It’s easy to find articles indicting the church for its failure to welcome and help people with mental illness. A Google search of these keywords brings up dismal results. That’s probably because we are quicker to report bad news than good ones. There are, in fact, loving communities where people with mental illness find love and inclusion. I found such a church in Tucson, Arizona. The pastor of Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), Christopher Chelpka, invited me to speak about my book, Broken Pieces and the God Who Mends Them (P&R, 2019).
I was immediately impressed. The congregation was genuinely warm and hospitable. It was obvious they wanted people to feel at ease. And yet, they were eager to learn more and to continue to improve.
I knew at least one person in the congregation was struggling with a form of mental illness, a young lady named Summer. She had contacted me by email and told me she was going through a difficult time. On the Sunday I attended Covenant OPC, she was getting ready to leave for a residential treatment program in another town. In God’s providence, I happened to sit in the pew behind her.
She had told me of past feelings of loneliness, especially when her mother died and no one came along her to help her. “I was in deep pain,” she said. “I think people just didn’t know what to do. It’s difficult to know what to do.”
At Covenant OPC, however, two families had taken her under their wings, especially one that she considered her “surrogate family.” These families had one thing in common: they had also suffered much in the past.
If she had not told me about this “surrogate family,” I would have thought it was her real family, because they sat together with much affection and good humor, truly enjoying each other. But these were not the only people who showed her love. An almost uninterrupted stream of people came up before the service to give her hugs and encouragement in view of her upcoming trip. A lady gave her a pretty notebook she could use as a journal during this next phase of her life. What impressed me was how natural everyone acted around her.
After the service, I attended the church’s potluck. There, I met the lady who had given the journal. I learned that her name is Hope and that she has a history of severe psychosis. She told me up front, with a big smile on her face, as if she was telling me she is an artist. She might have felt comfortable because I had just spoken about my experience, but she did so in a room crowded with people, and everyone was perfectly at ease.
I learned later about other people who have opened up their hearts and homes. Two couples let a church member live with them so they can help him with his treatments, and another person helps a woman with mental illness in many ways throughout the week.
Finding Safety and Support
I began to notice the number of stories I was hearing. Just how many people lived with or around mental illness? “Depending on your definition of mental illness, about 15% of our 69 members are, or have a family member who is affected,” elder Pete Oftedahl told me. At least, these are the known cases. There may be more. “I don't know if that's high or not,” he said.
I don’t either. Statistics are not always reliable and depend on what the participants to various studies are willing to admit. In any case, this percentage at Covenant OPC is purely providential. “I'm not a founding member of the church,” Oftedahl continued, “but I believe we began with only one member with mental illness. The rest have trickled in, but more for the faithful preaching of the Word and reformed theology than for any specific focus on mental illness.” These people have felt welcome enough to stay and comfortable enough to talk about their condition.
Some had depressing experiences in other churches. Summer told me of a time when the young people from Covenant OPC joined another church’s evangelizing mission. All went well until she talked about her illness, and the other group felt compelled to warn her that it was due to a lack of faith. “Somehow I wasn’t ‘experiencing Jesus,’” she said. “I insisted that I was, in spite of my suffering, and that God may, in his sovereign will, not heal me in this life.” When a young man from Covenant OPC tried to back her up, the others yelled at him until the two groups had to split. “This doesn’t happen in our OP churches,” she said.
All in the Same Boat
Why not? What’s the difference? Apparently, until my visit, Pastor Chelpka never made any concerted effort to instruct his congregation on this subject. “I personally believe that the tenet of total depravity has a profound effect on how we relate to each other,” Elder Oftedahl said. “The members of the congregation recognize that we are all severely broken, and it's just that it's more visible in some than others. We have empathy and love for each other because we're all in the same boat.”
Total depravity simply means that since Adam’s original sin, all human beings are born sinful. While Christians are fully forgiven and declared righteous in God’s eyes, they still have to fight the constant pull their sinful nature continues to exercise. As Martin Luther used to say, we are simul justus et peccator—simultaneously righteous and sinful.
The effects of sin on this world show up in different ways. Mental illness is probably the most baffling. It’s so hard to explain; we’d rather say it doesn’t exist. That’s a normal reaction, but Christianity brings us out of normality and disrupts our natural responses.
“I don't know that dealing with this issue is necessarily easy or natural for all of us,” Oftedahl continued, “but there is genuine (even disarming) openness on the part of those who are ill, which is like a confession of the sin that plagues us all. I think this openness encourages us all in our individual struggles with sin. Our universal sin is a great equalizer.”
Realizing we are all in the same boat and in equal need of a Savior brings down barriers, eliminates stigma, fosters sincere compassion, and encourages open communication. In that sense, Covenant OPC is not unusual. There are many other churches where the gospel is preached every Sunday, constantly changing hearts of stone. They are still imperfect, but so are families, doctors, and hospitals. We all learn as we go, and it’s this willingness to admit we’re broken and to humbly learn to love our broken neighbors that makes a difference.