Lighting a Fire by Hannah Campbell Gustafson

written by Hannah Campbell Gustafson

In a recent conversation with the Division on Church and Ministry, someone asked me if I ever feel like my passions of social work and ministry conflict with one another.  It is a very real question in the work I am doing in my job, addressing homelessness with the help of hundreds of volunteers from local churches.  But the question really made me think back to 2009.

In 2009, I graduated from college, unsure what I wanted to do except that it had to have an impact on social justice.  So, I spent a year in a faith-based volunteer corps in Washington DC.  I was placed as a case manager at an awesome organization called Bread for the City.  I remember pretty early on, conversations about how religious beliefs shouldn’t be brought up in our brief interactions with clients.  As a good progressive Christian, I understood that- proselytizing wasn’t something I was interested in.  However, I think I understood this too simplistically, and decided that this meant that religion and social work didn’t mix.

One of the case management clients I was assigned I’ll call Tracy (not her real name).  Tracy would call me almost every day, largely because I was her representative payee, so was in charge of her money and paying her bills.  She always started and ended our phone conversations by calling me “Hannah Montana,” a nickname I didn’t love, but tolerated.  Our relationship was never easy, but that was understandable- it is hard to have someone else controlling your money!

Tracy lives with bipolor disorder, and medication didn’t work well for her.  She reported feeling lonely and stressed a lot of the time.  

I remember very clearly the day that I asked Tracy what things she did or could do to feel more relaxed.  She talked about the importance of prayer, and talking to God.  And then she told me, “God is really important to me, but I can’t go to church.  Every church I’ve gone to has asked me not to come back because I’m bipolar”

I was totally blown away- angry and sad, and I also just felt paralyzed.  This was something she was naming as important, but I didn’t know how to talk about this with her.  With guidance from my supervisor, Tracy and I had conversations in the future about how she could still pray even without going to church, and brainstormed other ways that she could tap into this passion of hers.

My supervisor helped me to begin to understand that it isn’t true that social work and religion don’t mix (though many of my classmates in social work school, unfortunately, might have agreed with that earlier false understanding of mine).  But still, Tracy’s words haunted me.  If someone finds comfort and community in church and religion, why would churches shun her?  What other ways do religious communities have of pushing away or marginalizing people with mental illness?  What about those of us who go to church and don’t have symptoms that are as obvious, perhaps, but hear the words of our community or leaders condemning people with mental illness?

My heart still breaks when I remember that conversation with Tracy, but I am also grateful to her.  She taught me so much about so many things, and she also helped to light a fire within me, a fire that has led me to pursue ordination around mental health ministry.  There is work to be done!  Thank you, Tracy.
Hannah Campbell Gustafson is director of Family Promise of Grant County, a nonprofit that uses a network of volunteers and faith communities to serve families experiencing homelessness.  She teaches one class a semester at University of Wisconsin-Platteville in social work, and chairs the Lafayette County Homeless Coalition.  Hannah is treasurer of the UCC Mental Health Network board of directors, and is a Member in Discernment with the Southwest Association of the Wisconsin Conference of the UCC.  She lives in the beautiful Driftless region of Southwest Wisconsin with her husband (an ELCA Lutheran pastor) and their standard poodle puppy, Óscar Romero.

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