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2012-04-02 issue:

Bruised, beloved and healing the broken

Kathy Wiens extends the healing hand of Jesus to children and adults.

by Laurie Oswald Robinson

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When Kathy Wiens was taken from an abusive and neglectful home at age 10 and placed in an adoptive Mennonite family in Milford, Neb., healing from the trauma did not happen magically. It took the love and affirmation of her new parents, Erma and Floyd Burkey, and her church family at Bellwood Mennonite Church to show Wiens that it was safe to trust again.

As the stable and nurturing home and church life replaced the bars, bruises, abandonment and sexual abuse of her former life, Wiens learned she was a child worthy of safe and consistent care. Most importantly, she discovered she was a valued and beloved child of God.

“My adoptive parents were older and were part of a social group of adults who no longer had small children,” says Wiens of Newton, Kan. “So they had time to give me positive attention. … They talked to me and listened to me and praised me a lot, even for little things.

“And even though I was different from the other kids raised in the rural, middle-class background, I felt accepted and safe in Sunday school and the girls’ group. … Sunday was my favorite day of the week. I was often the last person to leave the church.”

Replacing the hurt with hope

This safe embrace from the body of Christ shaped Wiens’ passion as an adult to transform her childhood hurt into hope for others. Today, Wiens, a member of First Mennonite Church in Newton, extends the healing hands of Jesus to children and to the adults who care for them through her ministry, Welcome the Children.

She offers workshops for parents, pastors, congregations and other groups on childhood development and faith formation and blog posts at welcomingchildren.blogspot.com.

The ministry integrates decades of her own healing journey with her educational and professional background. After she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., she married Tim Wiens. The couple settled in Newton, where Tim began to practice medicine, and they raised two daughters, Terra and Ruth.

Kathy Wiens at age 10.
She was a stay-at-home mother, then worked outside the home in jobs that included providing in-services for parents through Kansas Children’s Service League, directing and teaching at Christian day care centers and preschools, working for the Wichita (Kan.) Public Schools in programs for low-income children and teaching early childhood development at Hutchinson Community College.

She earned her master’s degree in elementary education from Wichita (Kan.) State University and is pursuing her master’s degree in mental health counseling at Emporia (Kan.) State University.

Mediating Christ’s love for lingering effects of abuse
These experiences have ignited one of the driving forces behind her ministry—to educate the  church about the lingering effects of trauma and proclaim that many people sitting in the church pews often suffer from it quietly and secretly.

“Repeated abuse and trauma changes the way the brain develops and creates pathways in your brain that cause psychological pain and suffering in your life,” she says. “Those who have experienced chronic abuse and neglect in childhood undergo a lot of complications later in life. 

“Those complications can include terrifying flashbacks and triggers that cause people to fear they will be hurt again like in the past, even though in the present they are not in the same kind of danger.”

Healing from trauma is often
a long and multilayered journey that must integrate spiritual, emotional and psychological understandings with practical application and faith formation, she says.
“It is important for people to realize what abuse does to a person’s soul,” Wiens says. “As depicted in Psalm 139, God has a plan for each life. Sexual and other kinds of abuse takes that plan and rips it up and throws it on the floor.

“Because I was brought into a loving environment at a young age, I was fortunate enough to learn that God and others would help me pick up those pieces and put them back together again. …  But I am still working at it, because it takes a lifetime.”

Wiens compares the loving arms of wholesome families and church families with layers of insulation that help protect a child against the cold and harm of the world.

“These loving layers are like providing a child with the coat, mittens and hat she needs when going out into a freezing cold day,” she says. “Just like loving parents would never send a child into a blizzard wearing only her underclothes, we in the church need to insulate children with love, acceptance and empathy in order to help them see they are valuable children of God.

“Healthy families and church families provide parents, aunts and uncles, Sunday school teachers, pastors and mentors who provide this insulation. …  Bellwood gave me some of this insulation and counteracted what happened to me earlier. … Churches hold a lot of power to insulate.”

Keeping safe places safe
Though congregations are prime places where Christ’s transforming power operates, many people are shielded from the harsh realities of abuse, she says. Sometimes, communities and families are functioning and feel no need to educate themselves about the plight of others. Or they are in denial or secrecy about the abuse.

Wiens has joined ranks with others in the Mennonite church and beyond to tell the truth in love—that abuse happens and that it also happens in the church. They are providing a variety of resources and tools to help families and congregations nurture children in Christlike ways.

For example, five years ago, Marlene Bogard, minister of Christian formation and library director for Western District Conference (WDC). began to provide Safe Sanctuaries training for congregations. Wiens helps implement this program, which strives to prevent child abuse, at her congregation, First Mennonite.

“The guidelines and protocols of the Safe Sanctuaries [program] help us minimize situations where a child is left alone with an adult, to make sure all the classroom doors have windows and that monitors check in on the classes periodically on Sunday mornings,” Wiens says.

Striking the balance between providing safety for children and trust of those who care for them can be tricky, because as trusting, caring adults in a faith community it is difficult to believe the alarming statistics regarding child abuse pertain to Christian communities, Wiens says.

The Safe Sanctuaries training is also important because those working with children need to see how churches can be a target for sexual predators.

“This can happen because congregations value nurturing and loving relationships,” she says. “And this nurturing atmosphere can help perpetrators in grooming victims through kindness and care.”

A year ago, the Catholic Diocese of Omaha, Neb., provided a training, attended by Wiens, on its curriculum for children, Circle of Grace. It empowers children to recognize and own their God-given dignity and their right to set boundaries against unwanted behaviors.

“Circle of Grace teaches that God created us, and the circle of God’s presence is all around us,” Wiens says. “That circle protects us and gives us dignity.  And each of us may decide who we let into that circle.”

Wiens also recommends that congregations study Let the Children Come (Herald Press) by Jeanette Harder, associate professor at the University of Nebraska in Omaha School of Social Work. She is a founder of Dove’s Nest, a churchwide ministry tackling abuse and its prevention.

The book helps Christians learn about their role in ending child abuse and neglect, and each chapter contains real-life stories, discussion questions and action items. The appendix includes prayers, readings and exercises for use in adult education.

“All these varied resources teach us that childhood has value in and of itself, rather than simply being a holding tank before adulthood,” Wiens says. “They help us shed secular attitudes about children, which often promote the idea that children are possessions to be manipulated rather than persons to be nurtured.

“Many of our discipline techniques are formed by this unchallenged premise. We must learn to use discipline from the biblical view that a challenging and troubled child is a lost sheep that Jesus goes to find; not so he can punish but so that he can heal and hold, guide and teach.”

Replacing harming hands with healing touch 
Wiens prays that adults across the church help children be touched and changed by the hands of Jesus rather than harmed and wounded by the hands of abandonment and abuse. She is working on a manuscript of her childhood memoirs, Dumps, Bars and Other Childhood Hangouts.

When it is published, she hopes it will inspire adults to realize that all children—and especially foster children—are some of the most powerless ones in our society. They are the ones Jesus longs to empower through the loving ministry and witness of the church.

“Through this ministry and my writings I hope to help the body of Christ fully embrace the story of Jesus in the Gospels, to let the children come,” she says.

“All children are God’s children first. And that calls us to unravel from our busyness to spend time with them and develop relationships of trust. We are called to love and treasure who God loves and treasures, because what we value we do not abuse.”

Laurie Oswald Robinson is a freelance writer in Newton, Kan., and the author of
Forever Family. Photos also by Oswald Robinson.

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