Thursday, July 24, 2014

Religion and Mental Health

It's been a year since Winnipeg mother Lisa Gibson killed her two children and herself due to postpartum depression. Following the tragedy, I wondered if religion could have made a difference for Lisa, and for others facing mental health challenges.

The tragic story of the death of Winnipeg mother Lisa Gibson—who killed her children and herself a year ago due as a result of postpartum depression—was covered by almost every angle by the media: Legal, criminal, mental health, gender, medical, political.

But one angle that didn’t get any attention from reporters was religion.

It’s not surprising in one sense; religion usually only makes the news when there’s a scandal or a new pope is elected. But it is surprising in another; numerous studies have linked being part of a faith community with positive mental health outcome, including dealing with suicide and postpartum depression.

Why does religion promote positive mental health? Without discounting the supernatural, a main reason is that being part of a faith community provides a network of caring people who look out for each other.

According to someone close to the family, the Gibsons did not belong to a faith community. But if they had, I wonder: How would local congregations have responded? I contacted some Winnipeg clergy to find out.

“In the context of regular involvement in church and small groups, people support one another in whatever life throws at them, whether that is an issue of mental health, physical health, child rearing, financial need or anything else,” says Marvin Dyck, pastor of Crossroads Mennonite Brethren Church .

“We become to one another a part of the village that raises the child, or otherwise carries someone along through the inevitable crises of life,” he says.

Allan Robison, President of the Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, says that caring for families is a high priority for Mormons.

“After the birth of a child we come to the home and bring meals for the family until the mother gets on her feet,” he says, adding that church members continue to make regular visits to see how parents are doing.

If professional help is needed, he says, the church is quick to connect people with other resources, he says. If necessary, they will pay for it. 

“I don't know if any of that could prevent what happened [to Lisa],” he says, “but we do love and care for each other, and that usually seems to keep our members feeling loved and cared for.”

Michael Wilson, pastor of Charleswood United Church, notes that being part of a faith community is no “guarantee that this tragedy might have ended any differently." But, he says, "I think being part of a faith community does matter. One hopes that a faith community is a safe place to tell others what you are experiencing and then shares it [that experience] with you.”

For women with post-partum depression, “we would hope that a faith community offers the prospect of being directed to the appropriate help by removing the stigma of naming our problems. Finally, we hope that companionship is a central element of being in a faith community and we try to connect people with others who have been through a similar struggle.”

Belonging to a faith community is no guarantee that people won’t face mental health challenges or crises. But it seems that being part of a congregation can make a difference when it comes to coping with them.

Photo from The Guardian. Credit Chris Rout. Read more about Lisa Gibson on the CBC Manitoba website.

Monday, July 21, 2014

One Giant Leap of Faith for Mankind

The anniversary of July 20, 1969 moonwalk reminded me of a column I wrote following the 2012 death of astronaut Neil Armstrong. Everyone knows that Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon. Less well known is that is also the date when the first communion, or celebration of the eucharist, took place on the moon.

Everyone knows that Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon. Less well known is the first communion on the moon.

It happened on July 20, 1969, the day that Armstrong and fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon.

Aldrin, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, performed the short communion ceremony, also called The Lord’s Supper.

"This is the pilot," Aldrin said into his microphone, ”I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way."

Aldrin then served himself communion, using a kit provided by the pastor of Webster Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas.

In 1970, Aldrin wrote of the experience. “I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me.

“In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture, 'I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.'

"I ate the tiny Host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements."

According to a 2009 story in the Washington Post, Aldrin had hoped that NASA would broadcast the service worldwide. But the space agency decided against it because of a lawsuit filed (and later dismissed) by atheist Madelyn Murray O'Hare after Apollo 8 astronauts read from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas.

In his 2009 book, Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon, Aldrin wrote: "If I had it to do over again, I would not choose to celebrate communion. Although it was a deeply meaningful experience for me, it was a Christian sacrament, and we had come to the moon in the name of all mankind—be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists.”

At the time, however, “I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.”

The small chalice Aldrin used for the wine went back to Webster Church. Each year on the Sunday closest to July 20, the congregation celebrates what it calls Lunar Communion.

Aldrin isn’t the only person to have gone to space who have had religious experiences.

Frank Borman, who read from the book of Genesis while orbiting the earth, later said “I had an enormous feeling that there had to be a power greater than any of us—that there was a God, that there was indeed a beginning.”

James Irwin, who walked on the moon in 1971, described the lunar mission as a revelation. “I felt the power of God as I’d never felt it before,” he said.

John Glenn—the first American in space—said about his view from his spaceship: “To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible.”

Glenn’s comments might have been made in response to the purported comment from the first man in space—Soviet Yuri Gagarin.

It was widely reported that Gagarin, who died in 1968, stated during his flight that he didn’t see God in space. However, no record of those comments back to earth exist, and his friend, Valentin Petrov, stated that the quote originated from a speech by Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev.

In fact, says Petrov, Gagarin was a baptized member of the Orthodox Church and reportedly told his friend that nobody can go to space and “not have God in his mind and his heart.’"

As for Armstrong himself, in keeping with the way he maintained a steadfast private life, it's not known if he was religious. But he did once say that "mystery creates wonder, and wonder is the basis of man's desire to understand.”

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Urban and Rural: The Other Two Canadian Solitudes

Flooded Manitoba Farm. Winnipeg Free
Press photo.

Parts of rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan are struggling with flooding. In Winnipeg, where I live, we hardly think about their struggles at all; the high water is just an annoyance--we won't be able to use the walkway along the river. The situation reminds me there are more than two solitudes in Canada; along with English and French there is urban and rural. I wrote about this in 2010, following another weather-related event that affected rural people, but not city dwellers. Note: The perimeter is a highway around the city of Winnipeg that divides it from rural Manitoba.

Like many other Winnipeggers, I have a unique affliction called perimeteritis. 

Perimeteritis is a disease that keeps me from thinking much about, or showing much interest in, things that happen outside of the city.

Thankfully, it's not fatal. It's also easily treatable. All I have to do is pay even just a little bit of attention to the issues that concern people who live in rural areas of the province--issues like the amount of rain we've had this summer.

For most city dwellers, the rain meant cancelled barbeques and ball games. But for those who earn their living off of the land, it's much more serious. 

Wet fields don't tend to produce much in the way of crops.

As Free Press columnist Laura Rance wrote in this newspaper, heavy rains in May and June produced an "unfolding disaster" as waterlogged fields turned crops from a rich, bright green to yellow and then dead brown.

Many farmers, she said, saw "this year's investment in seed, fertilizer and labour on thousands of acres wash away... it is one of the unfortunate realities farmers are facing after a spring that started out with so much promise."

Things looked more promising in July and August. But then, just as harvest time rolled around, more rain came and prevented farmers from getting on their fields.

"We've got some of our crop off, but we are still struggling to get the rest off," one farmer told the Portage la Prairie Daily Graphic. "There has been a lot of rain and showers, and there hasn't been a lot of harvesting days."

But all of this pretty much escaped me until I bumped into Melissa Miller, pastor of the Springstein Mennonite Church. I asked how things were going in her congregation. That's when my perimeteritis was once again exposed.

The mood at her church is one "of disappointment," she said, noting that things were especially difficult in spring when many fields were under water. Back then, "it wasn't clear if there would be a harvest at all," she said.

Today, people are more optimistic, but many crops "are not good quality, with some completely wiped out by water."

I asked her: What is the role of the church during times like these?

"Our role is to be a place where friends will understand and support you in hard times, and you can hear a biblical message of God's hope and sustaining presence," she said.

In her sermons and prayers this summer, she has been acknowledging "that life has hard times, but we can bring our concerns to God, and place ourselves in God's will."

Looking ahead, she thinks her church's Thanksgiving will "include the sense that our lives don't work out the way we hope. But even in times of disappointment, we will still give thanks to God for the privilege of having land, life and work."

After talking to Miller, I called Laurel Seyfert, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Friedenstahl and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Emerson, to see how things are going in her congregations.

A tough crop year like this tests "our whole understanding of God in our lives," she said, but added that "you really discover a depth of faith, how people depend on God and their faith community, and how they support each other at a time like this."

Seyfert sees her role as a pastor to give hope.

"My message is that God is with us through times of good and bad, of want and plenty," she said, noting that despite the challenges, her congregations will still give thanks when Thanksgiving rolls around.

"It's easier to give thanks when the bounty is full," she noted, "but we'll still give thanks, no matter what happens."

In Canada, we often talk about two solitudes that divide us: French and English. There are two more: Urban and rural. Like between French and English, rural and urban people need to find ways to build bridges of understanding. 

It can start with urbanites paying a bit more attention to life in rural Canada. In the process, we can begin to cure our own versions of perimeteritis.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

"A Revolution that Grew out of the Church"

Christian Führer died June 30. Few people outside of Germany know his name, or about the important role he, and the church, played in the 1989 peaceful fall of Communism in East Germany. I wrote about Führer back in 2011; an updated version of that column is below.

Twenty-five years ago this October, the wall dividing East and West Germany came down.

Those of us who were alive back then remember it as a joyful and jubilant occasion. We watched with delight on TV as hundreds of thousands of people peacefully pulled down sections of the wall dividing Berlin.

One of the people most responsible for the destruction of the wall died June 30.

His name was Christian Führer, and he was pastor at the Lutheran Church of St. Nicolas in Leipzig, East Germany, in the 1980s.

Early in that decade, 
Führer began organizing “peace prayers” every Monday in his church.

Attendance was sparse at first, but over time the church became a focal point for East Germans engaged in peaceful protest against the regime of East German dictator Erich Honecker.

According to Führer, the prayer meetings attracted so many people because the church provided "the only free space" in the country.

"Everything that could not be discussed in public could be discussed in church, and in this way the church represented a unique spiritual and physical space in which people were free," he said.

"Here a critical mass grew under the roof of the church--young people, Christians and non-Christians."

In May, 1989, East German police tried to prevent people from attending the prayer services, now known as "the Monday demonstrations." This angered many. But Fuhrer preached non-violence, and the crowds continued to grow.

Despite government crackdowns, attendance at the prayer meetings swelled. One night in October of that year, after it finished, over 70,000 people marched through the city as armed soldiers looked on, doing nothing.

A month later, the wall between East and West Berlin came down.

"If any event ever merited the description of 'miracle' that was it," Führer said. "A revolution that succeeded, a revolution that grew out of the church."

What made him happiest about the demonstrations was their non-violent nature.

“Thousands in the churches, hundreds of thousands on the street around the city center. Not one broken shop window," he said in an interview.

It was, he said, "the unbelievable experience of the power of non-violence.”

In an interview in the New York Times about his experience with the protests, 
Führer said that “I always wanted also to move in the earthly realm. It is not the throne and the altar, but the street and the altar that belong together.”

In a letter to Fuhrer's son, German President Joachim Gauck wrote that "Christian Führer was a bearer of hope to many people, both in his profession as a pastor and as one of the defining figures of the peace prayers in the Church of St. Nicholas as well as the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig that led to the peaceful revolution in East Germany.” 

"Your father saw standing up against injustice as an essential mission of the gospel."

After Germany’s reunification in 1990, Führer championed the rights of former East Germans who had lost their jobs after the fall of Communism, spoke out against government policies that would adversely affect poor people, and demonstrated against the Iraq War.

Just before he died, Führer was awarded Germany's National Prize for his role in the peaceful protests.

In an interview last year with a German newspaper, Führer responded to critics who had characterized him as a social romantic and an incurable optimist.

“I heard the same thing in the days before Oct. 9, 1989,” he said. “At that time they said, ‘You don’t really think that your candles and prayers can change something?’ But history saw things differently.”