In an effort to highlight the many Anabaptists engaged in important work and ministry across the country and around the world, we’re starting a new series. Each Thursday, we’ll publish a seven question interview with a different Anabaptist talking about their life, work, spiritual disciplines and influences. You can view past interviews here.
Name: Aimee Voth Siebert
Hometown: Denver, Colorado
Home congregation: First Mennonite Church of Denver
Job title: Disaster Behavioral Health Specialist and Community Inclusion Coordinator for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
Hannah Heinzekehr: Tell me about your church experience growing up. What were the two or three big “takeaways” that you learned about Mennonite faith?
I was dedicated in a Mennonite church in Arizona where I was born, but my family moved to Texas soon after. There was no Mennonite church where we were living, so later it was a really striking thing to move from Texas to Kansas, where there was a Mennonite church and I did attend regularly.
I remember feeling like I fit in in that worship setting so much more than I had as a kid in the churches I attended in Texas. That was a really wonderful feeling.
Music in the church, the spirit of service and the peace orientation held a strong pull for me. They made me feel like I fit in because those were values my family helped me grow into as a kid. In our youth group, there was a strong emphasis on service, but also towards understanding beliefs and denominations and religions different than ours. We had a period of time while I was in middle school where we would go to visit other churches in the city, including synagogues and mosques, too. I always appreciated the mindset that God represents Godself to people in many different ways. So I might, in my experience, feel most comfortable with the Mennonite tradition, but that’s not to say that God can’t reach me through the beliefs and practices of other people as well.
To have had that feeling of connection and belonging was a great feeling until I got to a point, just entering high school, when our congregation started to have the conversation about LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer] inclusion. Our congregation tried to have conversations for a little while, but ultimately went the route of putting a moratorium on the discussion. And I had a lot of friends and family who identified as LGBTQ, so it was really wrenching to realize that in this space where I had always felt welcomed and encouraged and like I belonged, that there were people who were dear and beloved to me who would not be welcome.
My lesson was that conversations can be hard and you may never reach perfect agreement in your congregations, but you can have unity without uniformity. Ultimately, the decision not to have conversations was more hurtful than it would have been to continue conversations without agreement.
I didn’t quite realize the wounds that I was carrying around in my faith experience until I came to First Mennonite of Denver where the congregation was welcoming and open and affirming. They embraced God’s gifts moving through people who were LGBTQ. During the licensing of Theda [Good], I was crying. Not just tears of joy from that day, but healing from years of feeling my welcome of LGBTQ loved ones silenced in my faith spaces.
Churches are spaces where we are all imperfect, but we are all encouraged by God’s love to seek a better world. Continuing in community and conversation is part and parcel of that.
HH: How did your college experience [at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas] prepare you for the work you’re doing now?
I can’t remember exactly who told me this, but someone said that all of the easy problems in the world are close to being solved. So in a world where all the easy questions have been answered, the skills that the “outside world” considers “soft” skills become that much more important and powerful.
“Seldom affirm. Never deny. Always distinguish,” was the motto for Bethel’s convocation series. I regularly return to that because we need problem solvers and critical thinkers who can think outside the silos of single fields.
No disaster happens in a vacuum. Mitigating a disaster’s impact requires understanding the diverse contexts in which a disaster is happening, including social, political, cultural, economic factors. That’s why liberal arts education is so potent. Bethel gave me foundational knowledge in my majors, but also taught me how to research, write well, and speak well, and to engage concepts outside my field in a constructive way. Specialists in some fields are still important, but you need lifelong learners who can help connect communities to ideas outside their specific fields.
HH: What does a “normal” day in your current job look like (if there is such a thing!)?
We always talk about the preparedness-response-recovery cycle that keeps circling and circling. While something’s happening, you drop everything and respond to whatever’s happening.
I started working for the state of Colorado in June 2012. My first day of work was when the High Park Fire near Fort Collins, Colorado, blew up. They called the state in to help support the response. Then towards the end of June, the Waldo Canyon Fire [near Colorado Springs] went off. These were two giant fires that destroyed 500+ homes in Colorado. The Aurora theater shooting also happened that summer. I spent more time at the state emergency operations center than I did at my own desk.
I learned to orient to what is going on right now, and then take lessons from events to improve the system for the next time. On a day-to-day basis, our behavioral health team tries to build local capacity so that when a disaster happens there are disaster teams in community mental health centers that can be deployed to community meetings or shelters or anywhere there is a group of people impacted. They can lend their support in a number of ways.
Preparedness work is really about anticipating the challenges that will come up for people. Our office as a whole is responsible for coordinating all the pieces of a disaster’s impact on community health. We try to make sure all health partners are working from the same page, and I really appreciate that my work uses a holistic vision of health, including social, emotional and psychological health.
HH: Although you’re not working with a faith-based organization right now, how does your own faith undergird or impact your work?
As a Christian, I’m following the leadership of someone [Jesus] who very intentionally looked to the margins and said, God’s love is not exclusive; everyone should be welcome here and everyone is loved and deserves the title of neighbor. The Good Samaritan is one of my touchstone stories from the Bible. I always ask, Who am I most enacting here? Am I being the Samaritan? Am I the person needing to recognize grace in the other? Am I being the cleric or the doctor who pass by?
The opportunity to work as a community inclusion coordinator lets me look at systems around disasters and ask, Are these working for the benefit of the whole community, and if not, who do we need to bring to the table?
It’s another kind of work to examine the causes of man-made disasters like mass shootings and other community violence. In those situations, it can be tempting to start writing groups of people off as evil or beyond hope and help.
But I recently attended the STAR [Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience] program, and a principle of that program is that, “Pain that is not transformed is transferred.” Pain is energy that can keep cycling; it can loop back into ourselves (through depression, anxiety, self-harm, wanting to self-medicate) or loop outwards in the ways we act with other people. And if I can dehumanize you to the point of saying, You’re evil, it makes it that much easier for me to perpetrate violence towards you.
I’ve come to a place in my faith where I believe that “evil” is too convenient as a reason to stop listening when there’s usually a story of deep pain underneath that needs to be heard. Looking for the narrative of pain helps us realize we each can get locked into the “us-them” story: I’m the victim and you’re the perpetrator. It reminds me that we need to make space to hear stories that are not usually heard, especially those that are far removed from our experience.
If I can remember in my work that this event probably has untold stories of pain, I am protected as a peacemaker from the temptation to write anyone off and create systems that devalue their experience. Believe it or not, it’s much easier to stay resilient in the face of violence that continues to happen in our world if you see it as hurt and fearful people lashing out rather than evil that there’s no way to help.
HH: I would imagine you’ve encountered some intense and surprising situations in your line of work. What is the one story that sticks with you and that you find yourself telling over and over?
When people are evacuated during a disaster, the Red Cross sets up shelters where people can come to have a place to sleep. At the height of the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs, 25,000 people were evacuated, but only 1000 of them ever stayed at a shelter. That speaks volumes about the social fabric of community; people didn’t have to go to shelters because their connections in the community were willing to take them in.
We set up systems that are meant to be a safety net and a catch-all just in case, and those are critical to maintain for people who are not as well connected. But resilience really resides in the social fabric of communities that live together. I think that’s why in Colorado we emphasize bringing disaster training to community partners, rather than assuming outside response groups would step in to help. Some disaster resilience skills are already a natural part of relationships people have with each other and we want to help communities tap into that in times of crisis.
HH: Are there ways that you would invite people to get informed or involved with support for communities in crisis around the world? Is there a call to action you would offer to readers?
Two things: I will always be a proponent of individual preparedness. It promotes community resilience by leaving more emergency resources for others who need it. And we are the experts of our own lives. There are plenty of “standard emergency kits,” but given what you know about your life, what would you need to add to that? This is important to ask so that those things that make you stronger and allow you to live your life are there when the unexpected disrupts our world.
Second, when a disaster is happening, empathy and compassion flow in from all over the place. Everyone is paying attention: they are ready to help, ready to donate, etc.
But when the media crews go away and the hazard is gone, a lot of attention goes away. The recovery process for a community is so much longer than any physical disaster lasts. I love that people are paying attention and praying and sending good things to the community during the event itself, but it’s in the time after the disaster, when all of the emergency support has withdrawn, that communities really need support.
Try to remember the disasters that happened six months or a year ago and check in with those communities. It’s likely that with the attention gone they are just starting to realize what they have lost and don’t have. Giving your attention at that point is a really powerful thing to offer.
HH: If you had to pick three texts (books, poems, essays, songs, etc.) that have been the most formative for you, what would they be?
This is such a hard question! I love so many texts.
- Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl: I read this in my Basic Issues of Faith and Life class at Bethel. The first half of the book is about his experience during World War II in concentration camps and how he had to do such profound meaning-making for himself to survive that experience. In the second half of the book, Frankl explains “logotherapy,” an approach to psychotherapy based on meaning-making, which he developed based on what he experienced. It’s one thing to make sure that classic basic needs (food, water, shelter, safety) are met, but we need to add meaning-making to that list. Frankl offers a story and practice based on the remarkable human capacity to make meaning for ourselves—even in the midst of every outward sign that the world is a mean place—that will allow us to survive and find peace.
- i thank you god for most this amazing, e.e. cummings: That poem is beloved to me for all the different ways I experience it. I love e.e. cummings. He is a word painter! His words, when you read them letter for letter, can be nonsensical. But when you run them all together whole landscapes just burst in front of your eyes! I’ve also sung this poem as a choral anthem. It’s one of Eric Whitaker’s three songs for peace. We sang it in Concert Choir at Bethel, so it’s directly associated with so many fond memories from choir. Michael and I also had the poem read and the song sung by Bethel friends at our wedding, so it’s equally meaningful as a beautiful text and for the community that grew up around it.
- Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, by Robert C. O’Brien: My dad and I read books together all the time when I was growing up. The first chapter book I remember reading with him was Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. It was one of the first books where I was starting to read myself, not just listen, and I realized I was going to love reading the rest of my life.
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