“Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.” (Luke 8.35 NRSV)
There is a story in the Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) about a man without a name. He does, however, have a label given to him by many a reader of the story. He is often referred to as the Gerasene Demoniac — in reference to his condition and the town he lives near. It is the story of a man who lived with mental illness (demon possession back then), and if he were to be labeled today, he might be called “the crazy man of Delaware.”
He lived every day with his mental illness, some days were better than others. And some days — those when he didn’t have support or medication — were just downright horrible. It was those days, days when his behavior was “out of control” that the townsfolk would bind him in shackles and keep him under guard.
After all, the townsfolk were afraid. There were afraid of what they saw on Facebook. They were afraid of what they had heard in the media. They knew the kinds of things people with mental illness could do. They were afraid of the bad stories they had heard from other people. They were afraid.
So they didn’t help him. They didn’t want him in their town. They chased him away.
He broke free, but really, he had no place to go. All he wanted was a home like everyone else, but everyone was afraid of him. He had been shamed. He had been blamed. He had been chased out of town and chained up. Chased from place to place. Eventually, he lived naked in the tombs outside of town.
Then one day Jesus came along and dared to do what no one else had done before. He was not afraid. He went to the man, talked with him and showed compassion and caring. He made a difference.
When townsfolk came around after Jesus interacted with the man, they saw him clothed and in his right mind. But were they happy? Did they celebrate with him? Did they welcome him back into their community with open arms? Unfortunately, no. They were still afraid.
The man was different. He had some stability in his life now. He felt better. He felt more alive. But they wouldn’t give him a chance. Because they were afraid.
Fear is a powerful thing. It can grab hold of us and influence our hearts and minds, influence our actions and behaviors. Fear can lead us to push away those who we feel uncomfortable about, those people who we don’t understand. Fear leads us to judge, stereotype and stigmatize.
Throughout the Bible, we hear God and God’s messengers tell us “fear not” and “Do not be afraid.” Even Jesus, in the midst of a terrible storm when he was right there with them, turned to his disciples and asked “why are you afraid?”
The good news is that there is another way. Instead of being fearful, we can seek to learn and understand the experience of others. We can seek to reach out in compassion and widen the circle of our caring by including persons with mental illness in the fabric and life of our community. We can invite them to live and work among us, making a difference in the lives of those who are our brothers and sisters in our human family. We can pledge that we will not be afraid of mental illness.
Holy God, in this season of lent, this season of repentance, forgive us for the times we have shamed and blamed persons with mental illness. Forgive us for the times we have chased them away, even to live among the tombs. Open our hearts and shower us with your grace that we might live and move in new ways. Help us to overcome our fear with your peace, which surpasses all understanding and empower us to reach out in loving ways to those we have shunned. Amen.
Rev. Gunnar Cerda is ordained in the United Church of Christ and board certified through the Association of Professional Chaplains. He serves as a chaplain with OhioHealth and is a certified mental health first aid instructor. Cerda lives in Delaware with his family.