Shared battle against depression brings pastors together

Cartoonist’s work published with spiritual reflections by Rosemount resident

Rev. Don Knudson
Rev. Don Knudson

The Rev. Don Knudson, of Rosemount, has helped bring his friend’s cartoons to life in the new book “Grace Happens, Again.”

Knudson has penned daily devotions for a compilation of the Rev. Ray Johnson’s illustrations that offer a mixture of Lutheran humor and social justice and had previously been seen in Minnesota newspapers and magazines for decades.

“If you like to laugh at yourself at the church, and at human nature, this is a book you will enjoy,” Knudson said.

But the book is not all about laughter.

Johnson and Knudson met in seminary, but reconnected 25 years later over their shared struggle with depression and ministry experiences.

Friends say Johnson’s deep depression provided an ever-present awareness of suffering out of which came his creativity, humor and grace. His honesty and outlook were encouraged Knudson and many others around him.

“Ray drew people together. His effect on people was very deep,” Knudson said.

Knudson and Johnson’s battle against depression is one that is not unusual among those called to church life.

Clergy members face a higher rate of depression than most other occupations in the United States, according to a 2013 study by the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School.

“As pastor, you are expected to lead a congregation of people who may not want to go where you lead,” Knudson said. “You must be competent in everything you do. You must be above reproach. There are no boundaries or limits set in your work unless you set them. You proclaim the Gospel and represent the presence of God to the people. … One day you suddenly realized you are exhausted, burned out. You gave more than you had to give. You did not count the cost. You thought you could do it all. And now you failed. Stress has won.”Screen shot 2014-11-25 at 3.30.37 PM Screen shot 2014-11-25 at 3.30.25 PM

After going through separate crises in their family and personal lives, Knudson and Johnson were out of the traditional pastorate and seeking professional and personal support. They found the latter in each other, 25 years after they first met in seminary.

The two men met regularly to talk about life and process their experiences over coffee.

Johnson would sometimes bring his sketch pad to show Knudson cartoons he was working on or bring his paints and suggest going down to the lake to paint a particular scene. Their conversations were often punctuated by bouts of laughter as they healed together.

“Humor is a coping mechanism we all use to laugh at our circumstances and condition,” Knudson said. “It cannot cure depression. When one is in deep depression, nothing is funny. When someone like my friend Ray dares enter with you into the depths of numbing hopelessness with you, eventually you discover that life is absurd. When you see it, you have to laugh and then begin to cry.”

Rosemount resident the Rev. Don Knudson laughs with the Rev. Ray Johnson on the day Knudson married his wife, Gloria, in 1997. The laughs were due to Johnson staging his entrance by running up the stairs of the church, throwing his suit coat on and trying to properly knot his tie. “His comic relief was unforgettable and captured in this picture,” Knudson said.
Rosemount resident the Rev. Don Knudson laughs with the Rev. Ray Johnson on the day Knudson married his wife, Gloria, in 1997. The laughs were due to Johnson staging his entrance by running up the stairs of the church, throwing his suit coat on and trying to properly knot his tie. “His comic relief was unforgettable and captured in this picture,” Knudson said.

In 2005, Johnson died unexpectedly in his sleep, leaving his friends and family in shocked grief.

“It wasn’t suicide,” Knudson said. “In a way, it was a grace because he had suffered emotionally and struggled so much, that to have a peaceful, serene passing was a gift.”

Knudson was asked to lead his funeral and at the service he met several of Johnson’s seminary friends.

They looked at each other and said: “We shouldn’t just be getting together for funerals. We need to be together for support,” Knudson recalled.

And they did. The men still connect as often as possible, whether in person, over the phone or email to support each other through life.

Knudson wanted to find a way to honor his friend’s life and legacy, so he decided to compile a selection of Johnson’s cartoons alongside his devotional reflections.

“The devotions invite you in to see the hypocrisy, the humor, the blemishes of daily life and the church community,” Knudson said. “I need to be real and honest about my life, and Ray helped me do that. Ray’s cartoons can grab your attention and stop you in your tracks. It can give pause to know that perfection isn’t happening, but grace is.”

Before moving to Rosemount, Knudson, an ordained ELCA Lutheran pastor of over 40 years and a board certified chaplain serving Ebenezer Care Screen shot 2014-11-25 at 3.30.15 PMCenter in Minneapolis as director of spiritual care, served small town and rural churches in North Dakota and Minnesota.

His wife, Gloria Swanson, a retired ELCA associate in ministry, has served as vital aging minister at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville for more than 16 years.

They have two married daughters with 20 grandchildren, all of whom live in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

Johnson’s cartoons were originally published around the state in newspapers and magazines, as well as corporate and congregational training manuals.

“Ray had a lot to say about what was going on in society,” said Donna Johnson, Ray’s second wife. “It was almost like a ministry. It gave him an opportunity to write with his art. He had a very unique combination of skills. Ray was a very unusual guy who achieved a great deal, but it didn’t come easy because he overcame mental health struggles in order to do what he did. He was kind of the wounded healer.”

Johnson was a “self-made individual,” the first of his family to graduate college.

“He had a wonderful sense of humor, a strong sense of compassion for the poor and downtrodden, and was the most talented human being I have ever met. He worked so hard to develop his gifts,” Donna said. “But most of all he was real, made humble by his struggles — in spite of his brilliance. He was a star.”

“Grace Happens, Again” is a riff on the phrase Johnson created and turned into the bumper sticker: “Grace Happens.”

“It is time for our faith communities to understand that grace and mercy, so much talked about, not often experienced, belong to all of creation and all human beings, including those with depression,” Knudson said. “We now know this illness affects our pastors as well as parishioners and other members of our communities. It’s an epidemic. All deserve to be treated and cared for. All need to know grace happens.”

The book was released by Huff Publishing Associates on Oct. 31 and can be ordered online at www.huffpublishing.com.