As part of Rick and Kay Warren's "The Gathering on Mental Illness and the Church" conference, Nelba Marquez-Greene, the Connecticut mother who lost her six-year-old daughter during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, shared her powerful story and urged attendees to unite in helping those struggling with mental illness.
Nelba was first introduced by Kay Warren, who referred to her as a "sister in sorrow and hope."
"There are many things we don't know and don't understand, but there are many things we do know," Nelba told listeners of the December day Ana Grace lost her life along with 25 others. "We know that He was God on December 13, 2012. We know that He was God on December 14, 2012, and we know that He is God today. In Christ, there is enough strength, hope and love for yesterday, today, and tomorrow."
"We know that Ana Grace, our daughter, is wrapped up in the tender embrace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," she continued. "She loved God with all of her heart, soul and mind. We know that we have a beautiful son named Isaiah who is 11 now, who deserves a life after this shooting. He was in the building on the day of and survived the attack."
Nelba explained that while she and her family received a tremendous outpouring of support following the death of Ana Grace, not every sufferer of tragedy gets the same amount of resources and attention.
"One of the most ignored population that need support are people who suffer from mental illness.There is no social ill that has ever been resolved without a solution coming from the community...Solutions come from the community, men and women working together," she said, citing effective social awareness programs such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
While there is a small link between mental health and violence, the media severely exaggerates the issue, Nelba said.
"It's terrible to go on TV and only hear about mental illness when it's related to a violent event," she lamented. "It does a disservice to our country. The enemy rejoices when we attack each other, the devil delights in our inability to work with people who are not like us, people who suffer from mental illness, people who don't suffer from mental illness."
After hearing their daughter, her friends and teachers had been killed, Nelba revealed that she and her husband, Jimmy, made three commitments: To honor God with everything they did, to always remember Ana and how she lived, and to give their son something to look up to.
"Our children need someone to look up to," she emphasized. "In life, you don't get to choose what happens to you, but you do get to choose how you respond. The power to heal comes by the love of God and the effective and compassionate response of the community. The effective and powerful response to something we don't understand can have an indelible impact on our future."
One of the most important things communities can do is provide a loving and compassionate response when children and adults cry out for help: "We know that (Sandy Hook gunman) Adam Lanza didn't get what he needed," Nelba said.
To carry on their daughter's legacy, Nelba and Jimmy started the Ana Grace Project, which seeks to create love, community and connection for every child and every family. Through the project, the couple helps develop programs which promote social and emotional learning in schools.
"We do this because we are lovers of Jesus, we do this because, as Martin Luther King that once said, 'The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.' We live in a time of challenge and controversy," Nelba said, her voice cracking. "It's a time to ask ourselves, 'Where do we stand?' and we will stand for the least of these."
In life, everyone will have a "firehouse moment" -- a moment where it feels like all resolve, all strength, all power is lost, Nelba told attendees. During these moments, the enemy of our souls lurks nearby.
"Friends, it is my sincere prayer that when you find yourself in a firehouse moment, that you will have the strength to say, 'I know that my redeemer lives, and He will reign up on the earth.' Love wins is our family motto - we know that despite everything we go through, God's love wins every day and in every moment in our lives," she said.
She encouraged listeners to leave her lecture not just saddened by her family's story, but inspired and engaged to do something.
"I pray that you will work toward your own well-being and for the well-being of those around you, that you would have enough faith to sustain you in your firehouse moments, and that you would choose for love to win - especially the love of Jesus beyond any other thing."