I seek to have my Christian faith inform my interactions with everyone, including those who experience mental illness.
My faith teaches me that we are all equals, having been created in God’s image, and that God seeks to be in relationship with all of us.
Because of this, everyone deserves to be respected and cherished as precious children of God.
I was challenged to do this regularly as a St. Louis City police officer. For five years, I patrolled some of the worst neighborhoods of St. Louis.
I regularly met and interacted with people who suffered from mental illness and their family members who suffered along with them.
My police training would usually tell me that people that regularly interacted with police were simply being difficult or vagrants or just psychopathic criminals.
But, truthfully, many of these people were not intentionally being difficult or vagrants or criminals. They were people who experienced and understood life in a way that is totally different from the general population.
One of my biggest challenges was to avoid immediately passing judgment upon someone based on what I perceived was an internal impulsive behavior.
Another challenge was to take the time to ask questions about the person that I was interacting with and to try to learn if there was more going on to their story.
Was this person experiencing something that required professional help instead of jail?
I have to admit that I did not always navigate these experiences in a perfect way, but I did always make an effort to let people know that I saw them as one of God’s created and that they were worthy of respect.
After I left the police department, I was called to become the pastor of a small church in one of those dangerous neighborhoods that I had previously patrolled.
I went from arresting people from the community to trying to get those same people to come to church.
Over time, something funny happened. After hearing that I had become the pastor of that church, some of those same people and their family members began to come to that church. And they began to invite their friends.
Eventually, that church began to have a specific ministry to people and families who were experiencing the challenges of living with mental and physical illnesses.
This group grew to such a size that they eventually formed their own choir and their own usher group.
They found a way to become involved and active. We found ways to welcome them in their desire to be active.
To some, this may not be a big deal. But it was to them and their family members.
It struck home with me one day when the mother of a particular girl pulled me to the side and said that she didn’t know churches like ours existed.
She didn’t realize that there were churches where everyone was welcomed, regardless of a mental illness.
She shared a story with me about the church that they had previously attended. She said that after members of that church found out about her daughter’s mental and physical illnesses, they isolated her because she was different.
She was overjoyed now because her daughter was no longer isolated, but instead was included.
I must admit that neither I, nor the church that I served, did everything perfectly.
We made mistakes in trying to figure out how to incorporate everyone into the life of the congregation, but those mistakes were minimal in light of the joy of experiencing relationship with God together.
My experiences with that group have stuck with me and have continued to inform my thoughts on how to treat people.
That group taught me that everyone deserves to live a life where their innate human worth is recognized and affirmed.
They taught me that equal access to services that address and understand mental illness is a cause worth fighting for.
They taught me that all of God’s children should be made to feel welcome, whether we consider them to be perfect or not.
Terrell Carter is minister of administration at Third Baptist Church in St. Louis, director of the Foundations in Ministry program for Central Baptist Theological Seminary in St. Louis and a board member of the St. Louis Mental Health Board.