Tuesday, February 22, 2005

DO NOT HAVE TO STAND ALONE

I gave my first speech on the subject of faith and mental illness at the Spring Conference of the North Carolina Alliance for the Mentally Ill in April 1989. They did a special Friday evening event dedicated to the subject. I spoke along with John Baggett who at the time was Executive Director of NCAMI. During the regular sessions there where presentations on the subject by both of us and others including Dr. Thomas A Summers, then Director of the Academy for Pastoral Education at the South Carolina Department of Mental Health and John F. Steinbruck, Pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, DC.
It was my first real experience getting up in front of a group of folks and speaking about my illness. To say the least it was not easy. Speaking for me has always been easy because I started preaching when I was a young kid. My parents where missionaries to Africa and I was preaching before I was in high school. Speaking was easy, but not about my illness. My illness had always been a subject of shame. My father wrote before his death that I had been an embarrassment to him before the other missionaries.
Speaking at a NAMI conference made it somewhat easier. Everyone there had had their lives touched and changed by a severe mental illness. However, they were mostly family members and I was a consumer. Consumer being the term for someone with the illness. A consumer of mental health services. Because I did not have a great relationship with my parents, I was not sure how a group of family members were going to receive me. They welcomed me with a warm embrace. It was a very special experience that I remember well to this day.
The embrace was warmer than I had been given by the church. Having grown up in the church I knew the mission it was suppose to have. I knew it should have been a community of people more than willing to welcome me, but that was not really the case.
Many people have worked hard before and since to bring the church on board as a welcoming place for those of us who have broken brains. I hope the efforts increase in all faith communities because the one thing I know for sure is that we need a community in which we can feel loved.
Mental illness takes courage to live with. It is not easy for those of us with it or those who love us. It helps to have a place to be. A home full of people who love you. A community to belong to. It takes less courage if you do not have to stand alone.

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