TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (BP)–As soon as Virginia walks through the door of the old building renovated for a special church group, she is greeting everyone in the room.
“Good morning. God bless you. I love you,” she says more than a dozen times on Sunday mornings.
Earnest is quick to lend his Bible to visitors without one. Linda and Vivian and Randy like answering Bible questions. Earnest likes to ask questions.
Roosevelt, a man in his 70s, half sings his praise to God when he closes the group in prayer, “Lord, you the man. I am calling on your name. You walk with me. I’m your friend, you’re my friend. You go with me to the end.”
It’s not an ordinary class. Some get up and pace during the Bible lesson. Some rock steady in their chairs. Some mumble to themselves. But all love God and know God loves them in spite of being consumers of a mental illness, those who have schizophrenia, for example, or depression or bi-polar disorder.
Jimmy Tilley, the leader of the class, who also suffers from depression, chronic anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, wouldn’t want the group to act any other way. Tilley and his wife, Jane, started the combined Sunday school and worship time at First Baptist Church, Tuscaloosa, Ala., four years ago.
While numbers have dropped because many residents at Tuscaloosa’s Indian Rivers mental health center were moved to group homes too far away for pickup, the class is nearly 30 strong every Sunday.
Jane Tilley and Betty Loman, an employee at Indian Rivers and also a consumer, shuttle between the center and transition homes to make sure as many mental illness consumers who want to have a chance to fellowship and praise God each week. The two women teach the Sunday school class, and Tilley leads a worship service following a 15 minute break for cookies, drinks and smokes.
“People are afraid of mental illness,” Jane said. “They look at mental illness as a result of doing something wrong, and they don’t know how to react.”
Her husband knows the stigma firsthand. Jimmy worked for the Tuscaloosa News plus other publications in Dadeville and Andalusia, Ala., for many years before depression and anxiety set in 20 years ago. Through the help of medication, he maintains a normal lifestyle, which he spends educating the public about mental illness. Tilley and his wife will begin as special education consultants for the Tuscaloosa Baptist Association within the next few months. Tilley also publishes a quarterly newsletter for consumers of mental illness, “Consumer Connection.”
Often churches are some of the worst offenders of perpetuating stereotypes and buying into the stigma, Tilley said.
“The stigma is so prevalent. And the sad thing is that church is usually the first place people want to go to find acceptance,” he said, adding bluntly while his class meets at First Baptist, he believes some church members probably wish they weren’t there.
Jane Tilley recalled when her husband was hospitalized, she alerted the church so members could visit him. No one came.
“Churches just don’t know how to handle it — they don’t know how to minister to the person or to their family,” she said. “Here, we accept them where they are. They may mumble to themselves, but they can come up with the deepest answers.”
Few Baptist churches offer some kind of outreach for mental illness consumers. Jim Hightower, minister of pastoral care at First Baptist Church, Huntsville, Ala., noted more churches should have education programs and even ministries because “every church has members who have a mental illness.” At First Baptist, a 12-week education program for families of mental illness consumers is offered twice a year.
Jesse C. Stinson Jr. started the Sunday Club through South Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Ala., about 10 years ago. Consumers of mental illness and their families get together for lunch and worship time.
Stinson, diagnosed with acute schizophrenia in 1964, realized during 10 months of institutionalization other people with mental illness had the same needs — to be listened to. He started a sharing group in the hospital at that time. The group eventually began meeting weekly at various restaurants and now meets at South Highland every Sunday from 6 to 8 p.m. The sharing group also meets at Hillcrest Hospital in Birmingham on Fridays from 6 to 8 p.m.
“We’re not trying to make Presbyterians out of anybody, we just want to tell them about God,” Stinson said, noting people of various faith backgrounds come to the Sunday Club.
But in spite of his church’s support, Stinson said the stigma of mental illness has not gotten past his church or other churches yet.
“Churches have withheld love and attention and help, and I know that they know that. A lot of them think it is just a spiritual problem and we need to get right with God.
“I don’t have any problem with working on spirituality, but that doesn’t cure mental illness,” Stinson said, adding having a mental illness is a medical problem just like having diabetes or any other disease. “It’s just that the brain is the guilty party.”
Stinson, just like Tilley, hopes eventually churches will let down the barriers that keep consumers of mental illness from feeling accepted, which will help society be more accepting as well.
“It would be nice to walk into church and say, ‘Yes sir, I have a mental illness. I’m not bragging, and I don’t want special attention. I just want to come here for comfort and support.'”