Our church and community were shaken last week with the random and senseless attack on two daycare parents in front of our church on Canal Street in New Orleans. We who live in New Orleans are used to crime around the city. But what really shakes us up is that this happened in front of a church, a place that is supposed to be welcoming and safe for any person who may come on the church property.

As a pastor, my heart goes out to all those affected by this tragedy. The victims, the parents of our daycare, the kids, and the community around us have had to re-think those places where we normally feel “safe.” The attacker destroyed our feeling of safety and attacked someone in our community, which is hard to forgive. Forgiveness is hard to do, especially in such circumstances. But exercising forgiveness, in this case, is only the first step to helping solve a greater problem in many of our cities across the United States.

The issue? People in our cities need better access to mental health providers and the systems that support mental health. While the issues are varied, a mental health crisis has persisted for a long time. Let me introduce you to Uhuru Howard, the alleged attacker. While I believe we are all responsible for our decisions and behavior, Uhuru was also a product of a dysfunctional system. Uhuru was not part of our church, but she was part of our community.
One of our church members went to school with Uhuru and recounted how sweet she was in elementary and middle school. A sheriff’s deputy talked about how she was well known on the streets for having mental issues. Another law enforcement officer spoke about how she would come into their downtown building all the time. People would try to get her help, but she would always tell people she didn’t need that type of help. Her record shows she has been in and out of jail and mental institutions.

While I don’t know Uhuru’s behavioral or mental issues, it becomes apparent that she is typical of many cases in our urban areas. There is an overall lack of access to mental health. For those who do have access to mental health, there is often a lack of coordination between agencies. While our local police were quick and responsive to the call on the day of attack, there is only so much that police and the judicial system can do for long-term care of those in need of mental health.

Jesus was known for spending His time among the marginalized of society. Yes, he spent time with the powerful, but he mostly spoke truth to those in power. I think one of the “truths” they need to hear is that our mental health care system is broken.

Mental health is one of the areas where churches, nonprofits, and government agencies can work together. Jesus was not only interested in a person’s salvation, but also making this life better. That’s why he healed and fed, along with preaching about how to change this world. For example, our church, Canal Street Church, has a counseling ministry that is pursuing partnerships with other clinics and nonprofits in the area to provide more holistic mental and emotional health to people in our community using Jesus’ model.

The issues and problems of accessibility to mental health are complex. I do not claim to be an expert, but I do know this: Jesus would have wanted Uhuru to have a better life than she did. Uhuru’s problems have now become our problems. Our community needs to work together to help others who are suffering.

version of this piece originally appeared in “Letters to the Editor” of The Advocate.