Historic. A sea change. Momentous. Those are the words that come to mind when I reflect on the last several days at The Gathering on Mental Health & the Church, hosted this last week by Saddleback Church and leaders Rick and Kay Warren.
I made the trip to Saddleback with two other Shattering Stigma team members, and we were hoping to find like-minded activists and best practices, or even ANY other practices, as it has been difficult finding and connecting with other mental health ministry programs.
What we found was a truly inspiring gathering of 2200 people (with thousands more around the world watching online) determined to do better by individuals and families affected by mental health challenges, to change the conversation and shatter the stigma around mental illness, and to learn more about the latest in brain science, trauma-informed care, and the special role churches can play.
We found an impressive program filled with a “Who’s Who” of national leaders, all eager to encourage those of us in the Church to step up, get educated and advocate for better programs and policies, but also eager to tell us what a critical role we could play, one person at a time, in creating community and relationship in the lives of vulnerable individuals.
It is a strange paradox. On the one hand, many in the faith community either ignore or silence those experiencing a mental health crisis, or blame them for their illness and the sins they must have committed to earn it or the lack of faith from which it must result, instead of recognizing the very real biological causes of mental illness, either nature, nurture or trauma.
On the other hand, and sometimes at the same time, to the degree we do acknowledge the physical and medical underpinnings of mental illness, faith communities have too easily ceded our roles and responsibilities in the areas in which we can claim the most transformative powers—areas of hope, purpose, the inherent worth of each individual and their value in the community.
It is clear that those are roles the Church must play if we are to make a difference, if we are to be truly effective in standing alongside our brothers and sisters who live with mental health challenges.
Saddleback Pastor Rick Warren and his wife Kay lost their son to suicide after he struggled, and they struggled, for many years with his mental illness. They could have retreated inside their pain and kept their grief private. They could have used the tragedy to further the building of a Saddleback empire. Instead, they chose to use their pain to inform how they would help others. They would use their platform to magnify the effects of their loss to help ensure that other families get help. They chose to enter into others’ pain while still healing from their own, and as a consequence something extraordinarily special came to pass last week.
Pastors, youth leaders, ministry volunteers, nonprofit workers and mental health practitioners heard from these grieving parents, and they heard from the Director of NIH’s National Institute on Mental Health, the US Surgeon General, from Congressman Patrick Kennedy, from the Chief of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and from the Catholic Diocese of Orange County, NAMI, and more.
There was a clear and palpable sense of history, of change, and of action. The director of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference predicted this would and should be the next act for the Church’s social justice activism, akin to the Civil Rights movement.
It was exciting and humbling to be a part of it, and over the next several days I will be sharing with you specifics from the various speakers and workshops, ideas and takeaways that we’ll be incorporating into future Shattering Stigma events. Because this much was made clear to me—the dialogue opened by Shattering Stigma with Stories in a church can be a critically healing and empowering event that will help propel that church family forward in their journey towards effectively loving all in their midst.