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Courtney McKinney Headshot

Joy Comes in the Morning?

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I Almost let go
I felt like I just couldn't take life any more
My problems had me bound
Depression weighed me down
But God held me close
so I wouldn't let go
God's mercy kept me
so I wouldn't let go.

-- Kurt Carr, "I Almost Let Go"

Yesterday, as I sat in Mother's Day church service with my family, I listened to the words of the songs in a way I had never listened before. I grew up in church, and I grew up not just singing gospel songs, but leading them in praise and worship. I know the words inside and out, and I used to relate to them on an intensely visceral level. But there is something I didn't notice about the songs until I sat in church yesterday. Almost every song was a tale of deep sorrow, depression, or a need to overcome, and they ended with the notion that within your despair you can "Let Go and Let God."

Gospel music and the spirituals that many contemporary gospel songs derive from have a special history in America. They helped slaves cope; the songs gave them hope. When I hear people sing the same songs as our ancestors, or new songs with similar themes, I can't help but wonder how it is we still relate so intensely to the deep sorrow of people who were literally bound by chains.

Church was where I spent a lot of my time and energy in adolescence. It is where I gained my sense of morality and my sensibilities. I was also depressed, although I was never officially diagnosed. I am an only child to a single mother so I was often lonely. I've never met my father and I'm still trying to understand the ways that has or has not affected me. I grew up in an environment where people treated me well, but my beauty was not the preferred norm so I never really felt beautiful. I was smart so I had a habit of asking "too many questions" (especially at church).

Those are a few of the identifiable factors that likely contributed to the depression I experienced from about ages 12-23. Recently I've found myself above the clouds that followed me for most of my life. Part of that is the realization that an active decision to be happy everyday is a requirement (it is NOT an easy thing to do, but it is getting easier). Another part of it, however, was acknowledging that much of why I struggled so much in my youth was because I believed that I was doing something wrong in god's eyes, and that is why I could not find happiness.

EVERY WEEK in church I heard that the remedy for depression was to call on Jesus. Song after song, sermon after sermon, that was the primary message for people suffering with sadness. My pastor once gave me a worksheet of different ways to pray to god (including how to say Jesus' name in different languages) so that he might "hear" me when I literally cried to him for help.

Depression is no one's fault. It is not something anyone -- especially a child -- should have to "wait on god" for. On Mother's Day when it was time to collect the offering the pastor told the congregation to "give like you won't be here tomorrow." I was taken aback by his sense of urgency for money collection because it was not present in the language of his sermon, which was partially about seeking happiness.

Religion helps people cope with life. It provides community, a place to showcase talent, and a place to share like-mindedness. But there are people for whom religion is not enough, or for whom it is actively detrimental (that is where I fall). I eventually had to let go of Christianity for multiple reasons, but I don't necessarily think that is the right decision for everyone.

No person suffering with depression, religious or otherwise, should be told to wait on god. As the pastor said on Sunday, what if you die tomorrow? There is a tendency in religion to use god as an excuse for physical or "earthly" inaction, but mental health is not something that should ever be put on hold.

Church leaders have a unique opportunity to help people heal and find comfort. I wish they would use that power to encourage people to seek help, rather than making them feel that mental illness is something that should be given time and prayer alone. Believing in god and his healing power does not have to be mutually exclusive from seeking professional help. We have a mental health problem in America. We are also one of the most actively religious countries in the world. If we truly seek answers for how to start the healing process, why don't we start in church?