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The Black Church and the Mental Health Crisis The Black Church and the Mental Health Crisis

The scene was a poignant one, played out night after night all over the deep south. An exodus of dusty, overworked field slaves trudged through the darkness on their way to a “meeting on the old camp ground." It was an appointment they had to keep – even after picking and gleaning in cotton fields since the sun’s rising.

Weary bodies were powerless against the compelling draw to the old camp meeting. Soaring spirits sparked exuberance and hopeful anticipation of the transformation about to take place. Some only had an open brush arbor, sometimes called a “brush harbor,” as a place of worship. Others had a little wooden structure they called “the praise house.”

Look now as they gather, singing and strutting on their way. Someone might raise a chorus of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and everyone would join the refrain:

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home

Perhaps a verse or two of “This Train Is Bound For Glory,” might be heard:

This train is bound for glory, this train.
This train is bound for glory, this train.
This train is bound for glory,
Don’t carry nothing but the righteous and the holy.
This train is bound for glory, this train.

Or the abiding favorite, “Steal Away to Jesus:”

Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus!
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain’t got long to stay here.
My Lord, He calls me,
He calls me by the thunder;
The trumpet sounds within my soul,
I ain’t got long to stay here.

The mood was jubilant and free because something wonderful was about to happen. These oppressed were preparing for the rapture of emotion and release that would sweep them up and take them beyond their mean and present fate. God’s hope of glory in Jesus promised something wonderful beyond the earthly realm in the hereafter. But a succulent foretaste was available to all every time they gathered for worship.

The itinerant black preacher made his rounds throughout the region, belonging to no one but God. He was the chosen conductor, anointed by his Creator, to lead the flock into an abandon of woes and cares weighty enough to rob them of life. Worshippers filled the arbor and packed the praise house to overflowing. They knew the bonds of depression and hopelessness would soon be unshackled.

God’s conduit of deliverance was the passionate swell of their preacher’s voice, recounting the well-loved Bible stories of “Ole Dan’l in de lions’ den,” or ‘Lil’ David slayin’ that big ole giant Goliah.” That “call-and-response” tradition brought over from the shores of Africa “helped the preacher preach.” He shouts a phrase, and the congregation roars an enthusiastic response. Back and forth, back and forth – the scene builds into a peaking crescendo when he proclaims the Lord’s deliverance in the sermon’s end.

The joyous throng fills the air with unbridled shouting that can be heard for miles around as dancing feet on the old wooden floor planks rumble underneath. What looks like a nonsensical and pointless display of emotion to outsiders is actually a liberating and transforming journey on the glory road. The genius of black preaching brought a cathartic, therapeutic relief that saved a race from committing suicide.

The shouting would go on late into the night and early morning. When the sun rose once more on the monotony of another work day in the fields, new strength and spiritual fortitude had somehow dispelled the fatigue and psychosis brought on by their hapless circumstance.

The black minister “preached them happy,” inciting the frenzied release of the emotional and mental anguish that struck at their sanity. What the black preacher did for his people was a reality, I don’t believe, that was ever lost on him. He understood his call. He understood his mission – the very survival of a race most assuredly rested upon his shoulders.

Today’s call-and-response practice in black congregations with their pastors is derived from those foregenerations. Indeed, the modern role of a pastor and the church family is as vital to African-Americans as ever.

To acknowledge this given, based on the historical church in African-American culture, is to also acknowledge that the church as an institution has always been an informal provider of social services to its congregants. The next logical step then, is to make the church a formal entry point and linkage to established systems of mental health care.

Thus, the Emotional Fitness Centers of Tennessee were conceived. This vision embodies the invaluable partnership between the church and mental health professionals. The church brings to this alliance a long-held trust between black ministers and their people. The mental health community brings effective and proven modes of diagnosis and treatment. Each standing alone cannot fully address mental wellness issues in the African-American community. Together, they provide a meaningful vehicle for mental health care.

Issues which are uniquely prevalent in the African-American experience reflect an emerging and ever-growing need to identify psychosis and devise steps to address each issue. Incest and child molestation, depression, unresolved grief and trauma, the effects of “fatherlessness,” the self-hatred of violent crime, teen mothers with illegitimate babies and the culture of silence and denial threaten any bridges the two can build.

Members seek professional help, but only if their pastor extends his “blessing” to do so. He gives them “permission” to grieve, to feel, to acknowledge depression and brokenness and to seek the best treatment available. Medication, clinical counseling, group therapy and other methodologies are essential on the road to wholeness in the black community.

When ministers are properly trained to assess emotional needs and to identify and refer clinical treatment, he or she acknowledges that the person needs more help than they can offer. Referral to mental health professionals and institutions for intervention and assistance is life-saving and life-changing.

A strong faith and education of our youth will not solve all the community’s woes. I believe mental health and wholeness as a mission-driven effort of the corporate church community will cause rampant murder assault and other violent statistics to plummet.

The concept of “Emotional Fitness Centers” is vital to the wholeness and survival of African-Americans, just as surely as the black preacher in the praise house was to our predecessors. In the clamor of so many priorities in a faltering economy and a discordant and war-torn world stage, the Emotional Fitness Centers continue our work to strengthen the alliance between the black church and mental health.

Dr. William M. Young, Sr., LPC, CPT, LMFT, is Bishop of The Healing Center of Memphis, TN. He and his wife, Pastor Diane Young, Oversee the Partnership of the Emotional Fitness Centers of Tennessee as they seek to address the emotional distress and mental health needs of their community.

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