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 from 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 . . .
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 . . . there is a type of violence that is enacted when the truth of one's mental health history 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 . . . a type of ecological depravity at work when we are willfully silent about the mental health histories of sisters and brothers in our communal worshipping spaces . . .
Darnell L. Moore is a writer and activist. He is Co-Managing Editor, along with Tamura Lomax and Monica Casper, of The Feminist Wire. He is presently a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University.