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How to… do mission in the face of depression

BY RUTH RADLEY, CMS MISSION PARTNER IN BIRMINGHAM

“It’s important that you know this was unanimous. We all believe this is the right step for you at this time in your life – hold on to that in the tough times.” These were the words I heard when I was selected as a mission partner. Little did I know how much they would come back to me over the next eight years.

I have been with Church Mission Society since 2001 when I was a short-termer in Tanzania. I stayed in touch while back in the UK and when I realised I was heading overseas again – this time long term, or so I thought – I naturally went back to CMS.

Did I suffer from poor mental health previously? Not at all. My personality was such that I was always quick to feel happy and rejoice about certain situations, and quick to weep and feel sad or angry about others, but I would always bounce back fairly easily.

Did I expect that almost eight years after leaving I would return burned out and with clinical depression (which I had almost certainly been living with, but hiding well – even to myself – for at least 18 months)? Or that two years later I would still be on medication? No, I did not.

But that is where I now find myself. CMS have been amazing, supporting me with debriefing and friendship, but it’s a long, painful road. Would I have fallen into this depression had I been living in the UK? It’s hard to say – perhaps, perhaps not. Yet here I am, clinically depressed and STILL a mission partner, doing my best to go forward with life and mission amid many questions.

So here are a few small things that I have learned along the way. 

Be real

About five months into an intended six month leave in the UK, I finally accepted returning to the place I loved and had called home, and which was suffering terribly through war, was not going to happen. I was no longer healthy enough to live there and be effective.

It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, having believed I would be there for at least 10 years. Calling a few important people in South Sudan to tell them I was not returning was incredibly tough. I loved them and had invested so much into what was my home.

Life is anything but simple or predictable. Life is what we live in the middle of, affected by all kinds of things around us, and sometimes that is simply overwhelming.

After a long while I was strong enough to think about my future, and grateful that working in chaplaincy at Birmingham Children’s Hospital fitted with both the hospital and CMS, as well as me. The team have been amazing – they don’t know my whole story, but know that I was broken, am still healing and see this new mission work as part of my healing story.

Accept you are human

One of the hardest things has been being put on a pedestal as an “amazing person”. I am who I am – flaws and warts and all – doing what I have been called to do, no different from anyone else. In some ways perhaps that has made accepting my present situation harder – feeling I had let down so many people who had supported me so faithfully.

However, I am learning that life isn’t perfect, and at times that imperfection overwhelms us. We are not lesser Christians because we are struggling with mental health. Our bodies can get sick at different times, and so can our minds. I prayed so hard for God to help me, I begged and begged, but continued spiralling downwards. I recognised that sadly, although I was blessed to be able to return each year to South Sudan, I wasn’t strong enough to live there. That was, and is, a tough reality. However, it doesn’t mean I can’t still support friends there. I am regularly in contact with South Sudanese friends sharing life, and the encouragement goes both ways.

It also doesn’t mean I am no use in the kingdom, but I did have to relocate. Perhaps, as Henri Nouwen says, I am a “wounded healer”. I know first-hand some of the darkness of life, and how, despite the best intentions, it is not always possible to control your mind when it is sick. This is something I never experienced previously and I would have been critical of anyone who said that. However, it is the story of many people and I hope my experiences, even when I am healed, will lead me to greater compassion and understanding.

Don’t go it alone

Another thing I struggle with is doing mission as a single person, though this may not be everyone’s experience. It is a reality that, however great your friends, you do have to somehow fit in with their family commitments. And when you move somewhere new, there is no one who knows you – everything is an effort, even coming home to get to know more people.

However, whatever I may feel at times, I am not alone. I have a small team of people around me who have been faithful in supporting me and have not been too fazed by the emails they have received. (The deal was they would pray for me, challenge me and wouldn’t tell my mother!) And there are others who have kept in touch and been concerned.

Back in the UK, I live in a house-share, not alone. I have a spiritual director who accepts me and my struggles, and has experience of living overseas for a period of time. And I have my team who understand life is tough as I continue to try to make sense of those years. I have four CMS mission partners, past and present, who regularly check up on me, as well as friends from other organisations and, of course, the wider CMS family.

Accept, no matter how long your faith journey, you will never know it all or have it all sorted

In some ways, I am now reconstructing the faith I have held for 42 years. There is so much of my last six years or so that I simply do not understand, but I still serve a God I believe wants to be known to all. Who is for us, not against us, though at times I struggle with that. I also know disappointment with God and am still working through that.

I know that life doesn’t always go the way we had planned or hoped, both for nations and personally – and that is also the experience of many of the parents and families I walk alongside through the tough moments in hospital. I haven’t got life sorted, I don’t have answers, and I don’t pretend I do. I listen, and sometimes I can empathise with some of what is said. I perhaps have a deeper understanding of the difficulties people go through in this area that may somehow stay with me as I continue in this life of mission we are called to.

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