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Religious Community Helps Combat Opioid Epidemic

Wendell Taylor hurt his back in the midst of a rough divorce nearly a decade ago. His doctor gave him a prescription for painkillers.

Before long, the former West Tennessee concrete business owner needed the opioids to numb his physical and mental pain.

But in his recovery, Taylor needed God.

"God has led me to get involved with places where you can grow relationships with him and other people," said Taylor, who marked one year of sobriety in December. "The last year has just really been a miracle."

After his second round of treatment, Taylor, 50, sought out faith-based recovery programs. He moved to a Christian halfway home in Nashville, joined a 12-step program at a nearby church and found a job at a Christian nonprofit that hires recovering addicts.

The programs represent the ways religious groups are already helping combat addiction in Tennessee, but leaders in the recovery community say places of worship can do more, especially as the opioid epidemic persists.

One state agency is trying to harness the power of Tennessee’s religious community in the fight against addiction. In Tennessee, more than 50 percent of adults attend weekly religious services, according to Pew Research Center's 2014 Religious Landscape Study.

About two years ago, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services launched a faith-based recovery network to spread the word about addiction, recovery and available services. It also encourages congregations to start their own support programs.

"Historically, institutions of faith have been at the forefront of every single major issue that we've had in our country," said Monty Burks, the director of the department’s faith-based initiatives and special projects.

"The key component in recovery is faith. So why not try to educate them and let them harness that number and that power and that belief and helping people in recovery."

Shining a spotlight on recovery not only educates congregations about addiction and services, but it helps reduce stigma, Burks said. Education can combat misconceptions and change the narrative, including viewing addiction as a treatable disease and not a moral failing, he said.

Studies show that traumatic events in children’s lives, including divorce, abuse and parents who use drugs, are driving most compulsive use disorders, said Dr. Daniel Sumrok, director of the Center for Addiction Science at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis. Children need safe families, homes and communities, he said.

"As a person of faith, it’s very clear to me that failed love is how this happens. And as a person of science, I can tell you we call it trauma, but it’s the same thing," said Sumrok, who recently spent five years as pastor of a small Southern Baptist church in McKenzie, Tenn.

Religion and addiction can mix in detrimental ways, especially when addiction is conflated with immorality, Sumrok said. But more education, including sharing the neurological evidence about addiction as a disease and the role trauma plays, can help refute that poisonous message, he said. More resources are available to congregations today than there were just a decade ago, said Sumrok, pointing to federal and state faith-based initiatives.

The Tennessee initiative wants congregations to focus on educating and reaching their own members.

Because addiction is pervasive, it's likely people in the pews are affected by a loved one’s struggles or their own, Burks said. By focusing internally, it also helps ease concerns that starting recovery meetings means inviting problem people into the church, he said.

Currently, the initiative has 180 largely Christian congregations openly advocating for their own recovery programs, and it also is connecting congregations to recovery and addiction stakeholders through forums in every county, Burks said. Congregations also are building local coalitions, too.

"We have congregations that are not only starting new meetings, they’re opening their doors to different populations and different groups of people and trying to help them," Burks said. "Even if they can’t answer the question they’ll help them find somebody who can."

The opioid epidemic prompted The Sanctuary, a 3-year-old church outside Dover, Tenn., that draws about 60 people to its weekly services, to start offering Celebrate Recovery meetings about a year ago, said Ben Robertson, who leads the ministry. Celebrate Recovery is a recovery program that uses 12 steps and the Beatitudes to combat a wide range of issues, including chemical addictions.

On a recent Friday night in February, a couple dozen people sat in the pews of the small rural church as Robertson and his wife, Marcella Robertson, led them in song and the weekly Celebrate Recovery lesson.

Before breaking into small groups, Marcella Robertson held a box full of colorful chips, handing them out to members who met sobriety milestones. The group cheered and clapped, celebrating days and even one year of sobriety for its members.

"This is the first bronze chip that we have given out and she may not have done it all with us, but this is a year — over a year — that she has been sober," Marcella Robertson said.

While The Sanctuary is helping people overcome addiction outside Dover, Taylor realized he couldn't make sobriety stick if he returned to his life in the West Tennessee town. He didn't want to go back to spending hundreds of dollars a day on pills and heroin, destroying relationships and nearly killing his business and himself.

"I've just done everything I could that I knew to do to help me grow spiritually because I knew it was going to take something bigger than me to get over it," Taylor said.

Today, he serves as a house manager for Welcome Home Ministries, a Nashville halfway house, and attends Celebrate Recovery meetings at Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville. Taylor works at Cult2vate, a Nashville nonprofit that grows food for those in need while serving as a life- and work-skills training program for people in recovery.

"I wish more churches would get involved in recovery," Taylor said.

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