My Christian faith has always been a big part of my life starting from when I was young. I was sent to Catholic school and was raised in a liberal, but faith-filled family. My faith has always been something I turned to during my dark moments with depression and physical illness.
I remember a time when I had taken a break from “formal church” and felt very isolated and disconnected. I started to seek out connection within faith communities. I thought it would help me feel better, but it did not. It had the opposite effect. I realized that many churches and their pastors are not equipped to deal with things like mental illness.
I approached a pastor from a local church and told him my story and asked if he would be open to letting me start a support group for people with mental illness. Not only did he tell me that he did not believe that I was depressed, he blew me off and shooed me away.
After I regrouped and got over my disappointment, I tried another church. This time I was looked at like I was crazy, as if mental illness wasn’t real or something that belonged in church. I was given the run around from one person to the next who politely refused to engage in any sort of conversation. It was clearly not a priority to the leadership.
“One more time”, I thought. I figured this time I would blend in. I found another church. I showed up for healing services and liturgies. I even volunteered for a few ministries. At one point, a staff member asked me what I did for work. I said that I was not working and was on disability for anxiety and depression. He then proceeded to say, “Oh, I work with crazy people.” I was stunned. I could not believe what just happened. I was so angry, I went to the pastor and told him what happened. He told me, “Well, we just have to forgive people. The church is imperfect, you know.” I was shocked. I left this church and never went back.
Let me address the pastor’s point. Yes, the church is made up of human beings that are imperfect. Pastors are imperfect people who most likely are doing the best they can and they can’t be all things to all people. This does not excuse wrongdoing and turning a blind eye to injustices going on. This is not an excuse to not deal with issues that present themselves to you or to ignore the people in need right in front of your face. You have taken a vow to help these people. It is your obligation to educate yourself on what your congregation is going through — to address its needs. If you claim to follow Christ, you have to at least try to act like it.
Churches need to comb the pews, get to know the people that attend there, not just the mentally ill, but everyone. What are their needs? Their stories? Are they chronically ill? Can you start a ministry, even a small one, to help these people? If you can’t, at least be understanding, compassionate and listen. Let them know they are heard and welcomed. It’s the Christian thing to do.