Three years ago, I traveled to rural Oregon to profile a minister who worked to bring healing — and answers — to his reeling town after a string of suicides:
ALSEA, Ore. — At the little white church off the two-lane blacktop, the front door stays unlocked all the time — just in case a passerby needs to use the restroom.
Through the windows of the Lobster Valley Church of Christ, a 40-member congregation started by pioneer loggers a century ago, minister Brian Leavitt can look out and spot deer, elk and an occasional bald eagle. Up the hill, sawmill and dairy workers rest in peace in a cemetery deeded to the church by a founding member.
“When I first moved here in the ’90s, we were still digging the graves by hand,” said Leavitt, 54, a retired U.S. deputy marshal. “It was kind of a time where you do a little decompressing and a little sharing.”
Leavitt, his wife, Chris, and their five children moved to this Oregon Coast Range community — 40 miles from the Pacific Ocean — about 15 years ago. They live on forestland dotted with colorful lilies and irises and frequented by black bears and cougars.
“It’s a pretty remote area, but it’s gorgeous,” said Leavitt, whose backyard overlooks a creek that runs into the Alsea River and serves as a swimming hole for salmon and steelhead.
Amid the beauty of wildflowers and wildlife, the ugliness of violent death gripped the tight-knit people of Alsea in 2009: Three suicides in three months shook the community.
“It took us to our knees,” Leavitt said.
Reporting that story opened my eyes to the hush-hush approach of many Christians toward suicide.
On the front page of today's New York Times, reporter Jan Hoffman reports on what appears to be a positive trend: more evangelical pastors embracing talk of mental illness:
EAGLE SPRINGS, N.C. — The pastor’s phone rang in the midnight darkness. A man’s voice rasped: “My wife left me and I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth. Give me one reason why I shouldn’t pull the trigger.”
The Rev. Matt Brogli, a Southern Baptist pastor scarcely six months into his first job, was unnerved. Gamely, he prayed with the anonymous caller, trying out “every platitude I could possibly think of.”
Eventually the stranger assured Mr. Brogli that he would be all right. But the young pastor was shaken.
“I was in over my head,” he recalled. “I thought being a pastor meant giving sermons, loving my congregation, doing marriages and funerals, and some marital counseling.”
Since that midnight call two years ago, Mr. Brogli, 33, has become the unofficial mental health counselor not just for his church, but throughout Eagle Springs, population 8,500, a fading rural community of mostly poultry and tobacco workers, with five trailer parks and six churches.
It is no easy task, in large part because from pulpit to pew there is a silence and stigma among conservative Christians around psychiatric disorders, a relic of a time when mental illness was seen as demonic possession or a sign that the person had fallen in God’s eyes.
But Mr. Brogli and other evangelical ministers are trying to change all that.
Generally, I find it easier to point out what's wrong with a story than explain what's right. This is one of those cases where I'm tempted to say simply: This is good. Read it. Of course, that may be the Thanksgiving turkey overload (and need for a nap) talking.
What's right with this story? For one thing, as evidenced by the compelling lede, it is a story. It's not just a collection of facts.
The Times story is interesting, informative and intelligently written.
The pastor featured in the beginning appears not just in a cameo role but throughout the piece. The reporter weaves important background, survey data and expert sources around the pastor's experience. The Times also quotes leading evangelicals with highly personal connections to the issue, including Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page and megachurch pastor Rick Warren and his wife, Kay.
And the writer provides valuable context on the rift between conservative Christianity and secular psychotherapy:
Even today, psychotherapists receive scant training about the importance of religious belief in the clinical setting, said Kenneth I. Pargament, a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University and author of “Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy.”
“When a patient or client raises a question of faith, the mental health professional may be left unsure, and at best change the subject, or at worst treat it with skepticism and disdain,” he said.
These days, clergy members of diverse faiths often have degrees in psychology, and send troubled congregants to secular therapists. Practitioners specializing in “Christian counseling” are widespread, although certification requirements vary, as does the balance of religious and secular psychological training.
I could say more, but I'll end by saying this: This is good. Read it.