempers, abusing her as a teen. Her sister, who was four years older, married early to escape the violence.
After her father died, her mother taught school, but became mentally unstable from grief and began drinking.
Marriage was a way out for Unyong.
All her family but her sister have since died. She has two grown daughters who live in Missouri, one has bipolar disorder and the other struggles with social anxiety.
Faith played a role in her journey to healing. There were five churches—Catholic, Baptist and Presbyterian—in Hwasoon, her small village.
"I went to church to meet God," she said. "Because I played piano, I was pianist at a Presbyterian church.
She felt called to understand suffering and the meaning of life from a spiritual and psychological perspective.
"How could I engage people living in suffering and pain out of my suffering and pain?" Unyong asked.
In seminary, she went to a therapist and by sharing her personal, painful family stories, her healing journey began. She realized she had PTSD from her traumatic upbringing.
"I wanted to contribute to the world so my suffering and pain would not be wasted," said Unyong, who found seminary and CPE in line with her call.
"One day, I realized I was content, at peace from the emotional suffering," she said.
As chaplain six years at Mercy Hospital—five on night shift—she met many people experiencing trauma and acute suffering.
"From my training, I could provide a calming presence to minister to them," she said.
There were an average of three to four deaths a night and trauma from vehicle accidents, gun violence victims and suicide attempts.
"I accompanied patients and their families, addressing their fears," she said.
"God is tangible for me. Mysteriously, as a teen, I felt God's presence through my own abuse. I wondered, 'Does God care for me? Does God see me?' I felt God's presence and 'Yes, I am with you.' After that experience, any lingering fear left me," Unyong said.
Once when talking long distance to the evangelical daughter of a woman who was dying, Unyong said she engaged with the woman about her fear about where her mother's soul would be going.
Seeing her love for her mother, she assured the daughter, "God also loves your mother."
A pastor's mother had surgery after an accident. More than 50 church members came to the hospital and prayed. When the surgeon came out to say she might not make it, her teen daughter asked: "What would God gain to take her?"
"I did not have an answer. I just accompanied the teen with a calm presence," Unyong said. "She would have to figure it out for herself."
Another patient's cheek was hollowed out from attempted suicide, but he was alive. The loving family knew they would have to walk with the person now with a facial deformity.
"I held space for them to talk, to share their emotions and gratitude he survived," she said. "I have learned, I do not have to have answers, but give space to remind them of the Divine space in human suffering and dilemmas."
Unyong trains students to use their suffering and stories, to be aware how they were shaped by their families of origin and how faith/social teachings have shaped their assumptions and unconscious biases. Cultural diversity is also part of the implicit bias training.
"Sometimes people come out of skewed lives making judgments or feeling they have to fix other people," she said. "I help them learn that everyone is their own expert spiritually, socially and culturally. A chaplain only meets people in a passing moment.
"We are not expected to give expert advice or correct people. We give people a safe space, sacred space to do their own reflection and come up with their own answers to their questions: What did I do? Why is this happening to me?" Unyong continued.
"Their shaping comes out of their experience and upbringing as they face death of a family member or their own death," she said.
Unyong said a chaplain is God's loving presence as they ask if the crash or cancer is God's judgment.
"We let them reflect and find the answer on their own, respecting their dignity," she said.
Because of COVID, she said CPE students are trained to use various social media to meet a family's needs when they are not able to be at the person's bedside.
Students call a family and ask how they are doing or arrange for a meeting in the patient's room on social media so the family can see the patient.
"Use of technology, Zoom and Facetime are important to provide a ministry of presence now, connecting family members and easing their pain," said Unyong, who has switched all classes to Zoom and works mostly from home.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, January, 2021