January 17, 2020

Offering Hope Through Connection

“We are seeing more and more depression and anxiety in our communities, and a lot of that is fueled by loneliness and disconnection.” Jim Lewis is a problem solver with a busy full time job as Director of Christian Formation at Hixson United Methodist Church in Chattanooga. But that is only one of the hats he wears. Jim is a volunteer fire department chaplain, and he serves as chaplain at 2 different mental health facilities, where he and his Therapy Dog Jupiter help people dealing with mental health crises.

Jupiter the Therapy Dog is a popular sidekick when Jim visits mental health facilities.

“I am a person who has struggled with depression. And we’re seeing it more and more as a culture,” Jim says. He believes the church is the logical place to offer help through building relationships and connections. As he brought mental health issues to light in his local church, he became involved in a program at Duke University, a Re-Imagining Health Collaborative focused on Mental Health.  

His participation in Duke’s program led him to begin a Mental Health Initiative at Hixson United Methodist Church. That program launched in a year-long partnership with psychiatrist Dr. Tim Jennings of Come and Reason Ministries, who taught a monthly series of free community gatherings called Mental Health Matters that focused on offering help, hope, and healing related to common issues of mental health. Topics included how trauma and addiction affect the brain’s function, the neurobiology and treatment of depression, the aging brain, how to heal and empower the brain, and how churches and agencies can partner together to help those struggling with mental illness.

Attendance at the Mental Health programs confirmed Jim’s feelings that more and more people were struggling with mental health issues, or dealing with a friend or family member who needed help.  And he believes that the church is called to partner with people who need help.

“The church is not the doctor, not the treatment center, not the counselor, but we are the ones who walk alongside. If churches were doing what we’re called to do, we would be walking with people; we would be the hands and feet of Christ, the Good Samaritan who is meeting them where they are, doing triage, getting them some help, and following up with them to be sure they are continuing to receive the help they need.”

Jim believes that it is up to churches to be the light to those who are struggling. There is a biblical imperative to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27).  “I believe this means you should love your neighbor as you; like they are part of you. Don’t you love your spouse like they are part of you? Don’t you love your children like they are part of you?” Jim says. “In mental health, we need to love people like they are part of us, to get them connected to others, not to hold them at arm’s length.”

He believes that when we see the good in others, when we focus on meeting people where they are, on building relationships and looking not only to what they need, but also to see what the other person may have to offer, our faith is strengthened, our bonds with others grow, and our communities are transformed.

In his weekly visits to the mental health facilities, Jim prays, “God, help me see you in them.” Then he adds, “help them see you in them,’ because each of us is created by God and bear His image. It’s my dream to help people see what I call their inherent goodness: which is love.”

Pastors and church leaders are increasingly being called on by their members for suicide intervention and mental health counseling. There are many resources and facilities available, both through the state, and through the faith based organizations and nonprofits dedicated to serving in the areas of mental health, addiction, and crisis intervention; however the systems are not easy to navigate. Because Jim and Hixson United Methodist Church are connected with mental health providers and resources throughout Chattanooga, he is building an accurate, trusted and up-to-date-resource guide for Mental Health Services in the area.  

Jim Lewis preparing for a group conversation about being present to connect with those in need.

Over the past few years, Jim has developed a strong relationship with the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network (TSPN), and the church has hosted gatherings and events for that group. In 2018, Jim was awarded the Madge and Ken Tullis Suicide Prevention Award for his and the church’s work.

Hixson United Methodist also hosts meeting space for the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI – an organization focused on the needs of individuals and families wrestling with mental health problems), and Narcotics Anonymous (NA).  The Tennessee Department of Mental Health recognizes the church as a “Recovery Congregation”.

Through his work as an emergency service Chaplain, Jim has responded to care for people following flood, tornado, terrorist attack, major accidents and unexpected death. He is a founding member of the Executive Team for the Tennessee Disaster Mental Health Strike Team that offers trained support to emergency responders and the public following traumatic incidents helping to manage stress, support resilience, and provide referral to professional mental health resources.

Even though he has intensive experience in the mental health field, Jim continues to ask, “what is healing?” More like a physically chronic illness, those who struggle with mental health often find themselves in a lifetime journey with their illness. While he continues to find resources, coping skills and connection to navigate his own journey with depression, he still wonders what it must be like for people who spend a lifetime dealing with more serious mental illness like schizophrenia. In the end, he says, “the church always wants to have the right answers, but I don’t necessarily think it’s all about the answer. We need to start talking, we need to be connecting, we need to empower a different way of thinking about it.”  

You can reach Jim Lewis, Director of Christian Formation at Hixson United Methodist Church; jimlewis@hixsonumc.org  423.877.1246

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