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"Suicide Prevention" Used By Liberal Religious Leaders To Promote Homosexuality At UM University


Religious leaders confront need for addressing suicide problem

April 12, 2000 News media contact: Tim Tanton (615)742-5470 Nashville, Tenn. {196}

By Alice M. Smith

ATLANTA (UMNS) – As suicide prevention gets a higher profile in U.S. society, members of the religious community gathered April 4-6 at a first-of-its-kind interfaith conference to examine their role in combating the problem.

Churches, he said, should "work against negative stereotypes, negative stigmatization, of gay and lesbian youth and gay and lesbian people in general.

"To reduce gay and lesbian suicide," he said, "we need to create an environment in which gay and lesbians kids feel safe in school, feel they have the same opportunities to discover who they are like other kids, in the absence of discrimination, prejudice, hate and even murder."

Suicide has been condemned by religious groups as the "unforgivable sin" or simply greeted by a wall of silence, but the faith community is now recognizing its responsibility to help remove the stigma, make suicide prevention a priority, provide solace to grieving survivors, and assist attempters in regaining a purpose and desire for living.

The conference on religion and suicide, held at the Carter Presidential Center and Emory University, was sponsored by OASSIS, the Organization for Attempters and Survivors of Suicide in Interfaith Services. The group was founded in 1997 by James T. Clemons*, a United Methodist clergyman and professor emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.

While the number of suicides in the United States has remained stable at about 31,000 for several years, it still exceeds the number of homicides. "We hear a lot about homicides," Clemons* said. "For every two homicides, there are three suicides." Overall, suicide is the ninth leading cause of death among Americans.

"I can’t imagine a preacher of any religious group anywhere in the U.S. facing a congregation where at least half the people have not been touched by suicide," Clemons* said. "It crosses every religious group, every race; it crosses both gender and age groups. Most people don’t realize the U.S. Bureau of Health Statistics begins their categories at age 5. … We can’t pretend any longer that children don’t commit suicide because they don’t know what it’s about."

Suicide as a national tragedy was brought to the forefront of the American agenda last year, when U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, a speaker at the Atlanta gathering, issued a "Call to Action to Prevent Suicide" and urged the development of a national suicide prevention strategy. This year, the U.S. Senate appropriations committee sponsored a hearing on suicide, the first step leading to funding of the national strategy.

Advocacy for suicide prevention at the government and public policy levels is the goal of SPAN USA, the Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network. It was founded by Jerry and Elsie Weyrauch of Marietta, Ga., members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), whose physician daughter, suffering from depression and not responding to medication, killed herself at age 34.

"The truth has set us free," said Jerry Weyrauch, "to be open and honest about what has happened to us and to reach out to others. … Life goes on and we can ignore it, but the numbers keep accumulating."

Each year, SPAN sponsors a letter campaign when adults and youth write to U.S. senators and representatives and state governors, urging them to make suicide prevention a priority. At the state level, like at the national, suicide is receiving more attention. Grass-roots organizations have formed in 11 states, while seven state legislatures have allocated funding for suicide prevention, and four states have started youth prevention programs.

In addition to advocacy in the public policy arena and within faith groups, Weyrauch said members of the faith community can help by:

  • collaborating with other institutions, such as schools and businesses;
  • actively working to make mental health services as available and accessible as physical health services;
  • promoting gun control, since nearly 60 percent of all suicides are committed with a firearm; and
  • offering education about suicide, how to recognize at-risk people and when to intervene to prevent tragedy.

Pastors, Weyrauch said, should address the issue from the pulpit. "We need to hear from our pastors that it’s OK to have thoughts about suicide … and to ask for help."

Ken Tullis of Memphis, founder of Suicide Anonymous and a member of the Episcopal Church, said congregational support was critical to him as he recovered from addiction and a suicide attempt.

"I still believe in psychiatry, therapy," he said, "but the place I need healing is from the church. There is no doubt the way out of this horrible abyss I lived in for many years is spiritual in nature."

Referring to the stigma attached to suicide in the past and still present today in some religious arenas, he asked: "If I relapse in my addiction … and die by suicide, will there be a place for my body in your cemeteries? Will there be a place in your heart for my wonderful wife and our three kids? I pray there will be."

Father Charles Rubey, director of programs for Catholic Charities in Chicago and founder of Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide, said that Catholics dying from suicide 30 to 40 years ago were denied a Christian burial.

"That is no longer practiced. The funeral liturgy is viewed upon as help for the survivors, and so a person who completes suicide is given the full ritual that anyone else who dies is given. … The Catholic tradition has come a long way but has a long way to go."

The church has taken suicide out of the moral realm and placed it in the medical realm, Rubey said. "It has nothing to say about whether a person is good or bad but about (whether he/she) is sick or well."

Often, he said, survivors of suicide wonder about the fates of their loved ones, "whether they’re in heaven or hell. I respond to that by talking about the act of suicide. It’s an act of desperation, a statement they can no longer handle the pain in their lives. God judges us negatively when we act out of malice, not out of desperation. That’s a very important message."

Rabbi Alvin M. Sugarman of Atlanta also talked about the Jewish and Christian belief in an afterlife but posed the question of whether that might actually be an enticement to people going through incredible pain and contemplating suicide. "That is a serious theological question I think our faith communities should address together."

Within many denominations and faith communities, suicide is receiving more attention today, several testified. The legislative body of the United Methodist Church, the General Conference, will vote in May on a statement on suicide, which, if passed, will be added to the Social Principles section of the denomination's Book of Discipline. A resolution on suicide was adopted by the General Conference in 1988 and revised in 1996.

The ELCA adopted a churchwide statement last year, and one will be coming before the Episcopal Church’s national convention this year.

When Clemons* began his work in the area of suicide, he found the church largely silent on the issue. New Bible dictionaries did not list suicide, while older dictionaries treated suicide as a "crime" sandwiched among "Sabbath breaking, sodomy, stealing and suicide, a fate reserved for the dammed."

"The only decent thing," Clemons* said, "was to write my own book, What Does the Bible Say About Suicide." Since then, he has authored other papers and compiled a book of sermons on suicide.

In addition to examining how suicide is viewed by the religious community, the Atlanta conference touched on other aspects of suicide: prevention strategies; how to recognize at-risk people; suicide among high school and college students; suicide in the military; sessions on both attempters and survivors; suicide among minorities; and assisted suicide.

Donna Holland Barnes, associate professor at South West Texas State University and co-founder of the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide, said suicide in the African-American community is a "new phenomenon" and that the suicide rate for blacks, especially males, is increasing.

She also contended, however, that "blacks have always been killing themselves," although the deaths were often treated as accidents, homicides or drug overdoses. The organization she helped found has sponsored four national conferences "by minorities for minorities."

In a presentation on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Tiffany Ho, an adviser with the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, decried the belief that Asian Americans are the "model minority." She described suicide and mental illness within her own family, which immigrated to America from South Vietnam after the North Vietnamese took control.

Asian Americans don’t talk about their problems, she said, but "we have to speak up. We have to do something. We just can’t hide it."

At the same time, she said, it is the responsibility of the dominant culture to reach out to those less powerful. "It is the responsibility of the people who have to consider the people who have not."

Edward J. Dunne of the Ackerman Institute in New York discussed the fact that gay and lesbian high school students commit suicides at greater rates than their heterosexual counterparts.

"Growing up with a stigmatized identity places extra burden on the mental health of a person," he said. Counselors often complicate the problems by telling students "don’t worry, you’ll turn straight," creating greater insecurity and confusion for them.

Churches, he said, should "work against negative stereotypes, negative stigmatization, of gay and lesbian youth and gay and lesbian people in general.

"To reduce gay and lesbian suicide," he said, "we need to create an environment in which gay and lesbians kids feel safe in school, feel they have the same opportunities to discover who they are like other kids, in the absence of discrimination, prejudice, hate and even murder."


* James T. Clemons Washington DC is formally affiliated with the pro-homosexuality Reconciling Congregations Program which promotes disobedience to Church law as well as doctrines contrary to the United Methodist Book of Discipline. 

The above comments and asterisks were not part of original UMNews Story below but are added by the UCMPage to add perspective.

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