Bringing the light of hope to the darkness of mental illness

“I am nobody,” a despondent voice tells the chaplain.

“You are somebody,” responds Father Joachim Oforchukuwu, who ministers to the patients of Ancora Psychiatric Hospital in Atlantic County.

In his role as chaplain, Father Joachim strives to inspire hope — a hope that dwells under struggles and despair.

“You are made in God’s image and likeness,” Father Joachim says to those who seek that wellspring of faith.

In 2005, Father Joachim, a native of Nigeria, came to the Diocese of Camden. During these years, he has carried a message to patients of Ancora.

“In Ancora, so many of the patients feel cut off, abandoned by families and friends,” said Father Joachim. “Many have been in residence for more than 30 years. Many have no family connections at all.” Many feel ignored even by the hospital staff, he said.

Father Joachim listens to their feelings of rejection. He hears the pain in their stories. As a chaplain, Father Joachim believes he can mitigate those feelings of abandonment by showing them compassion  — and being a priest.

“As a priest, I can help them restore their faith,” said Father Joachim. “I can say, ‘I am here for you.’ I can use Scripture to show God’s love, compassion and mercy. I can try to help them understand that their own challenges are not God’s punishment. I can try to get them to trust in God.”

Where demons dwell

“Many patients believe that Ancora is the seat of demons, the place where demons live,” said Father Joachim.

“As a priest I can use the sacraments and rituals of our religion,” he said. “I bring the Eucharist. I listen to confessions. I gather small groups together in prayer. They present their petitions to God. They pray that they might be freed from their suffering. They ask to be with their families.”

Reckoning with the voices

Sometimes patients hear voices. Father Joachim seeks to find an opening — a way to help the person reckon with those voices.

He listens intently as patients talk about what they hear. He listens — even when a patient refers to himself as God — as Jesus Christ.

He listens as a patient talks about how he or she was directed to physically hurt him or herself. Afterward, Father Joachim tries to draw the person into a discussion about the experience.

“It is sometimes possible to sit and talk about the experience,” Father Joachim said. “Most of the time, when a person tries to harm himself, he or she realizes that it was not good.”

A patient often acknowledges that he or she did something very wrong, he said.

“And after some time,” Father Joachim said, “they are often sorry for it.”

When patients seek forgiveness, Father Joachim offers the opportunity to go to confession. “Some of the Catholic patients have come to me and asked for it,” he said. “Others have turned to their own traditions, openly asking for God’s forgiveness.”

For those who are non-believers, or admitted atheists, Father Joachim said that he would never press the issue. “Instead, we try to discuss the experience,” he said. “We try to instill a sense of hope.”

“We must try to give hope,” said Father Joachim.  “I can tell them that it’s true: Life is not easy. Everybody is struggling. I can tell them that they are not alone in that situation.”

If the door is open, Father Joachim can speak about a loving God, “a God who knows about the challenges and struggles.”

“I try to show that God loves each of them,” Father Joachim said. And if he’s successful in his ministry, he can help them relate to that message.

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