In many Black communities, the church is often a hub for services that go beyond spiritual uplift. Photo: Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Suicide has a disproportionate impact on Black communities in the United States: in 2020, suicide was the third leading cause of death for Black people in their teens and early 20s. In 2019, young Black women in particular were 60% more likely to attempt suicide than their white peers.

In many Black communities, the church is often a hub for services that go beyond spiritual uplift. In rural communities especially, congregants and non congregants rely on churches for information about everything from voting to health care. It is also the first place where many people bring their celebrations and their troubles, including money struggles and personal grief. So if the clergy isn’t talking about suicide, “then that means nobody’s talking about it,” says Kenya] Procter, executive pastor of Ambassadors for Christ Worship Center.

A possible solution is training in suicide prevention is Soul Shop for Black Churches, which teaches LivingWorks Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) techniques in a one-day workshop for Black clergy. 

“Churches are an important part of many Black communities, a trusted resource, a safe place to go,” said Garra Lloyd-Lester, the coordinator of community and coalition initiatives at the Suicide Prevention Center of New York [State]’s Office of Mental Health, which also offers New York clergy free access to the LivingWorks Faith programming. “It only makes sense that we have information that’s tailored to those communities, to be able to include how we talk about suicide.”

Soul Shop for Black Churches was inspired by the Rev. Erwin Lee Trollinger, pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church of White Plains, New York, after he became aware of how many clergy he knew struggled with mental health. He connected with leaders at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), who in turn brought in Soul Shop, a group founded by Fe Anam Avis, a onetime Ohio pastor who had experienced the loss of three young people in his church to suicide. Avis eventually created a one-day suicide prevention workshop for faith leaders and turned it into a nationwide program. 

With Trollinger’s call to action, Soul Shop and AFSP leadership came to the same realization: They needed to adapt the ASIST curriculum for the Black church. 

“I said, ‘If you’re going to have the faith community as a target, you’ve got to make sure that the faith leaders are also trainers,’” said Pat White, chair of diversity, equity and inclusion for AFSP’s chapter covering New York’s Hudson Valley and Westchester County, home to Trollinger’s church. White insisted that all the training would take place in churches, with the senior pastor and associate pastor involved.

She also imposed a “deal breaker” threshold — at least 50% of workshop registrants had to be from the congregation of the church where the workshop was being held. “Then they as the congregation will be the messengers for all the work, all that they’re hearing, all the lessons, and then they’ll start talking by just talking,” White said.

Working with these principles, Soul Shop for Black Churches has since grown far beyond New York. Read more here

This is an excerpt lightly edited and adapted from an article produced as part of a partnership that Epicenter has with national news organizations under the RNS/Interfaith America Religion Journalism Fellowship.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: call or text 988 or chat For TTY users: Use your preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

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