Pastor Denell Howard at Hovey Street Church of Christ held up his phone during a sermon Sept. 20 to show the small congregation an app he has downloaded.
It was a suicide awareness app, complete with the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, a mental health services locator and video tutorials about how to deal with young people who might attempt to take their life.
NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE: 1-800-273-8255 or chat online
He quoted Jay-Z — “Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t” — and cited a New York Times report about how self-reported suicide attempts rose by 73% for Black high school students between 1991 and 2017.
When Latricia Hanyard’s son was murdered in 2013, she began noticing symptoms of depression. She began isolating herself and felt a deep sense…
“We got cocky conversations on Facebook, but actually we’re hurting and crying,” Howard told the congregation.
Suicide is already a sensitive issue but can become downright frightening in a religious context because some believe anyone who takes his or her own life automatically goes to hell.
One of the Ten Commandments is a prohibition of murder, which some believe to include murder of the self — or suicide. St. Augustine, who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, took this position and is often cited as the foundation of the belief that suicide is a sin that can’t be pardoned, since you can’t ask for forgiveness if you’re dead.
The Bible captures seven suicides, including Saul, who “took a sword and fell on it,” and Zimri, who “burnt the king’s house over him with fire.” The most famous is probably Judas, who hanged himself after betraying Jesus.
Some scholars even argue that the Bible portrays some suicides — including Judas’ — as virtuous, most likely because Greco-Roman philosophers believed suicide in the right circumstances could be noble.
Notably missing from the Bible, though, is a declaration that suicide is an irredeemable sin.
James Anyike, pastor at Scott United Methodist Church, said he doesn’t believe suicide is an irredeemable sin because God is merciful and gracious.
“To me, that means that God knows our heart and God knows our pain,” he said. “If somebody is at a point where they just want to take their life, that’s a reflection of the fact that they’re mentally strained or mentally ill. I just can’t see God being merciless.”
Anyike has heard questions about suicide and sin over the years but said he doesn’t believe it’s a very prominent belief among African Americans.
A 2015 survey from LifeWay Research found 38% of African Americans believe someone who takes his or her own life goes to hell, which was higher than whites (19%) and Hispanics (25%). More than half of all respondents described suicide as an epidemic in America.
Some pastors and other religious leaders have taken it upon themselves to be more responsible for making sure mental health topics are not taboo in the church.
Scott UMC has had Project WINGS Mental Health and Wellness Ministry for three years. The program includes meetings and workshops where those who attend learn about how to cope with struggles through journaling, art therapy, music and meditation.
The program’s founder, TaMara Breeding-Goode, told the Recorder in 2019 one of their sayings is “It’s OK to have a therapist and Jesus, too.”
Hovey Street Church of Christ invites mental health professionals every March to do workshops and has speakers come on Sundays.
Howard is quick to rattle off facts and statistics about suicide, such as the New York Times report he cited in his sermon.
Howard said in an interview he has a hard time gauging how many African Americans believe suicide is an irredeemable sin, but he guessed “a lot” probably do.
As for him: “I didn’t put them in any place, hell or heaven,” he said. “What I did say is the remedy for all this is to know who the Christ is, to listen to the Christ and then commit to the Christ. I can’t tell you if it’s an irredeemable sin.”
What Howard is confident in is that the church has to do better and stop believing it has all the answers.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.