It sounds so unchristian of me, a Christian minister, but one time I actually called the cops on a man because he came to church…a man who came to church during a psychotic episode. And it broke my heart to make the call.
This man first came a week earlier to talk with me in the church office. He wanted what lots of us want: he wanted prayer and support. He wanted to find a church home.
I could tell by his appearance that he was troubled. His personal hygiene was poor and he was very disorganized and disoriented. I sensed that he struggled with a serious mental health disease.
However, that day he simply wanted someone to talk to and someone to pray with him for half an hour. Then he rode off on his bicycle. I invited him to come back for worship because, “no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
He came back the following Sunday morning to worship and sat in the last church pew, smiling and sitting tall. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
Then the next day he stopped by to see me. He was very emotionally disturbed, a tornado of anger.
He didn’t want to listen to my suggestion that he sit down and calm down. He didn’t want to come back later when he was cooled off. I don’t even remember what he was angry about. What was worse, we had some kind of meeting going on at the church and his presence was perceived by others as highly disruptive. The office staff felt afraid and threatened by his mental instability.
So after calling the church leaders to get their advice about what to do with the man who came to church, we decided to call the cops. I explained the situation and they said they’d send an officer who has experience with this type of thing.
When the cops arrived, they laughed under their breath. They knew him. He was a regular. They said they hadn’t seen him in about a year. During that period of time he was able to stabilize his life, get medication, get money from his sister, get an apartment and find a church home with us.
Now suddenly the life he reassembled was gone. They put handcuffs on him and walked him to the squad car. They took his bike, too.
I felt awful. What had I just done? I can’t believe I had this guy hauled off of church property for what? For needing healing? For needing help? For needing Jesus? For wanting to pray? What kind of pastor does that?
I felt like a failure. We were suppose to welcome everyone to our church “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey.”
Was it the right thing to do?
He never came back to our church.
In an article in the New York Times on April 1, 2014, it’s reported that police are shooting and killing more and more people with severe mental illness. Why is this happening?
People with severe mental illness often challenge authorities because there is a difference in the perception of reality. And too often there is a knee jerk reaction of gunfire instead of a medical intervention.
So what are religious leaders to do when a person with severe mental illness comes to church during a psychotic episode?
I hope that we can trust law enforcement officers to refrain from using lethal force and killing someone who is in a state of extreme psychological suffering.
One thing religious leaders can do is to be in conversation with the local police department and encourage them, if they don’t already, to have specially trained officers to dispatch when a person with mental health disease is involved.
It turns out in this case, the officers knew him. They knew his bark was bigger than his bite. I live in a small town. But it could have turned out differently.
A man came to church to pray and he left in handcuffs, not a body bag. Maybe he’s sitting in a church somewhere today. Maybe he’s riding his bike along a sandy road. Maybe he’s alone in a cell.
I think we were more afraid of what we didn’t know and it made us really uncomfortable. We were ashamed and horrified at his uncivilized behavior and it happening at the church, of all places. So we asked the police to take him away. We didn’t want to be exposed to that kind of suffering.
In the bible, people like him with severe mental health diseases were chained up in graveyards…with the dead as companions. Then Jesus comes along and heals them, setting them free, to be among the living.
One of the greatest challenges for the church is how to be more like Jesus. It’s true that sometimes we Christians act as if Jesus never came.
But he did.
Jesus came so that all might have life, and have it more abundantly. All means all…even the man who came to church to pray.