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The Journey: the UCC Mental Health Network Blog

Welcome to the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network (UCC MHN) blog, The Journey. Our weekly posts will explore mental health and addiction through the lens of our Christian faith. We will write about how our personal experiences affect our lives and how our spirituality supports our journey. Everyone who is living with a mental health or addiction disorder, or has a loved one who is affected by a mental health challenge or addiction, is on a journey. Together we can connect with each other and share some ways to travel the path of hope and wholeness.

Washing of the Water by Karl Shallowhorn

written by Karl Shallowhorn

“In the washing of the water will you take it all away
Bring me something to take this pain away”
Peter Gabriel

In churches around the world we celebrate the day that Jesus was baptized by the prophet, John the Baptist. This ritual has been replicated for millennia since then and this means of consecration is a way for us as Christians to annually be reminded of our own baptism. 

For me, I am reminded that while I have consistently participated in this ceremony, I can never be reminded enough about my own affirmation of faith through this action. 

There is another symbolic practice that I also take part in annually, the celebration of my clean date. I began my journey in recovery from addiction to drugs and alcohol on January 17, 1988. This was the day that changed my life forever. I joined a recovery program which eventually served as the catalyst for my personal faith practice. This program is founded on the development of a relationship between oneself and one’s “Higher Power.” I have been blessed to have been clean ever since.

While I was raised in the United Church of Christ, my newfound belief was enhanced by my participation in the recovery group. I actually joined my church, Pilgrim-St. Luke’s UCC that same year in June on Pentecost. 

The years since have been full of experiences that have served to deepen my faith. While many of these experiences have been positive I’ve had more than my share of challenging situations, not which jeopardized my recovery, but did test my belief. 

The beauty of a life in recovery is that one is able to experience everything as it comes, for better or for worse. In the program we call it “living life on life’s terms.” This practice requires a sense of diligence and perseverance. In many ways, those of us in recovery have had to develop a spiritual life that supports us through thick and thin. 

There are also the concepts of “One day at a time,” and “Just for today,” (which basically have the same meaning). It’s about living in the present. To me it also means that every day I am given an opportunity to “get it right.” It’s as if each day I am able to symbolically be washed in the water of the Holy Spirit. Every day I am reminded that, no matter what, God loves me. This infinite love helps me to know that whatever pain I may be in, it can be washed away.
Karl Shallowhorn is the Education Program Coordinator at the Community Health Center of Buffalo. Karl is a New York State Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor and also serves on the Board of Directors for the UCC Mental Health Network, the Mental Health Association in New York State, and the Mental Health Association of Erie County. He is also a contributing writer and blogger for BP magazine as well as for The Mighty. Karl is a 30-plus year member of Pilgrim-St. Luke’s-El Nuevo Camino UCC in Buffalo, NY.

WISE and Beyond by Lisa LeSueur

written by Lisa LeSueur

This month, Coral Gables Congregational UCC (CGCUCC) marks the end of the first year since the congregation voted to become a Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive and Engaged (W.I.S.E.) church. Following the 10-step process to declare ourselves W.I.S.E. was just the beginning of what has become a dynamic and life-giving mental health ministry of the church. The mental health ministry team has continued to be intentional about bringing mental health challenges out of the shadows by initiating much needed conversations to dispel myths about mental illness. This has been accomplished by establishing programming that provides concrete information about mental health and providing a safe space for sharing stories. 

I thought it might be helpful to share some of the programs which have been developed by the WISE Mental Health Ministry of CGCUCC so that others who are interested in forming a ministry in their own congregation might get some ideas. We have utilized a multifaceted approach which began with programs designed to provide concrete information about mental health challenges. This has been accomplished by inviting various mental health professionals to speak about the basics of mental illness; providing insights and concrete information that helps to deconstruct the myths that surround mental illness.  In addition to providing information about mental health, we also conducted a Mental Health First Aid training in which 25 people were trained to assist an individual who was experiencing a mental health crisis. There was also a three-week session in which participants learned to tell their own stories of how their lives have been impacted by either their own mental health challenge, or that of a family member, friend or co-worker.  Rev. Sarah Lund’s book, Blessed are the Crazy, was utilized during these sessions as an example of the power of telling our own stories, and the freedom that comes from being able to discuss mental health openly and honestly.

It was important to the members of the WISE Mental Health Ministry team that the church also offer support for those who were dealing with mental health challenges in various capacities. Over the past two years, the congregation has established several different support groups including the Caregivers Tea. This meeting offers a safe space for conversation for those who are caring for a loved one with mental health challenges. It is an opportunity for participants to share stories and meet others who are dealing with similar circumstances, as well as gain valuable insights from trained mental health specialists. 

There is also a bimonthly centering group which focuses on mindfulness, anxiety relief, and stress reduction which is led by a trained social worker. Finally, there is a bimonthly grief support group that is held at the church that is led by a mental health therapist. This program was supplemented by a special presentation in November on surviving grief at the holidays, as well as the annual Blue Christmas service for individuals who need extra support during the holiday season.

Perhaps the most important component of the WISE Mental Health Ministry is the pastoral support that it has received. Mental health is being addressed in sermons, as well as in the prayers and concerns offered during worship. In fact, one of the first WISE events held at the church was a session conducted by Rev. Dr. Laurinda Hafner called “Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness in the Church”. Mental health challenges are being discussed openly and honestly by the leaders of our church as part of the everyday concerns of the congregation.

There is much more to come from our WISE Mental Health Ministry team including an upcoming, yearlong series on empathy. More than compassion, it is empathy that moves us to understand and seek to mitigate the pain of others. This series will include presentations by mental health and religious professionals on a variety of topics related to empathy such as the basics of empathy, empathy across boundaries of division, forgiveness, and what to say when there just are no words.

At CGCUCC, becoming Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive, and Engaged was just the beginning of a ministry that truly embraces those with mental health challenges and their caregivers. It is a ministry that lives out the promise of God’s extravagant welcome of all God’s children. 
Lisa LeSueur is a member of the UCC Florida Conference Mental Health Ministry, and is the coordinator for the Mental Health Ministry of Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ. Lisa is currently attending Chicago Theological Seminary working on a Master of Divinity, and is a Student in Discernment with the UCC Florida Conference. She lives in Coral Gables, Florida with her spouse and their two children.