Before I Started To Serve

From DIFFERENT MEMBERS, ONE BODY: Welcoming the Diversity of Abilities in God’s Family, Kutz-Mellem, Sharon (Ed.) (1998). Louisville, KY: Witherspoon Press

When we think of disability, we imagine a person who uses a wheelchair or a cane, or being led by a Seeing Eye dog or communicating with sign language. But many disabilities, although just as severe, are less readily apparent. Mental disabilities are in this category. I have suffered from mental illness, and at times have been incapacitated by it; but, generally, I appear normal. My illness, schizophrenia, does not involve split or multiple personalities, as the general public believes. This is a misconception fueled by the mass media and Hollywood movies. Schizophrenia is an umbrella word for many kinds of symptoms, some of which are the following: thought disorder, hallucinations (auditory or visual), delusions, apathy, and withdrawal. A person may have some or all of these; individual cases vary enormously. Medication is often used to control most or all of these symptoms, with much success.

Some Christians believe that a person need only have a healthy relationship with God to get free of mental illness. Pastors and churches with this belief condemn and ostracize the mentally ill, stating they are to blame for their disease. The causes of mental illness are complex, but include biological, as well as psychological and environmental, factors. Any of these factors or a combination may damage a person, causing severe emotional disorder. I believe some Christian people have a view of severe mental illness that is misinformed. Their harsh judgment of those of us with psychiatric disabilities impedes our recovery and may cause a crisis of faith. In my home church and Bible study group there is an environment that fosters acceptance of those of us who have mental and emotional difficulties.

In 1994, I began attending St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, three blocks from my home. Before I started to serve in various ways there, I requested a Stephen minister. The pew card said, “Need a friend?” And, since I did, I filled out the card. The Stephen minister made weekly visits to my home and became a friend I could talk to about religious matters. We had a lot in common, as her daughter had schizophrenia. When I had questions pertaining to spiritual issues, she encouraged me to meet with the pastor. He became very helpful. He had experience counseling persons with mental illness and knew about schizophrenia.

The compassion of the Stephen minister and the pastor gave hope that perhaps I had found a community of believers that would accept me. The secular world stigmatizes those of us with psychiatric disabilities; therefore, I had felt degraded and unworthy. When these church members treated me respectfully, I began to gain a sense of dignity. I began volunteering at the church by participating in the prayer ministry. The coordinator welcomed me with open arms. Eventually, I shared with her that I had a psychiatric disability, but she continued to be friendly and appreciative of my involvement in the group. I wrote a small article on the prayer ministry for the church newsletter at her request. We had lunch together and got to know each other more deeply. However, after a while, I found this ministry too difficult, and withdrew from it.

The senior pastor then suggested that I attend an ecumenical women’s Bible study that met in my church. This group has been a major healing force for me. After I had attended for a month, I volunteered to prepare coffee and set up the chairs. At first, I was extremely anxious and frightened about the commitment. Learning the task was a challenge. There were times I called the group leader to say I was unable to help that week. Then she would find a substitute, but this happened infrequently. One member, who confided to me that she had bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder, offered to take my place if I felt unable to set up. She also is the person who encouraged me to join the church (I had been attending only as a visitor). Now, I have attended the Bible study three-and-a-half years and no longer have trouble with the preparation. I am confident that I will not fail. I increased my involvement by working in the kitchen when there were potlucks. Also, when memorial services with luncheons were held for members of the group at my church, I was asked to bake cookies and to help serve. Once, when there was a potluck, a group member phoned to invite me (for I had missed the weekly meeting). She said, “You don’t have to bring anything. Just bring yourself.” Her friendship has been steadfast, and she has tried to learn more about my illness. Also, she has sent many greeting cards for various holidays.

The atmosphere of respect and trust at St. Andrew has allowed me to feel comfortable enough to volunteer in a number of ways. I have collated the monthly newsletters and the annual reports. I have served coffee between services before the adult education class–I was, at first, self-conscious and afraid of interacting so closely with the congregation as I poured coffee. After doing this several times, however, I grew accustomed to the task and enjoyed it. A friend asked me to be a greeter with her at worship services. I found this rewarding and I enjoyed shaking hands with dozens of members.

I have described numerous ways in which the church has encouraged me, a person with psychiatric disabilities, to be involved. It has been merciful, as Jesus would be. When the powerful and destructive force of stigmatization breaks the hearts of the mentally ill, the church, as an instrument of God’s love, helps them to find fellowship and restoration of human dignity.