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What Churches Should do to Help Victims of the Opioid Crisis

A few weeks back, I got hung up in a traffic jam caused by a stalled car stopped at the crest of a hill, which made it impossible to safely pass. After a minute or so, I pulled my car over and ran up to help push them out of the way.

One of the stalled car’s passengers, a young man, got out and tried to help, too. Even the young woman driving the car opened her door and pushed along with her left foot as she steered onto the shoulder. Two little kids popped up in the back seat and watched as we strained to get their car out of the way. Once I started pushing the car, I realized who those people were.

I’m no expert, but I’ve worked closely enough with people to spot an addict when I see one, and I have little doubt that the couple I helped are victims of the opioid crisis that our region is facing. The image of the two kids in the backseat is haunting — especially given their chances of avoiding addiction and being that “lost generation” that Chad Napier, prevention and education coordinator of the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, talked about in a Bristol Herald Courier storyWednesday.

In a Tuesday article, though, Lottie Ryans of Workforce and Literacy Initiatives issued a call to action for churches. Ryans and others are planning the Holy Friendship Summit for May 2018, which intends to equip clinicians, clergy, educators and congregations with resources, such as a tool kit, and guidance to respond to, interact with and care for people struggling with pain and addiction.

Ryans is talking to the right crowd. After all, you can’t throw a rock around here without hitting a stained-glass window. Ryans is counting on the majority of people here to live out their confession by helping those who are suffering under the weight of addiction. But something needs to change before she can expect help from churches.

You see, church people are fantastic at dealing with crisis. Most denominations have crisis response teams, ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice, and church agencies respond faster than government agencies. Ask the people of New Orleans, and they will tell you who rebuilt their city. Ray Cannata, a pastor in New Orleans and a friend of mine, told me that his church worked closely with churches from all over the country and rebuilt over 500 homes after Katrina.

But this opioid crisis is different from a natural disaster. This crisis is in our backyard and, well, sometimes it is easier to send money or a crew of folks to New Orleans, Miami or Houston than it is to work on our home. Plus, this crisis is overwhelming; the number of pills prescribed in Tennessee alone is, according to Tuesday’s Herald Courier article, “enough to provide every person in the state an average of 17 prescriptions.”

Despite these challenges, churches in this community need to do what we are very good at doing: We need to step into this crisis. After all, stepping into the lives of broken people is something that Jesus did and calls his people to do, and the book of Isaiah is pretty clear about God’s love for justice.

But this crisis will require church folks to approach things a bit differently than perhaps they are used to. Stepping into broken lives is messy, and it is not a quick fix. Churches will have to move out of their comfort zones and engage people they’d likely forgotten. They may need to forego sending money out of the region in order to invest it here. They may need to couple Bible studies with training on how to help someone with addiction.

Frankly, those changes need to be made, but I am not naive when it comes to churches and change. They are often at odds with one another. But we have a real need in our community, and if churches don’t get involved, there is very little hope that future generations will not be impacted by this epidemic. Something must be done; if churches don’t answer this call, who will?

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