Paul L. Caron

Sunday, January 15, 2023

L.A. Times: Pastor|Professor Bridges Faith|Psychology

Los Angeles Times, Pastor Thema Bryant Bridges Faith and Psychology:

Bryant 3The men’s choir had just brought down the house with the gospel classic “Miracle Worker” when Thema Bryant danced up to the lectern at First AME Church in South L.A.

Rising to the full height of her slim, 5-foot-7 frame, the 49-year-old ordained minister and psychologist smiled wide at the congregation before launching into her sermon — part preacherly rapture, part group therapy.

She was wearing purple, she said, in honor of it being the last Sunday of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. She praised God for the survivors in the house and for those who grew up witnessing domestic violence and were committed to breaking the cycle. Then she made the unusual move of thanking the Almighty for the former offenders in the pews — keyword “former” — who were making a different choice because, as she reminded the congregation, domestic violence is a choice. ...

The room had fallen silent when she began, but by the time she finished, the organ was pounding out invisible exclamation marks and the church rang with applause.

It was a tricky maneuver, this straddling of psychology and religion at a Sunday morning service at a venerable Black church. But Bryant, who lectures nationally and internationally on diversity, multiculturalism and trauma, is equally at home in both worlds.

Since Freud first cast religion as a collective neurosis in the early 1900s, religion and psychology have historically eyed each other with suspicion, if not outright antagonism. Some psychologists argued that religious belief was a way of avoiding reality, while some religious leaders questioned the need for psychology when a person could turn to God.

Bryant’s many admirers within academia, the psychology field and the Black church say that she often serves as a bridge between them. Perhaps this explains why more than 332,000 people follow her inspirational musings on Instagram. ...

This month Bryant became president of the American Psychological Assn., the nation’s largest organization of psychologists, with more than 130,000 members. She is only the fourth Black woman and the second minister to assume the presidency in the organization’s 130-year history. The last time a minister led the group was in 1893.

Her historic election is emblematic of a growing openness among psychologists to engage with faith and spirituality, said Kenneth Pargament, professor emeritus of psychology at Bowling Green State University. “There’s an acknowledgment that there are aspects of being human that are not well captured by psychology — things like meaning and forgiveness, hope and humility,” he said.

Bryant sees people of many faiths — and no faith — in her private practice and says spirituality comes up only when it’s relevant for her clients. She never tries to convert anyone. Still, her official bio identifies her as both psychologist and Christian minister.

“I resist the idea that to be professional means you have to be a blank slate,” she recently told a graduate class at Pepperdine University, where she directs the Culture and Trauma Research Laboratory. “I hope you will bring all of yourself into the space, because what is healing is authenticity.” ...

The initiatives she’s laid out as president of the APA include a mental health summit in Washington called “Psychology for the People” and the creation of culturally informed trauma and grief recovery kits with both written handouts and video clips that will be free to the public. She is also planning to devote a special issue of one of the APA’s academic journals to the ideas of decolonizing and liberation psychology. It’s a framework that is central to her own work, but it is not always taught in psychology schools.

“It’s looking at people in their social, political, and historical context — not just at race, but also gender, economic status, faith and sexuality,” she said. “It’s asking the question how do your various identities affect your mental health, and not just as a barrier or a problem, but as a resource.”

Washington Post, Meet the Psychologist Drawing From the Black Church to Reshape Mental Health Care

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