He Gives the Mentally Ill a Place to Pray and Belong

updated 02/26/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/26/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

Joel Pulis, 33
Dallas, Texas

"Are y'all happy to be here tonight?" Pastor Joel Pulis calls out in a booming drawl, and his congregation shouts in affirmation. So begins Saturday Night Life, the weekly worship service at the Well Community, a Dallas church as unorthodox as its name. Garbed in jeans and a sweater, Pulis paces with a cordless mike. His 100 or so faithful sit not in pews but at dining tables. That is, when they do sit: While Pulis reads from the Book of Psalms, some get up to stretch, drift out for a smoke, even lie on the floor. Others blurt out non sequiturs to no one in particular.

They don't mean to be rude or irreverent; they're just being themselves. For what makes the Well unique is that most of its 100 parishioners suffer from some kind of severe mental illness: depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder. "The Well exists because many of these people had been made to feel unwelcome elsewhere," says Pulis, who started the church five years ago with his brother Josh, 29, and a few kindred spirits. Here in a cavernous dining hall rented from Cliff Temple Baptist Church, where Pulis worshiped as a boy, idiosyncrasy is lovingly embraced. The Well's T-shirt says it all: "You can be yourself here."

For Anne White that's literally a godsend. Suffering from schizoaffective disorder, she long refused to take her medicine and was often homeless. But she was raised in the church and yearned to go back; one Sunday several years ago, she thought she'd try Cliff Temple. "Then I saw people going up the steps and how nice and neat they looked," says White, 57. "I walked away." Three years ago a friend told her about the Well. It was a revelation. "There were people there who looked like I did," she says. Now she works in the church office, has her own apartment and takes her pills. "I still have days when I don't feel good. But at the Well, they give you encouragement, a new reason to hope for a normal day."

Pulis's approach has earned high praise from such mental-health professionals as James Baker, CEO of MetroCare, the city's largest public mental health agency. "He has demonstrated understanding and empathy for people with severe mental illness," Baker says. "This is a wonderful gift to the community." Though he's an ordained Baptist minister, Pulis calls the Well nondenominational. Its $190,000 budget, mainly from private donors, funds daily Bible classes as well as the Saturday-night service. Pulis makes himself available 24-7 for counseling, driving parishioners to doctors or helping them find housing. "He tries to set boundaries," says his wife, Laura, 31, an interior designer and mother of their daughter Grace, 4. "At the same time, we're a ministry." Their most harrowing call? "A guy had taken an overdose of pills," Pulis says. "I got him to an emergency room. He felt life was hopeless. We helped him understand he had people who loved him."

Pulis says he developed a sensitivity to mental illness as a boy, watching a relative struggle with bipolar disorder. He attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for less than a year but dropped out, having "never felt the call to be a pastor in the traditional sense–preach sermons, give a couple of old-time revivals a year." His goal was to work with the disadvantaged, which he did at a Waco church until 1999, when he was invited to come back to Cliff Temple. Pulis started the Well after his outreach work took him to some group homes and boarding houses for the mentally ill. "I felt they were being spiritually ostracized," he says.

Not anymore. "Let's stand up and sing," Pulis calls out, and his Saturday Night Lifers belt out hymns, many with arms outstretched and eyes closed. "Here I don't have to go through the loneliness," says one parishioner, who suffers from bipolar schizoaffective disorder. "It helps reduce the stigma, takes the edge off. At least for a couple of hours a week we can be with our adoptive family. This is what church should be."

Know a hero? Send suggestions to HEROESAMONGUS@PEOPLEMAG.COM Please include your name, phone number and return e-mail address. For more information on the Well, go to www.wellcommunity.net.

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