Every Thursday night, I make my way to a church library and take my place in a circle of rickety upholstered chairs.
The small group which I join ranges between five and fifteen people. We spend our Thursday evenings testifying to all the ways hope overcomes despair and to our conviction that isolation is defeated by the transformative power of community. When one member of our group experiences crisis, other members step forward with offers of childcare, late-night phone calls, and hospital visits. Sometimes, members describe the prejudice they have experienced and we organize our group to change this unjust system by joining lobbyists at the state capitol.
Every week, I leave this group refreshed. When I take my place in this circle, I am filled with hope, I am convinced that I am loved, and I am assured that I am not alone.
My group is good church, only it’s not a church at all. It’s a support group meeting of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI.) To me, it’s a foretaste of glory divine, a glimpse of the promised kingdom of God which belongs to such as these, the poor in spirit. On the faces of those gathered, among what many would call the least of these, I see the face of Christ.
And with a broken heart I wonder — why can’t church be like this?
This past year, the depression I had suffered 20 years ago returned with a vengeance. I made plans to end my life. Friends begged me to seek help. And I did — eventually. But one of the primary reasons I delayed getting help was because I am a pastor. I agonized over the contradiction of my life. As a pastor, I was expected to have all the answers. As a person with untreated depression, I felt like I had nothing but questions. And I worried that acknowledging I have a mental illness would irreparably damage my relationship with the church.
This was not the case. I am still an active United Methodist clergyperson. And although I had to try two therapists, three hospitals, and countless combinations of medications, I did get the help I needed and I am forever grateful that God’s healing power sometimes works through pharmaceuticals. I found a support group, I got help at the community center through its classes on mindfulness, and I drew on the loving support of compassionate friends and colleagues. But when I thought about turning to the local church as a resource, I believed my mental health challenges would be met with either apathy or condemnation, either of which would damage the recovery I had fought so hard to bring into my life.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Jesus offers healing to all sorts of people, especially those whose illnesses were embarrassing, inconvenient, or the supposed consequence of something their parents had done. As followers of Jesus, we are immersed in a beautiful tradition, an ocean of grace in which the power of the Holy overcomes all that torments us. And when we’re at our best, Christians can open the floodgates so that this power can come streaming in.
When I was sick, I was often asked if I was experiencing a crisis of faith, if I believed God was silent in the face of my suffering. For me, God was never silent; my depression had taken away my ability to hear. So I turned to Scripture. I read the story of the Gerasene demoniac, whom Jesus visited even when the community chained him up in a cemetery, keeping him out of sight and out of mind. I turned to prayer, praying the words of a father whose child’s behavior was strange and frightening. And I turned to community, to the people who took one look at depression’s muffling blanket and shouted the good news all the louder: love is strong as death.
I’m not ashamed of my illness. But I am still grappling with what it means to work within a church culture that exacerbates the very illnesses we are called to help heal. And so, I confess. I confess my complicity in a church where keeping up appearances is more important than saving a life. I confess my choice to remain silent from the pulpit, rather than to help end the stigma by naming the messiness of human suffering. I repent of these sins, and I turn from death into the new life that has been promised, a life in which the truth sets us all free.
It might not be the pastor, but I guarantee you that right now, there is someone in your church living with a mental illness. Even in the midst of stigma, I pray that you will answer God’s never-ending call to embody the good news — there is hope. We are all infinitely loved by God, and we are never, ever alone.
If you feel depressed, despairing, are going through a hard time, or just need to talk, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you are in immediate danger, please call 911.