I recently learned that the United States suicide rate increased by 30% between 1996 and 2016. Mostly middle-aged and older people die by suicide, but the rate for teens and young adults has also risen dramatically during this period.
This is startling news, especially given that I learned of two deaths by suicide in the last week. These two were especially poignant for me as a pastor and college chaplain. Gregory Eells was the executive director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Pennsylvania and Jarrid Wilson was a 30-year-old pastor and mental health advocate who worked at the 15,000 member Harvest Christian Fellowship Church in Riverside, California.
Because of the increase over the last 20 years, the Centers for Disease Control call for, among other things, more extensive education on mental health, easier access to treatment, and more controls on guns (the primary means of suicide). Then they make this simple recommendation: “offer activities that bring people together so they feel connected and not alone.” It seems like a simple recommendation, but I’m afraid it’s too-often overlooked.
This brought to mind, for me, the concept of belonging, a central feature in the community courses I teach. In the course I’m currently teaching to graduate students who are studying to be ministers and public theologians, we’re reading Charles Vogl’s The Art of Community: Seven Principles of Belonging. In the book, he says that, “Communities are created when at least two people begin to feel concern for each other’s welfare.” Another version of that quotation can be found in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus says to those who are trying to figure out how to live in community, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them” (Matthew 18:20).
Jesus and Vogl seem to be saying similar things about belonging and community. That there is strength in a relationship, especially when people begin to feel concern for and see one another. Earlier in the same text, Jesus gave instructions to those who will listen on how to welcome people, why we should search after the one lost sheep, and how to navigate conflict with one another. Jesus is talking about real relationships where the people involved in them must learn to pay attention to one another. This is belonging where the invisible is made visible and all are welcome into God’s realm just as Jesus welcomes little children into his midst. That was a scandalous act in those days since children had such a diminished standing in society.
Creating community and belonging is sacred work. What I appreciate about the words of both Jesus and Charles Vogl is their attention to a number. Except that, for them, it isn’t about numbers. Belonging and community is about seeing the person right in front of us, that there is beauty and strength in doing that.
One of my long-time favorite musical duos is the Indigo Girls. They have a song, “Power of Two” and the chorus says:
'Cause we're okay
Baby I'm here to stop your crying
Chase all the ghosts from your head
I'm stronger than the monster beneath your bed
Smarter than the tricks played on your heart
We'll look at them together then we'll take them apart
Adding up the total of a love that's true
Multiply life by the power of two
It seems to me that this is the task, not just of lovers, but of anyone willing to understand how life is multiplied when two or three are gathered and show concern for one other.
The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is the college chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University.