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God Squad: Tight-knit communities key to suicide prevention

The recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have brought a chilling question to those contemplating killing themselves.

We are here to be saved by God. Knowing that we are saved gives us hope to endure the burdens of life and give thanks for our blessings. Knowing that we are saved gives us compassion for the struggles of our neighbors. Knowing that we are saved gives us courage to struggle for justice in a broken world.

We do not all share the same beliefs of why or how we are saved, but we believe that somehow we are loved and embraced by a God who has made us all in God’s image as an act of grace. And as an act of gratitude to God for this salvation, we try to fill the world with compassion and goodness. That is why we are here.

Today I am not writing for those who know why we are here, but for those who have lost their way. Today I am writing for those who wake up to dark mornings and fall asleep into stormy nights and who know of no shepherd in the valley of the shadow of death. Today I am writing for those who do not know or have forgotten why we are here.

Today I am writing for those thinking of taking their own lives.

The recent suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and chef, author and travel-show host Anthony Bourdain have brought immense grief to their families, deep sadness to their admirers and a chilling question to those on the verge of deciding whether to kill themselves. Their question is this: “If their lives of success and celebrity were not worth living, what hope is there for me?”

There is hope for you. Do this one thing, and you will find your way back to hope.

Get bundled.

There is a wise saying from the Maasai tribe in Africa, “Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable. Sticks alone can be broken by a child.” Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain were both unbundled sticks that broke because they were deeply alone. They had employees and business partners around them, and they both had friends who loved them — but workers, business associates and even friends are not enough to get bundled. They are just people who drift in and out of your life and who fill up your days.

A bundle is a community. A community is a group of people who gather together to help each other remain whole, to help the broken become healed and embraced. That is a community. It is not a business, though some in your business could be in your community. It is not a group of friends, though some of your friends could be in your community. It is not even a family, though your family could be — and should be — a part of your community. A community does not care how rich you are or what team you root for. A community just cares that you show up.

When I speak of communities, I mean mainly (but not only) churches, synagogues and masjids. The reason religious communities have existed since the beginning of humanity is that we have always known that sticks in a bundle are unbreakable, and sticks alone can be broken by a child. The religion of the community is the glue binding the sticks together, but the people are the visible sign of hope.

Religious communities bundle us. Many people tell me that one of the things they most admire about Judaism is the shiva minyan, when the community of Jews gathers in the house of a mourner for seven nights. At the time when the mourner feels like a single stick, the community bundles them.

This idea that joining a religious community will help to reduce suicide is not just my professional prejudice. There is empirical evidence from a study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that involved a large group of Catholic women. Those who attended church at least weekly were five times less likely to kill themselves than those who did not attend church. And this occurred between 1999 and 2010, when suicide rates in America skyrocketed 80 percent. My experience in my synagogue confirms these findings.

A teaching from the Talmud, the postbiblical rabbinic collection of law and legends, tractate Ta’anit 23b, in Aramaic is “o hevruta o metuta” — “Give me community or give me death.”

That has always been the choice. Amen.

Get help

If you find the choice of getting bundled still too hard, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 to get the locations of nearby bundles.

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