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Yoonjun Moon

Chaplain Martin Harris with a patient at Sonder. (Yoonjun Moon)


Hospice care and soul care

Christians working in hospice find opportunities to serve patients, families, and churches in their valley of suffering

Lloyd Wilson remembers his first experience with hospice care: His brother was preparing to marry, and the fiancée’s mother was enduring the final stages of breast cancer. Her health declined fast, and the family scrambled to hold the ceremony on a Saturday afternoon in the mother’s bedroom while she received hospice care.

Wilson said that was the first wedding where he really understood “till death do us part.” The mother died soon after, and Wilson realized: “So much happens at that last part of life that is rich and meaningful and deep that is not talked about.” 

Last June, he founded Sonder Hospice, based in Austin, to meet the need he saw for respectful, personalized hospice care. Sonder is not a Christian company, but Wilson and the other leaders are Christians. The group works to care for patients holistically: A nurse helps meet patients’ physical needs, while a chaplain and social worker help meet emotional and spiritual needs.

The end of life can be deeply painful and challenging, often marked by anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Yet Christians working in hospice have opportunities to serve patients, families, and churches in these critical moments. 

In hospice, Medicare and insurance cover the medical care plus other services like counseling and chaplaincy. Grady Summers is a pastor, Biblical counselor, and chaplain with another hospice company in Austin. “There are some believers who are very at peace when it comes to passing, and there are some that are really wrestling with it and they’re afraid,” Summers said. For the latter, he asks what they fear—the process of dying or where they’ll spend eternity—and then tries to help them accordingly.

To bring Christ into the working environment where I am … is the most exciting thing.

For non-Christian patients, it’s more complicated: Medicare restrictions prohibit hospice chaplains from evangelizing patients. However, chaplains can discuss the gospel if a patient asks questions. Sometimes just building a friendship with patients leads to opportunities. 

Summers remembers his first meeting with a handsome man in his 50s who was dying of bone cancer. The patient was cursing God for letting him get sick, but he still wanted weekly chaplain service. As they met, Summers tried to listen well and understand the man instead of challenging him. Summers told the nurse, “There may come a time when he asks for me. I need to know right then, and I’ll come.” He spent a year building the friendship, and eventually the time did come. The man’s pain had increased and death became more of a reality to him. Summers found the man outside his house, upset, mentally rehearsing everything he believed. Summers asked the man if his beliefs were giving him peace. The man said no. Summers asked if he wanted to hear how Summers had found peace, and the man said yes. Summers says he explained the gospel and the patient repented of his sins and professed faith in Jesus. 

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David Brendan Hall

The outdoor stage at SWSX (David Brendan Hall)


The band plays on

SXSW officials continue plans to hold massive event despite the coronavirus threat

Organizations have canceled or postponed at least 440 trade shows and exhibitions in response to the coronavirus. But in Austin, where the lucrative and enjoyable South by Southwest (SXSW) 10-day music/movie/tech festival is still scheduled for March 13–22, the band plays on.

Organizers of this year’s Game Developers Conference, scheduled for the week of March 15 in San Francisco, postponed it after Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Sony, and other companies said they weren’t coming. Facebook, Mashable, CapitalOne, TikTok, Intel, and SAP have all announced they’re canceling their SXSW participation. Nevertheless, in Austin, the band plays on.

Investor and podcaster Tim Ferriss, scheduled to give a SXSW keynote address, tweeted, “I love SXSW, but I don’t believe the novel coronavirus can be contained, and I view an int’l event of 100K+ people as a huge risk to attendees and the entire city, given limited ICU beds, etc. … SXSW brings huge economic benefit to Austin, but possibly making Austin a hotspot for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19, and the emergency actions + funding that would require, could make a huge event seem shortsighted.”

SXSW cancellation would certainly be a big financial hit, yet organizers who canceled late last month the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, did so despite expectations it would generate $546 million. Factora CEO Allegra Brantly had a useful twist on dollar concerns when she canceled a “Women & Wealth Lounge” scheduled for Austin on March 14, saying, “Health is wealth and we’re not willing to risk yours. … As disappointed as we are, we will never regret prioritizing women’s safety as a top concern.”

The Austin American-Statesman Tuesday night reported SXSW officials saying, “The 2020 event is proceeding with safety as a top priority.” As of Wednesday morning, more than 42,000 people have signed a petition calling for the cancellation of the entire event. But, so far, the band plays on—with the music of Jaws in the background?

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Onize Ohikere

Activists in Abuja encourage open dialogue about mental health issues. (Onize Ohikere)


Maladies of the mind

Nonprofits in Nigeria are working to combat suicide and mental illness, especially among the nation’s youth

On a cloudy Saturday morning here in May, around 30 young people in matching T-shirts gathered under a bridge, armed with posters on mental health. They walked across the city for more than an hour, backed by music from two loudspeakers. The group handed out emergency contact cards to passersby and occasionally chanted, “Speak your mind!” and “Better health for all!”

A local nonprofit, Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative, or MANI, organized the march across seven of Nigeria’s 36 states. In Abuja, the movement was timely: Stories were making the rounds on social media about two young men who separately committed suicide one day apart in May.

The cases are among a rising number of publicized suicide attempts across the country. Groups like MANI are stepping in to combat stereotypes surrounding mental health and to inform people about available assistance.

Victor Ugo founded MANI in 2016 out of his own personal struggles. Two years earlier, he was a medical student at a Nigerian university when he started to feel dispirited and unmotivated. “I wasn’t reading. I wasn’t sleeping. I lost interest in everything.”

His friends and some of his professors intervened and encouraged him to see a doctor, who diagnosed him with major depressive disorder. He started treatment and therapy and began to recover, but decided he wanted more than just his own healing.

“If I could go through this, then what about everyone else who didn’t have the same access or friends that I had?”

According to government officials, 3 in 10 Nigerians suffer from a mental health disorder. The World Health Organization says Nigeria has the 15th-highest number of reported suicide cases in the world, in an age-standardized tally.

Ugo launched the nonprofit with a focus on young people. It has so far offered as many as 10,000 suicide interventions. Trained counselors on call provide five free sessions to people who request help on the organization’s website. Offline, MANI hosts events, like its “conversation cafés” across 10 states. Those events involve difficult conversations with participants on issues such as mental health stigmas.

Last year, the group tracked down and stopped someone from committing suicide at a beach in Lagos just as he was walking into the water.

“We got him out, then he snatched the gun from a policeman,” Ugo recalled. “I had to go get it from him. It was such a scary moment.” 

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