“I’m a pastor, that’s my passion. And I’m a community organizer. I was born in Puerto Rico. I grew up there. My father was a doctor. The church was the biggest shock absorber to keep me going. My biggest passion for harm reduction comes from having this traumatic experience as a priest to bury six of my brothers with HIV and drugs-related issues. I still miss them. That is one of the things that keeps me going. In every single person that uses drugs, I see my brothers’ faces.
“In 1990, I was the person in charge of the Saint Ann’s crime and harm reduction [program]. That’s when I found Joyce Rivera. A lot of snow, winter, oh god, and I’m passing by. I know all the drug dealers in our community. So, there is this young lady, pregnant, in a car, the trunk of the car is open, and she is giving out something. So, I went there, and I say, young lady, what are you doing here? You’re freezing here. Of course, she can’t close her coat because she’s pregnant. She’s nine months pregnant, okay?
“I see the needles, and the condoms, and everything there. I came out with a stupid question: ‘So what are you doing giving out these things here in this weather and in this place?’ She slapped my face: ‘Because you do not allow me to be inside the church to do it.’ So next day, she was inside. That’s how we started to work together at St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction. It has been 30 years and we are still growing.
“My brothers and St. Ann’s gave a whole shape to my theology. When I went to divinity school, I had no idea about saving souls. I still have a problem. But I know God knows how to do that. So I’m going to give that to God. My biggest responsibility is about saving lives.
“By any means necessary. That’s the whole point. I’m going to save your life. I need to keep you going because I never know when you will want to make some drastic changes. And if you don’t, I will demand exactly what I demand from people who do not use drugs. You have to be responsible.
“In my pastoral theology, harm reduction is a set of practical strategies to reduce any damage that is going to touch God’s creation. Starting with Genesis Ch. 1, v. 26, we were created in the image of God. If I manage to see that you are the image of God, I’m going to have a different angle to build a relationship with you. We need to learn how to connect and reconnect with people. The connection with people always reconnects me to God. You are my way to God because you are the image of God. You deserve serious respect.
“Harm reduction is part of the course that I teach at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. I’m a human rights activist. We need to understand that people who use drugs have human rights. Some people in communities of faith say we do not deal with politics. One of my favorite leaders in this field is [Archbishop] Desmond Tutu, who says there is nothing more political than to say that the church is not supposed to deal with politics. We are always dealing with politics. The only question is what kind of politics we are going to deal with. I want to deal with the politics of the body. These bodies are the image of God.”
(This presentation has been edited for clarity and length.)