On a warm afternoon in late September, beneath the sunlit magnolia trees in the countryside south of Dallas, about two dozen members of The Well Community gather outside on folding chairs for an afternoon devotion. It’s the first of two days they will spend at Mt. Lebanon, a retreat center in Cedar Hill. There, The Well holds two annual spiritual retreats for members, once in the fall and once in the spring. The retreats are just one of many ways The Well helps members cultivate spiritual health as an aspect of holistic mental health.
These retreats are a highlight for the members, many of whom rarely leave Oak Cliff, let alone the city. Because of challenges brought on by severe mental illnesses, many members have limited resources, which means any vacation, even a small countryside reprieve, isn’t possible. The retreats set aside time for them to gather together in a beautiful space. Members play games, take hikes through the surrounding woods and go on afternoon hayrides. They fellowship with one another, deepen their walk with the Lord and simply rest.
All About Forgiveness
Each retreat is centered around a theme. Last spring, it was coping skills. This fall, it’s forgiveness.
Susan, a member who struggles daily with bipolar disorder, has been a part of The Well for more than 10 years. She leads the afternoon devotion. While passing out paper bags to each of the members, she asks them, “What bitterness, anger and envy are you carrying around with you?”
The bags represent the bitterness, the anger and the envy. Susan asks them: would it serve you to carry these bags everywhere you go? Imagine dragging them with you to The Well, to the grocery store and even to the bathroom. It would be tiresome. In the same way, why are you carrying around your bitterness, your anger and your envy all of the time?
Ask God for forgiveness, she says, and the heaviness will go away.
Susan herself knows what it’s like to forgive. For the last few years, a fight with a friend left her irritable and alone. It wasn’t until recently, when the two friends forgave each other, that things started turning around.
“I’ve turned my life over to God,” she says. “I don’t feel so overwhelmed now.”
A Spiritual Haven
Inside one of the buildings at Mt. Lebanon where The Well members retreat to sleep, eat and fellowship, a member sits at a table putting together a puzzle, while several others sit quietly on couches. Meanwhile, Heather Hernandez, The Well’s Program Manager who facilitates the retreat, helps several members write thank-you notes to the Mt. Lebanon staff.
“This is a family vacation,” she explains. “We’re like a big family.”
The two days are relatively unstructured, explains Hernandez. Members can participate in the daily devotions and bonding exercises she organizes, or not, depending on their preference. Some members, especially those who are homeless, come simply for a chance to eat three balanced meals a day and sleep in a safe, comfortable environment. Others come to spend time with their friends. And still others come for the time to commune with nature. But for each, it is an opportunity to address issues of faith and hope in God.
“I like hiking and being out in the woods,” says Monica,* a 54-year-old who’s been a member of The Well since its founding in 2002. “It brings you closer to God.”
Tania, who was formerly addicted to cocaine, sits outside and watches the sunlight dapple the trees. She goes for short hikes in the peaceful woods nearby and she talks to her friend Susan. Like The Well itself, the spiritual retreat offers an environment where she feels loved.
“It’s a place where you can experience God’s love,” she says.
Faith in God
Tania is not alone in this sentiment. Ask any member of The Well about how they cope with mental illness and just about every one of them will cite their faith in God.
It’s not a superficial faith. Members of The Well live with severe mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and severe depression. Some must battle several mental illnesses at once, often while dealing with other physical illnesses and substance abuse as well. Their need for God, for His hope and strength, is palpable. Indeed, faith in God’s love is one of the few stable things in their lives.
“The spiritual retreats for The Well Community are one way we try to encourage that faith, and, in the process, strengthen our own as well,” says Alice Zaccarello, Executive Director of The Well.
Want to help cultivate spiritual health at The Well?
Volunteering at The Well is a small commitment that has a great impact on the lives of those who deal with mental illness in Oak Cliff. We are always looking for new volunteers to bring a message or lead music or provide dinner for our Thursday Night Life worship service. Think you or your church group might be interested? Don’t hesitate to call or email! We would love to answer your questions and find the best place for you to use your unique gifts.
*Name has been changed.