Tackling mental illness becomes priority for Staten Island church

Baptist Press
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Posted: May 13, 2013 5:22 PM
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. (BP) -- Pastor Ray Parascando had just clicked "send" on an email to his congregation, letting them know of a plan to start monitoring train platforms in Staten Island after a rise in suicides involving people jumping from those platforms. Then he heard the sirens.

It had happened again. He ran up the block from the church to find a woman in her mid-30s had attempted suicide but survived. Her body was mangled when the emergency workers pulled her from the tracks. What Parascando remembers is the look of utter hopelessness he saw in her eyes.

A week later, Hurricane Sandy devastated Staten Island and the surrounding region. People who already were coping with problems severe enough to press them to take their lives now had lost even their homes. Parascando and Crossroads Church knew they had to act.

The Southern Baptist congregation began immediately meeting the physical needs like food, clothing and shelter Staten Island residents had in the aftermath of the hurricane, but they knew something more was needed.

What had been germinating in their minds before the storm now was becoming clear: People desperately needed help with hidden, inner struggles that are difficult to reveal in church.

"Being a pastor, one of the most helpless feelings that you have is when somebody is struggling with a form of mental illness or any type of depression or anxiety," Parascando told Baptist Press. "It breaks your heart, whether it's a congregant, a neighbor or a family member.

"It seems that that has always been labeled in the church as somebody who does not have enough faith or they've not connected to God like they should and that's why they suffer. A stigma exists for those who battle with that," the pastor said, adding, "It's a lousy stereotype."

In some cases, when someone has missed church a lot, Parascando said, it's not because they don't love the Lord. It's because "they're depressed and they don't want to come out of their house."

But they can't exactly tell the pastor.

"Perhaps out of all the areas that we lend pastoral care to in the church and the church uses its muscle to reach and love people, that might be the most neglected area but yet the most important area because people are battling on the inside," Parascando said.

Crossroads Church has begun putting a vision for a Hope Center in motion -- a facility that could be known in the community as a place to go when everything else fails and hope is lost. The center would be staffed by licensed counselors who could correctly handle the mental issues people are dealing with at increasing rates -- and from a biblical worldview.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported May 2 a 28 percent rise in suicide rates for people aged 35 to 64 between 1999 and 2010. The church can't ignore the problem, Parascando said.

After Hurricane Sandy, members of Crossroads Church found themselves in neighborhood homes like never before. People needed help clearing mud and debris, and they weren't picky about who helped.

"There's always going to be trouble in this world, and it seems like the storm compounded a lot of people's troubles here," Parascando said.

Already Crossroads has been providing some trauma counseling after the hurricane, and "it's been fruitful," the pastor said.

"To give people that opportunity to share and to be loved on and to receive some professional care is worth every ounce of strength that we're pouring into this," he said.

On Tuesday nights, Crossroads hosts what they call the Freedom Ministry, offering support groups on topics from grief to divorce care.

"Tuesday night is my favorite night to be at the church because that's the night when the whole building is filled with people who are hurting in some way," Parascando said.

"It's not just people from our church. There are people who don't go to church who are coming, and there are people who didn't go to church who are now coming because of it. They're getting saved and baptized."

Recently he was moved to take a picture of one of the groups as they were praying.

"I took a picture of them because they walk in here with so much angst, but it's like once the group starts and they hold hands, a peace comes over them," Parascando said.

That's what the church is there for, he said.

"It's there to help hurting people because we trust that the Lord binds up the brokenhearted. I see Tuesday night as a small glimpse of what could be if we establish this Hope Center and how God would just multiply that 10 times over, of more hurting people that come and receive care."

The church has been enlisting other churches in other parts of the country interested in helping the ministry get off the ground.

"If folks don't necessarily partner, maybe they could consider their own ministry and do something like this," Parascando said. "Imagine a place to receive help for the ailments that nobody else really wants to touch or discuss. I think it would be a phenomenal witness for Christ."

Because he's new at this, Parascando would welcome collaboration on how to expand a mental health ministry. He would be thrilled if God would lead licensed professionals to come and serve as counselors.

"I envision partnerships with the courts. If somebody has a domestic dispute, they would recommend somebody for counseling to our licensed people," he said. "That's why it can't be three pastors sitting in an office -- that sounds like the beginning of a joke. It can't be pastors doing it unless they were licensed.

"We'll handle the spiritual component and the shepherding component, but we're going to need people with their degree on the wall, licensed folks who are passionate, who are gifted, who love the Lord and who want to help people," the pastor said. "I think that's what's going to be the strength of it."

Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Crossroads Church in Staten Island is online at crossroadsny.org. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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