Some of you might have heard an NPR story that ran last week about the town of Geel, Belgium. For hundreds of years, Geel has practiced radical hospitality towards the mentally ill and mentally disabled:
The integration of people with mental disorders into Geel society has fascinated scholars for centuries. In 1862, Dr. Louiseau, a visiting French doctor, described it as “the extraordinary phenomenon presented at Geel of 400 insane persons moving freely about in the midst of a population which tolerates them without fear and without emotion.” Nearly 100 years after that, an American psychiatrist named Charles D. Aring wrote in the journal JAMA, “The remarkable aspect of the Gheel experience, for the uninitiated[,] is the attitude of the citizenry.”
Early psychiatrists who observed Geel noticed that the treatment prescribed for mental patients was, in fact, no treatment at all. “To them, treating the insane, meant to simply live with them, share their work, their distractions,” Jacques-Joseph Moreau wrote in 1845. He and others advocated for that communion. “In a colony, like in Geel, the crazy people … have not completely lost their dignity as reasonable human beings.” In the next half-century, many would uphold Geel’s model as the best standard of practice for mental disorders.
This story is a very useful antidote to the current popular notion that it’s only recently that Catholics have learned how to be merciful, that in the past, the Church was all about building walls and elevating doctrine above pastoral care and looking inward.
How interesting that somehow, in this doctrinally “strict” culture in which no one supposedly understood what it really meant to follow Christ because the Mass was in Latin said quietly by the priest with His! Back! To! The! People!...this happened.
In the mid-14th century, Geel erected a church in Dymphna’s honor; it was built on the spot where she was buried. Around this time, rumors spread about disturbed individuals who were cured upon visiting Geel. As these accounts circulated, people began bringing disturbed family members, hoping for their own miracle. And many embattled souls made it to Geel on their own.
A building contiguous to St. Dymphna Church was built to accommodate the troubled pilgrims. Soon enough, the capacity of this structure was exceeded. Church authorities appealed to the citizens of Geel, who responded in a way that would eventually designate Geel as “the charitable city”: They welcomed mentally ill strangers into their homes.
The Geel community showed remarkable compassion, particularly for an era when most any sort of psychological aberration was viewed as being due to demonic influence or possession. Ronald J. Comer’s Abnormal Psychology mentions the typical techniques of the time for dealing with the psychologically aberrant. Exorcisms, of course, were performed. “Holy water” or “bitter drinks” might be administered. If these remedies failed to produce results, the ensuing therapy could consist of flogging, scalding, stretching of limbs, or starvation. It was hoped that these extreme measures might expunge the iniquity.
In contrast to these measures was the Geel way, in which the mentally ill, who were called “boarders” instead of “patients,” became a valued part of the community. Many of the boarders helped with agricultural labor. They were allowed to go about the village, and some even became regulars at local taverns. Some boarders stayed in Geel for only a few months; others stayed for the rest of their lives.
The boarder population peaked in the year 1938, when the number reached 3,736. About 1,600 remained by the late 1970s. Geel now has some 500 boarders and a total population of about 35,000.
For hundreds and hundreds of years, Geel was heavily influenced by purported miracles and the supernatural influence of Dymphna. This changed when St. Dymphna Church was closed by French revolutionary armies in 1797. Although the church would reopen, there was a paradigm shift after the French Revolution, as mental illness became the “concern of doctors, and not of pastors,” according to Eugeen Roosens, author of Mental Patients in Town Life: Geel — Europe’s First Therapeutic Community.
Southern Baptist congregations are also losing members who are leaving the faith altogether. The losses here are worse than to evangelical churches. Sure, some people who grew up with no religion convert and join an SBC church. But for each convert, the SBC loses three of its youth who grow up to have no religious affiliation.
Not all who leave the SBC do so for other conservative or moderate churches. There is about three percent who join liberal Protestant churches. There is also a couple percent who join a non-Christian religion. Southern Baptists rarely bring in members from either group.
The only net-gain for the SBC are from Catholics. Very few who grew up in an SBC church convert to Catholicism. Southern Baptists are able to bring in about two Catholics for every one they lose to the Catholic Church.
I may have mentioned this before, but if you are on Instagram, consider adding the African Catholics account to your feed. It will greatly expand your churchy vision.
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Earlier this week, we took a little Georgia foray. The boys had spent the Fourth in Florida and I went to fetch them. On the way back we stopped in Albany and Columbus.
We had stopped in Albany last year – after our Warm Springs visit – at the Ray Charles memorial downtown. It was blistering hot, so we didn’t linger. This time, after a meal at the Yelp-recommended Pearly’s Famous Country Cooking – super friendly have a blessed day service – we stopped at the Chehaw Park, which featured a small zoo.
And again – shockingly for midday in the beginning of July – it was super hot and the animals responded in kind. But – we didn’t pay any admission because of our zoo membership here, and I wouldn’t have stopped if we had to pay, anyway.
So it was worth a 30-minute stop that wasn’t out of the way on the journey somewhere else to see a bunch of gators, some chameleons, two beaded lizards, a few other interesting reptiles, some meerkats and a rhino. But not worth a separate trip, for sure. Especially if you ever, you know, visited a zoo before.
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Then Columbus. Well, let me explain something first.
If you are traveling from Birmingham to the not-panhandle of Florida, there are three ways you can go.
First, you can head down 65 to Montgomery, then take a state highway to Troy, then Dothan, then cross over to Florida, catch I-10 and drive east. I did that once and swore never again. Horrible. The road between Montgomery and Dothan is slow and going around Dothan is hellish. I’m convinced the Dothan city fathers and mothers keep it that way to encourage you to just give up on driving, stay a while and spend some money.
Secondly, there is a more diagonal path out of Birmingham on a highway 280 that takes you down towards Auburn, then across the border to Columbus, by Albany and then catching I-75 somewhere, perhaps Tifton. I had never taken this way because I didn’t know how fast the state roads were. I had visions of stopping at stoplights in small towns every five miles.
Last, there is straight interstate. This is the longest, mile-wise, and Google Maps hardly ever recommends it, but it’s also usually the fastest. I-20 across to Atlanta, the 75 down to Florida. Because you can go, er, 70 mph, it’s quicker than any of the others if there are no traffic issues. Recently, though, they have been doing construction south of Atlanta, and that Google Maps shows lots and lots of red in that area, which I experienced when I took them down last week, so when I returned with them, I thought we’d go the Columbus way, not only because I thought it was time to give it a chance, but also because I wanted to see Columbus.
(I had thought about doing Andersonville this trip – but ultimately decided it needed more context and time to process the awfulness, and this wasn’t the moment for that.)
As it turns out, you can go pretty fast on much of the route -the speed limit is 65 for big stretches of it. The only aggravating part of it to me was between Albany and 75, which seemed interminable on the way down, but that might be because it was dark and I was ready to stop.
Columbus is on the Chatahoochee River, which also flows up around Atlanta…a big river. It’s also the home of the huge Fort Benning, so there’s a substantial military presence and identity in the town. Our primary destinations were two this time: the National Infantry Museum and the riverfront.
The first is large and designed to impress. The exhibits are very well done, absorbing and not jingoistic at all. We didn’t see all of it because we didn’t arrive until 3:45 and they close at 5, but we did get a good look at their most well-known exhibit “The Last 100 Yards” and exhibit halls that traced the history of the infantry. I learned a few things – like in the days of the calvary, horses were sorted by color for different units to better identify them.
Part of “The Last 100 Yards” exhibit
The WWI Trench exhibit was very good and helpful for understanding.
(Note – the museum is free, but donations encouraged)
There’s also a Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, which I would like to hit next time.
Then it was down to the Riverfront, and we saw once again how the presence of water really helps a downtown – something we don’t have here in land-locked Birmingham. It’s not as park-like as the Greeneville, South Caroline riverfront and not as busy and commercially vibrant as Chattanooga, but it’s not dead either, by any means. There’s a whitewater rafting service that runs the rapids – but it didn’t seem like a very long course, unless I wasn’t understanding the set-up. The same service runs a zipline across the river, so you can zip from Georgia to Alabama, if you like.
Riverfront, white water course..on right, turbines and in background one of the many former cotton warehouses and mills that lined the river.
It was nice – we might return – it’s only 2.5 miles from Birmingham, and there’s a state park nearby: Providence Canyon, which is apparently impressive, but also educational since it’s not the result of millenia of natural erosion, but of poor 19th and early 20th century farming practices. It’s also (they say) best to see it when the leaves are off the trees. And probably not so damn hot. So we’ll wait for late fall/winter for that…
We’ll be on another short day-or-two trip next week, so stay tuned on Instagram and Snapchat (amywelborn2) for that.
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