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.