Sin, forgiveness, and mental illness: the Edgebrook Lutheran Church fire

Earlier this year, the Chicago Tribune ran a fascinating and moving story about a church that welcomed Jim Deichman, a mentally ill man, into their congregation. What elevates this story from inspiring church newsletter material to a national news report is the fact that Deichman ended up burning down the church building. Despite this, the church has responded with love and forgiveness.

There are many good questions raised by the story (see GetReligion’s discussion, for starters). Did the church behave responsibly in this situation, both toward Deichman and toward the rest of the congregation? What is the place of forgiveness when mental illness is involved?

Despite the inspiring grace and forgiveness shown by the church in the aftermath, the story doesn’t have a satisfactorily happy ending. Mental illness upsets our ordinary understanding of guilt, responsibility, sin, and forgiveness. Whether Deichman serves jail time for arson or (as the church hopes) receives treatment instead, it’s unlikely that anyone (even Deichman) will ever be able to answer “Why?”

Yet this remains an inspiring story—the patient love shown to Deichman by his brother, and the enthusiastic welcome extended to him by the church, are the very definition of Christ-like grace. And I think it’s a miracle—in the genuine act-of-God sense—that nobody was hurt or killed in the fire.

What’s your reaction to this story? Can you relate to the church’s actions—their embrace of Deichman and their forgiveness of his crime? How has your church interacted with mentally ill people in your community and congregation, and what have you learned as a result?

Below: striking video footage of the church fire.

14 Responses to “Sin, forgiveness, and mental illness: the Edgebrook Lutheran Church fire”

  • Dennis says:

    I am not a member of this church but my reaction is this: Spectacular! I believe this is also the Lord’s response as He sees their faith. Accepting mental illness people to church is one of the hardest case among accepting all other types of socially discriminated people to anybody’s church. God is probably using them to set up a pioneering example for other churches to follow and learn from them. We should watch how this will turn out and thanks for this blog entry.

  • Carlos R. Flores says:

    ….so how did that happen?

  • Cathleen says:

    We had a similar occurrence at our church a little more than 10 years ago. The building did not burn to the ground, and we rebuilt beautifully…and the congregation is stronger and more beautiful too! In our case, the offender was released from jail after a short sentence, and was allowed to return to our small town. He wanders the streets constantly. I’m torn between “knowing” he’s prowling like a hungry lion, and praying for God’s redemptive grace to wash over him. This is a very real challenge for The Church. I don’t have the answers, just awareness.

  • Boyd says:

    We had a mentally ill man in our church who tried to attack the worship leader during a worship service–very scary. Our pastors continued to meet with him and offer him pastoral counseling and made sure that he was under the care of a good psychiatrist. He is still welcome at our church but rarely comes.

    I can’t help but think of what Jesus told the 12 disciples just before his arrest. Luke 22:35-36 — Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” Luke 22:35-36 —
    Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.

    I certainly don’t know the complete answer to this question, but it seems to me that (1) we must welcome people into our churches if they are seeking forgiveness of their sins and are willing to try to repent, no matter what their condition; and (2) we are authorized to take reasonable precautions to protect the safety of others and the church property from any actions of these people. Those precautions will vary with the particular situation.

    • Roberta Olivares says:

      I say “Bravo” also, to the Lutheran Church who welcomed him back to Church. I admire their tolerance, patience, and humility. JEsus said He came for the sick, not for the righteous. He also gave the Church tools and or gifts of the Holy Spirit to deal with spirits not of God. But one important gift even more than the aforementioned is the gift of discernment. God Bless All.

  • Rose says:

    God is not the author of confusion. I believe that satan drove the mentally ill man to burn down the church to try to scatter the congregation. Mentally ill people need healing too. Jesus gave us a strong example when he healed the mentally ill man at Gadara. Also note the example of the disciples trying to cast out the mental illness from a boy and Jesus saying “this kind can only come out by prayer and fasting”. We must not turn away from our responsibility to give aid to the sick whether they are mentally or physically ill.

  • Luke 1:37 “For with God nothing will be impossible.” Everyone have a blessed day! GOD is not the author of confusion! HE IS A GOD OF PEACE EVERYONE BE BLESSED IN JESUS CHRIST’ POWERFUL NAME AMEN! MAY THE HOLY SPIRIT DWELL AMONG YOU IN JESUS CHRIST’ NAME AMEN!

  • Margaret says:

    We are to emulate Christ’s behavior. Jesus reached out to the sick, the sinner, the needy. How many of us judge them instead. Jesus did not judge anyone.

  • Dutch Hofstetter says:

    This is a miracle from the Lord. A church forgives a man who burned down their church. It would not be easy for me. They should get a great psychiatrist for the man. They forgave the man, the Lord will provide for the church.

  • Jennifer says:

    What’s interesting to me is more the reactions and comments to the story than the actual story itself. I’m bipolar and yes that makes me mentally ill. I am also a high school teacher, I attend church, I love God, I am NOT on medication, and every day is a struggle for a multitude of reasons. In my opinion, everyone is mentally ill in their own way and this illness is amplified when Satan decides to have a field day with your thoughts. It is his goal to tear us away from God. But we can’t forget that everyone is capable of committing every sin. No one is immune so there really should be no distinction between people. There are no bad people or good people. There are just sinners, all of us, who have been forgiven by God. There should be no exceptions about whom we forgive because God forgives all of us no matter what we’ve done. He doesn’t just forgive the normal people who’ve committed lesser sins. Who are we to determine who is forgivable or not? If the church has faith that God will work in the “mentally ill” person’s life as well as the lives of any of it’s members, then they will be fine. Moments of insanity and bad decision making is not reserved for the clinically insane. If that were the case then the prisons would only have insane people in them and not the kid whose parents work 2 full-time jobs and he’s lonely and bored so he becomes a tagger because he has no other way to express his artistic spirit. God can work with any heart and can protect anyone from Satan and nothing is impossible with God… not even forgiveness…

    • Jennifer says:

      One comment about the article

      “Mental illness upsets our ordinary understanding of guilt, responsibility, sin, and forgiveness.”

      There is really no need for generalizations. There are over 300 forms of mental illness, all of which have their own set of problems, but not all of them have such a distorted sense of reality that they no longer have a conscience.

  • I live near Hiawatha, KS. In our community in NE Kansas, daily interaction with the mentally ill community is common. We are all God’s people. God doesn’t make mistakes. He is perfect. Whether “mentally ill” or “healthy,” I think this type of tragedy is possible in any community. It is up to us to be individually generous with our faith, kindness and love to everyone we meet in our community. I commend this congregation for showing their unconditional forgiveness. What an awesome example!

  • Amata says:

    Mentally ill people are no different than us. God wants them as much as us, and we should also be just as accepting.

  • Thank God for believer’s who understand about mental illness, like a physical sickness it is not the person who has the illnesses fault they have it. My wife has a bipolar condition and God has taught us that although she may have to take some medication to help her not be so depressed, we look to the Lord for his peace and grace. This church is setting a great example of Christ love. We need to use wisdom as well, if the mentally ill man would continue to do such things it may be necessary to admit him into a mental health facility until his medication kicks in. Not all mental illness are demonic, even though the enemy uses their weakness against them, stand firm with those who suffer in this way and God will bring healing in his time. Bless you all.