Hispanic leader says the Christian church's 'apathy, ignorance and complacency' on mental health is 'demonic'

by Tobin Perry, |
Rick Warren (far right) leads a panel discussion during the final plenary session of The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church. Also on the panel were (from left to right) Darrell Steinberg, Samuel Rodriguez, Katrina Gay, Patrick Kennedy, Kimberly Cripe, and Dr. Tom Insel. During the session, panelists discussed the future of caring for the mentally ill and how the church can respond to the needs of the mentally ill and chemically addicted. | Saddleback/SCREEN SHOT

LAKE FOREST, Calif. (Christian Examiner) - Churches that have mislabeled mental illness as purely demonic must repent from dismissing it easily, a national church leader told attendees of Saddleback's Gathering on Mental Health and the Church last week.

"What's demonic is apathy, ignorance and complacency—that's demonic," said Samuel Rodriquez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. "Because we have not had the theological maturity, even biblical maturity, to understand that it's an illness. Where the church can be fully implemented, I'm driven by the dream of the church repenting for suffering with that theological myopia, for the silliness of apathy and complacency and misplacing this completely under the category of spirituality."

Rodriquez was among six leaders, from the religious, political, medical and nonprofit arenas, who joined Rick Warren in a panel discussion on the future of care for the mentally ill that concluded the mental health conference. The Warrens started the two-day conference at Saddleback's Lake Forest, Calif., campus last year after their son, Matthew, died in 2013 following a lifelong battle with mental illness. More than 2,200 people attended this year's conference on Oct. 8 and 9.

Rodriquez also noted that he hopes to see churches begin to train youth and children's pastors to spot mental illnesses early.

"It behooves us to somehow rewrite the narrative of how we equip our ministers," Rodriquez said. "For example, would it be appropriate for our children's pastors and ministers and our youth pastors to be adequately equipped to address and identify these issues?"

Then Rodriquez recommended that churches consider hiring health and wellness ministers to serve alongside their ministry staff and have mental health as part of their ministry duties.

The last session proved to be an opportunity for church leaders present to begin contemplating their next steps. Warren suggested churches begin to bring attention to the issue of mental illness by hosting civil forums in their own communities and inviting local political leaders to answer questions about the topic.

"You could do a forum for school boards," Warren said. "You could do a forum for the city council. Anybody could do that. When you do, the church or the synagogue just says, 'We care about this issue.'"

Calling it the pink elephant in the living room as he was growing up, former congressman Patrick Kennedy told the story of his mother, who struggled with alcoholism. Although everyone knew of her struggle, no one would speak up about it.

"Every one of the recent tragedies, if you look at the connection, it says everyone turned away from the person in need," Kennedy said. "That's what we do in this country when it comes to someone suffering from mental illness and addictions, we turn our backs on them. We have to examine the fact that we're a part of that, and it's difficult to break the silence. Shame is what ultimately kills many of us because it isolates us from the person we love, and it isolates us from the care we need. I don't know what we do about it except talk about it.

"The church has a powerful message because Matthew 25 talks about 'the least one of these, my brothers and sisters.' That's the one living on the margins. In this society, people with mental illness and addictions are the ones living on the margins."

At the conclusion of the two-day conference, Kay Warren urged churches to become welcoming communities for those with addictions and mental illnesses.

"Will you go back to your community and decide you'll become one of those faith communities whose arms will be open wide to all of those who are living with mental illness, that you will be an embracing, accepting, warm, caring congregation?" Kay Warren asked.