By Joel Pulis, Founder of The Well Community
In the earlier years of The Well Community, I regularly heard stories from my friends about how they had been made to feel unwelcome at various churches. Anne, a preacher’s kid, shared how she would sit outside of Sunday morning services, unable to make herself go in because she was certain that the congregation would never welcome a person struggling with mental illness. Joan told me how she was escorted out of a Sunday school class and told to never return. And Durwin wasn’t even allowed to attend his own family’s place of worship just a few blocks down the street from our building! With each account, my calling to start a spiritual community for adults living with serious and disabling mental illness became more and more justified.
Although The Well Community began as a church, we were never a “religious institution.” Rather, we sought to be a living people of hope and healing, and all were welcomed at the table—people from various traditions and backgrounds. Right belief—dogma and doctrine—was not the focus. We were guided by an ethic of gracious relationship between God and one another.
While we affirmed the biological and chemical aspects of mental illnesses—go to the clinic, see a psychiatrist, take your meds—we viewed recovery from a much broader perspective. Taking a “bio-psycho-social” approach, we emphasized the latter two components in our programs: the emotional and relational aspects. And these, we believe, are spiritual needs that require an intentionally spiritual community!
Back in 2002, when the vision for The Well began to emerge in my head and heart, I stumbled upon a foundational text, Resurrecting the Person by John Swinton. In this book, Swinton connects mental health care with Jesus’ healing ministry. As he points to Jesus’ healing of the leper (Mark 1:40-45), he notes Jesus’ emphasis on reconnecting the ailing to the community rather than focusing on the physical dimension. Similar to today, the “unclean” in Biblical times were forbidden to participate in the communal aspects of society. Hence the power of Jesus’ words: “go, show yourself to the priest” (see bit.ly/HealingPresenceSwinton).
And so, over the last 18 years, The Well Community has sought to impart to our members a sense of belonging, value and purpose. We are a family of love and acceptance. An early T-shirt in the community featured a quote from a member: “You can be yourself here!” We affirm the unique contributions, rather than the deficits, of each person. And the friendships our members have established have given each one a real sense of meaning and direction.
To reiterate: Spiritual problems require spiritual solutions! Healing the psychological and emotional needs of those living with serious mental illnesses requires a specific response. We are formed in community; thus, we can only be transformed in community! And that’s the mission of The Well.
Although she died almost a decade ago, I will never forget my friendship with Kajuana. As an African American, lesbian woman, Kajuana struggled to fit in outside of The Well. She would regularly ask me if it was okay for her to attend The Well’s services and I would always give her an emphatic “yes!” Therefore, it was a continuously transcendent experience to see her belting out a song with hands raised and tears running down her face during worship. She knew she was loved. She knew she belonged.
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Joel Pulis and other friends of The Well Community have been recording spiritual messages for our members. To check out the messages, click here.