Confronting Opioids

By Joey Butler –

Program director Caitlin Sussman (left) joins in singing with the Voices of Hope choir at Friendship House, a mental health drop-in center in Morgantown, W. Va. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Ann Hammond, a member of United Methodist Temple in Clarksburg, West Virginia, and a recovering heroin addict, said that her church was one of the only places she still felt some comfort during her struggle with addiction.

“Churches can help break the stigma and support families of addicts. Acknowledge that it can be any family; addiction knows no class,” said Hammond, who’s now 12 years clean and works as a peer recovery coach for First Choice Services, an addiction resource center.

The national opioid crisis has topped news headlines for a long time now but a snapshot of the statistics remains hard to fathom. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent statistics show there were 70,237 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2017 – 47,600 of them opioid-related. By comparison, the total number of U.S. deaths during the Vietnam War is 58,200.

In light of such overwhelming data, it’s hard to see any hope in turning the tide on addiction. But the West Virginia Conference began asking: “What if the church got involved?” During the 2018 Lenten season, the conference created the “What If” initiative: a seven-week series of bulletin inserts with devotionals and discussion questions encouraging churches to ask themselves what they could do to confront the crisis – be it helping people in addiction or recovery, or the families of those struggling with addiction.

The Rev. Barry Steiner Ball is in a unique position to spearhead this initiative, as he is not only a pastor but also a recently retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent. Though he’s married to Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, he’s quick to explain this is not an official appointment.

“I’m a volunteer and this is a passion,” he said. “Everybody – government, social services, fire department, police, Child Protective Services, recovery groups – are doing best they can and still losing. I saw such a need for churches to respond to the epidemic. In every town, we’ve got at least one church filled with good people who just need a little bit of education and a shove out the front door.” Steiner Ball lists a number of practical ministry ideas any church could adopt:

• “Family members need a place to bang their head against the wall and have someone tell them, ‘You’re not crazy.’ Churches can find them and minister to them in their homes or, better yet, get them in groups with other parents and form support groups. And don’t just hand them the basement key and point them to the coffee pot – be there and get to know them.”

• “Those who are in recovery need everything you can throw at them: love, support, education on how to cook, job support, IDs, rides, basic life skills. They’re going to get out of these sober houses and have to live on their own, maybe for the first time ever.”

• “The children of the addicted need mentoring, court-appointed special advocates, tutoring. There’s kinship care, even consider becoming foster parents.”

Not only is Steiner Ball uniquely qualified for this, so is the West Virginia Conference and its bishop. The state of West Virginia has been ravaged by the opioid epidemic. According to the CDC, West Virginia in 2017 had the highest rate of overdose deaths with 57.8 per 100,000 people. By comparison, neighboring Ohio was second with 46.3.

For Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, this is personal. In one of the “What If” videos, she describes how her family has a history of addiction, including losing a younger brother to alcoholism. “No one talked about it in my family,” she said. Steiner Ball described how their church put her brother on the prayer list when his struggles became public, and a few members reached out to her parents with stories of their own family struggles – letting her family know they weren’t alone.

She feels churches can also help support active addicts. “You need someone to come along and help you through rough times, to help you depend on something lifegiving rather than drugs.”

Hammond said one of the most important things any church can do is simply keep cards or flyers with information like phone numbers for a helpline similar to the one she works for. “It’s so important for addicts to have that information right away when they’re willing, because that will change so quickly if we don’t get them at that moment,” she said.

Community members gather for a weekly meal and prayer support in the courtyard at Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church in Huntington, W. Va. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

“What If?” has sparked new conversation in the Rev. Cheryl George’s churches, including helping one mother open up about her addict son when she’d previously felt she had no one to turn to. “In my churches, some said, ‘I’m so glad you’re talking about this because this is what I go through with my family and I can’t talk to people about it because they don’t understand,’” she said.

George, who pastors four churches in the Baker, West Virginia, area, based a sermon series on the “What If?” resources. “I preached grace and mercy, and looking at people through Christ’s eyes instead of your own,” she said. George said she knows of several churches that have started recovery ministries thanks to this initiative, including hosting Celebrate Recovery meetings or starting outreach to families of addicts.

As this is a nationwide problem and not just a West Virginia problem, Barry Steiner Ball has been leading workshops throughout the connection, and also with churches of other denominations. He’s presented to about 150 churches, as well as social service agencies, Catholic Charities and a Presbyterian men’s retreat. He’s now working with a school district that has him presenting to all their personnel over a yearlong period.

“I’ll go anywhere, any time,” he said. “I just want people to catch a vision that we’re not going to go out of the church doors and get rid of heroin, but we can be there to support and provide care and allow folks to know that they are God’s child.”

Broken people. “There’s a disconnect between a lot of broken people and the church,” said the Rev. Ross Thornton, who runs a street ministry in addition to pastoring Fourth Avenue United Methodist in Huntington. The homeless and the addicted see church as a place to get a meal but may not expect anyone to actually care about them, so Thornton considers it necessary to go to them instead. “We’re not making any difference if we’re only hanging out inside the walls. John Wesley preached on the streets, too.”

Thornton said he tries to get folks off the street and into recovery, but also offers to pray with them and just remind them they are loved. Not everyone is receptive – he’s been ignored and even threatened with violence. He also has a number of people show up at Fourth Avenue “because they know our church is a place they will be welcomed.”

Donnie Smitley met Thornton through his street ministry and now comes to his church. A former crack addict, he said, “It’s only by the grace of God I’m here.”

The Revs. Harold and Cheryl George and Deb Dague take that intense way of changing lives to another level. In addition to ministering to congregations, they are also EMTs. Harold George said he focuses on the job at hand but never really takes off his clerical collar. “You pray on the way to calls, you pray your way through calls, you pray for the people after the calls.”

He also has to pray for other first responders. The rise of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid many times more potent than morphine, has put emergency personnel at risk, as even physical contact with the drug could prove fatal. Crews carry extra Narcan, a drug that can “revive” overdoses, in case they succumb to fentanyl exposure.

Dague works with Brooke County EMS in Wellsburg. “People say you can’t be an EMT and serve a clergy role, but this is someone’s worst day and you’re with them to give care and hope,” she said. “That’s how they’ll remember you. To me, it absolutely is a ministry.”

Emergency personnel are prone to becoming cynical about the ability or willingness of addicts to change. The pastors’ beliefs in redemption and forgiveness help fight such thoughts. “The attitude now is ‘they’re a waste, just let them go,’ but Jesus never let any of us go,” said Harold George. “I don’t know how many chances Jesus gave me before I came to him and every time you bring someone back with Narcan is another chance they can go to rehab.”

Judge Eric O’Briant oversees the drug court in Logan County, W. Va., and is a lifelong member of Nighbert United Methodist Church in Logan. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Judge Eric O’Briant knows all about second chances. And third. And fourth. O’Briant oversees Logan County’s drug court, a specialized program that targets offenders with substance abuse problems. Rather than incarceration, drug courts walk defendants through a structured program of treatment and resources like life-skill training and housing and job assistance to help them rebuild their lives and, hopefully, stay out of the legal system. The program takes 12-18 months to complete and graduates emerge with a high school diploma, a job, at least six months of sobriety and the tools to live independently.

A lifelong member of Nighbert United Methodist, O’Briant said his faith helps him in his job. He prays daily for the wisdom to make the best decision for each individual in his court. He said his job is much more rewarding than a traditional judge’s role. “The easiest thing a judge can do is send someone to the penitentiary. What we’ve been doing isn’t working and we’ve got to break the cycle.” The drug court model is proving successful. Research by the National Institute of Justice suggests they have both lower recidivism rates and lower costs than incarceration.

The Rev. Mike Smith, pastor of Nighbert United Methodist Church in Logan, is a regular presence at drug court. He hopes to build trust among program participants so they may accept support from Nighbert UM Church and O’Briant values the church’s partnership. “They see him in drug court and if they come to the church for a weekly meal, they know he’s there and cares,” the judge said.

Ministering to those in addiction requires patience and open-mindedness. Addiction is powerful. Addicts lie. They may steal. Most who recover don’t do so on their first try, and some never do. Breaking the stigma of addiction is an area where the church could have great impact — but that stigma must first be confronted within the congregation.

The Rev. Jeff Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, said judgmental attitudes toward addiction make no sense when everyone in the state is affected in some way by opioids. “The church doesn’t deal well with brokenness,” he said. “Someone told me, ‘I can walk into any AA meeting and know everyone understands where I am, but when I walk into a church I feel judged.’”

As a recovering addict, Ann Hammond can relate. She still senses judgment from others despite being drug-free for 12 years. “One woman said to me, ‘To some people, you’ll always be an addict.’ I was caught off guard because none of these people even knew me as an addict, and I feel so distant from the person I was. It’s hard to feel that judgment,” Hammond said.

“God will bring people your way,” said Smith, the pastor of Nighbert United Methodist, which welcomes drug court participants. “If there’s a fertile ground where people’s lives can be changed, churches need to commit themselves to those people.”

Joey Butler is a multimedia producer/editor for United Methodist News Service.

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