The Opioid Crisis: The faith community responds
Note: This article, written by Susan Grant Rosen, originally appeared in a Hampshire Gazette column on June 26, 2017.
In progressive faith communities we often hear the term, “the Beloved Community.” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used it to signify a way of life that arises when enough people live together in an inclusive spirit of solidarity, aware that they are all equally valuable and that they depend on one another to make a whole.
The spirit of the Beloved Community was present in the basement of Edwards Church on Main Street, Northampton when 80 people gathered last month.
Though pasta — the staple of many a church supper — was served, this was not a typical church supper. Nor was it a typical church supper crowd.
Church people were there — eight clergy among them — but so were health and human service professionals, men and women from local sober houses, family members of substance users, and seven residents of the Hampshire House of Correction.
This diverse gathering had come together to learn how people struggling with addiction can get help in this community — and how Hampshire County can grow ever stronger as a region that supports recovery.
The dinner was sponsored by Hampshire HOPE, a local coalition working together on the opioid epidemic. Cooley Dickinson Hospital was a co-sponsor. I was glad to help organize the event and reach out to the faith community, for the opioid crisis affects people of faith as much as anyone else.
Many — perhaps most — congregations in our region include individuals and families personally touched by opioid addiction. For a time, this deep pain was pretty much hidden. Affected members didn’t tell the pastor or ask for the prayers of fellow congregants as they might with other health issues. They feared they would be judged rather than supported.
The rest of us also stayed mute, almost as if silence could protect us.
Then came the funerals. We learned that silence doesn’t protect the people we love.
We came to dinner at Edwards Church to find a better way.
For the first 40 minutes of the program, all the participants did was choose a table, fill dinner plates, sit down and get to know each other. That doesn’t sound like much, but it mattered. It’s not often that folk in a mixed crowd like this one actually mingle with each other.
Then the dinner guests heard from 10 speakers from Hampshire HOPE’s affiliated organizations. Among them were a Northampton High School student who spent four years in high school working on prevention programming; the director of the Hampshire House of Correction treatment program and one of the men in treatment there; a Northampton police officer who encourages opioid users to get into rehab; and a former prosecutor turned supporter and advocate for parents whose adult children are battling substance abuse — as her own son has done.
In about four minutes each, presenters set forth a smorgasbord of opportunities for people to get well. The listeners were moved and surprised. Even the professionals felt they were hearing something new, perhaps because they were hearing it over a meal with a diverse group of people.
After the program, we asked participants to give us written feedback. This is often when people duck out. But our dinner guests stayed and poured out their thoughts.
“What I took away,” one wrote, “is that there is a lot more help out there than I thought.”
“A new outlook on recovery.”
“Even if we are in jail, our opinion matters.”
“The importance of not judging a person who is addicted.”
“The power of community.”
Some offered suggestions: “Longer recovery programs.” “Camp outs, cookouts, a faith and recovery festival.” Other ideas: “Info booths downtown.” “Volunteer opportunities.” “Confront race, class and gender disparities in the war on drugs.” “Keep presenting. I have 34 years sober in AA.”
Clergy told us they want to know more about addiction and recovery — subjects still not taught in seminaries. They asked for training.
A pastor who ministers to street people asked for skilled mentoring. Another pastor asked professionals for their take on how faith can play a role in recovery. Another asked: “Can you come and speak at clergy meetings?”
All of us will be responding to the opioid epidemic for years to come. That’s the bad news. The good news is that if we come together, there will be healing.
The Beloved Community is not a pipe dream.
It happens when the conditions are right.
“We are all human and can help each other,” wrote a guest at the dinner. The takeaway, wrote another guest, “is hope.”
Hatfield resident Rev. Susan Grant Rosen, a United Church of Christ minister who has for the past two years worked with faith communities around the opioid crisis, is a member of Hampshire HOPE, the opioid prevention coalition run through the city of Northampton’s health department. Members of Hampshire HOPE contribute to this monthly column about local efforts to address the opioid epidemic.