Every day since his son Matthew died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound nearly a year ago, Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church has found himself in tears.
He has spent his nights journaling, trying to discern God's purpose in the pain that Matthew endured over his 27 years living with mental illness, and in the loss Warren and his wife, Kay, have felt since Matthew left their lives.
Warren has asked God why he took his youngest child, whom he remembers as a troubled but "kind, gentle, and compassionate man" with a "gift for sensing who was most in pain or most uncomfortable in a room."
He has prayed that something good might come out of something so awful.
On Friday, just eight days before the anniversary of their son's death, the Warrens launched a new chapter in their ministry, which has used its megaphone as one of the nation's largest and most influential churches to address alcohol addiction, drug abuse, orphan care and HIV/AIDS. The Conference on the Church and Mental Health, a daylong event at the church's main Lake Forest, Calif. campus that will be broadcast online, has amassed 3,000 registrations and features a lineup of pastors, academics and psychiatrists hosting panels and prayers to tackle the stigma of mental illness and suicide in the church.
"In God's garden of grace, even a broken tree bears fruit," Warren said in an interview with The Huffington Post, reflecting on a journal entry he wrote when Matthew was alive that's taken on new meaning after his death. "We knew that even with the massive pain we were going through, we would have to use it to help others."
Friday's conference, for which Saddleback has teamed with Bishop Kevin Vann of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Orange County to host, is the first step in what will be a long-term campaign to launch discussions of mental health in pulpits and pews across the U.S. Friday's workshops include "Christianity and Depression," "How to Launch a Support Group and Counseling Ministry in your Church," "Suicide Prevention: Saving Lives One Community at a Time" and "Food and The Body: Three Steps to Healing Eating Disorders through Community."
"There is no shame in diabetes, there is no shame in high blood pressure, but why is it that if our brains stop working, there is supposed to be shame in that?" said Warren, who said the family kept Matthew's illness a secret from the public not because of shame, but "because it was his own story to tell."
"After he died, well, I am such a public person, I thought I may as well grieve publicly, too. It helped," said Warren, who announced Matthew's death last April with a public letter asking for prayers, and was inundated with tens of thousands of emails and letters. "I am not the same guy I was a year ago. I am much more reflective. I am much more sympathetic."
While mental illness and suicide plague believers and nonbelievers alike, a series of high-profile tragedies in the past year have brought sharp awareness to the problem in the evangelical community.
In December, Isaac Hunter, the 36-year-old son of Orlando-area megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, one of President Barack Obama's spiritual advisers, committed suicide. The same month, Richard Cizik, the president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good and a former top lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, discovered his son dead from a heroin overdose in their Virginia home.
Last November, the suicide of Teddy Parker, Jr., a pastor of Bibb Mount Zion Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia, also made national headlines after Parker shot himself outside his home. Over the summer, Frank Page, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, released a book about his daughter, who took her own life in 2009.
Outside the religious community, mental illness and suicide have also become more common in the news. This year, a spate of suicides in the finance industry have rattled industry experts and mental health professionals. Last year, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report said that for the first time, more Americans are dying from suicide than car accidents. The same report said that suicides among people ages 35 to 64 rose nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2010. And about one in four adults are believed to suffer from mental illness, according to statistics from the National Institute for Mental Health.
Still, the situation is especially dire among evangelicals, said Warren. Survey results from the Southern Baptist-affiliated nonprofit Lifeway Research, released in September, found that close to half of evangelical, fundamentalist and born-again Christians believe prayer and Bible study alone can solve mental illness. Among Americans as a whole, about one in three shared that view. Nevertheless, 68 percent of Americans said they believed they would be welcome in church if they were mentally ill.
"It's just not the case that faith or religious belief will inoculate or immunize a person against mental illness," said Aaron Kheriaty, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine, who co-authored The Catholic Guide to Depression and will speak at Saddleback on Friday. "We want to convince Christians that psychiatrists, religious leaders and mental health advocates, all of us can work hand in hand."
The Warrens, who have increasingly shared their mourning in public following a four-month retreat from public life after their son's death, hope their new mental health ministry can also be a lesson in how to cope with struggles of all kinds.
"Everyone is going through loss in life. Grief is God's gift to us. It's how we get through," said Warren. "There is no growth without change, and there is no change without loss."
"Does that mean I don't think every day about what it would be like to have Matthew back? Absolutely not," he added. "There is nothing wrong with asking 'why.' Even Jesus asked 'why' on the cross. But what do you do when you don't get an answer? Some things won't be explained in life."
Kay Warren, who will also speak at the conference, shared her own views in a recent Facebook post. The message, shared, "liked" and commented on by 80,000 people, told mourners that it's okay to take things slow, and urged friends and followers to be more understanding of how the death of a child can affect a parent's outlook.
"Mourners are encouraged to quickly move on, turn the corner, get back to work, think of the positive, be grateful for what is left, have another baby, and other unkind, unfeeling, obtuse and downright cruel comments," she wrote. "What does this say about us -- other than we’re terribly uncomfortable with death, with grief, with mourning, with loss -- or we’re so self-absorbed that we easily forget the profound suffering the loss of a child creates in the shattered parents and remaining children."
Later, she added: "April 5, 2013 has permanently marked us. It will remain the grid we pass everything across for an indeterminate amount of time ... maybe forever."
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