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Created in the image of God

by Cathy Smith

I am a member and an elder at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I serve on the Task Force on Disability for the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area. I also have Bipolar I with psychotic features, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

I was hospitalized for the first time in the spring of 2005. The church was very supportive and a minister visited me often. But I did not feel comfortable having others know about my mental illness. I did not want prayers from the congregation or from the prayer chain. My attitude has changed dramatically regarding letting others in on what is happening in my life.

Since that time, I have been hospitalized several more times. My disease progressed to having more delusions and hallucinations. It has taken considerable time to find the right mixture of medications to stabilize me.

My attitude toward letting others, especially those at church, know of my struggles changed during this intense time of turmoil. I have come to a place of comfort where I believe that we are all made in the Image of God, and part of our purpose in this life is to walk alongside one another, especially those who are hurting or marginalized. By sharing my struggle and challenges with others, I am allowing God to enter into our relationship and the grace of God becomes evident in all of our lives.

My church has responded to my illness with compassion and support. Westminster is a multi-staff church and every pastor shows an

est and concern for my life. They regularly remind me that they are praying for my family and me. They seem to have designated one minister to be the main pastor for me, both in times of struggle and when I seem to be doing fairly well. We stay in touch by getting together every once in a while and by calling on the phone every week or so. When my symptoms flare up, we talk more often, even several times a day depending on what’s going on. When my day treatment program suggested that I connect with someone I trust outside of my family, it seemed natural to turn to a minister. He said “yes” immediately. All of the ministers have been fantastic and whenever I see one of them, I get a big hug and usually, “I’m praying for you,” whispered in my ear.

When I am in the hospital, I get a visit from a minister at least every other day, and quite often someone from the church comes every day. When I am in the psych ward, I feel extremely isolated from God and the world outside. There is nothing therapeutic about being there. It is just a place to keep people safe for a short time and then send them back out to the streets. Every visit I get from a minister makes such a huge difference in my time there. When a pastor comes, we talk about how things are going for me and we talk about what‘s going on at church. We read scripture and we pray together. These visits can penetrate the hopelessness that I feel and remind me that God is with me, especially in my darkest moments.

I now ask the church to pray for me from the pulpit when I am in the hospital. I know I have been on the prayer chain many times and one group of women knitted me a beautiful prayer shawl. One of the ministers remembered me in prayer throughout Lent by praying for the mentally ill during the Wednesday evening Taize services when I was unable to be present. During difficult months, people made meals and put them in the church’s freezer for us to pick up and take home. The church organized babysitting so that my husband could visit me in the hospital in the evenings. We had many people willing to drive me to and from appointments when I was unable to drive. I have also had the love and support of our Thursday morning Mom’s Book Discussion Group. They sent me cards every couple of weeks with personal notes telling me they were thinking and praying for me. They were instrumental in organizing my rides to aftercare.

I still have a hard time sitting through the Sunday morning service, especially when my symptoms are evident. I am afraid that I will start talking out loud to my hallucinations or that I will get too over-stimulated and overwhelmed (which sometimes causes me to have erratic behavior). On Sundays when I am not able to be in church because my symptoms are too high, I am able to listen to the sermon on the internet as well as download a printed copy. Westminster also has a daily devotional phone message that I often call, especially when I am in the hospital or am feeling especially isolated and alone. It is a great way to feel connected with the church without having to take the risk of reaching out to a live person.

I am now seeing how God may help me to use my gifts and my experiences to be a voice for those living with mental illness. I hope to have a part in guiding the church to a better understanding and inclusion of those who suffer with these diseases. I hope that this article can provide some ideas on how the church can respond to mental illness in a way that will help both the individual and the congregation to deepen their relationship with God and with each other.

 Contact Cathy Smith by email.