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June 16, 2006

Pastor's Struggle with Illness Carries Lessons

by Rev. Kenneth L. Chumbley, rector of Christ Episcopal Church, Springfield, MO

The following originally appeared in The Springfield News-Leader on May 31, 2006. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Robert Qualls, who suffers from mental illness, is on a journey. It began on a bridge in West Memphis in 1991. He went there to jump to his death.

That bridge was not where his life ended but where his new life began, thanks to an Arkansas state trooper who prevented the suicide.

I first heard Qualls tell the story of his journey at a prayer breakfast for clergy sponsored by the Springfield office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He gave me permission to tell his story here.

Qualls, a program and training consultant at NAMI, served a church in Memphis as its senior pastor for 12 years. These were years of great change in his congregation and in his marriage and family.

The stress, he says, became a "trap door" into mental illness — specifically, into obsessive compulsive and bipolar disorders, into despair and nearly to death.

Qualls resigned from his ministry. His marriage ended. He left Memphis and settled in southwest Missouri, where he had friends. He's been associated with NAMI since 1996.

He's on a journey — not one of recovery, when, he explains, a person tries to return to a time when he or she was well to start over — but on a journey that he describes as "procovery."

"I have bipolar, and it's not going way," he said. "I live the richest life I can now, despite my mental illness. I take care of myself. I have healthy relationships."

And he takes his medications, works in partnership with his doctors and therapist and helps others on their journeys with mental illness through NAMI.

Churches and other faith communities, Qualls says, should become informed about mental illness. People of faith need to understand that those with these diseases are not "possessed" by demons. Nor are they people of poor character.

Communities of faith, Qualls urges, should "uphold and embrace" the person in the psychiatric ward just as they do the person in the hospital recovering from heart bypass surgery.

Springfieldcounselor Eloise Thomas writes in her paper "Strategy for Ministry to People with Mental Illnesses and their Families" that faith communities should be a "compassionate and safe presence" for people with mental illness.

Thomas quotes the late Roman Catholic priest and theologian Henri Nouwen: "We are all healers who can reach out to offer health, and we are all patients in constant need of help."

Every day of his journey, Robert Qualls knows the truth of those words.

Visit the NAMI FaithNet Web site for more information on faith and mental illness

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