Looking back: Youth pastor’s death puts a light on depression

(Note: This was originally printed in June 2006 in the Georgetown News-Graphic.)
I didn’t really know Michael Sanders. I would see him every Sunday at Faith Baptist Church, where he served as youth minister since August 2003, but I only talked to him a handful of times, probably three at most.

Last Monday, while looking through some old copies of the News-Graphic, I stumbled across a People You Should Know featuring Michael. The picture of him wearing a cowboy hat and strumming a guitar made me chuckle, and I hoped he could play a few more chords than the five or so I know.

In addition to the guitar, we had a few other things in common, including being fans of the Harry Potter books and The Simpsons. I made a mental note Monday to say hello to him at the next church service, maybe pulling out a treasured Homer Simpson quote.

Last Tuesday, I learned Michael Sanders took his own life.

Last Wednesday, I learned we had at least one more thing in common. Michael Sanders suffered from depression, a mental disease I have battled for the past four years.

Few people knew of Michael’s condition.

Few people know of my condition.

It’s not something we often talk about, instead choosing to hide it in shame, afraid folks will shun us as they think the sadness is contagious. It isn’t.

If only we’d talk. If only we’d share. Maybe then we could pull out of the darkness, little by little, one day at a time.

But often we don’t. We stay silent, figuratively locking ourselves away from happiness.

Today, I’m silent no more. For Michael. I owe him that.

I have learned quite a bit about Michael Sanders these last few days, and every story his friends have shared has only made me like him that much more.

“He was just a very caring, loving person,” said Nina Belle Durr, pianist at Faith Baptist and mother of two sons, Daniel and Matthew, who took part in Michael’s youth group. “He was just such a solid figure for our youth, for our church.”

Roger Ward, whose daughters Rachel and Kara are in the youth group, called Michael “a genuinely quiet, passionate person with a deep reflective faith.”

“He was very peaceful,” Ward said. “I never heard an abrupt word or saw an angry look from Michael.”

Instead, what he, or anyone who took the time to notice, saw was a young man dedicated to improving the lives of all kids.

“He would always hang out with the kids who weren’t always in the middle of the crowd,” Ward said. “He spent a lot of time with kids who were on the outside. He had an awareness of those on the fringe.”

And now, the youth are trying to give back, even as they struggle to cope with the unexpected loss of their beloved leader.

Michael was an avid participant in Big Brothers Big Sisters, so the Faith Baptist youth group is looking for ways to honor him by participating with the organization. They’re also going to work on a scrapbook to give to his wife, Heather.

The church is putting together counseling sessions for those grieving Michael’s death, as well as helping spread the word on depression.

“If you are feeling depressed, there is no shame in going to find help,” said Bob Fox, pastor at Faith Baptist. “It is a relatively common problem that people feel on different levels.”

Help can be found in many forms, from talking to friends to visiting with a pastor to calling professional help.

If just one person gets help, then that’s all that can be asked, and it will be a fitting tribute to the legacy of love Michael Sanders left behind.

“He will be someone whom I will dearly miss,” Fox said. “He will be a minister who will be deeply grieved. He will be a husband whose loss brings unpronounceable sorrow.”

I didn’t really know Michael Sanders. But I wish I had.

For more information on depression, including symptoms and help options, visit the National Institute of Mental Health. Don’t bottle your feelings; please, talk to someone today.

And, as always, Bruce Springsteen can find the right words for the right time:

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5 thoughts on “Looking back: Youth pastor’s death puts a light on depression

  1. A very passionate and compassionate post. As a former pastor with a mental illness (Bipolar) who once attempted suicide, I pray that as more people like us openly discuss our issues, progress will be made and fewer people will die.

    Keep up the faithful writing.

  2. Pingback: Mental Health Monday: Coping, Helping, Hoping, Remembering, and Using Your Mommy Voice | A Way With Words

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