Faith, madness and community…

Why do Koreans not treat their mentally ill until they go stark raving mad! My friend’s frustration was evident. We were sitting in Nak won, competitor of Ho Do Ri in the Ktown 24 hour bulgogi fix and the conversation wound until we finally got to the elephant we were trying hard to understand. One of my friend’s rounds in her med school journey was in the emergency psych ward. We had many conversations about it, being a Korean speaker she was often called upon to engage with the Korean patients and she found it to be a challenge to her faith. We had much dialogue on why God would create someone with such a disability; we had worked it out some but completely. Her concluding thought on the issue of the Virginia Tech killings was most revealing “This should be a wake up call to the Korean community that we need to seriously deal with mental illness and not just hide it until they end up in the psych ward!”

When an event like this happens, it breaks in and shatters our reality. At this point, no one is asking the right questions. One group is asking, “How can we stop this” “Where did we go wrong?” Another group is trying to point fingers and assigning blame. I found myself asking, "Where was his family? Where was his community? Yet, watching the Koreans here and abroad react out of their own cultural contexts has been painful. Issues of identity (just how Korean was he?) and culture get tangled in with the reality of 32 deaths. The current debate over whether or not NBC should’ve aired Cho’s materials is a distraction from the real issue, our broken healthcare system.

If mental illness is a stigma and a burden for the white middle class mainstream, it’s a nightmare in our immigrant communities. Many don’t speak English and come from backgrounds where there is very little education or understanding about mental health, much less illness. In discussing this event my pastor asked me a key question, where’s the church?

The answer: crippled. Church in America and in many other places has become a place where fitting in is what’s important, not transformation of lives. As long as people play by the rules and say and do the right things, they are Christian enough to fellowship with on Sunday only. The rest of the week we go back to our lives. The people on the fringes, who don’t fit into our boxes get ignored and shoved out, with sometimes-disastrous consequences. By all accounts this young man, despite being quiet, played by the rules, until his last day, when he broke them.

If we are followers of Christ why then aren’t we following his examples? We follow a savior who killed pigs to restore a demoniac. A savior, who when presented with a women who had been married several times, simply told her to stop sinning. When presented with another woman who was caught in adultery, he saved her life. Jesus did not sit in his home temple and only heal and teach to his fellow Jews who looked, acted, thought and talked liked him. No, he traveled and met and engaged with people who were very different than him. He healed people regardless of ethnicity or social class. Jesus met with people on the fringe, people who did not play by the rules, or who were shunned because of the rules.

Which brings me back to the questions raised in my conversation with my friend. It’s not just the Korean community that needs to do some soul searching about how it engages with mental illness. Instead its much bigger, this is a dialogue that needs to be had in the wider Christian community. Mental illness like hate is no respecter of boundaries, whether they be racial, ethnic or class. Isn’t it worth it to kill a few pigs, step on some toes to the save the life of just one person?