Bob Feeny is a third-year student at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. He is seeking ordination in the United Church of Christ. I am never sure where to begin the story of my brother Jeff’s addiction. This is largely due to the fact that his story is not mine; I can only tell my story of his addiction. I did not know it then, but I think that my story of my brother’s addiction began on Christmas Eve, 2007. We were in the apartment where my mom and brother lived. My mother had recently stabilized after a few years of erratic bipolar swings and isolation worsened by an abusive relationship, and my brother had moved in with her after living with extended family for a few years. We were spending Christmas together like a normal family. Things were good. We spent much of the evening with my aunt and uncle—both “functioning” alcoholics. At some point a bottle of vodka came out, and my 18-year old brother started drinking. A few hours later he stood over the sink, violently ill. The next morning, instead of the up-at-dawn Christmas of our youth that I had hoped for, I sat around with my mother wondering when Jeff would emerge from upstairs. Fast-forward to Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016. It has been 4 months since I learned that my 27-year old brother had become addicted to heroin—and he has just sent me a text that reads, “I’m sorry man, I am too sick to come out for Thanksgiving.” I had been out to see him as he had gotten clean. He was confident, we had a vision for his future, I was so hopeful for him. Clearly, he had relapsed. I could not begin to understand how this had happened. He seemed so determined to change his life. But over time it became clear that willpower was not enough to keep my little brother clean. His confidence began to seem foolish to me; my own hope, hubris. If I’m being honest, I resigned myself to the fact that my brother’s life was essentially over. Given our family’s history of addiction and the staggering statistics surrounding this country’s opioid epidemic—this seemed like a warranted stance. Addiction seems to be a demon that America simply cannot cast out. Decades of the War on Drugs have done nothing to mitigate the problem. We’ve spent an unfathomable amount of resources telling people to “just say no,” and trying to convince them along with ourselves, that if they just find something to be hopeful about, they are going to drum up the confidence it takes to beat addiction. Our response has been in vain. I wonder, however, if faith may offer us a unique perspective, one that has not yet been attempted. It’s easy to mix up faith with hope. And certainly, the two are interrelated in many ways. However, as someone who loves an addict, I must admit that I am not capable of responding hopefully to every situation. But what if faith really isn’t about hope? What if faith is less like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and more like just standing knee-deep in sludge, in a tunnel that seems to go on as far as we can see in either direction? What if faith is simply being willing to stand in that hopeless place, and know that somehow, God is present? I don’t know what the future holds for my brother. I don’t know what to hope for, and quite frankly, I’m not sure that hope is really the best thing that people of faith can offer. There are people everywhere willing to offer hope. Medical professionals, rehab centers, community health initiatives- these things all offer hope. Some offer hope as a commodity, others are genuinely confident that addiction can be overcome. The truth is, all of these things are necessary at one point or another in recovery. But all of these things look past the person suffering, into the person they can be if they just believe in themselves. I want to believe that when Jesus tells his disciples that they lack faith, what he’s really telling them is that they’ve failed to see the child for who he is. In their excitement about the possibility of ‘fixing’ him, they’ve refused to bear witness to his brokenness; they haven’t stood in the dark and the muck. I often struggle to imagine what it is that’s ultimately going to save my brother. But maybe I don’t need to. Maybe faith doesn’t require me to visualize the positive ending. Maybe it doesn’t require me to find a solution, or even to think that there is a solution. Maybe my mustard seed is having the courage to admit that I love my brother, Jeff, the addict, just as he is. The person who may never hold a steady job. The person who may never find true love. The person who may die younger than I’d hoped. My prayer for the Church is that as a people who have been transformed by God’s grace, we would never give up hope that lives shattered by addiction can be redeemed. I pray that we would never lose our confidence that our God is a God who keeps transforming lives, opening up possibilities that we could never have imagined. With this hope, I pray that we will speak up about addiction, and champion research-based approaches to prevention, treatment, and policy reform regarding addiction. But more than that, I pray that we as the Church would realize our truly unique contribution to casting out the demons of addiction: faith. Not the Hallmark version of faith, the one with the rosy flourishes and the sappy endings, but the faith that looks the demon square in the eyes, and refuses to stop seeing the soul that it tortures.
Guest Blog by Kim Brown, President, QC Harm Reduction On May 25th, 2011 my world came to a crashing halt. My thirty-three-year-old son Andy died from an accidental heroin overdose. We knew he was in trouble, we knew he injected drugs, and most of all, we knew we were at risk of losing him…and then we did. I was a single mom working as a nurse, and I adored my kids. Now one was gone. The damage done to a family when a child and sibling dies is staggering, especially when the death is caused by a drug overdose. The shame and stigma directed your way after losing a child to an overdose is quite debilitating. In any event, there were no neighbors with casseroles or offers to help and very few condolences. I was introduced to harm reduction when I sought support for my grief online. I discovered GRASP, Grief Recovery After A Substance Passing, and found other mothers to whom I could talk. GRASP literally saved my life. While pouring out my heart to these mothers I’d met, I was struck by their absolute certainty that our children’s deaths could have been prevented. Had we been able to access harm reduction tools, including naloxone, clean needles, and safe spaces for them, maybe our kids would still be here. With this knowledge, I began to turn my grief into advocacy. We founded QC Harm Reduction, our 501(c)3, non-profit organization in 2015, but had been seeking allies to support naloxone training and distribution since 2012. Iowa did not have a naloxone access bill, so we began to advocate for one at our state capitol. Finally, in 2016, after four grueling years, our law was passed. As we attempted to build support for training and distribution in our community, we continued to get pushback from many stakeholders. Stigma, shame, and a focus on abstinence were sadly still the rule of the day. My dear friend, a former Catholic Worker, Michael Gayman, introduced me to some folks in the faith community who operate The Center, Love in Action (LINK). They listened as I explained how a simple harm reduction tool, such as naloxone, could save the lives of people who use drugs. Our mission was well received, and they invited QC Harm Reduction to be a partner organization. As a result, we have been able to reach those directly impacted by drug use at The Center, in Davenport, Iowa, and through our street outreach. We have partnered with the homeless shelters in our community and have expanded our street outreach and services. QC Harm Reduction, in addition to distributing naloxone, now provides HIV and Hepatitis C testing, all free of charge. Unfortunately, Iowa has yet approved needle exchanges. We are working to change this. We also distribute food, clothing, backpacks, and other items necessary for survival, including, importantly, love and acceptance to those who are often discarded and forgotten. I am deeply grateful to The Center and their faith community for the love and support they’ve shown me, QCHR, and those individuals we are helping to serve. We are trying to get people to connect the dots. People on the streets are put in jail for low-level drug offenses, and they are often parents. This is disrupting the lives of children and families, and the human costs are too great. The Center and QCHR believe strongly that harm reduction is a human right and that everyone is entitled to safety and compassion. Love is love. Every life is worth saving.
In his sermon “Community Healing in the Aftermath of the War on Drugs” James Kowalsky reflects on drug use in our society and harm reduction as the most appropriate response. James worked at Heartland Health Outreach in Chicago for seven years and is currently a graduate student at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. The sermon was preached at Prairie Circle Unitarian Universalist Congregation. We provide excerpts here with a link to the full text. I’m going to start this sermon with a few questions for you to consider. Many of these questions don’t have absolute answers. They are questions we should ask ourselves so that we know where we stand and try to figure out how these beliefs we hold, impact the action we are willing to take. What does a drug user look like?… For many of us when we picture what a drug user looks like we imagine someone looking dirty and disheveled, living on the streets with beer bottles or needles scattered around their body. We picture a desperate and dangerous criminal, willing to harm anyone in order to feed their addiction… In a study published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education in 1995, a survey asked people to envision a drug user and describe that person. 95% of respondents described a black person. This is the case despite that fact that the majority of people who use drugs in our country are white. African-Americans make up about 15% of the people who use drugs, roughly equal to their proportion of the general population. When we picture who a drug user is, we don’t readily think of the successful people who have used drugs—executives, scientists, writers, musicians, politicians, Presidents. It would be inaccurate to say that people who use drugs or have used drugs are bad people, or are unproductive members of our communities. In fact, the overwhelming majority of people who try a drug—any drug—will not have a serious problem with that drug in their lifetime. Yet, this image of a drug user as a failure and threat persists… What is a drug? In general, we would define a drug as a substance that we put into our bodies that alters our mood or physiological state; the caffeine we use to help us get out of bed at the start of the day; the medicine we take to control our blood sugar, blood pressure, or moderate other symptoms that may prohibit us from taking care of business; the glass of wine we use to unwind after a long day at work. All of these are substances we put into our body to alter the way we think and feel… This does not mean that drugs are not harmful. Certainly, all drugs have the capacity to harm people. Partially, we have a skewed perspective of drug users because the people who are most negatively impacted by their use, are inherently more likely to need help and encounter systems like hospitals, treatment programs, and law enforcement. However, we’ve exaggerated the likelihood of harm in order to scare people away from trying drugs… Our relationship with any drug—legal or not—can range from harmful to helpful…Environment matters. Journalist Johann Hari talks about harmful use being a product of disconnection. Dr. Gabor Mate talks about addictions being rooted in painful experiences. Norman Zinberg points to the combination of three sets of factors he calls drug, set, and setting—factors related to the drug and how it’s used, the individual and their circumstances, and the environment they use in… We also know that experiencing trauma in early childhood increases the likelihood that people will have a harmful relationship with drugs. Yet, we live in a country that demonizes the drug user—they are a person who has made bad decisions and must live with the consequences. We see drug use as an individual choice and an individual problem. We try to interrupt that problem by punishing their bad choices and isolating people from everything that is familiar to them. But, what child chooses to be neglected or abused? What person chooses to be left without a support system when their parent or caregiver dies? Nobody chooses the circumstances that often precede harmful relationships with drugs. But, it’s far simpler to point to the individual and never consider the environment that they come from. That way, we don’t have to think about how poverty, a poor education system, a lack of economic opportunities, unstable housing, or growing up in a neighborhood where you regularly witness community violence, all make it more likely that people will have a harmful relationship with drugs. In fact, it is these circumstances, not drug use, where African-Americans are disproportionately represented… Much like drug use itself, punishment and isolation don’t just impact the individual. They damage the environment as well; they take the parent away from their child, remove brothers and sisters from families. By removing community members, we promote disconnection and thereby increase the likelihood of harmful drug use for the people left behind… We need to shift away from focusing our energy on trying to eliminate drug use altogether. That is and always has been an unrealistic goal. Drugs have been used for thousands of years, across continents and cultures. Drugs are a part of our lives and we all have relationships with them. We need to focus on the harms we consider most egregious and address them instead. We’ve tried, what some would call, a tough love approach for too long. It’s time we just try love. We need to shift from seeing harmful drug use as an individual problem that we solve with punishment, to a community problem that we solve with healing… One approach that does just that, and is gaining traction, is called harm reduction. Harm reduction is the practice of using drugs in less risky ways. When we drink responsibly, we are practicing harm reduction. We eat food before drinking, drink water, we practice moderation and limit our total number of drinks, we don’t drive when we’ve had too much to drink. These are all harm reduction choices we regularly make. As we make harm reduction choices with alcohol, we can make similar choices with other drugs… Beyond this individual practice, harm reduction is a philosophy—a belief in the human rights of people who use drugs. Harm reduction promotes the idea that regardless of what a person puts in their body, they should not be denied their basic human rights… As members of a faith community, your congregation has a unique opportunity to offer connection and healing to people in need. Matthew 11:28 tells us, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. The church has long been a place where people have sought out sanctuary. Extend an olive branch to the people who experience the severe consequences of drug use. Too often, people who struggle with their drug use don’t seek out help, because they think that love and support will only be available to them if they are ready to stop using altogether. We need to dispel the myth that belonging to this community is contingent on abstinence from all drugs. Because it’s not. We know that because we’re all here… Instead of focusing on trying to get people to stop using drugs, we can focus on trying to understand how and why they are using drugs. In order to understand people, we need to be willing to listen. Healing happens in relationships. We should focus on building a connection with people. Learn about their lives. Find out about their story, ask them about their hopes and dreams, ask them about what’s missing in their life. Almost certainly, one of the things they’re missing is someone who’ll ask those questions and respectfully listen. Remember, that person who is struggling is likely trying to disconnect from some source of pain. Give them love, give them connection, give them rest, help them heal, and you will help our communities heal. Amen
Rabbi Jacob Schram (Ben Stiller in Keeping the Faith) called Yom Kippur the Super Bowl of the Jewish calendar. It’s probably the most coveted ticket of the year for temple-goers, so it makes sense to say that. To me, Yom Kippur is more like a combination of Lent and New Year’s. If you don’t know, Yom Kippur, which occurred just over a week agond, is the Jewish Day of Atonement, the last chance to make yourself right with God before the books are closed for the year. Yom Kippur also falls eight days after Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s Day on the Hebrew calendar. In addition to repenting for what we’ve done wrong in the past year, Jewish people use Yom Kippur as a time to recommit ourselves to do good deeds in the coming year. Essentially, we’re atoning and making resolutions all at the same time. In thinking about this High Holiday, I realized some of the ways that it’s linked to my thoughts on drugs and drug policy.
CNDP has been working with St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church in Chicago to develop a series of Sunday forums throughout the fall on Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice Reform. Here is Rev. Al Sharp’s presentation at the opening forum on September 10. We urge you to attend future sessions. To see other messages and learn more, visit the St. Chrysostom’s Adult Forum website.