Thursday, October 16, 2008

Surrounded By Mental Illness


You'd think it would be enough that I confront various levels of mental illness in my life as a father of adoptive children. Let me hasten to add that not all of my children have mental illness, but several of them do have interesting behaviors and ways of relating to the world that often tire me. There are moments when their ways of understanding or responding to things are just too weird for me, as a rational, mentally healthy, fairly emotionally balanced (my wife might differ on my definition of that) person. In any case, I have come to accept my role and have actually learned as a parent to separate myself from (most of) my children's peculiarities.

Knowing that my home life is often interesting and occasionally challenging, I find some measure of relief in my vocational life as a pastor. Most days I spend with people of relative emotional balance, shared spiritual values and some genuinely nice people. It is a blessing. So when mental illness begins to horn into to my vocational life, too, it feels a little overwhelming. My church office and the people in my congregation and the community who frequent our church facility allow me to feel safe and "normal."

That changed for me tonight by my introduction to Pastor Charles. I knew something was amiss when I received a telephone call at home from one of the physicians in our congregation who was at the church earlier tonight. She talked with Claudia, who asked her to tell the visitor that our benevolence fund process only works during business hours (9 - 3) each day. I assumed that might have taken care of the issue, because we didn't hear back from her.

I arrived at the church a few minutes early for my 6:30 meeting, got to the meeting and began when within five minutes there was a knock at the door followed by the immediate intrusion of a smiling face and a garralous stranger asking for the "Shepherd of the fine flock." I stepped into the hallway amidst raised eyebrows of those in my committee meeting. In a broken French patois with enough English for me to understand I learned that Pastor Charles had been sent by the God of light to vanquish the darkness of the evil one. Based on his dialect and his theological descriptors, I suspect his origins are Caribbean and that his history is connected to voodoo.

He was clear that he is a practicing Christian and that he has turned his back on voodoo, even though his former wife (of fifteen years now) has sought to bring him down. He informed me that he has not engaged in sexual intercourse for more than fifteen years and that Satan is constantly trying to bring him down, but that the light of the Lord is bringing him through such temptation and trials.

It was a disjointed experience for me. I recognized clearly the theological premises he was articulating ... in fact, on a number of his preaching points I could ally myself theologically. But the rate of his delivery, his demonstrative gestures and his intensity made it clear to me that he was suffering from some form of mental illness, in addition to the cross cultural challenges. I told him I needed to get back to my meeting, but that if he would wait I would transport him to a nearby hotel.

The meeting was intense (it's budget time in the church, and this committee was discussing one of the most sensitive areas of church life, our staff and ways we compensate them), and I had been in church from 7:30 AM to 4:30 PM today for a district committee meeting already, so I was tired and not very patient. During the meeting I received two individual warnings that "you have a guy in the narthax waiting for you." The second came as a succinct note written by one of our AA group leaders (we have numerous support groups in our church most nights of the week) telling me about a "guy with two suitcases who appears to have some mental problems." I figured if an AA participant suspects someone is mentally ill I'd better listen.

After the meeting one of the committee members kindly offered to accompany me. I did not perceive our visitor to be a physical threat, but you never really know, so I accepted his offer to come along with me to transport my Pastor friend to a nearby hotel. The five minute ride to the hotel bore much more preaching and revelation from God. I should not have been, but I was, surprised by his biblical literacy and theological sophistication, although it was hard for me to separate those pieces from his breaks with reality and his report of being followed, persecuted and assailed by alien beings.

Upon arriving at the hotel I did my best to convey Christian grace and charity. After a mutual blessing he offered me several of his illustrated creations in gratitude for my kindness to him. A random sampling is pictured above. They are intriguing pieces, most of which are black and white, depicting various spiritual quandaries, angles, shapes, alliances and superiorities. He spoken frequently of mysticism and spirituality in ways that an ordinary person would find creepy. I graciously accepted his eight pieces of work, wishing him well on his journey.

Returning to the church to drop off my parishioner companion I thanked him for being supportive. "You sure do meet some interesting people, don't you, Bart?" he said. I regaled him briefly with several other incidents I have experienced over the year, trying to advocate for the plight of the mentally ill in our society.

People like Pastor Charles should not have to wander the streets, seeking the help of churches and others in their quest for survival. In our community there just aren't resources to offer someone like him, especially someone who appears so very different from the social norms of our southern Minnesota community. The only goal in our community is to get someone like Pastor Charles quickly on the road to the next town. In no way do we want him here, largely because we have no way to deal with such significant mental illness.

As I assessed the situation, I realize I did not feel good about simply dropping off a mentally ill man at a local hotel. Although I didn't perceive him to be a physical threat, I wanted to do what I could to ensure the safety of his next listening audience. I called the police to report the situation so they could follow up to make sure everything was OK at the hotel.

And then I prayed. I prayed for myself, feeling like I am surrounded by mental illness. I prayed for the people in my church that they might learn compassion and Christian grace from experiencing in whatever way Pastor Charles. I prayed for the hotel staff person who would have to deal with his erratic behavior. And I prayed for Pastor Charles. That God will protect His precious child, even when the rest of the world doesn't know what to do.

I only hope that others will do the same for my children when they are erratic, disconnected, rageful, antisocial and creepy. Even the most mentally ill in our society belong to someone who loves them.

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