I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.
~ Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ
Playing on the words of the Messiah, I could very well say to clergymen/women and laity alike, “I was sick and committed, and you did not visit or minister to me… We were mentally and emotionally ailing … and hurting, suffering, yet you do not seem to care, or even give us a second thought. What must we do to deserve the ministry of the Church?” And yet again, Jesus weeps.
Amy Simpson hit the proverbial nail on the head when she surmised that “in general, the church tends to handle mental illness in one of three ways: ignore it, treat it exclusively as a spiritual problem, or refer (the suffering) to professionals and wash (their collective) hands of (the) trouble.”¹ Except instead of “ignoring it” she could have/should have been more pointed and said, “ignoring them.“
And it is all-too-easy for superficially spiritual, religious individuals to ignore those with mental illness, unless of course they are disturbed and maladjusted right smack-dab in the middle of their communities, be that the neighborhood or the local church or wherever else. It’s almost like a toddler’s game: If they put their hands over their ears and shut their eyes, then the mentally ill have gone away … vanished … no longer exist.
As for her second point, Ed Stetzer certainly agrees. Recalling challenges with mental illness early in his ministry, he honestly confesses, “I was 25 years old, and all I had heard about dealing with mental illness was that Christians just ‘prayed it away,’ or it was an attack of the enemy, or so I’d been told, and the necessary response was expulsion — just cast it out.”² (The “enemy” being Satan, the devil, or demons.)
The third response listed by Simpson is, perhaps, the easiest: Just confine “them” to an institution, group home, and/or day treatment program and … forget about them. After all, “they” are being helped by professionals, right? So why would I want or feel the need to get involved? I haven’t been trained to be involved. I wouldn’t know what to do or say, and it can’t be as easy as simply loving, spending time, and encouraging … can it?
Of course, it helps to be as prepared as one can because, obviously, the different mental illnesses can be difficult to deal with, not to mention quite disconcerting (in many cases.) Yet from my own personal experience, which most certainly counts for something, most group home residents, and even individuals in the psychiatric wing of hospitals, would just be grateful and happy to have someone from the “outside” visiting them. Yes, there are extreme cases in which it is effectively impossible to visit, but really, in most instances, the mentally ailing are fully able to communicate!
And there is that famous, and popular, question many Christians like to ask: What would Jesus do? They even have WWJD stickers, ball caps, shirts, arm bands, etc. Oh, it’s quite “the thing” in many religious circles … but one is justified in wondering how often the “believer” actually answers the question … still more, how often s/he puts that answer into practice, especially where the mentally suffering are concerned.
And just what would Jesus do? I think he would at least visit, and it’s no good to simply assume one is not allowed. I know for a fact that, at least from my own experience, practically anyone could have dropped by the Samson Group Home to visit on the front porch … especially members of the clergy. There are no laws or restrictions against visiting group homes here, anyway, at least not pastors, priest, rabbis, imams, etc.
No … It’s just a matter of doing it! And even if the ostensibly spiritual-religious individual cannot visit a group home or hospital psych wing, the very least we/they can do is embrace the mentally anguished within our/their own faith communities, and, very importantly, do so in a dignified manner, (after all, many mentally ill individuals have practically been stripped of their personal dignity already!) Indeed, what would Jesus do? I really think he’s already answered that question…
For previous articles in this series, go to: