National Alliance on Mental Illness
page printed from FaithNet NAMI

A Conversation with My Pastor

By Marilyn C. Bowman, NAMI Clackamas County (Ore.)

A year ago, my NAMI Affiliate applied for and received a NAMI FaithNet mini-grant. Now, with motivation and money, I needed to figure out where to begin my faith outreach efforts. I went through all training on the FaithNet website and decided to speak with my pstor. Because he does not meet with women one-on-one, I asked our NAMI president to attend the meeting with me. The meeting was scheduled three months later.

One day after a church service my friend said, “I am not coming back!”

“What? Why?” I asked.

“Because if my pastor believes people who have a mental illness are demon possessed, I am not coming back.”  My friend suggested I check into this further. I listened to the church video and was shocked. My friend was correct. The following is an excerpt from my pastor’s video recorded message that day:

“In Africa, if somebody runs around screaming, shrieking and hurting themselves and lighting people’s huts on fire, they chain them up and put them outside the city. They call it the Healing Hospital but it is actually a place where they put all the crazy people and chain them to logs. …. Why? Because they are lighting people’s huts on fire and they are crazy. But the Africans don’t say these people are crazy. They say they are demon possessed… I believe they are correct.”

I couldn’t believe my pastor had said that. I had to process this, and prayed about it for three months while waiting for my appointment. Finally, my day arrived. My friend, my NAMI Affiliate president and I met with my pastor who was accompanied by a woman staff member. We started with prayer and introductions. Then I told the pastor about the difficulty my friend had about returning to church after the offensive video comment. I reviewed what he said three months prior and shared, “I believe you were very well meaning in your presentation regarding darkness in America but you may have made an over-generalization about mental illness and demon possession. You may have been right-on when referring to some heinous behavior that would seem to have no other explanation than evil spirits. … However, those who struggle with mental illness, such as those with bipolar illness and others, often achieve recovery through successful treatment. They can live a normal life.”

My friend then shared his testimony: depression at a young age; an alcoholic and drug abuser since his teens; other mental illnesses developed as he grew older and continued to abuse drugs. He became homeless for two years, was in jail, in and out of mental institutions, in groups homes, attended Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, sought a higher power after research of major religions, accepted Christ in 2003 and was baptized. He has now been clean and sober for 12 years and for the past three years had participated as a consistent church member.

My friend shared, “From my experience, meds do help the delusions and quiet things down. Prayer helps. A hellish part of the illness did not go away for years. Some people with mental illness struggle with balancing their spiritual beliefs with their psychosis. They sometimes think they are Jesus or they want to save the world, or they hear angels singing. They think about sin and guilt and pain.”

Next, I let our pastor respond. He apologized. He said sometimes he speaks and it pushes people’s buttons. Then, I spoke about what NAMI is, what we do to help people affected by mental illness through education, support and advocacy. I spoke about NAMI FaithNet and how we encourage faith communities to care for individuals and families facing mental illness just as they would people facing other serious illnesses. Meeting the individual’s mental, emotional and physical health needs opens the door to nurturing their spiritual needs. We encourage faith groups to open their hearts and minds to being the centers of care and understanding they already know how to be.

My pastor said he appreciated our time and would read all the information and get back to me. Currently, I get involved with church health fairs to connect with congregations and educate one-on-one. Time will tell whether this one encounter made a difference in opening the mind of my pastor, but regardless, I know we made a difference that day by confronting misunderstanding and shined a light on awareness.