Chattanooga Leaders Convene for Mental Health and Gun Violence Summit

From left: Chattanooga Police Chief Celeste Murphy, Erlanger Health Trauma Services Coordinator Regena Young, Chattanooga Youth Intervention Specialist Pablo Mazariegos, First Baptist Church Pastor William Terry Ladd III and Grace Pointe Church Pastor Marcellus Barnes Sr. sat on the Gun Violence panel moderated by LaDarius Price, deputy director of Community Development for Hamilton County. (Photos by Camm Ashford)

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly joined forces with key community figures for a pivotal Faith Leader and Nonprofit Mental Health and Gun Violence Summit at Brainerd Crossroads (BX) on Jan. 26. The event took place from 10 a.m.-1 p.m., with community members and experts alike coming together to tackle the pressing “public health issues” surrounding mental health and its intersection with gun violence.

Speakers emphasized the importance of promoting “understanding, compassion and actionable solutions” during two separate panel discussions–one focusing on gun violence and the other on mental health issues.

Chattanooga Police Chief Celeste Murphy underscored the need for improved police-youth relations as a critical step in addressing gun violence in order to dispel fear and build trust within the community.

“When they see the vision of us and when we’re in their presence, I don’t want children to be scared of us,” she said. “I don’t want adults to be scared of us either. And I want our adults to stop teaching our children to be scared of us, because that’s not what I’m about.”

Chief Murphy also highlighted the need for collective efforts to prevent gun violence, particularly by reaching out to the youth before violence takes hold.

“We just have to pull together, work together, and really eradicate some of the things that are driving the violence in our community,” she said.

A recurring theme throughout the summit was the impact of social media on mental health.

“Social media. As I was saying earlier, it’s incredibly isolating,”  noted Rebekah Bohannon, Hamilton County director of Intergovernmental Affairs.

“Social media is both a blessing and a curse,” added General Sessions Judge Alex McVeagh.

Karen Collins, sister of Chattanooga rapper James McReynolds, a.k.a. “Biggie Moe”–who died on Jan. 10 after being shot in his car on North Bishop Drive–shed light on the intricate relationship between social media, violent language in rap music and gun violence.

“Today, I’m just empty,” Collins shared. “My brother James Lebron McReynolds, known as Biggie Moe, was the first homicide of the year. I had to stop people from coming in to take pictures to post. That’s elevating this violence in our community.”

William Terry Ladd III, pastor of First Baptist Church, emphasized the need to address the root causes of violence.

“We are a violent culture,” he explained. “And as a culture, we need to recognize that violence is a broader issue that needs to be addressed in all areas of society, not just in isolated incidents.”

Satedra Smith, a mother and “gun violence survivor,” shared a poignant message as she honored the memory of both of her sons,  Jordan and Joshua. Joshua was murdered just last month in Atlanta, and Jordan in Chattanooga in 2015.

Shot herself, Smith is the founder of Jordan’s Light Foundation and a member of the Everytown Survivor Network.

“In 1999, I was shot in front of my daughter as I walked out of the front door of our home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where we were hosting a family cookout,” Smith said in a 2017 interview with Times magazine. “The shooting was unintentional. A 17-year-old neighbor had a .22 in his pocket that fell to the ground, discharging as it landed. The bullet hit me, and I suffered severe internal bleeding. As I went in for surgery, I asked my parents to take care of my kids, thinking that I wouldn’t make it out. I still feel so lucky that I survived. But my shooting wasn’t the first in my family, and, even more heartbreaking, it wasn’t the last.”

Smith told of the death of her grandfather who was shot and killed during an attempted robbery at a liquor store in Chattanooga when she was 12, and how in 2014, her nephew was shot in the ankle during a drive-by shooting.

Her message to Chief Murphy and other city leaders?

“More action, and less talk,” she said.

Other speakers and panelists included: the Rev. Marcellus Barnes, founding and lead pastor of Grace Pointe Church in Chattanooga; Shadrina Booker, Chattanooga’s director of community engagement; Sharonda Brown, of nonprofit health literacy organization SistaRN in Atlanta; city of Chattanooga Office of Community Health Director Dr. Geeta Maharaj; Officer Morgan, investigator with the Chattanooga Police Department’s Gun Team; Chattanooga Youth Intervention Specialist Pablo Mazariegos; Nation of Islam Brother Kevin Muhammad of the Community Haven; LaDarius Price, a co-founder of the Lighthouse Collective and deputy director of Community Development for Hamilton County; Patricia Russell, director of Social Emotional Learning and K-12 School Counseling for Hamilton County Schools; Tony Sammons, chief equity officer for the city of Chattanooga; and Regena Young, Trauma Services Outreach and Injury Prevention coordinator for Erlanger Health System.

Members of the 423 Chain Breakers and the Be SMART (Secure, Model, Ask, Recognize and Tell) responsible gun ownership program were called to the stage and recognized.

City of Chattanooga Office of Safety and Gun Violence Prevention Executive Director Chris Sands concluded the summit with a call for unity.

“It’s going to take all of us to reach all of us,” he asserted. “The challenge is to serve our community, to be a light and a beacon of hope.”