How This Reverend Is Breaking Down the Stigma Around Mental Health
I'm transparent about mine. I'm a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I've dealt with depression, flashbacks. I've spoken in sermons about seeing a therapist for PTSD, taking medication. For years, I got rhetoric from the church that mental illness was equivalent to a lack of faith. Here, we don't do that kind of harm. We challenge that stigma. We don't tell people God won't give you more than you can bear, or that it's gonna be better in the morning. No.
The black community often doesn't seek care. The messages we get from family can become our lexicon for mental health. My grandmother would say, "Pray it away." A therapist wasn't in her arsenal of things you turned to when you were sad. You were "too blessed to be stressed." Well, no, I'm blessed and I'm stressed, and I need more. I need to pray, and.
I grew up in North Jersey, the inner city. My parents were from Southern, churchgoing families, but they didn't always take my brother and me. When I was 8, I decided I wanted to go myself because other kids were there. The only place close enough was an Episcopal church, so that's where I went. When my mother came to see me perform my little part in the Sunday school program and saw I was the only black child, she started taking us to an African Methodist Episcopal church. We made it our home. That's where I was ordained, and, later, my mother, too.
I moved to the Bay Area and began to raise questions about the role of inclusiveness in the church. My bishop said, "What you do when gays come to church is preach conversion." That wasn't acceptable to me. I said, "I feel called to be in a faith community that welcomes all people." So I left to create one and called it New Revelation Community Church.
Our first Bible study was in November 2004 at a Marriott in downtown Oakland. I told very few people—I kind of hoped it would fail so I could say, "Well, I tried, but it didn't work, so let me go ahead and get a real job." Running a church is hard, and at 40, I wasn't young. But people came, many from black church environments that weren't affirming of same-gender-loving people. There was a lot of teaching. People had their theology stretched. Some left. But we survived. We've met in other churches, we've met in a bar, and now we're meeting in a frat house.
We started ministering in the park—bringing social service resources, food, and clothes to the homeless. Easily half the people we encountered had some undiagnosed mental health issue. We didn't know how to help. So with four other churches, we formed the Overall Wellness project. (We like to call ourselves Oh Well.) In 2011, Alameda County gave us a grant, which we used to take Mental Health First Aid training. It's like CPR: You learn how to recognize a crisis and what to do to address it. We'll invite people on the street to our twice-monthly free community breakfasts, and someone may be standing on the corner talking to himself. You say to yourself, Okay, I'm a Mental Health First Aider, so I know not to be afraid. He's hallucinating. I can decide whether to call 911 or just encourage him to come eat.
We were also trained in the Wellness Recovery Action Plan, which is a peer support model. In a church, you're often in the business of helping people grieve. Now we can say, "Maybe this isn't grief; maybe it's depression. Let's deal with the fact that your mother died around this time three years ago and you're still revisiting that."
There are congregants who received training and realized they, or someone they loved, were dealing with serious things. One woman got a call from her son one day. He was clearly high. We'd learned that people often get high because they hurt. She asked him the question we'd been taught to ask: Are you thinking of hurting yourself? And after a long silence, he said yes. Now she knew how to intervene. And we were able to take care of her, too. Another woman went through the training, and it gave her the courage to reach out to a doctor. "This isn't just sadness," the doctor said. "For a week at a time you're unable to function." Now she's on medication. She seems like a different person, to herself and to us.
During the training, it was like we all looked at one another: We didn't know it, but this is what we do! Helping our community, addressing the hurdles that people have to accessing care. We're saying, "We look like you, and we can help you."
I want faith to be not just an opiate that helps us survive—I want faith to be an opportunity for us to thrive. If you're dealing with a crisis, you can come here and not hear the language of stigma. We will not marginalize or ignore you. Rather, we will be inviting, receptive, welcoming. Radically inclusive. We'll point you to resources, be part of your wellness. We'll stand with you. The church should be a safe place for your mind, body, and soul. It all matters to God.