SALT LAKE CITY — When a man nearly died of an opioid overdose on her church’s front porch, the Rev. Rochelle Stackhouse realized her congregation’s outreach to addicts — the community dinners, the recovery groups, the prayers — didn’t go far enough.
“If I have the opportunity to save someone’s life, I should take it,” she remembers thinking at the time.
So she sought out training on emergency intervention, acquiring doses of Narcan, an overdose reversal drug, to keep at the church.
“We have the whole staff do CPR training. ... (The Narcan) feels like a natural extension of that,” said the Rev. Stackhouse, who leads The First Church of Christ (Center Church) in Hartford, Connecticut.
Although around three-quarters of Protestant pastors know someone affected by opioid abuse, few have responded as proactively as the Rev. Stackhouse. Religious communities sometimes let harmful assumptions about addiction or potential pushback from their neighbors hold them back, said the Rev. Kelly Carpenter, senior pastor of Green Street Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Pastors “often want to avoid the conflict” that accompanies change, he said.
But conflict is a small price to pay for healthier, safer communities, the Rev. Carpenter added.
“This is about saving lives,” he said.
Addiction and the church
Long before the ambulance came for the man on the porch, the Rev. Stackhouse saw that the opioid crisis was affecting her church. Staff members repeatedly found drug paraphernalia in the bathrooms after the church’s free weekly meal for community members, and they struggled to know how to respond.
“As much as we tried to have people self-enforce the ban on drug use on the property, it didn’t always work,” she said.
Like many churches, the congregation had long been involved in outreach efforts to drug users and hosted Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. But the opioid crisis seems to raise the stakes of these efforts. Overdose and death feel much closer at hand, the Rev. Stackhouse said.
Opioid abuse “is so immediately deadly,” she said.
It also affects a broader swath of the country than many other kinds of addiction, since it often begins at the doctor’s office. More than half of Protestant pastors say opioid addiction has personally affected someone in their congregation, according to LifeWay Research.
And yet many churches still hesitate to face the crisis head on. There’s a lot of fear around drug use and misunderstanding about how best to help, said the Rev. Sarah Howell-Miller, who works with the Rev. Carpenter at Green Street Church.
“A lot of times, (congregations) don’t even know what their options are,” she said.
Sometimes, inaction stems from theological teachings that are incompatible with recovery, said Timothy McMahan King, the author of “Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us.” Pastors might believe that prayer is the cure for addiction and refuse to partner with health care experts to find more effective solutions.
“If you reduce addiction to just a spiritual issue, you are missing so much of what is happening,” he said.
Additionally, it’s unhelpful if churches believe that addiction should end miraculously and all at once, and reject medically assisted recovery or respond poorly to relapses, King said.
“A desire to make someone change completely and all at once isn’t consistent with how people change,” he said.
The Rev. Howell-Miller shared a similar concern, noting that congregations “are often good at saying, ‘Once you’re ready to get sober, we’ll support you,’ and not recognizing the other stages along that path” to sobriety.
Even if a church does come up with a plan to confront opioid addiction, plenty of other obstacles can interfere. For example, Green Street leaders faced pushback from their neighbors after announcing their intention to open a needle exchange in their basement.
“There were concerns about criminal activity and needle litter,” the Rev. Howell-Miller said. “People worried about drug users coming in from other parts of the city.”
What these angry community members didn’t understand was that drug users were already in their midst, and that they needed help adopting safer habits, she added. The church’s needle exchange provides clean syringes, cotton balls, tourniquets and alcohol swabs, in addition to overdose reversal drugs.
Reasons for hope
Stories about churches’ thwarted or misguided efforts to help victims of opioid addiction frustrate King, since he knows how meaningful the right kind of faith-based help can be. He relied on spiritual support during his own experience with opioid addiction, which began during a lengthy hospital stay nearly 10 years ago.
King had been prescribed hydromorphone and fentanyl to manage pain while he recovered, but he struggled to decrease his use as he healed. While his doctors addressed his addiction medically, weaning him gradually off the drugs, he turned to his faith for a reason to believe he could change.
“One of the (biblical) passages I returned to again and again was the story of Ezekiel seeing a vision of dried bones having life again,” he said. “In the midst of my struggle, in the midst of what felt like an experience bringing me close to death, there was hope for new life.”
Similar hopeful messages can be found throughout the Bible, King said.
“Ultimately, I think the promise of resurrection is that new life is always possible no matter how dark things might seem,” he said.
The belief that healing is possible plays an important role in recovery, even when it’s held by someone other than the addict, King said.
“One of the things the faith community, at its best, can bring to this crisis is the hope that there is no person who can’t change,” he said.
Like King, the Rev. Howell-Miller has thought a lot about religious messages on addiction and recovery, considering what churches say and how they say it. A few poorly chosen words can be the difference between connecting someone with needed help and never knowing something was wrong, she said.
“When you say something about someone ‘getting clean,’ you imply they were dirty before. It doesn’t make somebody want to let you know they’re struggling,” she said.
As Green Street Church’s needle exchange program has gained traction, the Rev. Howell-Miller has been invited to share wisdom like this with other local faith communities. She’s raising awareness of the many ways churches can respond to the opioid crisis, which range from leading more helpful conversations about addiction to partnering with medical clinics.
“There are different ways for churches to support (addiction recovery) work. It’s a matter of figuring out their comfort level and what gifts and skills are present in the congregation,” she said.
Across the country, a growing number of churches is entering this discernment process, as religious leaders become aware of opioid abuse in their congregations and communities, King said.
“Experiencing loss has forced people to learn more,” he said.