Pastors provide solace during holidays as mental health issues heighten

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

So declares Isaiah, the prophet whose words are an integral part of the Advent season. Some two millennials later, many are still walking in darkness, and the number of those struggling to see the light is rising.

A 2023 “The State of Mental Health in America” report released by Mental Health America found that over 50 million Americans were experiencing a mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) adds that the holidays only make life harder for those living mental illness, with 64% of people seeing their condition worsen in December.

And according to the Rev. Sarah Lund, minister for disabilities and mental health justice for the United Church of Christ, isolation and loneliness are contributing to the crisis. She points to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s statistics, which revealed a rise in suicides in the country, especially in the older population.

“That is a key demographic in our denomination, and it’s important to remember that it’s a generation where there’s still stigma around depression. You just don’t talk about it,” said Lund.

Providing holiday hope

At First Church of Christ Congregational in Glastonbury, Conn., the Rev. Kate VanDerzee-Glidden is getting conversations started and spreading holiday cheer to those who might be feeling isolated. Every year, each teen in the confirmation class is assigned to make a Christmas visit with an elderly member of the church.

“It is a wonderful way to bridge the generations,” she said, adding that the holiday visits are the very thing that the teens talk about the most when reflecting on their confirmation journey. 

Another way UCC churches are more intentional of reaching those who are grieving, lonely or experiencing a mental illness, is by offering a Blue Christmas or Longest Night service. While the origins of the service are fuzzy, Blue Christmas began in the early ’90s. It is sometimes called the “Longest Night” as the service is traditionally offered on or around the winter solstice (this year on Dec. 21). These usually are contemplative worship services that create a safe space to name the struggles of people and provide a place where it’s okay not to be okay.

“I have hope for congregations to be open to the call to be part of the hope that is coming into the world,” said Lund, noting how Blue Christmas services seem to be gaining in popularity among UCC churches. “Blue Christmas worship makes a space for the hardship and where all is not happy.”

The UCC National Setting has hosted its own Blue Christmas and Longest Night services for several years, and this year is no exception. The Global H.O.P.E. team led a Blue Christmas service on Dec. 5, while Nurture the Soul’s final offering of 2023 will be a Longest Night service on Dec. 21.

The UCC Global H.O.P.E. team led a Blue Christmas service on Dec. 5.

Embracing grief

The Rev. Donté Jones knows how important it is to make a space for grief during the holidays, especially as the congregations he shepherds — Wisdom’s Table at Saint Peter’s UCC and Grace UCC, both in Lancaster, Pa. — are in the challenging, hopeful and sometimes sorrowful process of becoming one congregation, Wisdom and Grace UCC.

“If anyone can bear witness to grief and loss, it’s these two congregations,” said Jones. “Our life together is adventurous in hope and in grief, particularly during high liturgical seasons like Advent, where the loss of church facilities translates to the loss of simple traditions that anchor us in sacred memories.”

On Dec. 20, the two congregations, both of which recently sold their facilities — and the Lancaster community — will gather for a Blue Christmas service entitled, “Seasons of Reflection.”

“Members from both congregations have bravely agreed to share their personal stories of grief during this holiday season, addressing topics like divorce, death, addiction, incarceration, LGBTQIA+ discrimination/family rejection, and more,” said Jones.

Special musical guests from local theaters will be present, accompanying the congregation in the holiday-themed songs chosen by each storyteller.

The Blue Christmas service is a partnership with two local organizations as well. One is West Art Lancaster, a group that purchased one of the two congregations’ facilities, Jones said, and now uses it as a live performance venue and art gallery, as well as community space for 12-step, yoga and church groups. The other partner is Hospice and Community Care, which offers free grief support services to individuals. Funds collected at the service will benefit the organization.

Beauty in brokenness

For Jones, though, the highlight of this year’s Blue Christmas service will the reintroduction of an art installation that has meant so much him. It is a broken heart which was created a years ago by members of Wisdom’s Table for the season of Lent.

The heart is bound back together, reminiscent of an ancient Japanese art form known as “kintsugi” where broken pottery is melded back together with gold to symbolize the beauty in brokenness.

“As I see it, this heart, stricken with grief, is not ‘healed’ or ‘repaired’ but divinely cared for and ‘added to’ reflecting a new reality and story,” said Jones.

After the sale of Wisdom’s Table’s property, the heart was stored away, becoming a personal point of grief for the pastor. The heart is now out of storage and will take center stage at the Blue Christmas service.

“That heart is giving new meaning to our Blue Christmas service, symbolizing our collective grief. It represents the pain and beauty we experience in grief and the hope that life might continue with new meaning that doesn’t replace but complements our history,” said Jones.

A heart, traditionally displayed during Lent, is the focus of the upcoming Wisdom and Grace UCC’s Blue Christmas service in Lancaster, Pa. The heart, says the Rev. Donté Jones, captures that what is broken by grief can lead to a new reality — a new wholeness.

And that’s not just a soundbite from a pastor’s sermon.

In 2020, as Advent began, Jones lost his father, the Rev. David Jones, to COVID. It was a “devastating shock” Jones said as he and his family thought his father’s case was not life-threatening. However, the morning he was to be released from the hospital, the family received word that he had died. He was only 60 years old.

“Instead of the usual festive preparations, our Advent was spent writing obituaries, arranging a burial plot and selecting the clergy robe for my dad, a tradition in African American communities to bury pastors in clergy vestments,” said Jones.

Community and authenticity

While his loss was deep and profound, Jones also learned that grief was not his adversary.

“I’ve come to see that it’s the body’s way of acknowledging the love and longing for my dad. I’m learning not to fear grief but to open my heart to it and let it pass through, regardless of the time it takes,” he said. “I believe many UCC congregations offer a unique gift to their neighborhoods — authentic ears willing to listen to stories of grief, a rarity in a season with a low tolerance for sadness.”

For Lund, her hopes are that those listening ears will continue to hear the wails, whispers and whimpers of those who are walking in darkness long after the Christmas lights are dimmed. She is urging congregations in 2024 to become more intentional in connecting with others: have a meal with someone, call, visit through Zoom. And not only create community, she adds, but practice authenticity.

“We have become experts at masking our pain,” said Lund. “Start asking the question, ‘How is it with your soul?’”

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Categories: United Church of Christ News

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