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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

When the Canary Stops Singing

Have you heard of Dr. Jaiya John? I hadn’t until I heard him speak yesterday at the ATTAch Conference. According to his website, he is an “internationally recognized author, speaker, poet, spoken word artist, and youth mentor,” but he had never crossed my radar. As I listened, I thought of a Venn diagram—there were so many ways we were different, but in the center, in the overlap, there were many things that resonated deeply.

We were both born in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jaiya was separated from his birth mother as soon as he was born and placed into foster care. He was a child of African-American descent who was raised in a white family. This is so far from my story, but we both suffered from attachment issues, and we both want to make a difference for the children and youth (and adults) who are suffering from trauma and attachment issues.

The great grandfather in the family in which Jaiya was raised, was a coal miner. He taught small Jaiya about the canaries that he carried deep into the mines. I would do the descriptions of what Jaiya learned a disservice by my retelling, but suffice it to say, the canaries were treasured, cared for, and respected. They were taken to into the mine to act as a warning if there was danger. When the canary stopped singing, everyone paid attention.

The conclusion to this story (from one of the best storytellers I have ever heard) was that our children have stopped singing. There is nothing wrong with them. There is something wrong with the society in which they are trying to survive. We are blaming the behavior of children on the children. We are blaming the death of the canary on the canary. We are not listening to the warning. We are trying to change them instead of changing the societal conditions that caused them to stop singing.

I was the child who stopped singing. One Sunday morning when I was about eight, I refused to sing the song, Jesus Loves Me.

“Why aren’t you singing Jeannie?”

“We sing that song too much. I don’t want to sing it.”

“Jeannie, you need to be singing. Do I need to talk to your parents about this?”

No, that was not going to go well for me if she talked to my mother, so I learned to sing from my head, but never from my heart.

There was clearly something wrong with a child who refused to sing Jesus Loves Me, but instead of seeing my behavior as an indicator that something was not right in my world, the teacher saw it as something wrong with me—something that needed correcting.

There are lots of us who grew up in the church and learned to sing without meaning. I remember many Sundays when I didn’t feel like singing, but I sang anyway because it was expected and if I didn’t sing, then it would be clear that I had a spiritual problem. My problems were not spiritual; they were psychological and the result of trauma.

There is a lot of talk about why people don’t sing in church anymore. Maybe people finally figured out that they could make choices. Some Sundays I sing. Some Sundays I listen. Some songs I like. Some I don’t. There are hymns I like and those I don’t. There are contemporary songs I like and those I don’t like. It is OK people! We are making this about the music and not the canaries.

The truth is that I was the canary in my church world. As long as I was singing, everyone felt comfortable with me. Then I stopped singing as I was expected to do and started warning the church about the damage being done by our perceptions of mental health. I said I was broken, but in truth, the world in which I lived and live is broken. The church is broken, but we are blaming it on the canaries—those among us who are the most sensitive and vulnerable.

I understand my story is awkward. I was living as such a perfect canary. I went down into the mine and sang every single day just like I was supposed to do. The truth is that after that day in Sunday school, I never sang with meaning because I was forced to sing despite the pain of my trauma.

I was a canary who was born to sing. When I stopped singing that day, my church world needed to listen to me. When I stopped singing three years ago, I hid so no one would notice. I was preparing myself to sing a new song—a song of healing. This new song was not one I could learn in the church because I was always told there was something wrong with me—not that something wrong happened to me. I absorbed the sins against me as if they were my own sin and the stigma of seeking help for my mental anguish kept me singing a fake song every day as I was carried to the mine in my cage.

Why is the church in decline? Why are people leaving the church in droves? It isn’t just the millennial generation, though we would like to blame it on them. The Baby Boomers lost their song. We lost our song. There are many reasons this happened, but I believe our legacy will be the all the ways we tried to hide the hurt inside of us. No one was allowed to heal pain and the result has been the devouring of one another and then blaming the canaries when they died.

Church, do not silence the canaries. You are dying because you are not listening to the silence of the canaries who have lost their song. Facing my own painful life experiences was the hardest and bravest journey I have ever taken, but I wanted to show the next generation it is possible to heal. It is possible to sing a new song. This canary did not die.

Generations are leaving the church because they have witnessed the havoc created by the unresolved pain of their elders. They do not see what we do to each other in the church (and possibly the home) as any different than those without faith. Hurtful behaviors are the outpouring of unresolved pain. We have to show them a different way. This can only happen when we are honest about our pain. What happened to us matters whether we consider it trauma or not.

Church, you can judge the canaries when they die, but it will surely not end well for you. The canaries have been placed in your midst to give you the message you need to hear. When the children stop singing, we need to find out why. If the canary dies, it would be wise not to blame the canary and carry on with business as usual.

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