This project consists of qualitative research and analysis that started with the following question: What, from the perspective of people with mental illness makes a church feel welcoming and safe or otherwise? The primary sources of data are recorded and transcribed conversations with twelve people (herein referred to as “consultants”), each of whom lives with a chronic mental illness and is associated with Holy Comforter Church, a mission of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, along with observations of the researcher. The project rests on the hypothesis that qualitative research into the experiences of people with mental illness can provide pastoral and theological insight to help Holy Comforter and other parishes become more physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually accessible to people with mental illness. This paper reports key learnings from this research and explores theological and pastoral issues raised by these learnings with the goal of couching practical wisdom for achieving such inclusion within a Christian understanding of God’s work in the world.
Over twenty-five years ago, Holy Comforter, a small, urban parish in Atlanta, embarked on a journey toward becoming a safe and welcoming community for people with mental illness. More than half of its regular worshippers are people with mental illness. Most subsist on a small disability check and live in group homes. Since 1997, it has operated a day program for people with mental illness, called the
Friendship Center. This program serves seventy-five to a hundred people with a variety of activities that support wellness and recovery, including gardening, studio arts, meals, clothes closet, health monitoring, music, yoga, games, and field trips. It is managed by a small professional staff, which coordinates the work of about seventy-five volunteers. The researcher has been Vicar of the parish and Director of the Friendship Center since 2006.
Analysis of the conversations reveals that the key issue for the consultants is better understood in terms of belonging, rather than welcome and safety, and prompts this restatement of the research question: What, from the perspective of the consultants, has helped them to feel that they have, or have not, belonged in and to a particular community of faith or to feel that they have been welcome, or not welcome, to belong in a new community?
Using primarily the words of the consultants, the report presents a thick description of how belonging or not belonging has felt to the consultants in terms of key factors that have contributed to their sense of belonging or not belonging. Framed as questions that a person with mental illness might ask concerning her relationship with a church, the following key factors affecting whether one feels belonging surface in the conversations:
1. Participation: Am I invited and empowered to participate fully in the life and work of the community?
2. Regard: How does the community regard me and my participation?
3. Understanding: Is the community open to understanding me and my mental illness, or does it yield to the stigma of mental illness?