Years ago, while working for a large southeastern bank, I left my office mid-day to find food.
I don’t recall the time of year, but it was pleasantly warm and sunny, the kind of day Richmonders often enjoy.
Walking down the sidewalk, an apparently homeless man sat in the shade of a high-rise along my chosen path. To everyone passing by, he held out a dirty baseball hat, asking for money.
As I approached, he made the same request of me. My standard response in that situation is to make only fleeting eye contact and shake my head no.
For every person who had gone before me, some using my technique, others using the technique of completely ignoring the presence of this human on the sidewalk, the avoidance methods worked.
When it was my turn, not so much.
Ever so briefly, I made eye contact with the man. As I shook my head, he could take no more.
“I am Robert Foxworth!” he shouted at me.
I’m quite sure I jumped, startled by his actions. “I am Robert Foxworth!” he shouted again.
By now, many people on the sidewalk were looking at this youngish man, obviously down on his luck, shouting his name repeatedly.
I didn’t run, but I didn’t do anything noble like talk to this suffering human. I’m no better than anyone else. I did walk a little more briskly, in case Robert Foxworth tried to talk to me, or did anything more frightening.
I think about Robert Foxworth a lot, though this event happened more than 20 years ago.
More than likely, Robert Foxworth had parents who loved him and a best friend in grade school. He probably had a first crush, a first kiss, a first love. No doubt he had dreams and aspirations. He wanted to matter.
No matter how he ended up begging on the street – whether the result of drug abuse, or criminal activity, or just the loss of a job which led to a spiral of financial disaster, Robert Foxworth still wanted to matter.
God wove into the DNA of every human the knowledge that each of us is made for something special, something unique, that only I and you and each person reading this can give to the world. Being mentally ill or in prison or homeless doesn’t diminish that desire to matter, to be significant, to find that purpose that God has in mind for you or me or Robert Foxworth.
Most people with mental illness will never end up homeless, shouting their name at strangers on a busy downtown sidewalk. Most people with mental illness will live pretty normal lives, but like Robert Foxworth, keep their mental health struggles hidden in the shadows, in places where people who don’t have mental illness can’t see. It’s too hard to be honest about the struggles of mental illness, because the sharing often comes with even more rejection. One of those places where people with mental illness are often not welcome is the church.
Jesus leveled his fiercest criticisms at church leaders who deemed some people not worthy of their time and care, often because of behavior and illness that didn’t fit with the cultural beliefs regarding sin and personal significance. Since our Lord is not capricious, and is consistent in how He cares for the afflicted, the same criticisms apply to believers and Churches who reject the wounded today.
This is the reason why Outside In Ministries is sponsoring the event “Mental Health Ministry in the Local Church” on Saturday, November 19. From 8:30am – 1pm, come hear leading thinkers in psychiatry, ministry, child abuse and other related topics share their knowledge as well as ideas about how your church can minister to individuals and families with mental illness.
No one is immune to mental illness. From Van Gogh to Abraham Lincoln to Jeremiah the weeping prophet to Isaac Newton to me to probably you and every fourth person around you, mental illness is everywhere. It’s time we talk about it in the Church, and learn how to support the people with these struggles that are common to humanity. I can’t solve other people’s mental health problems – and neither can you – but we can learn to come alongside mentally ill people in their struggles, and be the hands and feet of Christ to them when they need it most.
You can register by clicking here.
The one place that’s supposed to be safe is the Church community. Let’s learn together how we can make our churches places safe not just for ‘normal’ people, but for people who struggle with depression, anxiety, PTSD, neurological differences, bipolar disorder and more.
Because one man, sitting alone on a sidewalk screaming to be heard, is one man too many.