Can I Have a Witness?

  • Dr. Tina BarnesThe young mountain preacher stands in front of his small rural church loudly proclaiming God’s promises. He quotes scriptures teaching of God’s faithfulness, grace, and love. He pauses every so often to shout, “Can I have a witness?”.  He waits for someone to respond with a resounding, “Amen!”

    The seasoned cops respond to the scene of a crime. As they gather evidence, they quickly ask, “Are there any witnesses?  Did anyone see what happened?”  They are especially interested in an eyewitness account.  They proceed to take the witness statements as an integral part of their investigation.

    The teenager comes home after curfew and frantically tries to convince her angry parents about the bizarre events of the evening that made her late.  She pleads with her parents, “Call and ask Mary. She saw it. She’ll tell you. She’ll be my witness!”

    College students walking across campus back to their dorm, after a home football game, see something off to their left. They turn to see another college student whizzing by on a foot scooter wearing only a blue speedo with an American Flag Cape trailing in the wind behind him. They stop wide-eyed and immediately exclaim, “Did you see that? Was that for real?”

    There is power in a having a witness to life’s events.  A witness offers confirmation that what was seen and experienced is real.  A witness lends credibility that our perceptions are correct and our conclusions are valid.  A witness stands beside us.  A witness has our back.  A witness is invaluable.  They have shared an experience with us and they can discuss the event on a deeply personal level because they, too, were there. 

    It’s fun to have a Witness to share the joys and laughs of good times. It’s easy to show up alongside another traveler on this journey of life in good times. Their joy is contagious, infectious, and creates fond memories. We just have to join in the celebration.

    However, it’s in the hard times that a witness becomes invaluable. Warriors refer to such hard times as ‘Foxhole Experiences’ where they hunkered down in life or death situations with fellow warriors.  Foxhole Experiences are remembered and shared for the rest of their lives.  A Foxhole Experience amplifies the sacredness of human relationships forged in life or death situations or during intense emotional pain.  A beautiful African woman recently painted a word picture for me as she described her foxhole experiences in a foreign land. She was ministering to the locals and routinely they all had to stop their work and run for shelter from enemy bombs. When asked if she would return to this hostile environment she replied, “I would love to go back.  I feel so close to the locals there.  They are my brothers and my sisters.  Yes, we had to run for our lives, but we were running together.”

    “We were running together” is a powerful description of a Foxhole Experience.  It suggests ‘we are in this together’.  There is an unspoken agreement on a deeply visceral level we have shared a journey and we have a unique understanding of the raw emotions, intense pain, and unconditional love that was experienced. 

    Sometimes a Foxhole Experience is not shared firsthand but through a gut level recounting of the experience to someone who comes alongside and serves as a Witness to the pain.  A Witness takes a different, more active role of listening to the details of the experience than that of a ‘compassionate presence’.  A Witness listens to the potentially labored, painful, gut-felt, emotional, and intensely personal details.  A Witness, properly trained in crisis response, and equipped with their own foxhole life experiences, knows the significance of  ‘holding someone’s pain’ as the crisis experience is recounted in a safe, loving, and supportive environment.  A Witness listens intently as the individual potentially expresses self-doubt, questions their faith, or talks of the deep pain of loss. The Witness does not chastise or offer platitudes to ease the pain.  Instead, they listen to the pain that others will not listen to.  A Witness carves out time to figuratively ‘hunker down in the foxhole’ and share the experience. 

    A Witness brings with them a spiritual maturity grounded in the reality that God does show up in times of crisis and that God extends grace if His motives or His heart is questioned in crisis.  A Witness rests on the tried and true promises that “To everything there is a season” (Ec. 3:1, KJV) and “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28, KJV).   But a Witness also knows now is the time to “Weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15, KJV) and not preach healing before the wound has even been cleaned. The individual in crisis must first survive the crisis, only then can they learn from it. 

    As Crisis Responders we know from experience that individuals differ widely in how they respond to loss or trauma in their lives. Some people move on with a pragmatic attitude of “it is what it is”.  After my grandfather died, my grandmother never shed a tear.  Whenever she was questioned about it, she very simply stated, “Crying won’t bring him back” and she went on about her business.  Others prefer to grieve in private or cry in the comfort of a ‘compassionate presence’.  A good friend who had a young son killed in a tragic accident needed me to quietly sit by her side and hold her hand while she cried.  It was years later when the same friend had a second son die from leukemia that my role as a Witness to her first son’s death was invaluable. 

    Sometimes, the individual in crisis needs a Witness. They want and need to share the Foxhole Experience in detail, to express the intense pain, and to know they are not alone as they walk this difficult journey.  They need a Crisis Responder who offers quiet reassurance and confidence that they will make it through.  A Crisis Responder who is the very manifestation of God’s love, grace, and the resilience that grows out of that faith.  As Crisis Responders, it is our job to listen closely with our hearts to those we support. Do we hear them asking, “Can I have a witness?”


    Dr. Tina S. Brookes is the CEO of KardiaKeepers, a nonprofit initiative designed to protect, strengthen, and heal the mind, body, and spirit of individuals, groups, and communities by promoting resilience and wholeness through scientific research, education, and direct intervention.  Dr. Brookes is also the co-founder and Chief Training Officer of The Academy-National Institute for Crisis Response Training where she has trained thousands of individuals nationally and internationally.  Dr. Brookes can be reached at