This past week, Jamie Arpin-Ricci a fellow urban missionary, pastor, church planter and writer, tweeted these words, “Everyone suffers from poor mental health at times. We’re not so different from those with mental illness. End the stigma once & for all.” Working with people who suffer from mental illness has helped me see the same reality that Jamie points to, “we all suffer from poor mental health at times.”
My family is no stranger to mental illness and I tweeted back to Jamie these words, “If we could do what you suggest, substance abuse would decline and our streets would be safer. I might also still have my dad.” I have only blogged specifically on the issue of mental illness once and have only written of my father’s suicide in my book. Jamie’s post challenged me to overcome my fear of judgment in the hope that we can reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. Last Memorial Day I posted this post on the subject of the church’s response to mental illness. While many of you have read this story, I thought it was worth reposting.
I grew up un-churched in the heart of the Bible belt. I become a Christian in my late twenties after a series of miscarriages launched me on a spiritual journey. Even though I have been a part of the local church for more than 15 years, I still approach the church with the eyes of an outsider and a heart for those who, for whatever reason, have not found a home within the walls of the church. I am particularly drawn to those who feel unwelcome and judged by the church.
I think this sensitivity toward the outcast is the result of a traumatic event that occurred in 1977 when I was only ten years old. Douglas Miiller was my favorite uncle, we called him “funny Doug”. He always had a way of making me laugh. I will never forget getting my first bicycle. I could not figure out how to ride it so my uncle Doug decided to show me. He looked so funny on that tiny bike with his knees up around his shoulders. He went riding down our drive way, lost control and crashed my brand new bike into a tree…that was not so funny. Thankfully Uncle Doug was fine but the impact bent the front tire of my bike. My uncle, whom I know was not a wealthy man, immediately went out and purchased me an even better bike, this one had a basket on the front and ribbons on the handle bars. I loved my uncle Doug.
As a young man, Douglas Miiller was drafted into the army and served a tour of duty in Vietnam. He never talked about his days in the military but I overheard the adults saying that, “it messed him up.” I never really knew what they meant but in 1977, when he decided to end his life, this part of his past seemed to be the key to understanding why he had lived such a tortured life. From my keen ability to ease drop on adult conversations, I learned that my uncle had a drinking problem which only contributed to his pain.
He was the first person I can remember losing to death. Dealing with death is never easy, especially for a ten year old, but adding suicide to that equation makes it even more difficult. As I mentioned, my family did not attend church so the only images of God available to me were those shared by family and friends who claimed to be Christians. I will never forget hearing the words, “Your uncle is going to go to hell for what he did,” spoken by a child I thought was my friend. This was the message the Church gave me during my time of grief. These words wounded me so deeply that it was more than twenty years before I was willing to step foot in a church.
My call to create safe spaces for spiritual seekers grows out of this very early wounding by the messages of judgment that I heard as a child. In my book, “From the Sanctuary to the Streets”, I have captured the stories of many people, who like my Uncle Doug, never found a home in the church walls but whose lives have enriched my own. My prayer is that by sharing their stories I will bring honor to the lives of those who feel shut out, judged and cast off. For those are the very people Jesus chose to identify with and spend time with. It is in the presence of the “least of these” where I have seen the real “Church” come alive.
My prayer is that through the stories of those who do not feel welcome in the church with walls, pulpits and steeples, we will begin to see that the Church Universal is far bigger than the structures built by human hands. It exists in the very people who seek to be Christ in the world and in the faces of those Christ identified with in Matthew 25; those who hunger and thirst, the stranger, the sick and those who are imprisoned.
I choose the image of the Vietnam memorial for this post to honor both those who have died in battle this Memorial Day weekend, but also those whom like my uncle had their lives shattered by war. The lasting effects of the horrors of war continue on for generations. In some ways, I myself am a victim both through the loss of my uncle and the effects that my uncle’s suicide had on my family, in particular my father who lost his youngest brother.
I pray for peace for all the families across the world who suffer due to war and I lift up a prayer for peace for all the nations. May your Memorial Day be peaceful and blessed.