I often say that one of the gifts of the Gospel of Jesus Christ--grace, mercy and love of God—is that it gives us the courage to face reality. Knowing we are loved, knowing we have eternal life with God, knowing that wounds and harm can be healed, we have the basis on which to build the courage to face reality.
As I survey my own life, the church and the world around us, one of the greatest challenges that we as a collective and individually still struggle most to address is mental illness. So many hurdles keep us from facing mental health challenges. In some cultures there are still stigmas and a perception of weakness if you look for mental health care. Some mental health conditions are so overwhelming for individuals and their families, they need the help of a broader community and social services---but so often those resources simply don’t exist. Access to mental health care is a serious problem. Like with so many services in our society, mental health care is available if you are wealthy and can self-pay, or have especially good PPO health insurance. For the poor or those MediCal or even with standard HMO insurance, you can wait months for a first therapy appointment.
I believe that God is calling us, the church, to witness with courage to the Gospel in the midst of the calamities of mental health challenges and care. I believe as the church we should be using our Biblical knowledge, our theology of grace and healing, and our faith-in-action to destigmatize mental illness and care, and advocate and act in ways that will increase the access to such care.
A few years ago, while assembling the archives for St. Matthew’s—NoHo, I came across a newspaper clipping from the early 1950’s from the then local SFV newspaper. It announced that the pastor of St. Matthew’s had opened a community mental health clinic on the campus. The pastor happened to also be a trained mental health counselor. That newspaper clipping has been in my thoughts ever since. One of my thoughts when I read this was: “wow, already in the 1950’s St. Matt’s was on the cutting edge—try to recall the level of stigma and resistance to mental health care 70 years ago!” My second thought was: “How might St. Matt’s reclaim that part of its amazing community history?”
As I look to St. Matt’s 90th’s birthday celebration this November and what lies ahead for our congregation and for me as the pastor, I am leaning into this calling to address mental health needs by starting some continuing education in counseling. I am not sure exactly where this is going to lead, but it is possible it will lead to my becoming licensed eventually as a Professional Clinical Counselor. That would give me the capacity to have a private practice alongside my call as a pastoral leader, as well as potentially contributing needed clinical expertise to our non-profit, NoHo Home Alliance, in its efforts to address the profound mental health care needs of the unhoused in LA. I ask you to pray for me this week as I participate in workshops on mental health care.
I also ask you to reflect on how God is calling you to speak and act with Gospel courage with the people in your life around mental illness and the power of mental health care. Let us pray, let us advocate, let us love those who are struggling directly and indirectly with mental health challenges and their impacts.
Pr. Stephanie Jaeger