Robert Hedges, a Presbyterian minister who leads the Resurrection Power recovery ministry in Washington, Pennsylvania, describes the work he does as “the greatest show on earth. We have the privilege of working with people who want to start to get well. They come in, and they’re angry at God, and their eyes are glazed over because they’re stuck in that lifestyle” of drug and alcohol addiction.
The men and women living at Resurrection Power’s four recovery houses attend 12-step meetings. For those who stick with it, “they start to stay clean because they want to stay clean, not because their probation officer is going to drug test them every week,” Hedges said. “It’s really exciting to see God at work, to see their understandings of God evolve. We just say we’re hanging on to God’s coat tails. … We get to see the miracles.”
More and more, Presbyterians are coming face to face with the opioid epidemic – in their own communities, churches and families. Talk to Presbyterian pastors in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, states in the heart of the epidemic, and they tell stories of pain, suffering and loss, but also of vulnerability and new beginnings. Often, they see parallels between lives transformed in recovery and the resurrection story at the heart of Christian faith.
The 2018 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) passed a resolution presented by commissioners from Pennsylvania and Ohio that asks congregations to act in response to opioid addiction and substance abuse – including praying and preaching about the problems, educating people about addiction, supporting families and reflecting “radical hospitality” and hope for those struggling with addiction.
“To say this isn’t a Presbyterian problem is very naïve,” said Sue Washburn, pastor of Reunion Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, and one of the two commissioners who presented the resolution.
Washburn has seen the impact of the epidemic up close. An addict broke into her home, stealing checks and jewelry. A former Sunday school student asked Washburn for help in getting off heroin.
There isn’t a template – one single, tried-and-true way for congregations to respond. Some advice from those on the front lines: Pay attention to what’s happening locally, show compassion, work in partnership with others from the community.
“The number one need is for support groups for families,” Washburn said. And for those in full-blown addiction, “a warm hand-off, knowing who to call, is the most important.”
Hope in Huntington
In Huntington, West Virginia – a city that saw 26 overdoses in one four-hour stretch one August day in 2016 – the response to the opioid epidemic “has brought the community together,” said Skip Seibel, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, a downtown congregation.
Partners in that response include religious and community leaders, the school district, Marshall University, mental health providers, health and prison officials, the chief of police and the fire chief – all working together to figure out what’s needed.
“We have a mayor who’s really been able to pull together all different groups in the city,” Seibel said. “He has a message of hope, that Huntington become a place known for solutions and not problems.”
Addiction has touched his downtown church. One family’s son died from drug use, following a long journey of addiction and jail time. Another has a son in prison. Some congregants have family members in recovery.
First Presbyterian has renovated a building it owns to make the space available for recovery groups and classes run by a residential recovery program. As the congregation celebrates its 180th anniversary, it’s also celebrating partnerships, including with Harmony House, a nonprofit that works to provide housing and services to people who are homeless. Seibel speaks of new learnings – the idea, for example, that church can happen at lunch, around tables as the congregation provides a meal each Thursday for people in recovery.
Resurrection Power is a recovery ministry that was started by Presbyterian ministers from the Synod of the Trinity, but now is an ecumenical enterprise. After spending time in a treatment center, those trying to get off drugs come to live in a recovery house – some staying a few months, some longer.
Hedges serves on the Opioid Task Force in Washington County, a county with 109 overdose deaths in 2017. The task force has organized training events for pastors and congregational leaders regarding addiction, helping them to understand the impact the epidemic is having on families. Hedges talks to church leaders about the importance of “just learning to be with them, support them, listen as they tell their story.”
When he speaks to groups, Hedges often asks who in the crowd has encountered in some way the consequences of addiction, and often “all the hands go up. They all know somebody. They have a brother, sister, niece, nephew, cousin who has been affected by substance abuse disorder.”
Some respond with compassion – but others do not. “I’ve experienced hostility, that’s for sure,” Hedges said. “People who say that what we need to do to solve the problem is to let these people die, and quit giving them Narcan and saving their lives. … There’s a lot of stigma around addiction,” and a lot of pain – families that have lost their life savings trying to help a loved one; who’ve been stolen from and seen cycles of recovery and relapse; grandparents raising the children of their addicted sons and daughters.
For Presbyterians who want to play a role, “get involved – start going to some meetings,” Hedges said, referring to open meetings of 12-step groups. “See what’s going on around you in people’s lives.”
He knows pastors who will celebrate someone’s clean-time or sober anniversary during sharing of joys and concerns at worship, and during the pastoral prayer acknowledge that families are being affected by drug and alcohol abuse – the same as if someone said “my nephew is going into surgery, pray for him.” It’s important to talk about addiction publicly at church, Hedges said. Families affected by substance abuse need to know “they’re not alone in their struggles.”
Addictions ministry network
The Presbytery of Redstone created an Addictions Ministry Network in 2016 – formed after pastors began telling stories at a presbytery meeting about what they were experiencing. Members include pastors, heath professionals and people who’ve experienced addictions in their families. They meet every six weeks or so to share resources and ideas – inviting speakers from drug and alcohol treatment programs, homeless shelters and government agencies. For Lent in 2017, the network produced a devotional on addiction.
“There are a lot of things churches can do,” said Lee McDermott, a Presbyterian minister who worked as a recovery counselor for 20 years. “You uncover these little niches.”
The Redstone network also has held workshops to raise awareness about the opioid epidemic, and to provide training in using Naloxone (Narcan), a medication that can save the life of someone who overdosed. McDermott and some other Presbyterian pastors keep Narcan at their churches – to be ready in case it’s needed.
Also, a group in Redstone Presbytery started a Hope in a Bag ministry, providing items such as soap, toothpaste, small blankets and a Bible for people entering treatment.
In Western Pennsylvania, a group called Sage’s Army, named for a young man who lost his life in a heroin overdose, works to help those who are addicted get into recovery, to support families touched by drug use and addiction and to help people understand addiction and wipe away the stigma.
Dozens came to an October 2017 continuing education event on pastoral responses to the opioid crisis that Pittsburgh Theological Seminary held – asking questions and sharing stories. One participant told of a man in recovery who knows where public restrooms are where addicts often go to use drugs – how sometimes he goes there, trying to help, said McDermott, who helped co-lead that seminar, along with Washburn.
“He knows the sound people make, the noise they make” when they’re shooting up, McDermott said. “He’ll actually stand in the restroom and wait for them to get done, because he knows that more likely than not he’ll have to use Narcan.”
A place to belong
Some congregations hold services of remembrance for those who’ve lost loved ones to addiction – a chance to pray together, hear assurance of God’s presence and light candles for those who have died. That can be significant for those dealing with grief, and meaningful for families and friends of people caught in addiction.
McDermott, the former recovery counselor, now serves two small congregations, one in McClellandtown, Pennsylvania, and one in nearby Smithfield. He lives in Masontown, a town of about 2,000. Some say addiction isn’t a problem in small towns and rural areas, only in the bigger cities, but “it’s a lot closer to home than most people want to admit,” he said.
People may hold back from speaking of their own families’ struggles with addiction until they sense that a congregation is welcoming. “People aren’t going to talk about it until they feel assured the church is a safe place to talk about it,” McDermott said.
And in some congregations, it’s not. McDermott said he often asked people in recovery about their religious backgrounds. “Ninety percent of people said the last person they were going to talk about it with was the pastor. At first I didn’t understand it” – so he went out talk to local pastors about addiction.
One pastor “just flat out told me alcoholics are not welcome in my church,” even if they hadn’t touched a drink for years, McDermott said. “I had already treated three people from that minister’s congregation, knew they were doing well. I now knew why the pastor was the last person they were going to talk to. … He didn’t want to understand it. He didn’t even want them there.”
McDermott said he went to seminary with plans to go into pastoral ministry, but started working with people with alcohol problems during a field education placement and took a job in a residential detoxification unit when he had a hard time finding a call at a church. He later became the director of a drug and alcohol treatment unit.
Working with addicts in recovery helped him understand, in a practical way, the theology he had been taught in seminary – “to understand grace in a way I never understood it before, understand redemption, understand transformation,” McDermott said. “When Jesus was talking about abundant life, what that really means.”
He met a man in recovery – sober for 25 years and “kind of like the grandfather of the local AA.” The man told McDermott that to understand alcoholics, he needed to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and hear the people’s stories. So McDermott attended about 400 open AA meetings over four years. “I found the people I met there to be amazing. They taught me a lot. … The church could learn a lot from it about hospitality and welcoming people and accepting people for who they are.”
Many in recovery “are desperate to find a place to belong,” McDermott said. “Unfortunately a lot of churches aren’t real receptive to people in recovery. I think people are afraid of the whole idea. They don’t understand addiction; they don’t understand recovery from addiction. A lot of it is just fear. And there are a lot of moral underpinnings to it – that somehow these people are morally deficient, rather than seeing it as a medical condition.”
In talking to people whose families have been touched by addiction – those with a child or grandchild who’ve been using drugs, or who are in recovery themselves – McDermott found many rarely talked about it at church.
He’d ask those in recovery: “How many people in the church know about your recovery, about your story? For probably 90 percent of the people, no one knew. … They didn’t know where the church stood. The pastor had never preached about it. No one had ever talked about it. These people had some really amazing stories that nobody was hearing, because they were afraid of how people would react if they knew about their background. They wanted people to see the person they were today, not the person they used to be.”
Yet the Christian story of redemption is all about new life – and some in recovery have remarkable, sometime terrifying stories of transformation, McDermott said. “I often wondered how they found the strength to do all that hard work. … It took a lot of effort to change their lives. These are the kinds of stories people need to be hearing in the church, because that’s what we’re about.”
Before he came to Pennsylvania, McDermott served two small churches in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, where the economy relies less on coal mining and more on agriculture, particularly chicken and turkey farming.
“The people there have a big attachment to the land,” he said. “But there is not a lot of economic opportunity for folks. … We’re trying to look at all the different things that perpetuate addiction in a community. When people have a lack of hope in their future, there’s a lot more drug use and alcohol use – there’s a sense of hopelessness, that their world isn’t going to get better.”
Michelle Bartel is pastor of East Side Presbyterian Church in Ashtabula, Ohio, east of Cleveland – in a county where a third of the residents live below the poverty line. The economic struggle is visible, she said, with boarded-up houses and vacant manufacturing plants. “There are very few people who haven’t had it touch their family one way or another,” she said of drug abuse.
Bartel is trying to help her congregation, which is mostly middle-class, “discern how the gospel calls them to respond in Ashtabula.” She preaches about the heartache she sees – at the trailer park she can see through the front door of the church, of the grandmother she met who was trying to raise her grandchildren but was “just desperate” because she had no money – and to think of the community as interconnected, and to recognize ways that class and economic inequality have contributed to the difficulties.
“Those of us who are church folks here are having a chance to innovate,” she said. “It’s not just one bad neighborhood of Cleveland. It’s not just one small town. It’s all of us here. We can’t get away from it.”
Steven Brand, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Newark, Ohio, has taken the training along with his wife to be approved as foster parents – knowing that Lincoln County has seen the number of children in foster care rise from about 200 to more than 500. While many in foster care used to be teens or older children, “now what they’re getting is more babies than they can handle,” Brand said. Babies are born to addicted mothers, and “whole sibling groups are being taken away,” where in some cases the older children had normal family lives before their parents began using drugs. “It’s affecting families in a real serious way.”
The epidemic has affected the congregation he serves – with one family losing their daughter to an overdose, with grandparents in their 70s raising their grandchildren. A church member who died “made it very clear before she passed away that her daughter was not allowed to come to that funeral. She made it clear to everybody. It’s just because of drugs. … You just see it tearing families apart.”
At the church, people have knocked on the door, asking for money. “I’m going to say they’re looking worse and worse,” Brand said. One day he called the police because “they looked like they were dead in our parking lot. They were just high. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, there are unresponsive people in the parking lot.’ To me, the toll is all these people would typically be fine, upstanding people that are being hooked on drugs and hurting our communities.”
His church was broken into.
And some church members, who would quickly offer help to a family struggling with cancer or other illness, are more hesitant or uncomfortable when addiction is involved, Brand said. “They don’t want to feel like they’re rubbing it in their faces. … A lot of people still have the view of drug addicts that they’re these no-good people that sought it out.”
For some, however, the road to addiction started with an accident or an injury or with surgery, with prescription painkillers. Then came changes in the formulation of the medications, a crackdown on prescribing such drugs, a flood of cheap heroin into the marketplace. “It took us 20 years to get into this,” Brand said. “It might take us 20 years to get out of it.”
His congregation is trying to build relationships with 12-step groups that use the building, while also respecting anonymity. “Part of our mission is spending a little extra on electric and gas, cleaning up afterwards,” hosting a catered dinner where participants in the groups were invited to bring their partners and their children. A local pastor with his own history of addiction was the speaker. The idea is “trying to be more relational,” Brand said, rather than “here’s the key, lock up when you’re done and we’re mad at you when you leave the lights on.”
Brand shares his own struggled with depression – “I talk about it all the time. I tell people about it.” With both mental health challenges and addiction, “this isn’t something you hide,” he said. “It isn’t something you suffer in silence and be secret about.”
Working with addicts and their families “is hard because there are not a lot of happy endings,” Washburn said. “This problem we can’t fix and we can’t solve.”
What churches can do, she said, is to be with people in their pain; to speak of grace and hope, failings and new beginnings; to not hide the struggle; to love people through whatever addiction brings.