The Essence of Being Human

Ubuntu is an African worldview that is hard to translate into Western culture. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has offered several definitions. One of them is “my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours.” But he offers another definition, simple and profound, that resonates with me: Ubuntu is “the essence of being human.”

Two weeks ago a group of Columbia Theological Seminary students representing various ethnic and cultural traditions began their journey as Practical Theology students. None knew what to expect – of the school, the program or each other – but we were all united as one by the radical love of Jesus and the unifying power of the Spirit.

During an intense week-long session, half of the class journeyed to be with members of the Friendship Center of Holy Comforter Church. For over 15 years, the Friendship Center has provided services to individuals marginalized by poverty, serious mental illness, and disability. Funded by small grants, the Episcopal Diocese and friends, The Friendship Center offers three programs: Wellness and Recovery, Art and Gardening and Community and Relationship Building.

We met with the vicar in a small, dusty library. Beside the table where we convened was a small chalkboard with the word UBUNTU scrawled in all caps. With that as our spiritual backdrop, we listened as she shared the horrors facing people living with severe mental illness.

There is an injustice is taking place in this country when it comes to the treatment and humanity of the mentally ill. Mental illness is still considered a stigma in this country, including within the church, and as a result, our systems are not equipped to care properly for those most in need.

We learned that the group homes, which are paid to care for the severely mentally ill, are not adequately regulated by the federal government. People are swindled out of their disability checks, given a poor diet, and locked outside during day hours, with no place to go and no support system. Too often, they end up in jail for offenses that could have been cured by medications or intentional day programs like those at The Friendship Center. The church, too, has struggled with how to welcome and embrace the mentally ill and how to live into Christ’s message: whatsoever you do for the least of these, you have done for me.

Individuals living with mental illness are at risk of losing their personhood, their essential humanness, the thing that unites us as a species and as children of God. The Friendship Center is an oasis, a Garden of Eden, that provides a safe, loving and inclusive space and reminds them of their humanity, their worth and God’s promise to love and care for all of Her children who but call out Her name.

A small first step that our group took to address this injustice was to create a liturgy that reminds the church that we are called to serve all of God’s children, regardless of their ability. This liturgy can be used congregation-wide or in small group settings. We also drafted a five-day devotional guide designed specifically to speak to the minds, hearts and souls of people of all abilities.

Holy Comforter Opening Hearts to Others (File attached here was a collective effort from the group who visited Holy Comforter Episcopal Church and a response to their engagement using a Practical Theology framework–KLD)

Ayanna Grady Hunt, MAPT 2017, Columbia Theological Seminary

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