“Saving Lives…by Any Means Necessary”

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Harm Reduction

Rev. Dr. Luis Barrios
Holyrood Church/Iglesia Santa Cruz in the Upper West Side, NYC

“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.)

African-American, Latinx Clergy Speak on Cannabis Legalization in Connecticut

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp CT, Marijuana Legalization

Rev. Edwin Perez speaks at clergy press conference calling for cannabis legalization at the state capitol in Hartford Connecticut on February 18th. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

On February 18, African-American and Latinx clergy held a press conference on the Capitol steps in Hartford, Connecticut in support of legalization of adult-use cannabis. The Rev. Tommie Jackson, Faith Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Stamford,  presided. Speakers included: Rev. Edwin Perez (shown here), United Church of Christ, Hartford; Rev. Charlie L. Stallworth, East End Baptist Tabernacle Church in Bridgeport; Rev. Stephen Camp, Faith Congregational Church in Hartford; and Rev. Alexander Sharp, Clergy for a New Drug Policy. If successful, Connecticut would become the 12th state to approve cannabis legalization and the second to do legislatively rather than by ballot initiative.

Rev. Stallworth:
“For many years, members of many congregations and communities across our state have been negatively impacted by marijuana prohibition. This year, our governor and lawmakers in Hartford are finally working on a solution. It’s time that we all stand together to end this failed policy and move forward in a way that will lift our communities up and allow our state to move forward.

“One of the key features of the regulated system being discussed by lawmakers is that cannabis will be produced and sold by legitimate taxpaying businesses instead of by drug cartels and criminals. Regulation will also free up resources so that police can focus on more serious crimes and also help improve police-community relationships, and instead of continuing to fuel organized crime, the money spent on cannabis in our state can and should be used to help revitalize communities that have been disproportionately harmed by enforcement of laws against cannabis.

“To be clear, I do not recommend the recreational use of cannabis any more than I would recommend the recreational use of alcohol. We know that both of these substances can be abused, and adults who choose to use them should be expected to take responsibility for their actions. However, it’s clear that our state’s current policy of prohibition is failing everyone, especially our young people. And I also think that we as community leaders need to stand up and demand that those folks most directly harmed by this failed policy be involved in developing solutions. A new policy that is aimed at reducing harms rather than foolishly seeking to eliminate all cannabis use. Thank you.

Rev. Perez:
“I remember in 2018 in New Haven in the month of August, seeing bodies drop on the green. Looking out to buy marijuana and getting something else that was unregulated, something else that isn’t natural marijuana. What we’re not doing here is telling people to use marijuana, but what we are saying is that we need to control what people are setting out to get. We need to control how people seek out what they’re trying to look for instead of getting what they did not bargain for. We cannot regulate what is illegal, but what is legal we can regulate. 

“We’ve known that forbidding substances does not help, but instead creates negative issues and problems across racial divides. Our Latinx community, our black and brown communities, are suffering much more, are four to seven times more likely to get arrested for just possessing marijuana, according to the ACLU in 2010. Forbidding a substance doesn’t work. You can ask any of these clergy about the story of the Garden of Eden, but allowing people to make educated choices and allowing people to be shown mercy and dignity is the way to go.”

Rev. Camp:
“I stand before you to say that I’m tired of our young, black and brown children, young men and women, having their lives disrupted when we can regulate cannabis, when we can make it available so it doesn’t penalize their lives. I don’t see in the scripture where this prohibition makes any sense. It should be the people understanding that they have to be responsible. And so we need to help people to be responsible, but prohibition is not the way. I applaud this effort and support it and it is my hope that this state will move into the new century and support a new way.”

Rev. Sharp:
“We’ve heard a lot about regulation this morning, and I’d like to say one small thing that’s so obvious, we overlook it. Critics of what we’re trying to do here today say, “The marijuana, the cannabis today, isn’t what our grandparents used. It isn’t what our parents used. It’s so much stronger today.” If that’s true, what we ought to do is regulate so that we can control, and people know what they’re getting. I’ve been working around the country but I can report from Illinois, which is my home state, that we became the 11th state, and we fervently hope that Connecticut will be the 12th, to legalize cannabis for adult use.

“What we’ve done and what you have the opportunity to do here, what we’ve done in Illinois, is build social justice and social equity into the program. I know you have parts of the bill that are calling for that. We have done that in Illinois. I can tell you that it’s possible. It will work. We’ve set aside 25% of the revenues from cannabis sales to be spent in communities that were ravaged by the War on Drugs. We are creating opportunities for minority businesses to get into the cannabis industry, and one very important thing that I’m seeing happen already is that our community colleges are now offering courses in cultivation and growing. It’s providing training opportunities for kids that very recently were in back alleys selling unregulated marijuana to people who certainly don’t need it.

“I urge you to follow the lead of 11 other states that have done this. Godspeed. We wish you well.”

Unitarians Support Legal Marijuana in New Jersey

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp NJ, Unitarian Universalist Perspectives

On December 12, 2019, Rev. Rob Gregson, Executive Director of UU FaithAction New Jersey, appeared before the New Jersey Senate Commerce Committee on the proposed ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for adult use. We provide his testimony here. 

Since 2015 when my predecessor, Rev. Craig Hirschberg, gave what we believe was the first denominational testimony in favor of legalizing marijuana in New Jersey, Unitarian Universalists of Faith Action New Jersey has consistently supported the safe, regulated, socially just legalization position.  

While Unitarian Universalists in general, and UU FaithAction in particular, would have been happier with a legislative solution rather than a ballot question, on balance we agree that from an ethical and justice perspective, it is better to have ballot legalization than continue with the current system which largely allows people who look like me [white] and live in suburban neighborhoods like mine to escape being caught up in the criminal justice system for smoking or healing.  Black and brown residents of more urban or poorer neighborhoods don’t have that same luxury.

The only broadly compelling reason we, as a faith-raised body, decided to take a stand for marijuana legalization is because it would end the ill-conceived and horribly racially biased “War on Drugs.”  

Looking forward I hope you will support future legislation like the expungement bill currently before the Legislature that attempts to make some small reparations—and I use that word advisedly and deliberately—aimed to address the grossly unethical place we may find ourselves in if and when the ballot is successful:  well-heeled, largely white business men and women begin making dollars hand-over-fist only weeks after others have been fined or even imprisoned for the same exact act.  

When reparation, or legislation—or come up with a more palatable word if you like—comes before you over the next few years, I hope you will take these disparities very, very seriously. 

Rev. Erich Kussman: A Journey from Prison to Pulpit

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization, Faith Perspectives

Shortly after high school, Erich Kussman, now a Lutheran pastor, was incarcerated for 10 years in the New Jersey prison system.  A chaplain spotted his talents and upon his release helped him gain admission to Princeton Theological Seminary. He now serves as rector of St. Bartholomew Lutheran Church in downtown Trenton, New Jersey. Last week we spoke to Rev.Kussman about his extraordinary life.  

Tell me about your background and how you connected with Princeton Theological Seminary.

Eric:  I served 10 years, six months, and 14 days. I was in a prison called Albert C. Wagner Correctional Facility.  I was working for the chaplain’s office, and the chaplain’s name is the Reverend Emmanuel Bourjolly. He took me under his wing back in 2004.  He used to call me his son. He’s like, “You’re going to go to the school I went to.” I was like, “What school was that?” And he goes, “Princeton.” I laughed in his face.  He tracked me down when I got out, and he found out I was graduating with my undergraduate degree from Pillar College in Newark, New Jersey. He showed up to the graduation and asked, “Are you ready?”

People get incarcerated that grow up in poverty, made single-parent homes, and eating government cheese and powdered milk. I remember those days. It took somebody outside of my situation to show me that there was life on the other side. There’s something else.

What was it like when you got to Seminary?

It was a little difficult because it’s Princeton Seminary. You’ve got people from all over the globe. I’m this scrappy little kid that grew up in the inner city of Plainfield and here we go. But I was able to hang in there.

Tell us about your church.   

The church is St. Bartholomew’s Lutheran Church in Trenton, New Jersey. I’ve been here since July of 2019, so six months in. And what we do here is we try to provide for the needs of our neighbors in the community. We run a food bank. We do a lot of advocacy. We run a group for people returning home from prison. We do regular Sunday services and we try to be very active in our community.

It’s an integrated church, a very diverse congregation. About probably 70–80% of the people that attend here are living in the poverty line.

We have some homeless members. We try to find them housing and stuff like that.

What do you do for returning citizens, people coming back from prison?

We try to find them housing. We offer counseling sessions one night a week in a group so everybody can talk and discuss their problems. We try to find ways and avenues for job training. We are linked to a program that helps people if they have overdue fines and help them get their driver’s licenses back.

How did you get involved with the cannabis legislation? 

There are 32,000 people a year that get arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey and it costs $140 million. That’s absurd and wasteful, and you’re criminalizing people. Probably 50% or 70% of the people I was incarcerated with had to deal with some kind of drugs. But they were all African American or Latino. If these individuals, these people, these human beings lived not in impoverished neighborhoods, they lived in the suburbs, they would have been going to maybe a drug treatment program or gotten a slap on the wrist. But because of the color of their skin and their nationalities, they get incarcerated and thrown in a cage. 

When you have a drug conviction on your record, it’s hard to get employment. They look at that. No jobs.  They don’t want to hire you.

Is that true with arrests as well as convictions?

Eric:  I’ve learned that with their federal database and state databases, when they run your name it’s not just convictions that come up, but also arrests, whether you’re guilty or not.

When marijuana legalization happens, what do we do next to push back the war on drugs?

We’ve got to continue to advocate and help legislators see through different lenses. The “lock ’em up” mentality is draconian. It tries to separate people as good or bad without looking at the humanity within them. Criminalization persecutes those that the Gospel tells me I need to speak up for.  As Martin Luther King told us, “An unjust law is no law at all.”

Are there effective drug treatment programs for those who need them? 

I haven’t done a lot of research into it.  There are some good programs and a lot of bad ones.  But there is another burden—impoverished people can’t afford treatment. Their insurance doesn’t cover it. If you are assigned court-mandated treatment, what’s that next step? They’re going to incarcerate you.

“People Who Use Drugs are Beloved by God”

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Harm Reduction

Blyth Barnow is a preacher, harm reductionist, writer, and community organizer, and serves as the Harm Reduction Faith Coordinator for Faith in Public Life Ohio. She works to establish harm reduction resources for faith-based communities and has brought her worship service, Naloxone Saves, to several states.

“I try to leverage the power of clergy in service of people who are doing harm reduction work, people who use drugs, people who do sex work.  It matters what clergy say. 

“I remember the first time I officiated at a funeral. An older gentleman had died by suicide. His daughter presumed that I was judging her father as I presided over the service. She never spoke to me. That was her experience of clergy. 

“I went to seminary because people that I loved had never been treated with dignity in the church—as people who use drugs, as people who do sex work, as queer people.  I lost a partner to an overdose. He was condemned to hell at his funeral. All of us were condemned for living the same lifestyle. I sat in the pew with friends. Almost all of them now are dead or locked up. I think the message that that pastor passed on that day is part of how they got there.

“I wanted to be able to provide spiritual care and ritual to my community so that people didn’t have to hide when they were offering and receiving care. I want to figure out how we return something that has been stolen from people—their access to spiritual care.

“Dignity and divinity are related. When you support people in accessing their dignity you are opening up what is divine within them already. When you wound their dignity, you are committing an act of spiritual violence.

“I developed a worship service called Naloxone Saves.  It started sassy: ‘Okay, Jesus saves. But Naloxone really saves.’ It has evolved from there. Naloxone Saves is a very standard order of worship for Christian services: prayers, hymns, and a sermon, which I deliver. 

“We train people to recognize and respond to an overdose in the context of worship. When people come up to receive their kits as if receiving communion, we all together bless the kits as we distribute them. We talk about reversing an overdose as an act of resurrection that Christians are called to participate in.

“If our faith is founded in the power of resurrection, how are we participating here on earth?   I worked with the overdose ministries of the United Church of Christ. We have developed these buttons that say, ‘People who use drugs are beloved by God.’

“I had the chance to offer a version of the Naloxone Saves service for a church in Minneapolis. While we were there, the pastor found out that one of his families in his church lost their son to an overdose. The church decided that it wanted to become an ongoing site in distributing Naloxone and other harm reduction supplies, and to formalize their relationship with Southside Harm Reduction in Minneapolis.

“At that young man’s funeral, everybody was wearing a pin that said, ‘People who use drugs are beloved by God.’ As they walked out of the service, they could access harm reduction supplies like Naloxone, and sterile equipment, putting some resources behind that effort.

“I think about my path from a funeral where someone is condemned to hell to one with the message that people who use drugs are unconditionally loved by God.  I felt the community experiencing this love. That is why we work.”

(These comments are excerpted from Blyth Barnow’s participation on the panel “Having Faith in Harm Reduction” during the Drug Policy Alliance’s International Drug Policy Reform Conference in St. Louis.)