We are a big urban meeting. A lot of life sloshes in through the doors which we constantly try to keep open: interested neighbors, curious passers-by, parents whose children are students at Germantown Friends School and other seekers.
Most of the time people are cheerful, hard-working, and securely grounded in their spirituality and faith.
We do, however, always have a few members or attenders who are struggling with difficult issues, whether they are internally raging emotional storms or external behavioral challenges. And from time to time some truly troubled neighbor will also walk in the door and come to stay.
Our Care and Visiting Committee tries to take them all under its wing. Many troubled souls can be comforted and encouraged simply with some loving outreach: a Friendly visit, an invitation to go for a walk together, a shared cup of tea or a meal.
But from time to time we are confronted with someone whose soul is being eaten away by troubles beyond our capacity, however lovingly intended. Or we are challenged by a Friend whose mental illness prevents him or her from participating productively in the life of the meeting.
For some Friends internal anxieties stand in the way of their being fully present to the gathered group. Or, a Friend’s rage boils over into worship or other meeting activities creating confusion and disruption. And, then there are Friends who find the disruptive behavior intolerable and even at times unsafe and who may struggle against a strong desire to withdraw from meeting. For these reasons, unattended mental illness can tear at the fabric of love and trust within a meeting community.
Persons with behavioral differences are hard to understand and connecting with them is often difficult. At times, their behavior can be quite disturbing and even frightening to Friends at meeting. The visitors on our Care & Visiting committee are warm, loving, generous men and women who give and give and give—but serious mental illness requires more.
First, it requires Care & Visiting members to acknowledge the limitations of their ability to respond knowledgeably to the behavioral challenges presented by some members of the community. This is an important step to take. But it is hard to do because of our belief in the healing power of a loving and supportive community. Second, it requires creating unity among meeting members that something more needs to be done; the meeting needs to reach beyond itself for support and guidance on an issue which is affecting its functioning. In such cases, we have come to realize that it is important to help Friends find professional care as soon as possible.
Friends Counseling Service has been a wonderful resource: there is scrupulous care for confidentiality, access is easy, and charges are reasonable. At Germantown Friends Meeting, we’ve set aside a fund to help pay the costs for Friends who cannot afford to pay the full counseling fee from their own resources. This seems to us as important as providing scholarship support for growing children: mentally healthy adults are as vital as well-educated children for the health of our meeting.
In instances, where we have searched for unity to bring a troubled Friend back into the meeting community to restore feelings of safety and trust, we have invited the PYM Care & Aging Coordinator to meet with us. Working with the PYM Care & Aging Coordinator and utilizing the PYM Friends Counseling Service has helped us understand the limitations of what we on Care & Visiting can do while simultaneously providing much needed real help to our troubled Friends.
While these Yearly Meeting services help serve our most troubled members and attenders, they also expand our capacity to minister to all Friends in ways which are knowledgeable and caring and which enhance the life of the meeting. We’ve learned that it’s important to turn to professionals before problems harden and behavior —and response—becomes habituated.
On one occasion, we invited the PYM Care & Aging Coordinator to meet with both Care and Visiting and Worship and Ministry to think through how best to respond to a very angry Friend who was disrupting meeting for worship. On another occasion we asked him to meet quietly with a group of concerned Friends about one silently miserable and very scared Friend who had simply stopped coming to meeting.
In neither case was there an immediate solution. But, in both cases the support and professional explanation of our Friend’s condition helped us think through a loving and united response. These responses, combined with reaching out to our suffering Friend with offers of care and support, helped to maintain unity among us and to provide competent and spiritually grounded professional counseling to our members.
Florence Mini is the Clerk of the Care & Visiting Committee of Germantown Friends Meeting.