Companioning is about walking alongside.
These words grace the spirit of Plymouth House of Healing, an outreach project of Plymouth Congregational UCC in downtown Seattle that offers a model for how to provide caring companionship and a stable home for formerly homeless residents living with mental illness.
Don and Karen Gwilym have been involved in Plymouth House since its inception five years ago.
"We began a companion program with companions sitting with the many homeless and mentally ill who visited our 1,100-member church on Sundays. We soon realized that the whole congregation needed to be educated," says Karen Gwilym, Plymouth's first parish nurse. "The ensuing forums broke the silence among several church families with mental illness."
Craig Rennabohm, a mental health chaplain from Plymouth UCC who walked the downtown streets, noticed the same people going in and out of nearby Harbor View Hospital. To break this pattern, they needed supportive housing.
Rennabohm had an idea that drew "companioning" to a new level. The church developed a companion home for four residents from Harbor View — four companions and a house manager. Eight people live in the eight-bedroom Plymouth House. It has made a difference both for residents living with affective disorders such as bipolar, schizophrenia and depression, and for companions — mainly recent college graduates — who serve for one year.
"Often," Gwilym says, "people with mental illness are isolated and don't know how to take the first step toward connection. We help with that first step."
Residents spend from three to six months at Plymouth House until they are stable. The program then finds them permanent housing. Even though they house only four residents at a time, she said, only two of the thirty-six people who have found community and a healing space at Plymouth House have returned to the hospital for medication adjustment.
The ministry now encompasses Plymouth Healing Communities, two additional houses, and a cluster group in a small apartment. A recently opened third house offers permanent, independent housing with individual rooms for six people. An "itinerant companion" joins them weekly for dinner. As many want their own apartment but still want the community when they leave, Plymouth's next project probably will be one floor of a large apartment complex, Gwilym says.
The church thrives with multi-aged participation from Sunday companioning to study and support groups, from making health kits to providing supplies, from house-purchase and total house renovation to annual operating support. In his June 26 "musings," then Interim Minister Don Mayer wrote, "I know of no other denomination which so formally charges its members to do continuing work for contemporary relevance in expressing the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. And the congregation of Plymouth answers that call with astonishing faithfulness."
For its depth and breadth of ministry, Plymouth Church received the Mental Illness Ministries' Bob Dell Award at General Synod 25. The UCC Disabilities Ministries citation recognizes a local UCC church or person that has done much to eliminate stigma, build a ministry, or advocate for legal protection for persons with serious mental illnesses.
In addition, UCCDM honored Nancy Phipps, a person with a disability who is active with the Kansas-Oklahoma Accessibility Task Force.
The task force nominated Phipps for the UCCDM Award, saying, "She is so deserving of recognition for her attitude and work in the face of limitations."
The Rev. Dee Brauninger, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Burwell, Neb., is editor of "That All May Worship and Serve" and an executive committee member of the UCC Disabilities Ministries.
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