Many parts of the U.S. are in the grip of a deadly opioid addiction epidemic so severe that it has contributed to an unprecedented rise in mortality rates for middle-aged white people.
When the disciples of John the Baptist come to ask Jesus if he is truly the Messiah or not he answers them; ” Go and tell John what you see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
In response to the crisis many churches are seeking to emulate Christ’s ministry in directly confronting the opioid epidemic by initiating needle exchange programs.
“The North American Syringe Exchange Network, or NASEN, reports 228 syringe exchange programs operating in 35 states and Washington, D.C. But the number of programs is growing weekly in response to the rise in heroin overdose deaths across the country.
Neither NASEN nor the Harm Reduction Coalition has an estimate of the number of faith-based churches and organizations directly involved in syringe exchange, but momentum is clearly gathering. Church-based programs are operating in communities across the country, including Seattle; Cincinnati; Albany, N.Y.; and even in traditionally conservative southern states.
Institutions such as the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), United Church of Christ and National Council on Jewish Women have issued statements of support for syringe exchange.”
One such hard hit community is Fayetteville, NC where several local church have initiated programs in the wake of Gov. Pat McCrory signing legislation in July legalizing syringe exchange programs there.
James Sizemore, Pastor of the Radiant Life Church in Fayetteville, NC, was relieved that North Carolina recently legalized needle exchange programs;
“It was never an issue of, ‘Is this the right thing to do spiritually, scripturally?’” Sizemore said of his efforts. “For us, it was the right thing to do … You can’t save somebody’s soul if they’re dead.”
Syringe exchange fits into his church’s primary mission, tending to an array of immediate needs.
You can’t “preach salvation” to someone who’s in the throes of addiction, battling for their life, or turning tricks to feed their kids, Sizemore said. “They’re not interested in hearing anything about the spirit because they’re concerned about these issues first.”
“Slowly, but surely,” he said, “we established a good enough relationship in the neighborhood that they trusted us enough to care for them spiritually.”
In Fayetteville, AR a local Episcopal church, St Paul’s, has added a needle exchange program to their extensive outreach program, an effort led by parishioner Shelby Carrothers after she discovered how many people were IV drug users while doing free HIV testing at the church’s weekly meal program.
“Carrothers said that while providing clean syringes is a critical service, “Almost equally important is that we provide a nonjudgmental space to talk about what they’re going through and answer questions that they might otherwise be afraid to ask.”
Carrothers distributes some 300 to 400 syringes each week. But the need to help IV drug users continues to mount. She’s now talking with a Lutheran church in Fayetteville and Episcopal churches in Little Rock about hosting exchanges.”
Is your faith community engaged in a needle exchange program or addressing the opioid addiction in other ways?
image: St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, Ark. offers HIV testing and syringe exchange. (Taylor Sisk for KHN)