(May 18, 2007) — Today the Church of the Brethren General Board received the sad news of the death of Lee Eshleman, a member of the Mennonite comedy duo Ted & Lee, who has been a major presenter at National Youth Conferences over the past decade. Following is a pastoral letter from Chris Douglas, director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the General Board, that is being sent by e-mail to the adult advisors who accompanied youth groups to National Youth Conference in 2006:
“Lee Eshleman, a member of the Mennonite comedy duo Ted & Lee, took his own life yesterday, May 17, after succumbing to a long battle with depression.
“Brethren youth and young adults, especially those who attended National Youth Conference (NYC) in the last decade, will remember Lee from his comedic and insightful performances with Ted Swartz, as they acted out biblical stories for the current day. Ted & Lee were major presenters at the last three NYCs, in 1998, 2002, and 2006. They also performed at two National Older Adult Conferences, and were booked to lead worship at the National Junior High Conference this June.
“At the 2006 NYC, Ted & Lee closed a worship service with feetwashing, in the most powerful interpretation of what Jesus did for his disciples that I have seen. I remember thinking at the time, they have made sense of the feetwashing service for a whole new generation of Brethren.
“We at the Youth and Young Adult Ministries Office, and the General Board, join with Lee’s family and loved ones, and with Ted and the Mennonite community, in grieving his death.
“Realizing that many Brethren youth may share this loss, I am encouraging youth advisors to talk about Lee’s death with youth groups, with special care for those who were at NYC last summer. This also is an opportunity for open conversation with youth about related issues of suicide and mental health.
“Consider ways to invite youth to a healthy and faithful response. If your youth group includes a number who were at NYC, you may want to set aside a moment of silence during Sunday school class or at the next youth group meeting, and offer an opportunity for youth to say prayers. Remember to reaffirm Lee’s public ministry, helping youth understand that his personal struggle with depression does not invalidate his faith, and does not negate the important things that he taught about following Jesus.
“In talking with youth about related issues, reassure them that for those who are living with mental illness, treatment does work; in the midst of this one loss, we must remember that many others have sought help and received it successfully. Research shows that the best treatments for mental illness today are highly effective. Our faith, as well as modern medicine, offer us resources of hope. We do not know what caused Lee to take his own life, but talking about the hope that is available to us will be helpful to youth who are concerned.
“If youth have questions about the struggle of those with depression or other mental illness, or for help in speaking about suicide from a faith perspective, resources are offered by the Association of Brethren Caregivers at www.brethren.org/abc:
“What Every Church Should Know About Mental Illness” gives an explanation of depression and other mental illnesses.
“Talking About Suicide Can Change a Life” includes the signs of depression and suicide risk, common misperceptions about suicide, and advice about how to find out if someone is suicidal.
Internet links for further resources about suicide include two recommended DVDs: The video “The Truth About Suicide: Real Stories of Depression in College” from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which was shown at workshops for advisors at NYC (http://www.afsp.org/). “Fierce Goodbye: Living in the Shadow of Suicide” is from Mennonite Media (http://www.mennomedia.org/).
“Another way youth may want to respond is to contribute to an online page of condolence and remembrance offered by Eastern Mennonite University, where Lee Eshleman was an alumni. Go to www.emu.edu/response/lee.
“If your youth group includes individuals who seem to have an extreme reaction, you need to invite help from the parents and your pastor, and refer to local mental health professionals for help.
“Please join with me in holding all those who cared for Lee Eshleman in our prayers. May God bring comfort and peace.
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me…” (Psalm 23:4a).
Chris Douglas, Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry
Church of the Brethren General Board