Welcoming the Stranger in our Midst

Author: Anne Weiher

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.

Hebrews 13:2

The WISE covenant adopted by our church in 2012 says we will be welcoming, inclusive, supportive, and engaging to those individuals in our midst who live with mental illness/brain disorders/neurological diversity. But what does that mean in practice and how might we live into this covenant?

Certainly, welcoming means outreach to those we encounter in the congregation – especially those who might be visitors or newcomers to our community. Yet it goes beyond that. Mental illness is usually invisible and it is so prevalent that it’s quite likely that the person sitting next to you in the pew might be experiencing some kind of mental health challenge. It becomes incumbent upon us to sincerely welcome everyone. Adding those who are struggling with their illness to the list of prayer requests, either by name or in general, can acknowledge that these struggles are every bit as challenging as dealing with a broken leg. In all honesty, I must admit it would be difficult for me to write a prayer request in which my struggle and my name would be laid bare before the entire congregation, so great is my own internal stigma. It would be a big step forward in reducing stigma if we could ask for help for depression, suicidal thoughts, or psychotic delusions just as we can ask for support with a broken leg. 

How do we include people with mental illness in the life and work of the church? An easy answer is to include them on boards and committees and to not discriminate when hiring for any position in the church. It can go beyond these things and then can have a very different connotation. We can continue to educate the congregation about mental illness. Mental Health Sunday, which we recognized recently and which honors and acknowledges, and in some real sense celebrates, all those touched by mental health challenges is another way to practice inclusion.

We certainly support those with mental illness when we offer support for such things as the Spiritual Support Group for Mental Health and Wellness and Mindful Works. It can go beyond that. When we ask “how are you?”, what should the response be? It’s difficult to open up and respond honestly. If I say I’m struggling with depression, it forces me to face my own stigma as well. Additionally, if you haven’t seen someone for a long time and that is unusual, call, email, text, or write a note. Invite them for a walk, a cup of tea, or go to a movie . . . whatever. Minor outreach can be a lifeline for those whose struggles seem overwhelming. If they don’t respond, try again for even when they don’t respond, it’s not you they’re dismissing, it’s the illness getting in the way which causes the disconnect. The very act of reaching out lets them know you care and are thinking about them. Your caring can be a lifesaver. 

Support can come in other ways. If someone is having a difficult time and you think you cannot provide the type of support they need, you might suggest that they seek outside help – be it a mental health professional, the clergy, or a support group. And it is imperative that you take suicidal or homicidal thoughts seriously.

Do all of these ideas and suggestions lead to the engagement of those with mental illness? Of course, they do. Regardless of the situation, when we welcome, include and support others on their journey, we are engaged with them.  There are plenty of times when that engagement is on a superficial level; smiling can brighten not only your day but others and a word or two of welcome can have an unimaginable effect. The interchanges don’t have to be heavy or impart some great truth to the other. Simple interactions can be incredibly powerful. They all matter.

Throughout this piece I use the term mental illness or mental health challenges rather than brain disorder or neurological diversity because it reinforces the idea that “mental illness is like an illness like any other.”

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