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Suicide, Church Folk and Spiritual Leaders

DepressionAfter hearing the news of a pastor, Teddy Parker, whom I do not know, it was clear to me that I should wait to post anything about it in this forum – first, out of respect for his family and those who knew and loved him; second, because of what it triggered for me on a personal level, I needed a minute.

Hearing stories such as this one, hits way too close to home. I not only ache internally, but it hurts so deeply that the pain becomes physical. As I sat weeping and sorrowful a few thoughts came to mind as I thought about not only this tragedy, but many more people who struggle to keep living – people for whom deciding to live or die is a daily decision; hell, never mind “daily,” but a moment by moment, hour by hour decision.

Relating to Parker, I did not want to assume mental illness played a role, yet I am not surprised as it is now being reported that he perhaps endured years of struggle with mental illness.

As an African American with a historical association and rearing in predominantly African American communities of faith, I was disappointed (not surprised) by a few of the reactions I read.

Most of the responses/reactions I read said things like:

Pray for pastors, they have a hard job

The devil is busy

Congregations/church folks need to take it easy on pastors

Pastors are human just like everybody else.

The above statements are not only lacking, they are also a bit. Let me explain.

“Pray for pastors.” It is easier to say “pastors have a hard job,” and we need to support them, not be a burden them than it is to address issues of mental health care. It is easier to spiritualize issues than to address practical needs. But easier doesn’t equal helpful. As a fellow struggler, many faith filled people sincerely believe that the way healing and wholeness happens is for me to go to church, pray, call on Jesus and trust God to make a way – period! I am not opposed to praying and such, but when that’s where it stops, first it make me want to cuss, then it moves me to educate and enlighten in hopes of dispelling ignorance.

Should we pray for pastors? YES! Should we pray for those who battle, and I do mean battle mental health challenges? Also yes! Is that all we need to do? NO. Will prayer alone keep pastors or anyone else from ending their lives? Not at all!

“The devil is busy.” OK, and the point is what? That’s my first reaction. But beyond that, I am not convinced that the devil had anything to do with this suicide. I believe we need to take a deeper look at reasons why people end their lives. As one who has walked through depressive episodes, I find that there are a host of “spiritual” people who take the easy way out by being hyper spiritual and glossing over real issues – somehow unable to open their minds to the realness of mental illness and mood disorders – medical conditions that need treatment, not statements like “the devil being busy.” Once it is discovered that such phraseologies are impotent, some walk away, abandon the struggler and just stand aloof.

“People need to take it easy on their pastors.” What the hell?! The first problem is that this statement is an indictment on congregations and to say such things in the context of this young pastor’s death is to accuse and make assumptions regarding how his congregation treated him. Second, though I have been in church all my life and have awareness that church folks are a bit trifling and downright cruel and unreasonable at times, there are some things that we as spiritual leaders have to take ownership of – our self care, utilization of the word “no,” refusal to play into being put on pedestals and the like. Perhaps ego won’t let us destroy that beast? Perhaps our passion and drive for ministry and serving God won’t let us quit or take regular breaks? Who really knows?

Pastors are human just like everyone else. This is true – very true, but the fact that there is such a big deal being made over the fact that a “pastor” completed suicide suggests we don’t really believe that. Perhaps a shift in thinking is necessary – the position does not make one less human nor super human.

So in thinking not only about Parker, but about how we relate to each other, more specifically those who endure mental illness, I offer these alternative responses:

1Give people permission and space to say “I’m not ok.”

2. Be a “safe person.” Meaning, when someone musters up courage to bare their souls and expose their hearts, be trustworthy, be loving and nonjudgmental and if you can, resourceful.

3. See pastors as “people who pastor” rather than “pastors who are people.” There is a difference. If pastor was no longer the profession, she/he would still be a person. Experientially I have been a staff minister (paid & volunteer) and in a few instances what I did/my work was important but my person/who I am did not. That’s enough to send anyone over the edge. Value people not simply positions.

4. Don’t assume the worst about people who end their lives. Ending their lives does not make them bad people. They are not selfish people. They are not weak people. They are not crazy people, they are not demon possessed. They are not Hell bound. They are people whose hope ran out, people who tried until they could try no longer. They are people who live with an illness, yes it is an illness, some illness is physical & some illness is mental.  They are people who would have continued to live if they could. And most likely, it hurt them deeply to have to leave those they love.

5. Check in on people. It’s not enough to be aware of a person’s struggle and distance yourself from them, waiting for the next time they reach out to you or if it’s a leader just wait for their faith to kick in. Check in from time to time, ask how they are doing, be a friend.

6. Remember that it is not necessary nor appropriate for you to fill every space or moment with your words. Presence is a priceless gift to offer, just be there.

7. Some situations don’t need a bible verse. Nuff said.

8. The absence of a smile does not equate to the absence of faith, but often an indicator of pain.

9. The presence of a smile does not equate joy and the absence of depressive conditions. Some of us are skilled at putting our smile on like we put on clothing. Not every smiling face is content and at peace, sometimes if appropriate it is good to gently go a little deeper [with a person’s permission of course].

10. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Some will appreciate that because it opens the door for them to share their story, open their hearts and help you with “knowing” more deeply.

11. Never ever never, under any circumstances be trite or offer empty platitudes or clichés. Mental illness for some people, at given points in the struggle, is a matter of life and death.

Well, that’s a long list but not at all extensive, so if you have other things you would add please do so in the comments section. Gone are the days when we can just keep the stigma going regarding mental illness and think it’s ok. Lives are lost because of our silence and refusal to engage the topic. People give up because they feel the need to suffer in silence and hide their truth rather than let people in. We can do better.

Here are just a few resources that might help:

Talking Mental Health in the Black Community (Huff Post Live recording)

Wrestling with God and Depression

Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression – Monica A. Coleman

Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting – Terrie Williams

Hyperbole blog post – Part 1 & Part 2

Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression and Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes – Therese Borchard

Beyond Blue (the blog)

Say Yes to Grace: How to Burn Bright without Burning Out – Kirk Byron Jones

Rest in the Storm: Self-Care Strategies for Clergy and Other Caregivers – Kirk Byron Jones

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System Fail… Again

photo credits: unknown

photo credits: unknown

In the case involving George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, last evening the jury pronounced him not guilty. The verdict shocked me, angered me and saddened me. There is absolutely no way George Zimmerman should be able to walk the streets for killing an innocent 17 year old kid! He was NOT defending himself, that rainy night in Florida, the only defense he needed was his car, which he should have stayed in, and a gun, which he should have never used. The shouts from the crowd of “the system fails again” is well understood. The system has been communicating for years that African Americans bodies are not as valuable as others. I am so angry and frustrated that it is difficult to put words together.

If Trayvon Martin had been born white he would be alive today. That has been established beyond all reasonable doubt. If he had been white, he never would have been stalked by Zimmerman, there would have been no fight, no funeral, no trial, no verdict. It is the Zimmerman mindset that must be found guilty – far more than the man himself. It is a mindset that views black men and boys as nothing but a threat, good for nothing, up to no good no matter who they are or what they are doing. It is the Zimmerman mindset that has birthed a penal system unprecedented in world history, and relegated millions to a permanent undercaste. Trayvon, you will not be forgotten. We will honor you – and the millions your memory represents – by building a movement that makes America what it must become. RIP. – Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow

 

Now that I have dried a few tears and have tried to silence the outrage in my soul over the Zimmerman verdict heard last night, it is my hope that I can put words together in some way or another. My first reaction to the verdict was anger, and then sadness, and eventually outrage! Trayvon Martin is dead and the man who killed him gets to walk away from the crime without serving any jail time. For a brief moment as I awaited the verdict, I had some hope that maybe, just maybe the judicial system would work in favor of an innocent, unarmed 17 year old kid walking home from the store. Even though our history in America has done nothing to even encourage such glimmer of hope.

According to Robert Zimmerman (the brother of George), our judicial system is one of the best and actually works well. A statement that would not likely ever be voiced by African Americans and other brown skinned bodies, especially Black men. The system is slanted against African Americans disproportionately – the evidence repeatedly bears this out. And even when a Black teenager walks home from a trip to the store, folks are willing to suggest stupid stuff like “he was armed with a sidewalk” – what kind of BS is that?

This of course is not the only stupidity and ignorance that has been spouted off by those in favor of the verdict. Here are a few more:

  • This was not about race
  • My brother committed no crime
  • Trayvon was not only armed with the sidewalk, he was armed with his fists
  • Trayvon was not the victim of a murder/crime
  • People are playing the race card

Of course there are more ridiculous words that have been uttered, but I think you get it by now. It is still just as unfathomable to me today as it was over a year ago, that a man driving in a neighborhood with a gun sees a Black male walking in the rain with a hoodie on in “his” neighborhood and assumes he is guilty or “up to something” even though he was simply walking home – yes that’s called racial profiling!

This strong, or at least heavy set grown man with a gun, exits his car to follow the Black guy – a young man who has no idea that the guy pursuing him is neighborhood watch.

If anyone needed to and perhaps did stand their ground, Trayvon would have been justified in defending himself against this stranger walking up on him for no legitimate reason. But instead, this young victim gets blamed for his own murder. This SCREAMS injustice!
A teenager’s life was taken from him unnecessarily.
George Zimmerman is not an innocent man event though he’s been allowed to walk free
An innocent child lays dead in the grave, a guilty man goes free, and Trayvon’s parents are left not only to mourn the loss of their son, but also to endure the outcome of a justice system which provided no justice for them. 

I pray for Sabrina Fulton and Tracy Martin. I pray for African Americans who once again have had to hear the underlying message that our lives do not have value and intrinsic worth. I weep for those who insist, perhaps due to blindness or at best denial, that race does not factor into this situation.

Justice was not served yesterday. Utter disregard for the value of brown skinned people and the legitimizing of racism is what happened yesterday evening. This hurts like hell (yes, I did just say that). And as much as I wanted to ignore the pain that I felt last night and the sorrow in my heart today, sometimes we just need to sit with our pain for a bit – not spiritualize it or stuff it down in the name of taking action, but just acknowledge it and cry as much as we need to.

Last night and even somewhat today, the only prayer I could offer was in the form of tears. Sometimes the tears are the prayer – no fancy words, and for the most part, no words at all, just tears flowing from a place of deep pain and anguish.

Still weeping….