Text: Psalm 102
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization, nearly 1-in-5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million people—experience mental illness in a given year, and 21.4 percent of youth 13-18 will experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their lifetime.
Herman Petty was my grandfather’s first cousin. He was one of the few in the family of his generation that left Shelby for college after high school. Herman attended Wake Forest University and after four years of studying religion and philosophy he graduated among the top in his class. I can remember as an older child overhearing family members talk about Herman. The hushed conversations would go something like this: “Did you hear about Herman? What a shame? He was so smart and had so much potential. He just went crazy and lost his mind.” I’m not sure how long it was in between those initial conversations and whisperings and my family’s twice a year drive to Charlotte to visit Herman. And I can’t tell you how my father found out where he was living but he did. And twice a year, for a number of years, dad and mom would load my sister and me in the car for trips to visit Herman.
Herman lived in a boarding house a couple of blocks from the first Krispy Kreme store in Charlotte located just off Independence Blvd. Sometimes on our visits we would get doughnuts as a special treat. One of our visits would always be near the Christmas holidays and Allyson and I would take Herman a Christmas gift—sometimes socks or handkerchiefs or cologne or chocolates.
My first visit with Herman was quite confusing. From the whispers at family gatherings I was prepared to meet a man who was “crazy” and had “lost his mind”—whatever that conjured up in the mind of a youngster. You can imagine how surprised I was when this normal looking, well-groomed handsome man appeared at the door. Herman, it turned out was as a very gentle and thoughtful person. In his quiet way, he would engage my sister and me in interesting conversation. He didn’t scream or pull at his hair or do all those other things of how the movies depict mentally ill people.
I don’t know what Herman’s diagnosis was. Maybe it was schizophrenia given that his personality change occurred in his late 20’s. Maybe it was depression or anxiety. Maybe it was bi-polar. I don’t know and it really doesn’t matter. What I do know is that Herman had mental illness and as a result, for reasons I don’t know, he was on the outside of his family. I was in high school when we made our last trip to that boarding house in Charlotte. We arrived expecting to have our regular visit with Herman only to find his room empty with no forwarding address and with none of the other borders knowing his whereabouts. Dad tried for some time to try and locate him again but without any success.
Nearly 1-in-5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million people—experience mental illness in a given year, and 21.4 percent of youth 13-18 will experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their lifetime. And what is even more astonishing than these statistics is that the Church, church with a big c, is silent on the topic of mental illness. Rarely do we name the reality of our members living with experiences of mental illness and rarely do we offer support to family members who are caring for family members with mental illness.
Historically, the institutional church has been stoically silent on mental illness. We have not named the reality that there are people sitting in our pews who are dealing day-in-and-day-out with crippling feelings of anxiety and depression. We come to church and talk about God’s justice and love, God’s compassion and mercy. We sing that “in the bulb there is a flower, in a seed an apple tree, in cocoons a hidden promise butterfly’s will soon be free” but rarely do we talk about what it feels like to be so anxious that when you walk into a Sunday group or worship you feel like either every one is staring at you or that every one hates you before they even know you. Rarely, if ever, in our prayers do we pray for those living with bi-polar or border-line personality disorder or schizophrenia or severe social anxiety. Even when we know that 1-in-5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million people—experience mental illness in a given year, we keep silent. Even when the facts tell us that 21.4 percent of youth 13-18 will experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their lifetime, we keep silent. Why? Why the silence from the church?
Sadly, the Christian church doesn’t have an informed and responsible theology that accounts for mental illness and those experiencing mental illness. “Rev. Alba Onofrio, spiritual strategist at LGBTQ justice oriented Soulforce, said that salvation-focused strains of Christianity—like evangelicalism, which emphasizes ‘tests of faith’ on the way to being ‘born again’ into a sinless life—don’t leave much room for ‘a good answer for why good, believing Christians still suffer so much from illness.’” She goes on to say, “Some say it’s a test, being put through the fire; some…remind us that ‘God never gives us more than we can handle.’ Both of these, quite frankly, are crap,” Onofrio said. ‘I don’t believe God gives us mental illness or cancer or any other suffering as a test of our faith or a punishment for the lack thereof. The bottom line, Onofrio said, is that illnesses and disabilities don’t fit in to mainstream theologies. Because of this, Christian ethics and moral imagination often diminish people who live with experiences of mental illness.” (The Silent Stigma of Mental Illness in the Church by Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, Sojourners)
Rev. Onofrio is right. We don’t have an informed or responsible theology that accounts for mental illness. If anything, Christian tradition and the Christian church have shaped a theology that equates mental illness with demons and demonic possession. At its core, thanks to Plato and Descartes, Christian theology has “created a divide between body and soul—a focus on the care of the soul in our churches, with little attention given to how the health of mind, body, and soul are integrated. This has not only created bad religion, but has meant that Christians overlook the prevalence of mental illness in [our] churches.” (Henderson-Espinoza, Sojourners)
So how do we begin to write a new narrative for the church when it comes to addressing the reality of those among us living with experiences of mental illness? How will we be present, what message will those 1-in-5 adults in the U.S. who are experiencing mental illness hear when they walk into our church? Our youth, the ones who will be in that 21.4 percent, what support will they find here at Pullen? What message will they hear?
Chapter one of our new narrative, I believe, begins by breaking the silence and naming our reality: every time we gather in this place for learning, worship, fellowship, and service we sit beside or talk with someone who is living and experiencing mental illness. We begin by naming this truth and we keep naming it: in our prayers, in our conversations, and in our sermons. For those of us who are ready, we name it until we create a culture where others feel safe in naming it.
In chapter two of our new narrative, we begin to write an informed and responsible theology that understands mental illness as a part of the human experience for many of God’s children in which God is with us, not casting us out. We begin to shape a theology that helps us address our discomfort when social norms are challenged. Our new theology will consider how often Jesus reached out and touched and included those who functioned outside the social norms. And we will welcome all people as a part of this beloved community and not simply see them as those who sleep on our property.
Chapter three of our new narrative will seek to understand mental illness as a justice issue. We will stand up to the policymakers writing bills that gut expansive coverage for mental health to the ongoing privatization of insurance companies that block access for mental health care. We will keep addressing social structures like poverty, racism, sexism, and violence that diminish health, just as can biological or genetic factors. We will work to enhance natural support for people living with and experiencing mental illness rather than opting for mental institutions as a first response—natural supports such as this church community, support groups, and neighbors.
If we begin writing and working on this new narrative of the church and mental illness it is hard to know where chapters four and five and six and seven will take us. It’s always hard to predict the Spirit and the movement of the Spirit. But what I imagine is that if we have the courage to write the chapters beyond one, two, and three, they will tell the stories of how our church was transformed by being a community of people that broke the silence on mental illness.
Nothing of what I have said in this sermon is easy. If you are living with mental illness, or if you love someone living with and experiencing mental illness, or if you care about or know someone with mental illness—which I imagine is every person in this sanctuary—then you know that mental illness is a complex and complicated reality. By preaching on this topic, I realize I am walking a thin line. There are so many issues to consider. Breaking the silence on mental illness seems so easy to say and right to do, and yet, I know personally the importance of privacy when dealing with mental illness. I know that there are limits to what any of us can do and to what the church can do. Love and community doesn’t cure all ills and it doesn’t take away the pain. AND, we, the church, must find ways to support people and families who are living with mental illness so that we can more fully and wholly care for one another. We are sitting beside one another in these pews. 1-in-5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million people; 21.4 percent of youth 13-18 years of age are counting on us.
Those living with mental illness who come to us seeking solace and hope, compassion and understanding will not remember the mis-steps we might make in being a church that seeks to address mental illness; but they will remember our silence.