Churches strive to help people with mental illness

Their missions range from education to nourishing body, spirit

March 08, 2002|By Jean Leslie | Jean Leslie,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's Thursday at 7 p.m., which means the Rev. Sang Hee Lee is holding an intimate service in the scenic Wesley Chapel in Jessup. The service starts with the congregation taking turns reading a difficult Bible passage in Numbers 16.

Then Lee, pastor of Hallelujah Church, which is housed in the chapel, discusses it. "In this passage, the Levites tell Moses that they are angry with him," Lee says. "And what did Moses do when they attacked him? He fell to the ground and prayed. Instead of getting angry at the Levites, he prayed to God."

The sermon is followed with enthusiastic hymn singing. Smiling, hands uplifted, the congregation sings hymns such as "Praise the Lord, O My Soul" for 20 minutes, until the end of the service. Because the birthday of one member is near, the group adjourns to a dinner and party in honor of the young woman.

Each week, Lee delivers this service for a congregation of people with a mental illness. Many are recovering from their illnesses and hold jobs or attend day programs. Lee believes that worshipping God is one more way to help them recover their health.

"This is a healing service," she says. "When my congregation sings, they open their hearts and express all their emotions, which is very important. Many don't express their emotions easily. When they sing hymns, they are lifted up and they feel peace and joy. It helps to secrete endorphins in the brain, which relieves pain. They also ask me to pray for them and I lay my hands on their heads and pray. And they feel peace."

Hallelujah Church is one of several congregations in Howard County trying to improve the lives of the mentally ill.

Members of local United Methodist churches are developing a mission to change societal attitudes of stigma. Through the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, the Subcommittee on Ministry with Persons with Mental Illness and Their Families translates the mission into education, which led to a brochure and a conference to further others' understanding of mental illness.

Peg Bridge, of St. John's United Methodist-Presbyterian Church in Columbia, is on the committee.

"Stigma is pervasive in our society," she says. "It exists in the hearts and minds of parents and even in the persons with the mentally illness themselves. They suffer from low self-esteem because many people think that they have done something bad. Their parents suffer from low self-esteem because they feel that the illness may be due to poor parenting. The true basis of mental illness is biological, is a brain disorder and is many times hereditary."

Bridge notes that "one goal of the subcommittee is to create `Caring Communities,' churches that welcome persons with mental illness."

Howard County churches also provide those with mental illness a good meal and an opportunity to socialize at the monthly "Sunday Suppers." Humanim, a mental health services provider, supplies a van for transportation; the Howard County chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) offers van drivers, funding and coordination of the events; the Office on Aging provides the use of Florence Bain Senior Center; and churches provide food and entertainment. Each month, a different church takes its turn in preparing and serving the meal.

Last month, members of St. John's Lutheran Church and the Rev. George Lippett cooked and served tuna noodle casserole, green salad, bread and dessert to about 40 people who chatted quietly while they had dinner.

"This is a great opportunity for these folks to get out and enjoy a home-cooked meal with their friends," says Joe Friend, a member of St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church and a NAMI member who has been volunteering at the dinners for 18 years. "They really look forward to it."

Kelly Proctor and her two young sons volunteer at the dinners every month. "Howard County is the only place I know of that does anything like this," she says. "Everyone gets a nice meal and can take leftovers home. It helps them to feel good about themselves."

Philip Vogel has been chaplain of Spring Grove Hospital Center, a state mental hospital in Catonsville, for 17 years. He shows a deep understanding of religion and spirituality in the lives of those with mental illness.

"Religion is very important to the mentally ill," he says. "We're all spiritual beings, and one aspect of our spiritual selves is our connectedness. People with a mental illness need to perceive their worth and their connectedness to God. They're like the people outside."

Writer Jean Leslie is a part-time administrator of NAMI-Howard County. Information on Sunday Suppers: Claudia Friend, 410-730-5977. Information on Hallelujah Church: the Rev. Sang Hee Lee, 410-799-9929.

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