Culture and faith empowered to address community violence
Lisa Saunders is the executive director of FaithBridge, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women — particularly Black women and women of color — emerge from trauma to reconnect in a life-transforming and faith-affirming way. PHOTO BY MOTOYA NAKAMURA/MULTNOMAH COUNTY COMMUNICATIONS
Lisa Saunders is candid that her life hasn’t been easy. There have been many hills and valleys.
At 26 years old, she found herself the single mother of two sons, a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old. After 9 years, she had left a toxic and emotionally abusive relationship that left her feeling broken. Leaving was difficult. And so were the years she would spend regaining her footing and learning who she was inside.
Yet through her struggle, Saunders says, she found strength, transformation and reconnection to her faith. It’s a story she shares with other women throughout her community.
“I’ve sat and told my own story,” said Saunders. “There are so many women out here who don’t get to connect. I was going to work and doing these things, but I was completely shattered inside.”
“Just because you work and do these things, that doesn’t mean you’re fine. The face looks good, the outfit is great, but inside I’m bleeding. Inside, I might be suicidal. Inside, I have no self-esteem or I’m hearing tapes of things that were told to me about who I am.”
Today, Saunders is a wife, mother and “doting Grammy” who’s passionate about her faith. Her two sons have flourishing careers and families of their own. She’s a certified adult mental health peer support specialist. And she’s the executive director of FaithBridge, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women — particularly Black women and women of color — emerge from trauma to reconnect in a life-transforming and faith-affirming way.
Photo by Motoya Nakamura/Multnomah County Communications Lisa Saunders holds photo of two young sons. Today, they have flourishing careers and families of their own.
The women she connects with may be emerging from abandonment, incarceration, substance use disorders or abusive relationships. Some are struggling just with being an empty nester. Saunders expressly serves women of color and Black women who, studies and surveys show, often turn to their faith during trying times and turmoil.
In the wake of crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and the surge in community violence that have disproportionately affected people of color, Multnomah County is funding services at FaithBridge as part of a series of unprecedented investments — guided by input from over 1,000 people and organizations — in public and behavioral health programs that support resilience and healing.
According to a Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation Poll(link is external), 87 percent of Black women, more than any other group, identified faith in helping them get through tough times. Saunders also cites a Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study(link is external) in which 84 percent of Black women surveyed said religion is important.
“And I’m convinced of it because I know the power of it in my own life, in my children’s life,” she said.
Born and raised in North and Northeast Portland, Saunders was the youngest of three children.
“I was the baby. And both my parents had their own trauma.”
That trauma was passed down through generations. Saunders’ mother experienced abuse, abandonment and deep emotional pain as a child, and as a young woman growing up in the South.
Later, as a mother herself, she was hypervigilant and protective “because she didn’t have someone like that in her life as a child,” Saunders said.
Lisa’s father experienced grief and was an alcoholic much of her childhood and young adult life. Her brother struggled with a substance use disorder. He died on his 40th birthday in the Oregon State Penitentiary. Throughout their turmoil, the family’s connection to faith remained. Her mother and father were both gospel singers.
“I had family members who were broken. But when they passed away, they passed away very strong. We really don’t get the chance to heal,” she said. “There’s generations of pain that’s in our RNA and DNA.”
Saunders’ breakup with her boyfriend triggered layers of pain and put distance between her and the things she needed to heal. “I was drunk in the club, in the 90s in Spandex, listening to En Vogue, doing my own thing. So I wasn’t really attending church.”
But eventually, she reconnected to church and started doing in womens’ ministry. She started a Facebook page. Things started changing. “I ended up sharing my story with other women,” she said. “And they just came.”
Small gatherings grew larger. Soon, Saunders began hosting gatherings in coffee shops. She called the events “Crystal Gatherings.”
“I remember I was at home and I had this beautiful crystal vase sitting by the window, and the sun was shining through it. I was thinking about all the cuts and grooves in the pieces of glass. And it was like I heard God say, ‘That’s what makes you beautiful.’”
A common thread among participants was trauma, but also a hunger for healing — particularly healing in a way that’s culturally relevant, Saunders said.
“There’s physical hunger, but then there’s spiritual hunger,” she said.
Saunders began writing a white paper. She cited work from the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior about African American women in extreme poverty who were also food insecure. Providing food alone wasn’t enough to help those women heal from the rest of the trauma in their lives, Saunders said.
“For African American women, there was so much stress and trauma in their lives that even when presented with food, they couldn’t eat,” Saunders said. “Do we just do a food pantry? Or do we do a food pantry and healing, that’s culturally relevant?”
“That reinforced a lot of what I know. We have trauma-informed care. We recognize people are in trauma. We also recognize there are triggers to trauma in our systems and physical spaces.
But beyond that, I don’t want to be stuck in trauma.
I don’t want to be defined by my trauma. There needs to be a next step.”
As more women joined Saunders’ Crystal Gatherings, the events grew to include in-depth workshops that covered subjects from “Finding Your Voice” to “Wounds, Bruises and Scars.”
In January 2019, Saunders took a bold step in the next part of her journey helping women heal. She left her full-time job after 20 years and started a new organization that would build on the promise of her Crystal Gatherings: FaithBridge.
“I was sitting in Starbucks, thinking about what I should do,” she said. “And then it just came to me. ‘You should be a bridge to healing.’ So I built FaithBridge. It’s really what I’ve been doing for years, but more codified.”
Saunders' work reaches career women who seem like they have it all together. FaithBridge also reaches women leaving incarceration, who may also struggle with addiction.
“These are the women who more so need the support,” Saunders said.
The work can unfold at retreats, away from everyday environments, or at transitional homes for justice-involved women.
“It’s creating spaces for women to heal. It sets an atmosphere where you can be somewhere that is safe.”
The program doesn’t force someone into a mold, but rather meets women where they are. Anyone can take part, no matter their faith, or even if they don’t practice a faith. Comparable to practices and traditions such as Inipi (Lakota sweat lodge ceremonies) or yoga, the work is meant to reach people who desire a connection to healing and spirituality.
“The program is about a connection to healing and faith, and what Black women have identified as their needs,” she stressed.
FaithBridge is also centered on authenticity and lived experience.
“I’m very transparent about my own story. When we start I say, ‘Tell me your story, instead of how you are,’” Saunders said.
Most women, when they’re in a traumatic place, don’t want to talk about themselves, Saunders says. “I ask them, ‘What did you want to be when you grow up?’ Do you know how many women can’t address that because they’re emotionally stunted? Time stops at places of trauma.
“What we have to do is find where the door got opened and work to shut the door. We move through the why — why are they doing what they’re doing, not where they’ve been.”
Saunders’ work is changing lives.
“I’ve met women from the very first week who still call me,” she says.
She mentions one client in particular who has post-traumatic stress disorder and other behavioral health challenges, leading her to relapse from time to time. “But she keeps going,” Saunders says.
“I continue to give her hope, so she still calls. I start over with her. We go through the work and she’s back on her feet again and back connecting with her faith. She may fall down again and then we’ll go deeper. But the answer for her is healing.”
Someone’s community may hold and reflect back a certain narrative about their life, Saunders says. “And everybody knows your story. So how do you take your story back?”
“For many African American women, faith is what we relied on for our existence. Through slavery and the trauma, what we turned to was faith. It was a faith we had prior to coming to these shores. Long-term healing is what is needed.”
(Editor’s note: Thank you to Jessica Morkert-Shibley of Multnomah County Communications and her team for contributing this story.)