Growing up in the Sunday school programs of black churches and in Catholic elementary school, I was taught that although there were many disciples, but there were only twelve apostles. That is, there were many people who followed Jesus, but there were only twelve men who Jesus handpicked to preach the gospel. These were the twelve men who were very close to Jesus, having been with him for the duration of his public ministry. I remember having to list them from memory in religion classes. They were the people in Jesus’ inner circle.
But Acts 1:15-26 records something quite different. Peter makes a speech indicating that someone must be chosen to replace Judas as a member of the inner circle. By this time, Jesus has been crucified, buried, risen, returned, hung out with some disciples, and left again. The disciples are doing the last thing that Jesus told them to do – staying in the city and waiting for the power to come.
This is where we find out that there are about 120 disciples hanging out in the city, waiting for this power that Jesus promised. This is where we find out that there at least were two others – Barsabas and Matthias – who had been as active and present in Jesus’ ministry as the 12 men whose names I memorized for my elementary school religion tests.
Wait a minute! That means that there were anywhere from 14 – 120 people who had been with Jesus during his public ministry, even though history likes to record only 12. Only in verses like this one, or Luke 8:1-3, or the few mentions of Mary, Martha and Mary of Magdala, do we get glimpses that there were others. There were women. There were other men.
Sadly, the tradition has overlooked the people who were right there with Jesus.
This story reminds me of how many people in my own life that I overlook. And of how often I feel overlooked.
There is something isolating about living with a depressive condition. Sometimes that is because depression can be so physically and psychically crippling. Getting out of bed and leaving the house are monumental feats. Interacting with other people feels like an exertion of energy that cannot be mustered. And then what does one say to other people? “I feel sad. Just like I did yesterday, and the day before that and the month before that”? Not the most stimulating conversation.
The other isolation comes from stigma. A lot of people who live with depressive conditions are intensely private about their experiences. Even in an age where celebrities share experiences of depression and bipolar, and it’s hard to watch a couple of hours of TV without seeing an ad for an anti-depressant, there is still a lot of discrimination against people who share their condition. Employers, colleagues and even friends may use knowledge of the condition against someone in professional and personal interactions. Advocacy groups like National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) and National Mental Health Association are working hard to tell the wider public that mental health challenges are physiological conditions that are managed – like diabetes. But anyone who lives with or loves someone who lives with a mental health challenge knows that this ad campaign has a lot more work to do.
Put together, listlessness and stigma push many people who live with mental health challenges into a silence that quickly becomes shame. When few people are talking about what they live with, it’s easy to think you’re all alone. When few people will share the struggles and triumphs they’ve found, it’s hard to find other people with whom you can talk.
The irony is that community is the best antidote for isolation; acceptance is the best cure for silence and shame; fellowship is the best remedy for grief. I think Jesus knew this. He knew that his community was grieving. So he told them to stick together. If they spent enough time together, they would find their way forward. They would find each other. They would widen the circle.
When Peter was looking for a new number 12, he asked the disciples for a witness. In Acts 1:21, Peter says, “one of these must become a witness with us.” African American church traditions have often asked for people who understood a certain experience in the same way:
Can I get a witness?
I have witnesses. I have friends who live with conditions similar to mine. We can talk about medicine and moods. We recognize states of wellness from the first hello. We can encourage each other by saying: “This sometimes works for me.”
The funny thing is that I didn’t really ask for them to be my witnesses. I shared something one day, and then she said, “Yeah, me too.” Or my friend said something that sounded like a mental health challenge, and instead of letting it go, I asked more and shared about mine. We are Barsabas and Matthias. We are here, just waiting to be asked to testify.
Other times I wonder how I often overlook members of my community like Barsabas and Matthias. How many times do I fail to trust my friends – who want to be there for me – with the truth of how I feel? How many times do I forget that I can call them when I need someone to sit with me, or tell me a corny joke so I can laugh? When do I forget the people who care about me? I am still growing in this area.
In the biblical story of Christianity, this is when spirit comes. When the community really sees and attends to one another, they are powerful enough to start a worldwide movement. And so are we.
* * *