A Georgia pastor is on a mission to raise awareness of suicide in the Black community and its connection to the church. How’s he doing it? Through a hunger strike.
Church leader and Black Lives Matter-Savannah co-founder Jomo K. Johnson started his hunger strike on June 6, the anniversary of the death of Bronx teen Kalief Browder, who took his life after spending nearly three years in solitary confinement at Riker’s Island.
Drinking nothing but water for a minimum of 30 days, Johnson will post an update and an encouraging message to his Facebook page every night, NBCBLK reported. The pastor said he’ll end his strike once he feels enough awareness has been raised or his body gives in.
“We want to give more attention to mental health — especially those coming out of prison and [the] LGBTQ community,” Johnson told the network. “I believed this was a method to talk about death on a regular basis.”
The American Association of Suicidology reports that 2,241 African-Americans died as a result of suicide in 2014. Of those victims, nearly 80 percent were Black males — and that number has continued to rise in recent years. The organization also pointed to 2015 data showing that the suicide rate of young Black children aged 5-11 had nearly doubled since 1993, surpassing suicide rates for white kids of the same age for the first time.
Johnson helped co-found Savannah’s BLM chapter shortly after the high-profile deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, who were both killed by police, according to NBCBLK. His hunger strike also comes just a month after the death of iconic Ferguson, Mo., activist Edward Crawford, who was found dead in his car. Crawford allegedly committed suicide.
“It’s hard enough to care for the movement when it’s hard enough to care for ourselves,” Johnson said. “Often times, those who are the greatest activists are those who are [also] the greatest persecuted.
“We still have to worry about how we are going to take care of ourselves, how we’re going to put food on the table and deal with things that have been done to us, but, yet, we’re trying to move a movement forward.”
For the pastor, Browder’s and Crawford’s suicides hit close to home, as Johnson himself has struggled with depression and attempted suicide. In his book “Conversations with Jesus Before and After Suicide,” he makes a connection between suicide and religion by dispelling the common religious belief that suicide is a sin. Johnson called the notion “absolutely wrong.”
“There’s no place in scripture where it condemns the taking of one’s life,” he told NBCBLK. “The taking of one’s life is an unfortunate consequence of us living in a world that’s broken.
“I think it’s important for the church to recognize that what they’ve been teaching is not true and they need to acknowledge that and try to adjust so that people won’t be hurt by these wrongful teachings.”
Johnson argued that American churches don’t fully understand mental illness and that most either try to find a quick-fix for it or label it as something of the devil. As someone who has battled deep depression and admits to contemplating suicide every day, the pastor said healing ultimately starts with accepting mental illness.
Johnson said he hopes his hunger strike will raise awareness, as well as encourage people to listen.
“If someone tells you they’re suffering from suicidal thoughts or depression, give them your phone number,” he said. “There are so many people that just need to be heard and want people to listen to them.
“If we can be a listening ear, we can prevent many of these suicides that are going on in the world.”