What are we to do when the spiritual leaders we expect to give us life take their own?
I have been pondering this question, among many others, in the wake of national media reports about the suicide of 42-year old Teddy Parker Jr., pastor of Bibb Mount Zion Baptist Church, in Macon, Georgia.
According to reports, Rev. Parker sent his wife and children to their church ahead of him on Sunday, November 10th. After Parker failed to appear at the church where he was expected to deliver the sermon, his wife, Larrinecia Parker, returned home and found him in his car, still parked in the driveway, dead of a self-inflicted gun wound.
Parker’s loved ones are shocked and confused that he committed suicide. Indeed, one media outlet reported a congregant mentioning that Parker preached against suicide, but Dr. E. Dewey Smith, Jr., a friend of Parker and pastor of a church in Atlanta, admitted that he was aware that his friend was suffering with manic depression and had been dealing with emotional issues. Smith went on to note that he knew Parker was in treatment but “couldn’t back away from ministry.”
Parker’s tragic death offers an unfortunate opportunity to critically assess the types of theological ideas propagated within some churches that might harm those who live with mental illnesses. It also provides a chance to name the violence of silence that often shrouds talk of mental illness within some Christian worshipping spaces.
Theologies that Kill?
In some Black churches, as well as many other Christian denominational worshipping spaces, notions of redemption and salvation are deeply shaped by theological renderings of an afterlife—the soul’s journey to heaven or hell.
Sermons developed in response to literalist interpretations of scripture—a preached word that exhorts sinners to seek salvation through Jesus Christ, the sovereign ruler of the Kingdom of Heaven, as a means of escape from an eternal sentence of punishment in hell—might easily distort believers’ senses of self-worth and livability.
In other words, the strong desire to be ‘received’ by a presumably loving God, coupled with the fear of perpetual damnation, often causes believers to begin an overly zealous and swift trek toward “heaven” so much so that the desire to “be with Jesus” and the need to rid oneself of the Devil’s power over one’s (always-in-need-of-redemption) life tends to manifest in forms of self-effacement.
This kind of self-deprecation can take the shape of woeful lamentations because of one’s wrongdoings or unspoken desires to “free” oneself from sin, sinful temptations, and sinful bodies (even one’s own).
I can recall many moments in my own life, particularly when I was a member of various churches, when the desire for freedom (from pain, my own indignations, my then-identified sinful behaviors, my melancholia) from the “hell” I lived caused me to deeply long for transcendence.
And I thought that death would be the quickest route to such freedoms despite my believing at the time that suicide was the only unforgivable sin. Death of my flesh inevitably meant my subsequent presence in Christ.
I was not alone in such skewed thinking.
Spirited Sunday morning worship services at the church I attended in southern New Jersey were almost always animated by the types of behaviors that most people associate with neo-Pentecostal, holiness, or some Baptist churches: vivacious hand clapping, foot-stomping, ecstatic exhalations, dancing, and tongue-speaking when the spirit was really high.
One particular Sunday, a close friend and I left service, walking away winded after having leapt and danced and cried until we were sweating through our clothes. Within a few minutes of our exit, my friend stated with stark certainty, “I feel like killing myself.”
His desperation had everything to do with his inability to reconcile his seemingly contrary desires and actions with the condemnatory preached messages he had been receiving.
And, like him, I too had been imagining suicide.
I loved and had sex with men and was reminded about the sinful nature of homosexuality as much as I could bear. I was overwhelmed and saddened by the truth of his words, which was also my truth—the fact that we felt so unworthy within our community of “saints” that we imagined freedom as only coming from self-mutilation.
At that moment, I was confounded by the reality that spiritual practices, at least those in which we had participated in that Sunday, could go only so far in terms of working out one’s literal salvation—in fact, some practices might very well exacerbate one’s demise. And sometimes psychotropic medication, coupled with therapy, might be the interventions that save us.
The Violence of our Silence
Unfortunately, many churchgoers with a mental health history tend to endure their struggles alone. In Parker’s case, his friend Rev. Smith asked,
How do you tell your church that you have mental and emotional disorders and they trust your leadership? It’s almost like a death sentence to share that. How are they going to perceive you afterwards? You have visions, will they trust you? Will they believe it’s the spirit that’s leading you?
The real critique hidden in Rev. Smith’s interrogation, one which places an undue burden on the sufferer to hold onto the secret of his/her mental health issue because of outsiders’ perceptions or seek out help as if they can, has to do with the power of the collective (the congregation) to shape how an individual with a mental illness engages, or does not engage, care. Indeed, the real critique is directed at the collective “we” who watch, police, engage, or assail people every day without creating safe spaces for those in need of intervention to receive it. We are all complicit.
And there is something to be said about the willful omissions that we sanction regarding the ways we talk about, or not, mental health concerns. Take for example a portion of the statement that was posted on the memorial website for Parker, which offers a narrative of Parker’s life that absents any mention of mental illness:
Known as a man of profound spiritual vision, gifted with intellectual qualities, Pastor Parker was a faithful servant-leader of Bibb Mount Zion Baptist Church. Under his God-given leadership, numerous lives were saved, 20 new ministries were implemented, Camp Zion was created, a life center was erected, and a new sanctuary is under construction. In his continued effort to win souls to Christ, Pastor Parker served as CEO of Next Level Community Development Center Inc., a ministry offering a summer program for children 5-18 years of age, a Computer Literacy Class, and an after school program.
I am careful not to scold the family for choosing language that fits their sensibilities—language stitched together to form a narrative of a life they remembered; yet, there is a type of violence that is enacted when the truth of one’s mental health history (one that the dead sought help in response to…a history of struggle that resulted in one’s own self-demise…a history that loved ones admit they wished they had known about prior to the act of suicide) is invisibilized.
There is a type of violence that occurs when the noise of another’s pleas for help, regardless of the ways such pleas might manifest, are silenced. And while it might be the case that loved ones and strangers would rather resist the theological quandary that results from literal interpretations of scripture that seemingly casts suicide as the unpardonable sin, there is also a type of ecological depravity (that which speaks to the separations forged and maintained between living beings and its surroundings) at work when we are willfully silent about the mental health histories of sisters and brothers in our communal worshipping spaces.
An aspect of my own depression had to do with what I conceptualized as a resistance to vulnerability and truth within the churches in which I was a part. I wanted help, and though I could barely find and utter the words when I most desired, I was expected to show up “blessed,” “highly favored,” “healed.”
And, when and if I showed up “broken,” “sad,” “done with it all,” I was not provided time to say or be so. On the contrary, I was expected to be better because of others’ faith that God would make it so.
The most daunting consequence of our unwillingness to respond to issues of mental health is the deepening of our various disconnections—and disconnections are vicious forces. Love removes the space that separates us: had a few good friends refused to love me and refrained from intervening when I needed their presence and support during periods of depression, I would not be alive today. That I am alive and on the other side of periods of darkness has a lot to do with the force of their love.
Black churches are fine places to do this salvific love work. Yes, pray! And even praise. But, be sure to provide resources to those who might need the intervention of mental health professionals, too. Be sure to speak up and be accountable to the needs of those within our communities who live through mental health issues.