© Rev. Tracy Sprowls-Jenks. All Rights Reserved.

A sermon delivered at First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, New Jersey on February 12, 2012

When I was growing up as a teenager in Virginia, I was very fortunate to have my grandmother Clara, my mom’s mother, only miles down the road from us. She lived in the apartment complex that my mother managed. When we moved from Virginia Beach to Norfolk, my grandmother moved with us into her own section of the house. I adored this grandmother for her spunk and verve- if I was too smart with her she would chase me around the dining room table with her cane raised up in the air. When I came home after school each day I would stop in her sunroom to visit with her. She would tell me about the books she read or what she had watched on TV and I would tell her about school. On Sundays, I would take her out to the drugstore or wherever she wanted to go, just so we could get out of the house. I am not sure how much I appreciated these times with her back then, but now, when I reflect on these memories, I find that I miss her terribly.

It was a different story with my dad’s mother, Grandma Mattie. I rarely saw her when I was growing up. Two visits stand out in my mind. When I was only in elementary school, I came home one day to find that my grandma Mattie was visiting with us. I was very shy with her because we didn’t see her much. When my mom went out to the kitchen for tea, my grandmother started talking to me. She started telling me about what the guy was saying on the radio, kind of repeating what she was hearing and then responding to it. I looked at her with a quizzical look on my face and then said, “Grandma, the radio is not on. What are you talking about?” I guess my tone was not a nice one because before I could blink my mother was in the room pulling me off the chair and telling me not to talk that way to my grandmother. Boy was I confused!

Many years later, when I was a teenager, my grandma Mattie came to visit us in Norfolk. Whereas, I could talk to grandma Clara for hours at a time, I never knew what Grandma Mattie was talking about. I remember once sitting near her rocking chair and she trying to make conversation with me. She commented on the lovely flowered wall paper we had hanging in the living room. Again, puzzled, I looked at our bare white walls. This time I kept my mouth shut.

When my father was in the fifth or sixth grade, his mother began behaving oddly, hallucinating and talking to people who were not there. The answer at that time was to give her shock treatments that left her lethargic and listless for days. Finally, she was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. She spent the rest of her life in and out of mental hospitals and nursing homes that specialized in caring for people with mental illness.

I tell you the story of my own grandmother this morning because mental illness is much more common than we may realize or perhaps care to admit. One out of four of us has been diagnosed with some kind of mental illness be it something like Schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, mood disorders, eating disorders, addictions, personality disorders … I could go on and on. One in four people, twenty-five percent of the population deals with mental illness. It could be your own grandmother or son, co-worker or friend who has mental health challenges or it could be you. I read in one report that in fact the statistic is even higher if you consider that each and every one of us will have an episode of depression or profound grief or some other mental health challenge at some point in our lives.

Talking about mental illness or mental health challenges is not easy. It comes with a stigma and embarrassment. It comes with discomfort and anxiety. But with the number of people dealing with mental illness either personally or through someone they know it seems an important conversation to have. It is important for a church or congregation to be a safe place for the difficult and uncomfortable conversations to happen. The conversations begin by acknowledging the depth of the problems people face and by sharing our stories. That is why I began with one of my stories. I hope that you will find the strength and courage to begin to share your stories with each other too.

Our congregation is a place to have this conversation for a couple of other reasons too. Around the corner on Seventh Street is the Park Hotel Board Home where many people with mental illnesses live. There is another home further down from there. And then there are those who are homeless and ill or struggling with addictions who find themselves at our door. It is wise and prudent to understand some of the people in our neighborhood. It is important because it is often these people who come to us for dinner on the holidays and for the soup kitchen at the end of the month.

Another reason is this. In too many places, those who suffer from mental illness are rejected or ignored. They have no place to go. They have no one to turn to. A church should be a place where everyone can feel welcome, within reason, of course. We must always remember that safety is important. A church can be a place of compassion, understanding, and an access to a faith that may otherwise be denied to these people. Rev. Barbara Meyers is a UU minister whose calling is a mental health ministry. The goals of her “ministry are to seek to understand, improve and uplift the lives of people with mental health difficulties and their families.” She told this story in one of her many sermons on mental health:

“When I was in seminary a visiting Transylvanian scholar the Rev. Lazlo Kiss told us a story. Laszlo was the minister in a small village in Transylvania. One day he visited a parishioner who had moved to a home for the elderly in a near-by town. He told us of the shock he felt when he walked in and found people ware-housed, stacked in unclean bunk beds several to a room and how the general appearance of the facility was that it was a place for discarded human beings that no one wanted.

But the residents heard that he was coming and that he was going to do holy communion for his parishioner. They were all excited. They wanted to have holy communion, too. It became the most important thing in their lives that day that they would be able to participate in the ritual. They all lined up and waited patiently for their turn to have holy communion … These were people who had been physically removed from the only society that they knew, a society that was based on very close social ties in a small village. They had been discarded, as if their lives didn’t matter anymore. And, yet when Laszlo showed up with his communion cup, their faces lit up. God was still available to them. God was listening” [From: MENTAL ILLNESS AND OPPRESSION © Barbara F. Meyers 2011. All Rights Reserved. A sermon delivered at Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation on May 29, 2011]

While this story is about those with a strong faith in God and the ritual of communion, we can also see that the story is about the inherent worth and dignity of every person, too. It is about compassion. It is about giving access to people whose religion may have ignored them or turned them away or forgotten them. It is also a story of hope in that even in our most dejected state, there is someone to love us, whether it is God or the man with the communion cup or the woman who greets us on Sunday morning.

Religion can be a powerful motivator for hope and for change. When we look at our Unitarian Universalist history we can see this again and again. One person who made a difference in the lives of those with mental illness was the Unitarian, Dorothea Dix. Rev. Barbara Meyers tells her story like this: She was a tireless crusader for mentally ill people in the United States in the mid 1800’s. She had a deep sense of religious calling and purpose and it is this that drove her to her life’s work. “Dix’s career as a reformer began in 1841 when she visited a jail and noticed that there were some insane prisoners who were being kept there in deplorable conditions. Her instant compassion for them was the beginning of her life’s calling. In 1843, she wrote a report called Memorial: To the Legislature of Massachusetts, in which she presented the results of her survey of the state’s insane people, giving many shocking details of how they were being treated. In many instances they were kept chained in an enclosed space, lying in their own filth, without adequate clothing, and abused physically and sexually. It was thought by many that they couldn’t feel cold because their minds were deranged, and some were kept naked without heat, even in the winter. In an era when women didn’t have the right to vote, she managed by sheer force of will, hard work, and astuteness to convince legislatures in many states to appropriate public funds to build over 30 hospitals for the care of the mentally ill. Through Dix’s crusading efforts, things started to change. She eventually contributed to the start of 30 mental hospitals in the United States during her career.” [Also from: MENTAL ILLNESS AND OPPRESSION © Barbara F. Meyers 2011. All Rights Reserved. A sermon delivered at Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation on May 29, 2011]

Since Dorothea Dix’s time the mentally ill have experienced sporadic care and concern for their welfare. Many of the hospitals founded because of Dorothea Dix were later closed due to lack of funding. Remember in the 80’s? Many mental hospitals were closed in favor of caring for the mentally ill in a community setting. But again, budgets are tight and funding is low. Too often the seriously mentally ill end up with the short end of the stick-living out their lives on the street or in jails. While the understanding of mental illness has expanded and deepened and this has had an impact on how patients are treated and cared for, nevertheless, soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder often must wage a new war here to be adequately treated. Depression and anxiety go undiagnosed or on the other side are too often diagnosed, medicating people who may not need it. People of color and women are often over-diagnosed. Creative and energetic children are diagnosed with ADD. Too many people self medicate with drugs or alcohol.

But there are people and organizations out there today making a difference. In December, our congregation raised over $500 in our shared collection to give to Bridgeway, a psychiatric rehabilitation service agency in Central New Jersey. Bridgeway offers programs “which provide skill development and support services to assist people in their journey towards mental health recovery, wellness, self-sufficiency and quality of life.” Williams is another who is making a difference. He matched our donation to Bridgeway making our donation over $1100. But more than this he has offered to help all of us learn to be in community with our neighbors by teaching us the necessary skills to do so. He took me to a conference on faith and mental health. He has helped me better understand our congregants who are coping with mental illness. Just this morning, he reminded me that a person is diagnosed with a mental health disease, they are not their disease. Most importantly, Mark has helped me to see more clearly how our congregation is a safe and welcoming place for all people, including those with mental illness. Thank you, Mark.

“The Persian, mystic poet Rumi said that life is as if a king has sent you to a country to perform one special task. If you go there and accomplish a hundred other things, but not that particular task, then it’s as if you’ve accomplished nothing at all. I wonder if we can describe life like this as well. If we come into this world and complete the many expected tasks that need to be done-go to school, get a job, find a partner–but yet never do the one task we are meant to do, then perhaps we have accomplished nothing at all?

What is this one particular task you might ask? We are born into this world naked and vulnerable. We grow and become children exploring the world through play. We become teenagers stretching for independence and adulthood and yet secretly holding on for dear life to the safety and surety of childhood. We become adults who find that a sense of responsibility and duty can overwhelm and at times become a burden. We age and the end of the journey looms large in front of us.

In the joys and tribulations of life’s journey, there is the possibility of listening closely to your heart’s calling. It speaks in an almost silent whisper of that which you are tasked to do with your one wild and precious life. For each of us it will be different for each of us is beautifully special and wholly unique. But in at least two ways we are all called to the same tasks.

Almost all of the world’s religions have some form of the golden rule, you know, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Some take it further by suggesting that this is a start, but not quite enough. Rather, each of us is called to greet each other from a place of compassion. We do not know the story behind most of the faces that cross our paths. We cannot know what is going on in the life of every other human being. We cannot know the grief in another’s heart nor the tears that have dried on their cheek. We cannot know the anger or hurt, the good day or the bad. But, we do know that it is a free gift to the soul, ours and that of others, to greet each person from our hearts and not from our own anxiety or hurriedness or expectations.

In the second task the various religions differ, but our religion is clear. Each one of us is also called to make the world a better place. That can be as simple as random acts of kindness to picking up trash in the neighborhood to challenging a large corporation to change the kind of paper they use for their catalogues to welcoming into our faith home those who are challenged in their daily living by mental health issues.

We each can make the world a bit better in our own way, whatever that may be.

Let us begin it this day.”

[From the Transitions sermon by Rev. Tracy Sprowls-Jenks done at Southeast Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute July 2011.]


A poem by Mark Williams Read at the service where the sermon was delivered

One in four adults experience a mental health disorder every year
I am the soldier returning from Iraq/Afghanistan diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
I am the inner city parent suffering from depression who sits in her darkened living room worried if her son will make it to the end of the day alive
I am the 10 year child sexually abused by my father, my uncle, my brother (trusted adult)
I am the college student with cotton in my ears and the music cranked up in a futile attempt to silence the voices that command me to hurt myself – hurt others
I am the girl who sits alone in her room cutting my arm because I need the pain to help me feel alive
I am the middle school student going to war with bullies’ every day at school
I am the bully
I am the elderly parent who is no longer able to care for my adult child with Schizophrenia
I am dx with a mental health disorder and I will die on the avg. 25 yrs.
sooner than someone not dx with a mental health disorder

However, I am not my diagnosis
I am a mother, daughter, sister, and wife
I am a father, son, brother and husband
I am a grandparent and you are my grandchild

I am an actor and my name is Lindsey, Demi and Charley
I am an artist and my name is Vincent
I am a writer and my name is Ernest
I am a songbird and my name is Whitney Houston
I am a president and my name is Abraham

I am your plumber, your car mechanic
I am the person who smiles from behind the counter at Star Bucks as I hand u your coffee because I too know you’re just trying to make it to tomorrow
I visit your soup kitchen and your food pantry
I am your neighbor down the block

Look around you- I am the one in four