Updated: Jun 8
empowered and oppressed by the intricate ways in which parts of their identities connect."
Series host and recent NAMI KDK Intern Derek "Riven" H. Sire (they/them) joins the conversation today. Derek holds an MSW from Aurora University and a BA in Religious and Intercultural Studies from Elmhurst University. Derek is an alum of Ripon College, the College of DuPage, and Heartland Community College. Derek attended Christian primary schools and Protestant Christian fundamentalist churches growing up, including a Southern Baptist congregation. Derek took the initial steps to become an ELCA Christian pastor before abruptly stopping the process. Derek brings lived experience with mental illness symptoms like depression and anxiety, religious trauma, and as a queer person to the conversation.
By second grade, I was a brand of fundamentalist Christian called hyper-Calvinist. Per double predestination, God created some people to die forever in hell ("God's damned") and must die himself so others ("God's chosen") go to heaven. Weeping as a child, I resisted and accepted that people go to hell because Jesus didn't die for them. Raised as "God's chosen," I struggled with "dying to myself" and rebuking "God's damned" for God's choices.
I received Christian counseling while experiencing depression, anxiety, and a possible eating disorder in 6th grade at a public school. Attending Christian primary schools for all but two years, my compassion compelled me to push non-Christians away.
Sure he'd go to hell, I'd plead with my only 6th-grade classmate friend, an atheist and fellow target of bullies who'd stick up for us, to believe in Christ.
Frequently anxious about being good enough and knowing I was one of “God's chosen," I bullied my classmate. I am grateful to have had the recent chance to apologize.
Knowing God as the source of and solution to my sinful helplessness, I experienced genuine comfort and love in fundamentalist Christian communities.
Before attending public high school, my "same-sex" attractions appeared. I argued against same-sex marriage for a social studies class debate in high school. A faithful God follower, I pleaded with my parents for "reparative therapy." My licensed Christian "therapist" used its fraudulent techniques before I saw an unlicensed Christian "ex-gay therapist” for the rest of high school.
“Ex-gay therapy” caused my family and me so much damage that most of it remains unpacked. Where do you go but to a place of suicidal ideation, and if you are fortunate, the legitimate mental health care system, when “reparative therapy” fails?
As a child, my siblings and I were on Medicaid. I've accessed inpatient and outpatient mental health services with private coverage. I received invaluable mental health counseling and faculty support at Ripon College. There, I began working through my ingrained bigotry. Once they learned I'd come out publicly, my parents and former religious communities rejected me. My parents kept me on their private health insurance even though I refused to cooperate with their demands. My parents, who love me, provided support during mental health crises, which included an acute manic episode possibly induced by prescription medication.
Amazing Ripon College friends like Lori, affirming ELCA and UCC pastors in Ripon, and supportive family like my grandparents helped me through as I experienced suicidal ideation.
Following a suicide attempt years later, private insurance only authorized ECT services following my persistent doctor's appeals. After turning 26, I received an Affordable Care Act health coverage subsidy. My stress levels spiked when I heard the marketplace subsidies might be removed. Facing lost coverage, my mental health was in the balance. We must make sure policymakers know their health care policy decisions affect constituents' everyday mental health. There was no therapy or programming during my one stay in a state inpatient mental health facility. Prior private coverage shaped my outlook, and I felt worse being there. I left, not better, but grateful I had convinced them I was ready to go.
It's hard to call some health care services the uninsured, underinsured, and publicly insured do use "health care" at all. BIPOC, undocumented, refugee, low-income, unhoused, and other marginalized communities experience health disparities at higher rates than others.
Now on Medicaid, I've found fewer outpatient therapists with less frequent appointments. While facing disadvantages, I seriously benefit from white privilege and related cumulative generational wealth, having a Christian background, US Citizenship, passing as male/male privilege, continual health coverage, and quality education, housing, and transportation.
Exploring mainline Protestant churches, I made a home at Hope Church (in the UMC) and later put down roots in the ELCA. Sensing an attack on universal salvation, grace, and human dignity, I didn't join an ELCA congregation where the pastor welcomed non-Christians to take Communion but whose worship materials, I felt, discouraged their participation. I can react strongly or irrationally to things. Sometimes, this is a fight-flight-fawn-freeze trauma response to reminders–conscious or not–of painful formative faith experiences like "ex-gay therapy" and social rejection.
While starting my first steps to becoming an ELCA pastor, I studied Christian theology and Hebrew Bible at Elmhurst University. Struggling in my home congregation, I found joy and fulfillment working in a different ELCA congregation. Shifting sometimes daily, one moment, I'd feel restored by Jesus for service in the world, and another, I'd despair. Read about challenging mood shifts and how to manage them.
My relationship with Jesus had brought me new life. Now "dying to self" only brought more death.
Inspired during my time learning from and working with Dr. Nancy C. Lee on her forthcoming commentary on Song of Songs, I identify with the Song's primary character whose voice drives the story, singing it in, through, and with the community. Captivating my spirit and imagination, she says:
Reject any purchase of life. Love repels force–it doesn't commodify people.
Learn to live–not die. Love outlasts death–it doesn't repurpose it.
Resist death, don't seek it. Love defeats death–it doesn't design justice with it.
Defy definition. Love perplexes–it doesn't delineate.
Choose love. Love embraces–it doesn’t coerce.
At a pivotal moment, I lost respect for and felt my ELCA pastor invalidated my vision for ministry when he dismissed my objections to believing humans deserve punishment from birth (original sin). For me, this teaching, not held by all Christians, lends itself to biological racism, white supremacy, misogyny, hetero-cissexism, religio-centrism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism.
As the host of these conversations, I prioritize and deeply believe in building mutual understanding and the will for joint human rights and social justice action amidst diversity and difference (learn about interfaith). I recognize and seek to amplify the essential nature of our different paths, experiences, and ways of making meaning and finding healing.
For my own mental health, I fled the church. I wanted to be a minister because I experienced Jesus' redemptive power to help us race to save people from dehumanizing ideas and harmful practices. Outside, I feel I can highlight best its dehumanization of women, people of color, refugees, immigrants, religious minorities, and LGBTQ+ folks. That I and many others must leave is heartbreaking and infuriating. It's materially and emotionally costly, and it takes lives.
Though I've gone, part of me will always be in the middle, grieving. I'm joined by many whose humanity is on the line, inside and outside the church, fighting just to be.
Using Leaves on a Stream, one of many Guided Skill Meditations, I visualize that I am not my distress. When I'm hopeless, uncertain, or panicked, mindfulness helps me notice how much I've experienced and changed. I'm learning to clarify my values and choose my behavior even when I have intrusive thoughts or unwanted emotions with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Hosting these conversations, I realized my childhood faith began crumbling when I first hoped that just one of "God's damned" wasn't one. As I step anew into life, I want to take responsibility for wrongs I have done, search parts of my past I've suppressed, and grow into pieces of my identity I've waited to explore–like being non-binary and the name Riven. I won't let theology tell me who's "in" and "out."
My purpose is to ensure we choose each other–and ourselves.
Advocacy is central. I'm driven to ensure people have the resources to make choices about their well-being–including their bodies and gender and sexual identities. I cannot express how grateful I am to be free of the need to convert or erase sexual or gender identities, faiths, or non-faiths. Humbled, I seek to honor the worth and dignity in everyone and fight so every human being's basic needs are met.
Certainty is a common cancer. Too often, we close ourselves off from others' realities–or something as simple as a cool breeze. Without thinking, I know my and your problems and the solutions.
Self-care practices like swimming, music, and being in nature open me to wander and wonder.
My spirituality? It's heeding dawn's chorus, savoring harvest, wading waters, smelling blossoms, and glimpsing stars. It's getting lost in stories - mine, yours, theirs, all stories. In centering storytelling, I hope these conversations integrate the simple excitement of the unexpected into our consciousness.
Thank you to everyone who participated in this series. You helped me trace, clarify, and find the courage to tell my story as I entered yours. You positively impact and inspire our communities. Thank you to our generous partner, Interfaith America, who supports this project with a grant, and to NAMI KDK, for making this series possible. And thank you to all of you for entering and sharing these conversations, facing misconceptions about our difference and diversity, fighting mental health stigma, and challenging policymakers to combat mental health care disparities.
NAMI KDK helps fill the mental health resource gap in Illinois's Kane-south, DeKalb, and Kendall counties. We provide free support groups, education, a resource guide, advocacy opportunities, and community presentations. We recruit staff and interns that look like and represent our community. NAMI KDK has support groups for those experiencing symptoms (Connections) and those who support those experiencing symptoms (Family and Loved Ones). We have Spanish-speaking Connection and Family support groups and programs and support groups specifically for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities.
The views and opinions expressed in these conversations are those of the guests and host and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of NAMI KDK, Interfaith America, or any entities they represent or with which they are associated.