In the first weeks of November 2018, two disasters hit Ventura County, Calif. First, on the evening of Nov. 7, a gunman forced his way into Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks and opened fire. Thirteen people were killed, including the shooter.

Less than 48 hours later, the community received news that wildfires had broken out in the area and many homes had to be evacuated. By the time the fires were contained, three people had died and 15,000 structures were destroyed.

Before any of this transpired, Lynn Bulock, a deacon at New Hope Lutheran Church in Agoura Hills, was already assembling the Southwest California Synod’s application for a grant from ELCA Disability Ministries. In October 2018, Disability Ministries announced that it was offering as many as 25 grants of $10,000 each for congregations, synods and affiliates to start mental health ministries.

Bulock was excited to apply right away because she’s a grant writer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), in addition to serving as director for senior ministry at New Hope. Originally, she planned to start a mental health ministry in each of the synod’s nine conferences. “But then the first two weeks of November happened,” she said.

There was an outpouring of support in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and fires. People and organizations supplied money, shelter, food, comfort animals and more. Lutheran Disaster Response worked with Lutheran Social Services of Southern California to provide about $20,000 for essentials for wildfire evacuees.

But Bulock and her grant application committee knew these events had caused lasting trauma so they narrowed their focus to help those most directly affected.

The synod received a Disability Ministries’ grant to help fund educational and support resources for six ELCA congregations affected by the shooting and fires. The funds also will be used to provide counseling services through California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, and to help establish a synod database of local mental health resources.

The six congregations vary in size—the largest has an average weekly worship attendance of 600 and the smallest has 59.

Some of the congregations’ members were directly affected by the fires or the shooting. Others, including a 92-year-old member of New Hope, wondered why they weren’t. She lives in a row of condos destroyed by fire; only her unit was left intact. What members of all these communities have in common is a need for ways to cope.

Statistics from NAMI and the National Institutes of Health show that people with mental health concerns are as likely to seek help from their church as from a medical or mental health professional. After the disasters, people looked to the faith leaders in Ventura County for guidance.

Desta Goehner, director of congregational relations at California Lutheran, said she and campus ministers “went into overdrive,” offering comfort and counsel, and organizing vigils, memorials and funerals. Students told their stories to pastors they had never met before, trying to process their experiences.

Bulock wants all members of faith communities to know what to do when someone says they need help, and Carol Josefowski, coordinator of ELCA Disability Ministries, shares this vision. Josefowski knows people look to the church for meaning in times of confusion and tragedy, adding, “Religion is a place for natural seekers.”

Josefowski wants congregations to think purposefully about how they steward people in crisis, which is why the new application process for the grants is collaborative. The Disability Ministries team helps applicants design the best mental health solutions for their communities. The program seems to have tapped into a need that many faith communities already felt, as 55 congregations, synods and affiliates applied for the grants in 2019.

Bulock and her NAMI colleagues like to say that mental illness is not a “casserole illness,” she said, adding, “When you have cancer, someone shows up at your door with a casserole. No one does that if you have bipolar disorder. … We need to talk about mental illness the same way we talk about other chronic illness.”

As a faith community, Bulock said, “we need to expand our idea of what caring is.” She hopes the synod’s mental health ministry grant will help do this in Ventura County, where people are still trying to rebuild both their homes and their mental wellness.

Caitlin Sellnow
Caitlin Sellnow is an ELCA communications manager.

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