When Grace Evangelical Lutheran in Oak Ridge, Tenn., began looking for new ways to serve its congregation and community, longtime member Cleva Marrow didn’t hesitate to speak up.

Marrow, who’s in her 90s, was among the early residents of this wartime boomtown that was built around the Manhattan Project. The death of a longtime spouse and the effects of aging had at times affected her mental health, and she knew she wasn’t the only one.

Marrow suggested Grace start a mental health ministry and volunteered to be its first team member. Others whose lives had also been touched by mental health issues stepped up as well.

“Having experienced the effects of depression and anxiety, I wanted to help others,” Marrow said. “I believe it’s God’s work because it directs us into a path of service, love and caring for our fellow travelers.”

Marrow’s use of the word “travelers” seems fitting because the focus of Grace’s mental health ministry is on journeying toward recovery. Its mission is to lend support and encouragement; promote understanding and reduce stigma; provide assistance to those in treatment and recovery; and actively promote wellness.

With enthusiastic support from Stephen Damos, who was then pastor of Grace and is now retired, the ministry focused its first event in 2014 on congregation members who were willing to share their mental health stories.

“Through my own experience I was able to testify there is recovery—you can conquer, prevail and restore,” said ministry team member Karla Cummings. “Even at your lowest point, recovery can be just around the corner.”

Ministry in community

Encouraged by the attendance, the ministry team began planning monthly programs for both the congregation and community. Members connected with experts to be presenters, including those within the congregation.

Since then program topics have included suicide prevention training, grief, caregiver support, adolescent drug use, senior depression and more. Wellness and treatment topics have included mindfulness, gratitude, yoga, and art and music therapy. Attendance consistently ranges between 20 to 80 participants, an indication to team members—and area mental health professionals—that the ministry is needed.

“When approximately 1 in 5 adults will experience a mental health issue in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, it’s imperative for communities to elevate mental health literacy and emphasize early mental health screening, timely care and treatment,” said Michael Yates of Ridgeview Behavioral Services, a recovery-based treatment center in Oak Ridge.

“Grace Lutheran is responding to a very important call by ensuring opportunities throughout the year for the public to learn about mental health, substance abuse and suicide prevention.”

Another benefit is the opportunity to ask questions of practitioners outside a clinical setting.

“Networking and collaborations between the various presenters, the attendees and with Grace were an unexpected blessing and side effect of the gatherings,” said Leslie El-Sayad, president of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Tennessee. “With limited funding and resources available to individual organizations, it makes sense not to reinvent or duplicate our efforts but to collaborate and make money, staff and volunteer work go further.”

Grace partnered with both Ridgeview and the NAMI-Oak Ridge chapter to host a film screening during Mental Health Awareness Month last year.

Mind and spirit

Marrow said the greatest worth comes when people aren’t stigmatized but find reassurance instead.

Stephen Herbes, a grief counselor who has been a presenter for Grace’s mental health ministry programs, agrees: “Because of the prominent and respected niche churches occupy, a program like Grace’s, by enabling frank and open conversation in a community, goes a long way toward reducing stigma still often associated with mental health issues.”

Grace’s mental health ministry has continued to grow. They organize and host a candle-lighting service during Mental Illness Awareness Week in October, and the ministry is working with veterans as a designated Veteran Friendly Congregation (VFC).

VFCs represent faith-based initiatives by some veterans’ organizations, including the Military Chaplains Association. The congregations agree to promote awareness of veterans’ concerns; provide a welcoming environment for veterans and their families; and connect those in need with resources.

For Nancy Munro, council vice president at Grace, the ministry benefits not only the mental health of the congregation but its overall health as well. “The ministry has helped members connect with and support one another,” she said. “It’s been uplifting for a congregation increasingly concerned about a downward drift in attendance and younger members over the past decade.”

But for Cummings, the best reason for Grace to extend its ministry to those with mental health issues is found in Proverbs 11:25: “A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water.”

Sharon Boudreaux
Sharon Boudreaux is a freelance writer living in east Tennessee.

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