Christians embracing Evolution

Christians embracing Evolution

A realistic reconstruction or what Lucy looked like. From the Houston Museum of Natural Science exhibit The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopa at the new Discovery Times Square Exposition center in Times Square, 2009. By Jason Kuffer, cc via Flickr

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the February 2015 SciTech newsletter, which is published by the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith (PASTCF). R. Wesley McCoy wrote the article upon learning that the PASTCF Executive Board had granted him the Daniel W. Martin “Science as Christian Vocation” Award, which honors persons whose professional scientific, technical, or educational work is clearly part of their calling to serve God and the world.

I have been a public high school science teacher for 36 years, and I have been a Christian for longer than that. I have found that a great many people think that their faith must be somehow shielded from the effects of science, as if science had the power to spoil or destroy faith. Unlike most Christians, I am required by my career choice to navigate quite a few science and faith issues all day, every day. My faith has been of great benefit to my understanding of science, and my scientific curiosity has been an exciting way to embrace my faith.

Let me explain how this could be true. My journey in science began, as I recall, with my grandfather. He worked as an advertising salesman for a local radio station in Augusta, Georgia. When I was four years old, he ran into our house and brought us all outdoors. His excitement was directed upward, and as he pointed, we all watched Sputnik travel overhead. I was captivated, not only by his enthusiasm, but for the power and possibility of science. If we could do this, what else was now possible? The methods of science made so many things explainable.

My faith journey was beginning around the same time. We went to church in Augusta and I remember of few of my Sunday lessons there, even as a five-year-old. When my father was selected as the new manager of a B.F. Goodrich store near Atlanta, we moved and began to attend a Baptist church during the summer leading up to the 1960 presidential election.

My clearest memory is of my mother suddenly standing and taking us out of the church one day. She told me later that it was because the minister was explaining to the congregation why a Roman Catholic should never be allowed in public office. We were suddenly churchless!

It happened, though, that we had moved in right next door to a Lutheran parsonage, so, when the pastor came over soliciting ten dollars to help pay the light bill at church, my parents decided to shift over to the Lutherans. As a new six-year-old Lutheran, I had nothing but questions for all the people I met in the church. Possibly, this is how I nurtured my faith all these years.

A person with a Scotch-Irish surname is a rarity in a Lutheran church, but I did not figure that out for many years. Maybe a fish out of water can be excused for asking so many questions. I determined that questions are the best way to nourish faith, just as questions are the best way to nourish science.

When Deborah and I married at age 29, we agreed to find a church with both an exceptional educational program and a strong community outreach. We were drawn to the teaching and ministry of a Presbyterian (USA) church in our area.

Among the excellent ministers and staff, we found the Rev. Mary Beth Lawrence, now of Fredericksburg, MD, who has a gift of matching congregants with service opportunities. Mary Beth urged me to reply to the invitation from PASTCF to identify Presbyterians interested in science-faith issues to help form a substantial presence in the church community.

My career as a science teacher had led me to a critical point in my faith journey. Faced early on with students, parents, and school administrators who believed that they had a Christian duty to reject scientific explanations of the world, I had to work out an explanation for what I believed myself. Fortunately, my family held very straightforward, open attitudes toward science.

Though no one in my family had ever graduated from college, all valued education very much. My mother responded to my seventh-grade fascination with the Periodic Table with the exclamation, “I’ll bet God was just tickled that people finally figured that out!”

Though I had no particular background in theology, that idea resonated so strongly within me, it became fundamental to my Christian understanding today. Yes, I believe God really is pleased when human beings figure out how the Universe works.

We are called upon to find and confirm natural rules and processes. The questions we ask about the natural world then strengthen our understanding of and commitment to God.

I then had to construct teaching methods for helping students understand evolution and cosmology without inculcating them in my own faith. Early on my school did not nurture diversity, but fortunately diversity was thrust upon us as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist students all began to study and work with us. I used religious diversity as a theme in my classroom. I explained to all my classes that certainly there are people who have religious views that do not fit with the current scientific explanations of speciation.

I explained that sometimes we find people who dismiss the ideas of evolution and cosmology on religious grounds. I explained that my job was not to cause anyone to change their religious ideas. My job as a science teacher was to present the most comprehensive current explanations for the natural world that I could find. We must also remember that science is constantly being improved as more data are discovered. As a self-correcting process, science has been shown to be a reliable method for understanding the natural world for many centuries. I promised my students that I would explain what is known about the natural world and how we know this to be true.

Sometimes students, parents, or other teachers suggest that a creation-evolution debate is the best way to allow “all sides” to present their ideas. I think that this is a spectacularly bad idea. First of all, such a debate assumes that there are only two possible views that may be held—either God exists or science is real. This either/or format completely negates any possible benefit from such a discussion, and it prevents us from investigating some really interesting questions.

For example, is evolutionary change one of the remarkable forms of creation, wherein God has formed a world that can create more species? How exactly does God work in the world? Do we restrict the word “miracle” to refer only to those events we cannot explain? If so, what happens to the miracle when we learn how to explain it?

The other main reason for rejecting such a debate as a teaching tool is that there really are people who believe that they have the only true understanding of God, and that all others are not simply misguided but doomed. I recall a middle school teacher telling her class, “Well, I am going to have to teach evolution to you, but I am a Christian, so you all know how I feel about that.”

Christians embracing Evolution

Charles Darwin Statue at the UK’s Natural History Musem. By PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE, cc via Flickr

Actually, no, I don’t. Do all Christians believe exactly the same things? Do Christian views result in wholesale rejection of all of science? A classroom full of teenagers is fragmented enough—racially, socially, economically, and by sexual orientation.

I do not need to further alienate them all from each other and from me.

Carrie, a ninth-grader in my Biology class, was the granddaughter of a minister at a church adjoining our school campus.

It was advertised as “Bible-believing” and “Footwashing.” Carrie was very quiet when I introduced the idea of evolution on the first day of Biology class. After teaching her about research methods, data analysis, cell biology, biochemistry, genetics, mutation, ecology, and classification, I told the class that we had been studying evolution all semester. Understanding evolution, I said, puts all the concepts of biology together in one explanation. I encouraged Carrie to go home and explain what we were learning in class with her family. When she returned to class on Monday morning, I asked her how things had gone with her family. She said, “I told them that God had to get all these things here somehow, and maybe He used evolution to do it.” I only hope that Carrie’s learning represents the cognitive shift made by hundreds of other children.

Teaching students in a classroom can be a very isolating experience. When the door closes, I am the only adult, and I am responsible for the science education of 35 students at a time. Most science teachers take this responsibility very seriously and try their best to implement the policies chosen by state and local school boards.

Sometimes, however, the school board can make a decision that flies in the face of excellence in education. The Cobb County Public Schools have a history of evolution rejection. For example, in 1983 the school board passed an equal-time regulation which required Biology teachers to teach creationism for 30 minutes if they chose to teach evolution for 30 minutes. The regulation also forbade the teaching of human evolution. The equal-time policy was abandoned as unconstitutional after two years, but the prohibition on teaching human evolution continued in force until 2002. Some teachers ignored these rules, while in other schools PTSA parents volunteered to time teachers with stopwatches when teachers decided to teach evolution.

I was working for NASA during the two years the policy was in force, so I did not have to face the implications of this rule in my classroom. However, I did find that I could teach all the human evolution I wanted to if students asked me questions about it, which students invariably did.

My school board responded to an anti-evolution petition signed by more than a thousand members of a church in our community by deciding to insert a “warning sticker” into Biology textbooks. I served on the textbook committee which had just selected Miller and Levine’s Biology as the best choice for our students.

I took action, complaining to our superintendent, our science supervisor, and our school board members. I contacted the National Center for Science Education and Eugenie Scott suggested an “alternate sticker” which I presented to the school board.

As I found out more than a year later, the alternate sticker was rejected as “too weak,” meaning it did not warn students about evolution strongly enough. It was obvious that the people who wrote this sticker had limited knowledge of science.

For example, the sticker was mandated to be placed into Biology and Earth Science books, but nobody required it to be placed into Environmental Science or Genetics textbooks, even though my Genetics text contained four chapters specifically about human evolution.

Fortunately, a local parent sued the school board to have the stickers removed, and I was allowed to testify against my school district in Federal Court in Atlanta. I was able to testify that even though the sticker was a very small piece of paper, it was disproportionately damaging to our efforts at science education, devaluing the scientific process. After all, bullets and viruses are very small things, but they can have devastating effects.

I do not know all the legal machinations that took place. For example, the church petition mysteriously went missing. However, Judge Clarence Cooper ordered the stickers to be removed immediately, and they were removed. The school board signed an agreement to not place stickers in textbooks in the future. The local newspaper estimated the cost to our county taxpayers as more than $300,000, including the $70 they had to pay my substitute teacher so that I could travel to Atlanta and testify.

The real message of that story for me is that the people best situated to make a difference in clarifying science education to the public are the people who attend our churches. What we need are people in our churches who understand the value of real science and real science education.

Church members can then be the ones who call on local and national leaders to press forward with plans to improve the science education being delivered to our students. Those very church members are they who can stand as witness to the fact that we Christians are compelled by our search for the truth to support strong science education standards.

The voices missing from most public discourse about the value of science education are the people who are dedicated Christians who reject the misinformation coming from creationists and supporters of intelligent design posturing. The general public seems to assume that all religious people agree with Ken Ham and his ilk. I am a Christian. I reject the pretend science espoused by the Creation Museum. We Christians not only accept evolution, we literally embrace evolution as an explanation of the natural world as created by God.

As we continue to discover new aspects of evolutionary processes, we acknowledge that our discovery allows us to glorify God more thoroughly and completely.

Wesley McCoy is an award-winning science teacher and, before retirement, was chair of the science department at North Cobb High School, Kennesaw, GA. He opposed actions of the Cobb County School Board to insert intelligent design theory into public school curriculums. Testifying at public hearings and in federal court, he urged strong science education standards in Georgia. He helped raise understanding in the religious community about the controversy and the importance of maintaining integrity in science education. Dr. McCoy was awarded Outstanding Biology Teacher for Georgia, the National Evolution Education Award, and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching. His Ph.D. is from Georgia State University.

Science for the Seminaries: A two-year effort to re-imagine clergy education

Science for the Seminaries: A two-year effort to re-imagine clergy education

Classroom 6 in Stuart Hall on the Princeton Theological Seminary campus. Credit: cc by Luke Jones via Flickr

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is assessing the effect of a pilot project it undertook two years ago.  In a partnership with the Templeton Foundation, grants were awarded to 10 seminaries to integrate science into their core theological curricula as part of the Science for Seminaries program.

How did it fare? A new report put out at the end of 2016 by the AAAS says not only were new curricula introduced at seminaries, but several of the schools built strong relationships with their scientific advisors and continued partnerships with scientist colleagues within their own or nearby institutions, often inviting scientists as guest lecturers in the classroom.

“Through strategic engagement with leaders in theological education and future religious leaders-in-training, Science for Seminaries anticipates a positive impact not only on seminary education, but on the broader American public,” wrote Jennifer Wiseman, director of AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER), in a 16-page report on the project. “It is our hope and vision that the enthusiasm expressed by participants in the program will be carried into the future congregations of seminary students, establishing a vibrant atmosphere conducive to informed discussions and contemplation of scientific advancement and its impact on life, knowledge, and service in today’s world.”

In 2014, each participant school was charged with the development and implementation of curricula with a science component in at least two core theological courses (such as those in systematic theology, biblical studies, church history and pastoral theology) within two years. The scientists in the program assisted the project faculty in curriculum planning and course implementation, bringing a breadth of knowledge in astrophysics, cosmology, genomics, genetics, paleontology, chemistry, neuroscience, biology, and other scientific disciplines, according to those in charge of the AAAS effort.

The AAAS officials also determined that science-focused, campus-wide activities would complement the coursework and resources from the project would be made available to interested seminaries as the project unfolded.

Winners (in alphabetical order) were:

  • Andover Newton Theological School – Newton Centre, Massachusetts
  • Catholic University of America – Washington, D.C.
  • Columbia Theological Seminary – Decatur, Georgia
  • Concordia Seminary – St. Louis, Missouri
  • Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg – Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
  • Howard University School of Divinity – Washington, D.C.
  • Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University – Berkeley, California
  • Multnomah Biblical Seminary – Portland, Oregon
  • Regent University School of Divinity – Virginia Beach, Virginia
  • Wake Forest University School of Divinity – Winston-Salem, N.C.

These seminaries began planning and implementing the new curricula for the 2014-2015 school and new courses and revisions were made and have stretched into the spring semester of 2017.

Organizers point to successful partnerships between theologians and scientists and the greater ability to ask the right questions when diving into the religion and science dialogue. One example of partnership was at Concordia Seminary of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, which partnered with science advisor S. Joshua Swamidass, assistant professor of laboratory and genomic medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, who said that in his work with religious leaders there was “substantial common ground, and real opportunities to work together for the common good.”

In the summer of 2015, AAAS brought together the seminary faculty and dean representatives with the DoSER project advisory committee and several scientific advisors to discuss the integration of science at their schools. The group advised AAAS on what topics should be approached by a series of short films produced for use in seminary classrooms. In turn, AAAS recommended science resources and connected the project faculty with scientists to engage their seminary communities.

Here’s the introductory video:

The complete video series can be found at online at The video topics include:

  • Awe & Wonder: Scientists Reflect on Their Vocations
  • Have Science and Religion Always Been at War? The Draper-White Thesis
  • Space and Exploration: Humans in a Vast Universe
  • Biological Evolution and the Kinship of All Life
  • To Be Human
  • Is the Human Mind Predisposed to Religious Thought?
  • Frontiers of Neuroscience: Charting the Complexity of Our Brains
  • How Science Works
  • The Limits of Science

The video series features leading scientists and historians of science presenting science topics. Each film introduces the science and leaves room for the faculty to guide classroom discussion of societal implications and theological themes. The AAAS also produced study guides with additional resources that can also be found online.

How did coursework change at the seminaries? Throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, AAAS representatives visited the faculty, mentors, and science advisors at each seminary campus for the purposes of planning curricula. Ideas were shared and resources were gathered for implementation of the project. The seminaries were also encouraged to continue to sharpen their modified courses through ongoing meetings with their advisory teams.

AAAS reported that instead of the expected 20 course revisions, to date more than 116 courses have been impacted by the grants in the program through the 10 pilot seminaries. The core course areas included the topics of neuroscience, cosmology/astronomy and evolution. Several courses dealt with key intersection points such as church history courses about understanding biblical texts on creation in light of the key findings in evolution and cosmology, and systematic theology courses on considering ethics and morality in the context of neuroscience and psychology.

For example, Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, Laudato Si, was published in May 2015 during the project’s first year, inspiring many seminaries to address ecology and environmental sciences in unique ways.

The ELCA seminary participating in this project the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg allowed seminary students to reflect on economics, the environment and faith in a unique seminar called “The Environment and Religion in Appalachia: Immersion Seminar.” The seminar (Covalence, June 2014) was designed to give students an opportunity to consider strategies for dealing with conflict in the context of ministry. Seminarians from a variety of ministries were welcomed. “The journey is a search for wisdom between scars and healing in a land of great beauty and dramatic social change,” according to organizers. Houses of worship were described as ‘neighbors with responsibilities.’

The seminary in Gettysburg also expanded its Pastoral Theology of Cancer course, adding reflections on pastoral and theological considerations in light of the evolutionary principles guiding cancer formation and progression.

The project was officially launched in 2013, which was the same year the Zygon Center for Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) received a $200,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation to develop new curricula across its seminary programs as part of a 30-month, “Teaching, Religion and Science across the Seminary Curriculum” project. The aim was to teach religious leaders to relate religious wisdom and scientific knowledge. Five modules were created within existing required seminary classes at LSTC. They included “Neuroscience, Dementia, and Pastoral Care: An Interdisciplinary Conversation” in the course on Fostering Narratives of Hope; “Evolution and the Doctrine of Creation” in Systematic Theology I; “The Neuroscience of Reading” in Introduction to Christian Education; “Science, Healing and Miracles in the Gospel of Mark” in Jesus and the Gospels; and “Cognitive Science and our Understanding of Reflection and Judgment” in Ministry in Context.

Lea Schweitz, associate professor of systematic theology/religion and science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, member of the steering committee of the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology, and director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science, served on the advisory committee at AAAS. While the Zygon Center has had a longtime role in injecting scientific topics in the discussion of theology and faith at the seminary, Schweitz was impressed by the relationships forged through the Science for Seminaries project.

“One of the great successes of the project has been the development of life-giving relationships between the people who do the work of teaching in the Science for Seminaries project,” Schweitz wrote in the AAAS report. “Nurturing faculty-to-faculty connections has proven to be an effective approach for building sustainable groups committed to exploring the intersections of religion and science for the future.”

Faculty in the program took part in retreat sessions that covered pedagogical approaches to integrating key science topics, such as astronomy, evolution and neuroscience. The retreats included field trips to Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, and a stargazing tour and nature walk guided by a park ranger on the facade of Mt. Hood in Oregon.

Besides making some of the course syllabi available online, AAAS says it is working on a complementary approach to providing science enrichment to religious leaders who are already serving in faith communities. Many pastors and clergy seek continuing education opportunities provided by seminaries after completing traditional degree programs.

Could the church play an active role in promoting mental health?

Could the church play an active role in promoting mental health?

Credit: cc by Gianfranco Blanco via Flickr

It is supposed to be the most joyful time of the year, preparing the home and hearth for the arrival of the Messiah. The gifts, the music and the parties promise to make the Christmas season bright. Still, for many in our congregations, this time of year can be one of the most difficult, whether it is due to the loss of a loved one, loneliness or general hardship. It can be a season of darkness rather than light for many.

The idea that depression is prevalent in the pews just as it is in society is only just beginning to be discussed widely. Emerging also is the research into how religion can play a powerful role in eliminating the societal stigma of mental illness in addition to becoming a source of solace for those suffering in silence.

For Marti Priest it was the realization that her genetic make-up included the likelihood of depression that was part of her personal breakthrough. And as she began to speak more freely in her Minneapolis ELCA congregation, it was evident that she had supporters surrounding her on any given Sunday.

“The world itself stigmatizes mental illness,” she says. “The church is vastly different than that and loves me no matter what.”

She was volunteering in her church, but the high degree to which she was giving of her time was a sign of the mania common in bipolar disorder, she says in hindsight. It still took some time to “come out” to those with whom she served with on church committees and she adds that she was immediately met with a response of surprise – “Oh you?” The support, however, was there even as she told her pastor of her diagnosis and how she needed to back away from some of her commitments in order to gain more “balance” in her life. “My pastor was really cool about it,” she recalls. “When I stepped down I had a health reason and that made it easier.”

This is not new. Martin Luther is thought to have suffered from depression or at the very least severe anxiety and melancholy, quite clearly in older age if not before. A Patheos blog post earlier this year by Catholic author and apologist David Armstrong points to some historians’ findings on Luther’s spiritual anxiety. In his article, Armstrong questions whether these periodic troubles may have had some physical basis. Armstrong quotes findings of scholars Heiko Oberman, David Steinmetz and Roland Bainton in describing Luther’s suffering and struggle against bouts of “persistent maladies.”

Luther is quoted as saying, “I more fear what is within me than what comes from without.” But in true fashion to what many of us may experience in the ups and downs of life, he cited hope about God’s future with such strengthen that he legendarily said “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree today.”

We will likely never know whether Luther suffered from clinical depression, but what we do know is a rising number of the US population does today.

Mental Health America (MHA), a long-time, community-based nonprofit dedicated to helping Americans to live mentally healthier lives, has completed one of the most ambitious mental health screening programs ever launched. Nearing almost 1 million depression screens being completed, the group reported almost 1,400 people screen for depression daily of which 66% are under 25 and in total 59% are found to have serious depression.

Approximately 32% of all screeners report that they have significant thoughts of suicide or self-harm. And at risk are those who self-identify as youth and LGBT, 41% of which score for severe depression. Experts say the numbers of individuals seeking help is rising.

“The sheer volume of individuals seeking mental health screening and supports is astonishing,” said Paul Gionfriddo, President and CEO of MHA in a press release. “But when you couple this volume with these facts – that the depression screening tool is the most common screening tool they use; that most depression screeners are young; that two in every five depression screeners have severe depression; and that the majority of people coming to our screening program have never been diagnosed with a mental health condition—this is a national wake-up call.”

He says that there needs to be better mental health services. Practitioners, employers and educators need to offer mental health screening to all children and adults, and policy makers must pass meaningful mental health reform legislation that emphasizes earlier detection and integrated services for recovery, experts say.

So the key question remains about what roles faith communities can play in supporting those with mental illness and in encouraging mental health generally.  Many of these roles are highlighted in the ELCA social message “The Body of Christ and Mental Illness, which has been cited as one of the clearest and fullest statements by a Christian denomination.”  (Visit to see this message.)

From a social science point of view, a recent article published in JAMA Psychiatry, found that women who attended religious services had a lower risk of suicide compared with women who never attended services. The study was done using data from the Nurses’ Health Study and included nearly 90,000 women and self-reported attendance at religious services.

Tyler VanderWeele, Ph.D. of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, and co-authors looked at the association between religious service attendance and suicide from 1996 through June 2010. Among the women, most were Catholic or Protestant. There were 36 suicides during the period. Compared with women who never attended services, women who attended once per week or more had a five times lower risk of subsequent suicide, according to the study.

The authors note their study used observational data so, despite adjustment for possible confounding factors, it still could be subject to confounding by personality, impulsivity, feeling of hopelessness or other cognitive factors. The authors also note women in the study sample were mainly white Christians and female nurses, which can limit the study’s generalizability.

“Our results do not imply that health care providers should prescribe attendance at religious services. However, for patients who are already religious, service attendance might be encouraged as a form of meaningful social participation. Religion and spirituality may be an underappreciated resource that psychiatrists and clinicians could explore with their patients, as appropriate,” the study concludes.

While it may not be enough data to support any concrete conclusions, it is not the only study to ask whether faith can be of some aid to mental health.

A group founded several years ago at the University of Chicago – The Chicago Social Brain Network – has closely studied how belief in God impacts an individual’s mental state. The network is a group of more than a dozen scholars from the neurosciences, behavioral sciences, social sciences and humanities who share an interest in who we are as a species and the role of biological and social factors in shaping of individuals, institutions and societies across human history.

“Theology and religion have always relied on unseen forces as the basis for explanations of human behavior and experience,” write researchers in the preface to the book Invisible Forces and Powerful Beliefs, published in 2011. They add, “Science has been able to explicate those forces even if along different lines than originally conceived. As we start to consider some of the more complex aspects of human nature, science and theology may be able to work together to shed light on some of these complexities.”

The team of researchers outline a number of interesting findings in the book and say that because Christians view themselves as creatures of God, they feel related to God whatever happens. They remain in relationship with God, no matter how abandoned they may feel by others. Kathryn Tanner of the University of Chicago Divinity School was the lead researcher on this portion of the project and found that Christians can “always avail themselves of a completely counterfactual sense of social connection with the best connected ‘superfriend’ of all: the God who remains, they believe, in a relationship of ultimately beneficial causal efficacy with not just themselves, but everyone and everything.”

These are indeed powerful beliefs, researchers say. On a more practical level, it is an idea that keeps Christians like Priest motivated on a journey of faith. For her, the church has become her family. “In church there is a level of intimacy and a level of trust that you may not have even with your friends,” she says. “There is a vulnerability there.”

At St. Paul Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in the Quad Cities, there is a specific mental health ministry that operates with the understanding that among people worshiping in any American church up to 25% are likely touched by mental illness. It may be a person in the pew, a family member or a friend.

Pastor Sara Olson-Smith says the Mental Health Awareness team meets regularly and partners with the local National Awareness of Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter and other professionals in providing learning opportunities.

St. Paul’s has been involved for nearly two decades with a local mental health care organization (Vera French) to use a home on the church’s property as a home for people living with chronic mental health issues.

The Mental Health Awareness Team effort was led by Anna Goodwin, who worked doing faith formation on the church’s staff and had done her master’s work in the area of mental health, Pastor Olson-Smith recalls.

“She has done a lot of work over a decade to help create caring congregations for people living with mental illness, teaching congregational leaders/clergy about mental illness and to foster awareness, learning and circles of care,” she says.

The church congregation, in partnership with the local NAMI chapter holds Family-to-Family sessions, or Peer-to-Peer sessions at the church that are open to those in the congregation and the community. Members also participate in the NAMI fundraising/awareness raising walk and have hosted a Mental Health First Aid Course.

The greatest thing the team has done, according to Olson-Smith has been to organize monthly learning events. It may be a panel discussion on a weeknight, which draws a wide variety of people around topics like depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicide etc. They also have speakers from the community come to teach on Sunday mornings, about a whole variety of topics. Every July, St. Paul’s hosts a movie series featuring films that deal with mental illness and that is followed by a discussion.

“I do believe we’ve made an impact on people’s lives,” Pastor Olson-Smith says. “I pray that we are breaking down stigma, and also giving people some tools as they live with mental illness, or care for the people they love with mental illness.”

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