Bush Fellowship will assist chaplain to educate faith communities about adverse childhood experiences
Amie Schumacher experienced trauma at a young age — the details of which she doesn’t readily share. What she does want to share is how everyone has the ability to help those who have faced adverse childhood experiences. In learning how to heal from her own wounds, she now seeks to help others find their road to healing and resilience.
“Adverse Childhood Experiences” is a term that describes all types of abuse, neglect and other potentially traumatic experiences that occur to people under the age of 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The term ACE comes from a CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study in the early 1990s.
According to the study, ACEs include physical, sexual and verbal abuse; physical and emotional neglect; having a family member who is depressed or diagnosed with other mental illness; addiction to alcohol or another substance; imprisonment; witnessing a mother being abused; and losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reason.
Other surveys have expanded ACEs to include racism, gender discrimination, witnessing a sibling being abused, witnessing violence outside the home, witnessing a father being abused, being bullied by a peer or adult, involvement with the foster care system, living in a war zone, living in an unsafe neighborhood and losing a family member to deportation.
“There is so much shame tied in with being abused or witnessing abuse,” said Schumacher, who works as a chaplain at St. Cloud Hospital. “Kids typically blame themselves, and the shame gets reinforced. I meet with a lot of patients who have experienced ACEs and they have such little self-worth. I’ve had patients say that they don’t feel worthy to take up air on the planet.
“I get to tell them that there’s a very real neurological and physiological reason why they are struggling the way they are struggling. When they hear that it’s because of something that happened to them, that it’s not something that is wrong with them, it helps to lift the shame and to open them up to learning coping strategies and greater self-awareness. What we are trying to teach is the importance of resiliency. People want to heal and learn and grow, and we can do that and recover with support.”
Schumacher began her career at the University of Iowa Healthcare Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. As a psychometric evaluator within the neuropsychology department, she performed psychological and neurological evaluations on patients as well as forensic testing and research.
“I loved it, it was a great place to work, it was fascinating work. That’s where I learned about the brain and how the brain works. It was a great job but there was something missing,” she said.
During that time, Schumacher had been discerning religious life and was receiving spiritual direction.
“I started noticing the chaplains at the University of Iowa and was curious about their ministry. I loved the work I was doing with patients but I wanted to go deeper,” she recalled.
Her search led to Collegeville, Minnesota — specifically, to St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary.
“I fell in love with the campus. There was something that drew me so strongly,” she said.
She resigned her position in Iowa. But as she was preparing to make the transition, both of her parents became ill and she felt called to care for them in her home state of Texas.
In Texas, she was participated in a clinical pastoral education program and a two-year residency while assisting her parents, who both recovered from their illnesses. Following her residency, she continued her education at St. John’s, pursuing a master of divinity degree. Around the same time, she began work as a chaplain at St. Cloud Hospital.
“Chaplaincy is like a second career for me. I consider it a call. It is what I was looking for and didn’t know it,” Schumacher said. “It’s such a gift to be able to go into a patient’s room where they open up about some of their deepest hurts and their deepest fears. We can talk about that — oftentimes within the context of their spirituality, in light of Scripture or their beliefs. They share their struggles with God, their anger towards God, and we work on that together. I just feel honored to be a part of that. I walk down the halls sometimes just thinking about how lucky I am to do what I do.”
But Schumacher didn’t always feel so lucky. Her struggle in dealing with her own ACEs led her down a destructive path, fueled with alcohol. She started drinking at age 20.
“It became a coping strategy,” she said. “A way to relieve the pain.”
By the time she was 28, drinking was a regular part of her life, yet she continued her education. She was accepted into a graduate program in counseling in Dallas, Texas.
“I told myself I was going to work at not drinking and, for the first semester, I didn’t. But by the second semester I had started again,” she recalled.
During her second year, she had her first practicum and was sitting in front of her first client, a woman.
“She began to share her experiences of sexual abuse and it was like Pandora’s Box opened for me. In retrospect, I had been emotionally numb throughout my growing up years. Sometimes your mind will suppress emotions, put them into a box, so you can continue to function. That was one way my mind chose to survive. But something about her story impacted me deeply and that box was opened. After that session, my feelings about what happened in my childhood came out full force. I had to withdraw from school and then I hit bottom with my drinking,” she said.
Fortunately, Schumacher had an uncle who lived in Ohio and understood addictions and trauma. She reached out to him for help.
“He knew I was in trouble. I spent some time in Ohio with him. He took me to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and to my first counseling session. That’s when I got sober and that’s when I started getting well,” she said.
During those years — about 10 years — Schumacher had fallen away from the church. While living in Ohio, she found a job.
“My route to work each day took me past a little Catholic church. But I was still so mad at God and working through all of that, still resisting. But I gradually felt a pull. One day I just pulled into the parking lot of the church, then drove away. That became a norm. Then I started parking a little closer. I was being pulled back.”
Eventually, Schumacher ventured inside the little church, which she found unlocked and empty.
“What was drawing me in was the tabernacle. I would just sit in front of it,” she said.
Once she stayed a little longer and a priest came in to prepare for the evening Mass. He acknowledged her, but did not approach.
“I had planned to just duck out but I ended up staying for Mass. I didn’t go to Communion, but I stayed,” she said.
She started to attend Mass more regularly. She noticed another woman who attended frequently as well.
“I remember one evening as I was turning to walk out, she came after me and introduced herself to me in the parking lot. We became friends. She invited me to Bible study with her friends and gradually I started to go to Mass more intentionally. I was still not going to Communion.”
The woman invited Schumacher to a Lenten retreat. Hesitantly, she decided to go.
“I went late and sat in the back pew. What struck me was how much the lay people played a significant role. The priest was there and was supportive but the lay people were leading the beautiful service.”
The theme of the retreat was the “Prodigal Son,” Schumacher recalls. On the final day of the retreat, a group of people prayed with Schumacher.
“It touched me so deeply. The look they had was so welcoming and compassionate. I went back to my seat and started to cry and I knew it was time to come back,” she said.
Not long after that, she met with the priest, who heard her confession and reinstated her in the Catholic Church.
“This was all part of my getting well,” Schumacher said. “Lay people don’t often realize the power they have to help people heal. That’s important for us lay people to bring healing in partnership with clergy.”
And that is her mission now, to use what she learned from the dark times in her own life to bring light to others.
Named as a 2019 Bush Fellowship recipient, Schumacher hopes to meet with and get to know faith leaders and members of area churches throughout the St. Cloud Diocese. She wants to help increase awareness about ACEs, to share ideas about what tends to keep people stuck in their shame and trauma and to discuss ways to help people heal and find greater wholeness and freedom.
“I really feel like this is a call within a call,” she said. “This work is so important in breaking into the generational cycle of childhood trauma. I hope to bring this to light in our Catholic Church, to break the shame, that taboo of silence, to bring healing. Especially in light of all that our Church has experienced. There is a need to bring this information together.”
Psychologist Steve Vincent, who served as director of behavioral health services at St. Cloud Hospital and CentraCare Health until his retirement in 2013, recommended Schumacher for the Bush Fellowship.
“He knew that I was really on fire with this, that I saw the importance of it and that I wanted to be able to devote more time to it, to bringing it out to faith groups. He knew about the Bush Fellowship and he encouraged me to apply,” Schumacher said. “He’s been a great mentor for me. I couldn’t have done it without his help.”
According to Vincent, childhood trauma in the form of abuse and neglect as well as family dysfunction is very common.
“Most people have experienced at least one of the 10 most commonly studied ACEs and the effects of these traumas can be both immediate and lifelong,” he said. “Amie’s work is helping our community to understand both prevalence and the impact of these traumas, and to develop ways to provide both healing and prevention for the individual and the community. Building a healthier and more resilient community is a particularly important part of Amie’s work, especially with respect to engaging faith communities in this work.”
He added that Schumacher’s efforts have the potential for both short- and long-term effects.
“In the short term, the Bush Fellowship will support Amie’s work towards a self-healing and resilient community that has the full engagement of faith communities and, in the longer term, the fellowship will enhance Amie’s ability to be a transformative leader who continues to develop new ways of building a healthier and stronger community,” he said. “Of course, the long-term impact for the community is that all people will live in an environment where Adverse Childhood Experiences are less common, and where support and help and healing are readily available for all.
“There may not be anything more powerful a community can do to improve the health of everyone than to reduce the occurrence of ACEs and to reduce their impact,” Vincent said. “Just as importantly, coming together as a community will strengthen the bonds among us, and give us all a place to live where everyone can flourish. Amie’s dedication to this effort and her capacity to make a difference are recognized by the Bush Foundation, and we will all be winners through the learning and the work she does with her fellowship.”
As part of the two-year fellowship, Schumacher, who received her master of divinity degree from St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary, hopes to pursue doctoral studies and also plans to develop a curriculum for seminarians, chaplains and others working in ministry.
“I want to be able to teach this in seminaries, to create a curriculum that integrates all the issues important with the impact of childhood trauma. I’m looking at creating a chaplaincy track within the master of divinity program to help shape and strengthen chaplains in the area,” she said.
“I want to teach about the central importance of relationships. That is so critical to healing. The more a church could build in opportunities for multigenerational relational contacts through their programs, that by itself can be resilience building. It can be the difference that changes how a child fares when they get older from whatever trauma they went through,” she said.
Kathleen Cahalan, professor of practical theology at St. John’s University School of Theology and Seminary and director of the Collegeville Institute Seminars, also recommended Schumacher for the fellowship. Schumacher was a student of Cahalan and also speaks occasionally in Cahalan’s classes.
“Amie brings a lot of knowledge and compassion that can help people understand the impact of ACEs in their lives: how to live with them, how to live differently, and how to experience God differently through the suffering that they’ve had,” Cahalan said. “She wants people in ministry and local churches to know about the ACE study, to know how to respond appropriately to people who have had traumatic experiences and to bring the resources of our liturgical, sacramental, pastoral tradition to people who are really hurting.”
Schumacher wants people to know that this is a positive message; it’s not just about the trauma, and it directly relates to Catholic values and teachings.
“It’s promising for churches because anyone of any age can contribute. We need the wisdom, care and prayer of the 90-year-old and the kindness, wonder and energy of the young children,” she said. “Everybody can contribute to breaking that generational cycle. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to make a difference. Everyone in their sphere of influence can do things to help people heal and build resilience.”
For speaking engagements, contact Schumacher at email@example.com.
(Photo of Amie Schumacher by Dianne Towalski)