Located on Franklin Street, the bustling center of Chapel Hill, University United Methodist Church is frequently called upon to answer the needs of individuals just outside the church’s front doors. Many of these calls come from people living with mental illness and other challenges, like housing insecurity. But as the University UMC Health Ministries Committee sat around on a September evening in 2015, discussing how they could better walk alongside these individuals, it became clear that the first steps would need to happen inside their own walls. The committee intuitively knew that their fellow church members were no different than residents across much of the country – several faced challenges with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. The committee also understood that as long as these challenges were surrounded with misunderstanding and stigma, the Church would be unable to serve as a place of refuge, acceptance, and healing for people both inside and outside their walls.
The committee decided that they needed to create opportunities for education, vulnerability and resource connection around mental illness. And after looking at the church’s seasonal rhythms and calendar, they determined that Lent would provide an ideal time to lead the congregation through a series of educational seminars, sermons and theological reflections on mental health and illness.
Wednesday Night Lectures
Each year at Lent, University UMC provides Wednesday night learning events called the Mary Henley Lecture series. For 2016, the church centered each of these lectures on health, theology and human flourishing. Topics included: “Why Medicine Needs the Church: Faithful Responses to Mental Illness,” “Prayers of Rage and Hope in the Hebrew Scriptures,” and “Flourishing: Positive Approaches to Mental Well-Being.”
Sermon as a Time to Share
The pulpit also presented an opportunity to talk about mental illness. Minister of Spiritual Formation, Mitzi Johnson, used a sermon as a chance to talk about a loved one’s previous experience with anxiety and an eating disorder, and how the church had helped that loved one heal. Of that sermon, Rev. Johnson said, “I have been amazed by how my sharing has opened the door to dozens of conversations with church members about their families’ struggles with mental illness. I seem to have opened a floodgate.”
Stations of the Cross: Mental Illness
Lastly, the committee decided to use “Stations of the Cross: Mental Illness” for theological study, reflection, prayer and community connection. This set of 14 posters by artist Mary Button tells the story of Christ’s sacrificial love on the cross in a way that highlights his solidarity and love for those on the margins. These posters were displayed in the main hallway of the church and each was paired with a local community group working to address the challenges presented in the posters.
Throughout Lent, and then on a special full day event on Good Friday, members of the church and the public were invited to walk through each of the poster stations. Over 100 church and community members attended the Good Friday event, praying for and with area organizations offering hope and healing to those living with anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder, addiction, schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts, racial prejudice, PTSD and more. Prayer stations combined art, physical objects, interactive activities and information about community organizations. Unbeknownst to the committee, one of the community groups they highlighted was run by a member of the church. This member shared that he’d been having an especially disheartening week at his organization, but when he saw that the church was praying for them, he felt a renewed sense of hope and calling. Building on the momentum of the Lenten programs, members of University UMC participated in the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Walk in Raleigh on May 7th, 2016 to help raise awareness for mental illness.
For their second year of work with the Reimagining Health Collaborative, the Health Ministries Committee at University UMC is now looking at ways to continue responding to the internal needs of their congregation that have been unveiled by this initial work, as well as to extend ministries to those facing mental health challenges in the surrounding community. One way they have already begun to connect outward is through building a relationship with Club Nova – an organization that addresses the needs of Orange County citizens living with mental illness by providing a holistic, caring environment designed to promote rehabilitation and reintegration into the community. Last month, about 20 University UMC members gathered in a church member’s home to learn more about Club Nova and to help expand community advocacy for the organization’s mission and vision. The Health Ministries committee is currently engaging in a directed theological study to help unearth the next steps and are eager to see what may evolve from this budding relationship with Club Nova, as well as other organizations in the community.