ATLANTA — If ever James Clemons was unsure of his church's stance on suicide, the answer came when he opened the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.
Listed under "crimes," the entry for suicide read: "A fate reserved for the damned."
That was 15 years ago. Since then, the Methodist minister and professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, has become a leader in trying to encourage America's religious community to do more to help prevent suicides.
Increasingly, church groups are joining the cause. Some have begun counseling to help victims; others are looking into producing CD-ROMs to reach out to youths on the edge. The efforts represent a telling shift in the way organized religion views people who, for centuries, were considered heretics.
"Throughout history, suicide has been seen as a sin against the church and a crime against the state," says Mr. Clemons. "Now religious communities are working hard to help those whose lives have been or will be touched by suicide."
As evidence of this change, 80 of the nation's leading thinkers in health and religion, including Surgeon General David Satcher, have gathered here in Atlanta for the nation's first Interfaith Conference on Religion and Suicide. The meeting wants to make sure that religious groups don't ignore the 30,500 people who commit suicide each year - or the 765,000 who attempt it.
"We have abdicated our responsibilities toward our parishioners," said Jan Fuller, former president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains to a roomful of attendees from the nation's Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish communities.
Indeed, the history of persecution of people who attempt suicide - and their families - is nearly as long as the history of Christianity itself. In the 4th century, St. Augustine first condemned suicide as an act of self-murder,although scholars point out that church leaders did not stigmatize the practice before that.
In the Middle Ages, one church committee assembled a list of all of the martyrs who had taken their own lives and stripped them of their sainthood. In England, those who attempted suicide were brought to trial - and promptly executed, if they were found guilty.
Popular attitudes began to change in the 1890s, with the emergence of the field of sociology and its premise that society affects behavior. Later, the popularization of Freudian psychology furthered this belief, until in 1983, the Roman Catholic Church dropped suicide from its list of unforgivable sins.
In the past decade, other denominations, most recently the Evangelical Lutheran Church in November, have urged compassion for suicide's victims and their families.
Still, some say churches must continue to change their attitudes. There remains some distrust of mental-health professionals within the religious community, says Ms. Fuller, and that can impair suicide prevention. "There's this feeling of 'Why are you seeing a counselor when you can pray about it?' " she says.
A number of programs aimed at bridging that gap are rising up nationwide:
*Pathways to Promise in St. Louis brings groups like the American Baptist Churches and the Rabbinical Assembly together with National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
*Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide in Chicago runs weekly grief-counseling groups for suicide survivors through Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
*The Organization for Attempters and Survivors of Suicide in Interfaith Services, founded three years ago by Clemons, sponsors workshops and meetings for pastors and therapists, among others. Its board now includes Elie Wiesel and Jane Pearson, chairwoman of the National Institute of Mental Health's Suicide Research Consortium.
*Churches are even looking into producing CD-ROMs about teenage suicide to play on kiosks during national youth meetings.
Those are the kinds of ideas that religious leaders at the Atlanta meeting are encouraging. "Our nation's health depends not just on interaction with doctors" but religious communities as well, says Mr. Satcher, who adds that 70 percent of the elderly who commit suicide have seen a physician in the month before they died.
Schools are also at a loss. An American Counseling Association report earlier this year found that less than one-third of school counselors felt they could recognize the warning signs of a suicidal student.
That's where churches can help, says Jennifer Shifrin, executive director of Pathways to Promise. A minister friend "said it best. She told me, 'They may not listen to the researchers and wonks drone on, but when I have them in the pews on Sunday morning, they listen to me.' "
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society