Friday, January 14, 2011

Lesson from Tucson: It needs to be easier to get help

By Elizabeth Magill

The violence in Tucson has generated much discussion about the church’s responsibility to discuss political civility, gun laws, personal versus group responsibility, the death penalty and more. I am in favor of discussing all of those things, plus working to change secular support systems for people living with mental illness.

It needs to be easier to get help, we need more research and better medications, and it needs to be easier to require someone to get help.

But more than that, I am asking if the church can create connections to those who are on the outermost fringes of society?

Imagine a church that looks for, and reaches out to people missed by social services; people who fall through our safety net, people crying out for hope?

The church’s redemptive response to individualism should be to make connections to those who are lonely, and isolated, those who are lost. Some of those isolated are living with mental illness. It is easy, and acceptable, to disconnect from people who don't fit society's norms.

When Jared Loughner couldn't meet the social boundaries of his school he was kicked out; he was cut off from community, this happened again when he couldn't meet the requirements of volunteering. Both organizations were right to enforce behavioral guidelines; the school was right to offer counseling as a prerequisite for continued enrollment.

But we have not asked about what happens to those individuals who are cut-off from one organization, and another, and another.

We are unrealistic to hope that all people will simply decide to start following rules if pushed away often enough.

People living with mental illness will not get better from being disconnected or sent away. Mental health does not improve when we are isolated or lonely. Connections pull people back into community; connections eventually move people to get help; connections provide hope for the future.

Schools must focus on education, and volunteer organizations on their mission. A church can decide to focus on people who are lost, lonely, alone; people who society is pushing to the sidelines.

We can invite the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to train us to support people living with mental illness. We can reach out to those who have been asked to leave one program or another and invite them in.

We can preach God’s love, and work to stay connected even when the individuals try to break away.

A church’s behavioral guidelines can require you to leave today when you are violent or out of control, and then invite, and welcome, you back again.

And then call to ask what happened if you stop showing up.

A church can be a place that encourages getting professional help and love you even if you don’t. A church can be a place where the isolated are accepted and loved, a place where connections are made and supported.

Almost everyone living with mental illness is not anti-social, not anti-community, not anti-rules, and certainly not violent. But I am explicitly suggesting that churches hang on to those people who seem beyond the pale, beyond our tolerance, beyond redemption.

I am suggesting that church is the place for redemption of those who are violent, who don't listen to reason, who don't respect others, who cannot adapt to social norms, and will not get help. I don’t believe that reaching out will make people suddenly peaceful and miraculously healed. Mental illness is a serious condition that is sometimes accompanied by drug use, alcohol abuse, anger, loss of social connections, and violence.

Churches reaching out to people with mental illness will not prevent all violence. It may even be that violence would occur more frequently in churches and less frequently at political rallies, or schools.

But fear of violence is not the deciding factor in creating a missional church. Churches are called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, reaching out to the fringes of society, confronting those who are isolated in the way that Jesus connected with the Gerasene demoniac, and the woman with the hemorrhages, the prostitutes and tax collectors.

We are called to make real contact with those most in need, to make real connections, and preach God’s unfailing love. Imagine how society could be changed by a church, by many churches, doing that?

*  The Reverend Elizabeth M Magill works for EDSConnect, Resources for Theology and Practice


  1. It needs to be recognized that many people who need help don't want it. They would rather live alone under a bridge. I think a church environment might be able to "bridge" that gap better than social workers. Churches are involved here in Denver trying to help. But the problem is way too much for a church or churches. It needs a commitment from the citizenry and the government. If nothing else works it should be remembered that ignoring it will cost more in the end.

  2. I agree Robert. Churches can do the reaching out that Social workers cannot. I believe that if Churches WERE reaching out more, we'd also be more active in lobbying for better services. We'd get to know people who want to live alone under a bridge, and ask questions about how the services that are provided today are insufficient to meet some of the real needs.