A recent New York Times online opinion essay, Beautiful Pathologies, got me thinking about the non-profit sector as a whole, and about Jewish organizations in particular.
The writer tells the story of a class of medical students waiting eagerly to be able to witness an organ transplant. After a lengthy process, a fellow student was paged to leave class because a transplant would potentially be taking place:
“It’s eerie to think about that morning, the strangeness of medical students cheering the news of someone’s death. Yet these contradictions happen all the time in our education. Our lecturers say, ‘This is a great case,’ when describing a toddler who died from a rare cancer. Or, ‘Look at this beautiful pathology,’ when holding up the clogged heart of someone’s father. I wonder if other professions share these kinds of perverse excitements. Do human resources trainees hear of ‘great’ instances of sexual harassment? Do law students study ‘beautiful’ murder cases?”
I relate to this feeling of eeriness. After all, there are so many non-profits that have to make their case to funders and what better way than to personalize it. So the most desperate stories of clients who benefit from the organization’s activities are shared and the hope is that people are moved to help. At times it feels exploitative and other times inspiring—after all, we are hearing the most incredible stories of human resilience.
A future doctor learns from watching a transplant. When heart-wrenching stories are shared, funds are raised to support essential and valuable programs.
At the ISJL we are often in a position where we need to make the case for the organization; in the Community Engagement department here, we are now also working with congregations aiming to address the needs of their larger community. It’s important that we pay attention to how we think and talk about these needs. Does it benefit us to highlight the shockingly low literacy rates in places like our home base of Mississippi as we work on a program to bolster literacy? Perhaps. But it is also important to envision what the community would look like if everyone was a fluent reader. Perhaps it can be sufficiently moving to focus on the future, and how the community can look when everyone is a fluent reader.
But then, when we achieve that goal, will the support run out? Will we see slip back to lower literacy levels? Is the ugly truth that we need some level of “beautiful pathology” to keep us focused on making things better – or can we build a good case from good stories, and keep the good going without relying on “worst case” stories?
What do you think?
June 12 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers, the first NAACP field secretary for the state of Mississippi and an important leader in the Civil Rights Movement.
Evers’ name has been prominent lately. In addition to the upcoming anniversary, his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, delivered the invocation at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. An article by Jerry Mitchell on the aftermath of Medgar Evers’ assassination by white supremacist terrorists was featured this week in USA Today. Jackson, Mississippi newspaper The Clarion-Ledger also plans to re-publish a 1963 short story on the assassination that was written by Eudora Welty.
In honor of Medgar Ever’s accomplishments and sacrifice, The Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute is sponsoring several commemorative events. Today in Washington, D.C., there will be a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery (10:30 a.m) and a symposium on his legacy at the Newseum (7:30 p.m.) Events continue in Jackson, Mississippi, tomorrow through Sunday. If you are in or near either city, please view the full schedule and consider attending one or more of the ceremonies.
As we each find our freedom bound up in the freedom of others, we should take this opportunity both to celebrate the brave accomplishments of those who came before us and to mourn the loss of Medgar Evers and other activists who sacrificed their lives in the name of freedom. Now is a good time to ask: What have we done and what can we still do to pursue justice, freedom and equality, for ourselves and, most importantly, for others?
“Crisis Line. May I help you?”
This is how I answer the phone at a local crisis center here in Mississippi, during every four hour shift I spend volunteering there. Each time I pick up the line, I take a deep breath and hope that the person on the other side of the phone is okay. However, having been trained as a crisis line volunteer, I know that I am ready to respond if the person who was brave enough to call is not okay. I am ready to talk to them if they want to talk to me about feeling suicidal.
“Suicide rates among middle-aged Americans have risen sharply in the past decade.”
That is the opening line of this May 2013 New York Times article. When I read those words, I immediately thought about people I know who have been affected by suicide. Too many. As the ISJL’s Director of the Department of Community Engagement, I wondered if and how congregations, as community based organizations, might respond to this rather serious piece of information.
Consider some more noteworthy news points about people taking their own life:
From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent.
In 2010 there were 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes, and 38,364 suicides; while car safety has improved, it’s still shocking that suicides outnumbered vehicular death.
The increase coincides with a decrease in financial standing and the widespread availability of opioid drugs, which can be particularly deadly in large doses
Most suicides are committed using firearms (not most suicide attempts, but most suicides)
People who are left behind face social stigma.
While I am not suggesting that we panic, I am suggesting that we pay attention to what this means for our congregations and communities. Suicide has become more prevalent. In the same way that we are trained to prevent drunk drivers from operating a vehicle, we can be trained to intervene when someone is at risk of committing suicide.
September 10th of each year is World Suicide Prevention Day. In honor of that day, congregations can host speakers who can talk about issues related to mental health or say a prayer for the healing of all who are feeling hopeless and depressed. Here are some other ways to take action:
- Invite people from service agencies to speak at services about the resources that are available through their non-profit
- Learn about what Judaism has to say about suicide and mental illness; have a study session or education program dedicated to the topic
- Get involved in local crisis hotlines. Congregations can host trainings for crisis hotline volunteers or give an annual financial gift to the local hotline
- Host support groups for people who are dealing with depression
- Host support groups for people who have been affected by suicide (family and friends of someone who committed suicide)
- Foster community and relationship building: with the understanding that suicide is now more prevalent among men between the ages of 35-64, there may be some benefit to having a Brotherhood Committee that mirrors the Sisterhood Committee’s level of activity
- Educate congregants about firearm safety and the dangers of opioid drugs
- Offer programs and initiatives that can help ease the financial strain on families
For information about suicide prevention, contact one of the many wonderful advocacy organizations out there, such as SAVE.
Do you have other ideas of how congregations can play a role in curbing the rise of suicide rates? Please share them in the comments below!