The word ‘sanctuary’ means “a place of refuge or safety.” Churches have been called ‘sanctuaries’ for centuries. In religious terms, the word emphasizes the sanctity of its structure and purpose. However, sanctuaries have also provided political and legal asylum for many centuries. It’s no wonder that when we think ‘church’ what follows is ‘sanctuary.’ We hear ‘sanctuary’ and the ensuing sentiments are awe, wonder, gathering, and safety in numbers.
The church is a plethora of brokenness. Mental illness is one of those afflictions for which Christ died, just like any other. What makes it distinct, however, is that its impact is stealthy. It impacts brain chemistry, which then affects mood, affect, behavior, perspective, and cognition. A person’s whole belief system is most fragile during episodic seasons and moments. That said, harsh judgments and unwise advice during these times can be detrimental to your mentally ill brother or sister. As a result, people who struggle with mental illness don’t always associate ‘sanctuary’ with ‘church.’ Many different encounters within the church’s sacred walls prove otherwise.
For the examples not to get lost within a paragraph, these negative experiences make the church everything but a sanctuary:
- Feeling an overall climate of stigmatization from leadership to congregants.
- Being told you don’t have enough faith.
- Being told you are depressed/ill because you are backslidden.
- Being told you are disobedient to choose medication therapy.
- Being viewed as ‘less than’ because of your illness.
- Withholding what you need most, which is love and community, not religious jargon.
These are just a few points, but the list is much, much longer than this. Perhaps these are the ‘worst offenders’ of the bunch. Every stigmatizing, demeaning, or offensive encounter is evidence that “the place of refuge and safety” has ceased to be that. Many of these circumstances have been caused by well-meaning people. But the damage that happens can be catastrophic. The well-meaning person is unaware that the individual they are advising is on edge and only needs to be embraced (or even encouraged to seek medical attention).
People with mental illness need the church. We need community. We don’t need the stigma that waits for us beyond the doors beneath the steeple. The love of Jesus is transformative. That love, within the context of community, is where healing lies.