Chaplain Alonzo Young – Music and Mentoring for the Mentally Ill

Chaplain Alonzo Young

Music and Mentoring for the Mentally Ill

By Susan Brown

Alonzo Young, president, Louisiana Chaplain's Association

I know the power of God:  what he can do, and he will do.  He’s just looking for vessels that ill be obedient, that will be open to the Spirit of God. – Chaplain Alonzo Young

When Chaplain Alonzo Young walks through the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System’s Secure Forensic Facility in Jackson, a palpable sense of well-being follows. In a high-stress environment, he is often the calm in the storm, the voice of optimism, the touch of reassurance that God has not forgotten or forsaken the residents.

 “God’s power can work with anything. God’s so loving, so gracious and so forgiving,” Young said. The facility is home to men and women who have been committed for a variety of reasons.  There are mentally ill inmates placed by the Louisiana Department of Corrections and pretrial residents who receive treatment to become mentally competent for trial. It also houses those who are acquitted of crimes because of their mental state but remain potentially dangerous.

“How do you minister to these people? They still have souls,” Young said. “They are forgotten by their families because they did this tragic thing. We don’t know what allowed that trigger in their minds.”  

Chaplain Young plays his trumpet during services at the facility's chapel. 'Music ministers to people,' he said. 'God blessed me with that gift.'

“But God is looking for people to stand in the gap,” he said. “Find common ground to talk about, whether football, food or Star Wars. Get into their world. Just talk, just listen. It brings healing.”

So does music. Young brings his high-energy, trumpet-playing worship style to services in the facility’s chapel using skills he developed in the Eastside High School Marching – and dancing – Band in Gainesville, Florida. “Music ministers to people,” he said. “Saul was depressed, and David came and played his harp, and the Bible says the [evil] spirit left Saul.”

Rather than hymns – unknown to many who attend services – Young finds a spiritual message in familiar, secular music. “They can relate to it: ‘Ain’t no mountain high enough’ to stop God from reaching up there and pulling you down. There’s no valley low enough to stop God from stooping down and pulling you up. There’s no river wide enough to stop God from putting his arms around you, because God loves you.”

Photo by Taylor Frey

Those who are dealing with such challenging environment must be intentional about staying well themselves, whether they are ministers or family members.  Constant communication with God is key.

Those who are dealing with such a challenging environment must be intentional about staying well themselves, whether they are ministers or family members, Young said. Constant communication with God is key. “My wife prays with me: ‘Lord, lead me today, guide me today, help me today.’ Stay in the word. The church I attend, Mount Gideon Baptist Church, outside of Jackson, keeps me going. They’re filled with the Spirit.”  

It’s also important to find something you enjoy and do it often. “I love fishing!” He said. “It’s a great comfort – eases my mind.” He enjoys hanging out with his eight-year-old nephew, Devon, his five kids and 14 grandchildren.

Coping with mental illness takes discernment and balance, Young said. “You know when someone’s possessed by the devil and you know when a person has psychological problems: the DNA, physical issues and generational issues. There’s a difference in that and the spiritual side.”

Chaplain Young, newly re-elected as president of the Louisiana Chaplain's Association, says the growing number of mentally ill residents need the attention and mentoring of churches. 'Volunteers are filling the prisons, but they are missing mental health facilities.'

Young believes in a holistic approach to mental illness that includes prayer and professional treatment. “Thank God for the medication. It brings them down, calms them,” he said.

 “I won’t say that everybody who gets depressed has a demon; that’s not true. David was depressed and so were Elijah and many old prophets. Jesus was depressed, sweating blood. That was a lot of stress. Some things cause depression. The enemy causes oppression. That’s why we have to pray to God: ‘God help me; lift this thing.’”

Young learned the power of prayer early in life. “One day I was hanging out with the wrong crowd and ended up in juvenile detention,” he said. “My mom picked me up. She cried and said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.’” The next Sunday, he went to the Church of God in Christ with his cousin, James. “They really believed in the power of God. Seasoned ladies, prayer warriors, were praying for me,” he said. “The pastor said, ‘Son, what has happened to you?’ I answered, ‘I asked the Lord to forgive me. He changed my heart.’”

More than 500 residents - both men and women - are housed at Eastern Louisiana Mental Health Services.

Then, he heard specific direction: minister and preach God’s word. “I began to say, ‘Lord, hey, that’s too much. I see the failed ministers, and I don’t need this in my life.’ And that’s when he said to me, ‘Either you do what I ask you or you will suffer as others have suffered.’ I was suffering right then. I said, ‘Yes, Lord. I’ll do what you want me to do.’”

Soon, another young minister from his home congregation, Emmanuel Baptist Church, told him, “I’ve got a prison we can go to.”

Then, he heard specific direction: minister and preach God’s word. “I began to say, ‘Lord, hey, that’s too much. I see the failed ministers, and I don’t need this in my life.’ And that’s when he said to me, ‘Either you do what I ask you or you will suffer as others have suffered.’ I was suffering right then. I said, ‘Yes, Lord. I’ll do what you want me to do.’”

Louisiana provides a gravesite managed by the chaplaincy and a nearby hillside.

“I had never been to a prison, so we’re driving, and I see all this barbed wire fence and young guys playing ball. Mostly, I saw African Americans – young men. But they came and started singing. The music, it really grabbed me, and Rev. Willie Cunningham started preaching and, oh, the power of God!” he said. “I’ll never forget this. One guy was crying, and he said, ‘Lord, I want you.’ And I was praying with him. All of a sudden, the light came in and he was rejoicing. On the way back, I said, ‘Lord, this is where I want to be. This is where you’ve called me.’”

Now, at ELMHS for five years, Young and Chaplain Henry Johnson reach out to 500-600 patients, a daunting task. “Volunteers are filling the prisons, but they are missing the mental health,” Young said. A majority of the patients at ELMHS come from Baptist backgrounds.

“They are in that depression world. Can you imagine choirs coming, praising God, lifting their spirits up? Smiling and praying with them? It would be wonderful to see pastors come and minister to our patients,” said Young. “Jesus said, ‘The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few.’” [Luke 10:2].

I’ll never forget this.  One guy was crying, and he said, ‘Lord, I want you.’  And I was praying with him.  All of a sudden, the light came in and he was rejoicing.  On the way back, I said, ‘Lord, this is where I want to be.  This is where you’ve called me.'” – Alonzo Young

Susan Brown began her career in radio news. she was news director for WJBO/WFMF radio and a journalism instructor at LSU. She holds Master’s Degrees from LSU and New Orleans Baptist Theological seminary, and served as a chaplain at Louisiana Correctional institute for Women.

Baton Rouge Christian Life MAGAZINE

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