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Hanging on to the rock


July 15, 2011
- Rachel Bergen

Waterloo, ONT. — The great commandment states in part to “love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul and mind,” but for Gayle Gerber Koontz, it’s easier said than done, especially if you don’t have your mind.

In a Mennonite Church Canada Assembly 2011 seminar entitled “Life Flows On: Church Families and Mental Illnesses,” Gerber Koontz recounted stories of her family members who have struggled with mental illness. The Professor of Theology and Ethics at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) said that church community can make all the difference.

Gerber Koontz shared her family’s utterly terrible experience  had with mental illness, but said that through many approaches to care including medical intervention, patience, meaningful work, a supportive community, and strength, they were able to see the light at the end of an otherwise dark and hopeless tunnel.

“In the midst of pain that doesn’t go away, pain, suffering and joy can exist together,” she said. This can happen when the church helps families with mental illnesses abide in the love of Christ.

During discussions, participants determined that people in the church can often get caught up in their own misunderstandings and misinterpretations, and end up handling a situation poorly. The situation becomes especially difficult when family members suddenly have to cope with a mental illness that they have not experienced before.

“I didn’t know how to ask for help… I didn’t know what I needed,” Gerber  Koontz said.

What families really need are educated friends, a small group of very devoted friends, physical acts of kindness, honesty, and perhaps even the anonymous availability of funds to access so that financial burdens can be lightened.

The support from a church community can mean so much to a struggling family, Gerber Koontz says.

According to the lyrics of Hymn 580, “My life flows on,” which was introduced during the seminar, “No storm can shake my inmost calm – how can I keep from singing?” Gerber Koontz says that “I’ve sure been shaken, but I have held onto a rock that indeed God is Lord.”

She has since come to believe that her experiences have been blessings. Though she would never wish such suffering on anyone, she has gained a new understanding and awareness of mental illness. She has learned about courage, the ability to accept help gratefully, to feel hope that it’s possible to survive crises, and developed connections with other families who have had similar experiences. She has also developed new sensitivities in teaching and a profound sense of Christian community.

“I learned how to live with joy and hope and with thanksgiving in the midst of suffering,” Gerber Koontz said.