You may wonder just what the story is behind the photo with this post. Clearly it’s outside, where there’s a long table covered with a host of really good appetizers. The table has a red table cloth, and it’s next to a shed of some kind with a stockade fence off to one side. So far so good, but you don’t have to look too closely to see that there snow next to the table and on the ground by the fence. What’s that about?
It’s about us getting together with friends in Minnesota when it’s early February, and the Covid numbers are still too high for us to gather inside. Of course, we could have waited for it to get warmer or for infection rates to drop further. But you don’t want to plan on it getting warmer in Minnesota any time soon. And besides, these are close friends, we’ve missed them for too long, and we really needed to spend some time together
So, on an afternoon when it was in the mid-twenties and a pretty strong northwest wind, we all gathered in their back yard, loaded up our plates, and sat socially distanced around their blazing fire pit. Dressed in full winter gear, then adding another layer with wool blankets, we did our best to eat without taking our gloves off and to talk through chattering teeth. Still, we managed to endure the cold together for over two hours before incipient frostbite forced us to say good-bye and go home to start thawing out.
I offer this story as an example of how far people will go to be together. Likely you have your own pandemic story of the how you’ve managed to be with friends while staying safe from infection. Our need for other people is so strong, that we’ll do a lot, including shivering while we chew, to spend time together. Until the pandemic, I don’t think that we thought a lot about how much we need to be with other people in order to thrive and be happy. By making being together so much harder, the pandemic has reminded us that our social ties are precious.
One of the tragedies of mental illness is how it can rob a person of social life and community. Sometimes it’s the illness itself that does this by causing someone to isolate. Sometimes it’s stigmatizing by society that makes it hard for a person in mental health recovery to find friendship and accepting communities. The need for community is so necessary during recovery, and it can be so very hard to find.
This is why our United Church of Christ Mental Health Network works to encourage our churches “to be welcoming, inclusive, supportive, and engaged” with those who are living with mental illness. As in many of our churches, worship at my own church begins with a pastor or lay liturgist offering an extravagant welcome to all who are present, saying that, “Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcomed here.” The Mental Health network urges our churches to live out this welcome by intentionally including those whose life journey includes mental illness.
At the heart of who we are in the UCC is the example of Jesus who again and again reached out to those that society excluded, thereby showing us that all people are children of God. When we welcome those living with mental illness, we are practicing faithful discipleship and living out the extravagant welcome that we offer in the name of Jesus. It is us being the best of who we are.
I hope that this time next year we can be with our friends without risking frost bite. I hope that this time next year our churches will be open, and we’ll be physically together. I hope and pray that when we do, we’ll be grateful, mindful of how precious our church community is and how we are called to share it with our brothers and sisters who live with mental illness.
Ordained in 1973, Bob Griggs has served UCC churches in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Minnesota. He is an Advisory Council member at Vail Place, a club house for people living with mental illness. He is also the author of A Pelican of the Wilderness: Depression, Psalms, Ministry, and Movies and Recovering from Depression: Forty-Nine Helps.