Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Faith Works 4-21-07
Jeff Gill

Where Do We Belong When We Don’t

Harper’s Magazine has a feature they’ve run for years called “Harper’s Index,” a series of statistics that usually tell some kind of a story, or series of stories.

In April, they led with these factoids, strung together for us to consider from either direction: “Percentage of American adults held either in prisons or mental institutions in 1953 and today, respectively: 0.68, 0.68.” Then, “Percentage of these adults in 1953 who were in mental institutions: 75,” followed by “Percentage today who are in prison: 97.”

So to punch up this point, let me rephrase. If you took the total of US citizens who were either in a mental institution or prison, for both 1953 and 2006, the same fraction of the overall population is under state supervision in each year. It hasn’t gone up hardly at all.

But that total number, which hasn’t changed, has swung from being 75% in places like Central State Mental Hospital, to being 97% in places like Lucasville.

The implication of these numbers is that we appear to be dealing with mental illness as a society by jailing rather than treating the disease. Central State is no longer open on Columbus’ west side, and that may be a good thing. Large residential mental health facilities, formerly called “asylums,” got a very bad reputation, for very specific reasons, and the political tide turned against funding those places.

When they were closed, the argument was that the money saved would go to community mental health clinics and group homes and supportive services in people’s own communities. Those who work in the mental health field assure me that this money never made it out of the Statehouse, but was routed elsewhere (see entry “lottery, proceeds for education”), while the mentally ill were routed out onto the street.

We still have under 1 percent of our adults under state care, but the shift from 75% asylum to 97% prison convinces me that either a) in 1953 there were mostly criminals in mental institutions, or b) we’ve got a significant mental health population in the Department of Corrections. The word from our Ohio prison system leans to b).

Which brings us to the tragic intersection of the Blacksburg shootings and our own ongoing homelessness problem. Violence and mental illness is not an automatic association in any set of statistics, but for the public mind, they are stuck together.

Schizophrenics, for instance, are likely to commit a violent crime at a rate of 15 out of a 100. The general population is about .5 in a hundred. Do you focus on the data so that it says “schizophrenics are 30 times more likely to commit violent crimes,” or “85% of schizophrenics never commit violent crimes.” Both are true, but not equally accurate depending on circumstances.

Churches struggle with the mentally ill in worship and congregational life in general. People who don’t follow standard patterns of behavior or speak inappropriately and bizarrely create major disruptions in group settings, and it gets terribly easy to justify easing such folk back out onto the sidewalk, arguing “for the greater good” and “aren’t they a safety risk for the children?”

Are they? Do we look into these questions in the larger context of safety and security for all youth activities, as they apply to all adults? And in fairness, when a troubled individual treats any restrictions as unfair singling out, we tend to go to an “all or nothing” approach to guidelines that really helps no one.

The folks at Open Arms Emergency Homeless Shelter (www.lastcalloutreach.org), on East Main in Newark, just tallied up their situation, after 70 days of operation over 94 days (they had to move a few times, you’ve heard). They’ve helped feed and shelter 36 different homeless persons through those 70 days, some staying one night, others as much as 30, with the average in between.

Half of their guests have reported mental health or addiction issues leading to their situation, and half have spent time locked up – on that, go back to the first paragraph and read it again.

Where do we want people to go who don’t fit in? Where are churches called to be at work for those who don’t fit in, and how does that outreach fit into the larger mission of the church? Call Mental Health America of Licking County at 522-1341 (or check out www.mhalc.org), and ask them to come speak to your church’s leadership about how mental health can be part of your ministry.

It probably already is, and just isn’t spoken out loud. Bring the subject up, and see where God leads you.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; share your ministry efforts with him at knapsack77@gmail.com.
Notes From My Knapsack 4-22-07
Jeff Gill

Enjoying the Beautiful Game

Soccer is still not to the taste of all native-born Midwesterners. Not enough equipment, rare and glancing impacts, very few points: these all work against soccer in the minds of some.

The Little Guy is a fan and a player, if still more of an entomologist and botanist than aggressive forward. Five years after his first soccer league, he’s moved past having Dad as coach (and a good thing), and there are actual keepers (goalies, some say) guarding the net.

I’m still trying to figure out exactly what makes an offsides call, which is scary because my first exposure to soccer other than an export of Brazil in social studies class was to be a soccer ref.

It was a new sport for my hometown, where football and basketball had long reigned supreme, and all four of the high school guys who got hired to ref soccer for 5th and 6th graders knew nothing, except for the Belgian exchange student, who taught us all we needed to know about corner kicks, throw-ins (keep your feet on the ground), and the mysterious yellow and red cards.

He didn’t tell us enough about offsides to stick, though it looks something like icing in hockey, which I’ve never understood either. But plenty of smart people don’t follow the intricacies of the infield fly rule, so I can’t let it bother me.

During our recent seasonably unseasonable weather (for an Ohio April), the team practiced cheerfully, but the home practice suffered. Outdoors, anyhow.

We compensated by putting in extra time on one of the most fascinating aspects of the video game industry I’ve yet seen. Right, right, you don’t play (or don’t let your kids play them), but do you know that not all video games involve shootings and explosions and pixilated gore?

FIFA Street is a video game soccer program. There’s a Madden-labeled football game, and the NBA has a basketball offering that approaches what I’m talking about. FIFA is the international soccer body, overseeing things like the every-four-years World Cup, and they have approved a legit soccer video game on green grass and many players.

But they also have released FIFA Street, where you travel the world, playing soccer under highway overpasses in New York City, in the favelas of Rio, and by the docks of Marseilles, in a four-on-four street league with major players from around the world.

The level of play, and the strategy of field and body positioning that comes across in a TV set and the standard hand controller, is amazing. You fake the ball around a defender, kick passes high or low, bop headers into the middle, and score on roundhouse kicks while falling gracefully backwards onto the pavement.

Meanwhile, police cars cruise by, carry-out delivery guys on bicycles pedal past, and locals hang onto the mesh fencing and talk amongst themselves while the eight players dash and dive on the makeshift pitch.

My computer days are medieval, and my last real programming was on a Commodore 64 (well, a bit on a 128), but I still hold in my mind’s eye the sub-structure of all this. Graphical interfaces built on programming tools assembled from machine languages comprised of hexadecimal spun out of the ones and zeroes of binary.

Deep within this delightful version of what all the rest o’ the world calls “the beautiful game” is a data tool scanning myriad on and off switches. That’s all. But work up through those layers, and you have a son and father learning from and between each other how to play soccer a bit better.

There is little more I can add about shooting and shooters and violence and grief, except that we can all have less of it in our lives, even if we cannot avoid it. Guns and explosions and death does not have to be our entertainment, and we can pluck it as aggressively as we do the dandelions.

And the dandelions do us much less harm. So let’s avoid our tendency to look for extreme answers and mass exclusions, and just choose our activities and amusements with care. Get out and kick it around with the kids, and find the ways inside the hosue where you can keep things interesting without detonations and demolition.

But I’ll warn you: FIFA Street is way too much fun (plus you learn some geography), so schedule all the outdoor time you can first, and leave the gaming to after sunset.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio, and a retired soccer coach and referee (by popular demand). Tell him about some of your favorite family activities at knapsack77@gmail.com.