How We Can Seize the Moment

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Diversion, Racial Inequality

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

When George Floyd was killed, we were already tragically familiar with black death due to police brutality —Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Michael Brown, Aumaud Arbery, and, most recently, Breonna Taylor since 2014 alone. Despite short and largely localized expressions of outrage, little had changed. But might this be a turning point? 

A black leader in my church commented, “What happened this time really showed the whole world how we treat our people in this country.” In the past,” she went on, “maybe our slip was showing. This time we were butt naked.”   

The protests are continuing three weeks after George Floyd was murdered. A new generation of young people is involved. The call for change is multi-racial. National, state, and city officials and legislators are speaking out. The world is watching, and protests are happening globally.   

But will anything be different now? I think it is possible.  

For decades we have been saying we need to change hearts and minds. This must always be our goal. Sadly, that kind of change happens slowly, and the deaths continue. I cannot bear the thought that what seems like the possibility of real, meaningful, reform will somehow slip away. 

Martin Luther King once sardonically observed, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me.”  Although we pray for so much more, we must at the very least stop the modern-day lynchings – all too many in the name of an immoral drug war —  by seizing the moment to write new laws and regulations and throw out bad ones.  Here are three changes that can happen relatively quickly.  

The first is for cities to revise police contracts. I recall two cases of police abuse that led to death in Chicago in 1996. The facts were damning, and community activists called for accountability.  But they found that over many years the City had bargained its way to a police contract that made it virtually impossible to monitor, discipline, and fire officers — even after multiple offenses.  

Even today, anonymous citizen complaints are not permitted. Records from inquiries into possible police misconduct are expunged after five years. Officers have 24 hours to coordinate their account of shootings in which they are involved. No wonder police have the impression they can get away with murder. 

If city officials cannot resist political pressure from police unions there is a new and promising path to accountability — the licensing of police at the state level.  In the words of Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot, “If I go get my nails done … the person who is handling my nails is licensed by the state. If I go get a haircut, the barber is licensed by the state.” Why not police? Both the Mayor and Illinois Governor J. B, Pritzker seem ready to press for this reform.  

Second, the law can change whom police choose to arrest. Right now, all low-level drug offenders can be charged with a felony. This cripples them. If jailed, they are likely to lose their jobs and be separated from their families. They have little chance of obtaining employment or housing upon release. Life with a felony record is a life without a future for those who are poor and black.  

We can reduce arrests by supporting the national movement for what is called police diversion, or “deflection.” When police see those suffering from drug addiction—often individuals they have been recycling through the criminal justice system —instead of jail they already have the discretion to steer them to drug treatment and other services. Over 800 police districts have already initiated deflection in some form. This should become national practice. 

The third possibility is to carry deflection to its logical conclusion by decriminalizing all drugs. Right now, over half-a-million individuals are incarcerated in each year solely for drug possession. Yes, half-a-million. We can end this mindless and slow-motion violence right now. Impossible, you say? Consider: in Oregon signatures are now being gathered for a ballot initiative in November that would make it the first state to take this step. As others follow suit, this will collectively sound the death knell of the already failed War on Drugs. 

What change can we expect in days and months ahead? Let us start with reforms that will limit what even the racists among us are permitted to do in our society. Laws matter. Regulations matter. Such changes are within our grasp. If we stop the lynching, hearts and minds will follow. Dr. King knew that over fifty years ago. It is no less true today. 


Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, 
Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy


This message was posted last Monday on Facebook by my son-in-law Brendan Brown. He and my daughter Joanna and their two young children have just moved to Old Irving Park, Chicago. Brendon has kindly permitted me to share these words with you. I believe you will find them as moving as I did. Brendan, we share your hope. 

On the morning of Sunday, June 7, I took a walk with my two year-old son because we needed something to do. As we made our way around the new neighborhood we just moved into during a pandemic (introductions have been scarce), we saw people with signs and strollers on their way to a Family March for Equality. I saw an opportunity to, hopefully, make an impression on my son, however minutely, that might linger in his head somewhere. 

As we merged into the procession, a man near me said something about what a nice day it was and I said something about what a nice turnout it was. And then he replied, ‘Yeah, it makes me proud to live in this neighborhood.’ 

And I started crying.

The essence of what he said cut through the calm and personal reserve I usually try to maintain.

All of this is about being proud of your neighborhood. It begins at home. To see so many people who didn’t all look like me and didn’t all look like each other. On a Sunday morning, when they didn’t ‘have’ to be there. With their children. It wasn’t performative and it resonated in a way that struck me deeply.

The thought that my kids, the grandchildren of a Black man who grew up in Mississippi in the 1940s and 50s, might grow up in a country that is not just technically different, but materially and functionally different than the America that he and I grew up in, gives me hope. I know better than to believe that what we’ve seen lately is anything resembling meaningful change. But when I look into the faces of my children, all I see is hope. I want to be able to return it to them. We have to.  

Addiction and Pastoral Care

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Guest Pieces

Dear Al,

Rev. Phil Blackwell

If only I’d know then what I know now! You suggested that I read Sophia Waters’ Addiction and Pastoral Care, and after I finished I wondered, “How would my 45 years of parish ministry been different if I had better understood the dynamics of addictive behavior and why did we never talk about it in seminary or the Church?”

The assumption during all that time was that addictions were the result of bad choices, and therefore “sins,” or of genetic weaknesses, or of brain malfunctions. Waters, who is an Episcopal priest and pastoral counselor, says that we get closer to the truth if we see addictions as signs of “soul-sickness,” ways people have sought to cope with fear, loss, isolation, and hopelessness. They are a response to pain, not a search for pleasure. She acknowledges that over time an addict’s brain mutates, but that may well be more a result than a cause. She does not talk about genetics, which I wish she had.

That prompts me to look back at what I might have missed . . . the dairy farmer who seemed a little unsteady while drinking morning coffee at the diner, the guy on the assembly line who missed a lot of days at work, the college professor who made perfect sense in the morning lecture but rambled in the afternoon discussion, the stock trader raring to go at 5 a.m. and asleep at 2 p.m., the homeless man on the corner who could make more money begging than working at minimum wage, except that he disappeared for months at a time. Now, I don’t want to see things that weren’t there, but I could have been more attentive. And then, I think about family members and close friends . . .

So, Waters’ focus on addictions as the result of peoples’ desperate attempts to deal with pain that arise from personal, familial, and social dynamics offers me a new perspective. If it is not a sin, then the answer is not repentance and a pledge never to do it again. Rather, it is to offer solid pastoral care. She outlines two counseling techniques that reminded me of the Carl Rogers’ non-directive approach that I learned in seminary and tried to adhere to over the years. But she stresses that the Church must also provide a supportive community in which a person can find a safe place in which to confront the addiction. Simply making room for a 12-step program based on anonymity is not enough; there also must be open and generous inclusion.

In addition to the Church ministering within its congregational self-definition, can the Church be faithful enough to assume a public role? Addictive behavior employs a lot of means to avoid pain – alcohol, obviously, but also drugs, food, gambling, pornography, and the internet, to name the obvious. Our society has tended to criminalize addictions, not address them. You and I remember when the War on Drugs begun in 1971; it has been a disaster. To define an addiction as a crime has opened doors to persecution based on race wealth, ethnicity, gender identity, and even religious affiliation. It has created a fractured society and economic system. What does the Church have to say about justice regarding this?

And, does the Church have anything to say about businesses and governments getting rich by promoting addictive behavior? It seems contradictory: criminalizing, and at the same time, exploiting, but it is the norm. The one place where I have had some experience is in resisting casino gambling. It is a predatory business. The designers of the slot machines are psychologically savvy enough to make people feel that they are winning when they are losing. The goal is to drive people to “play to extinction,” as they lovingly say. So, the more money people lose the more money casinos and gambling parlors make and the more money governments tax. That, I think, the Church can call a “sin.”

Waters’ book confirms a truism dear to me: “Things are more complex than we first thought.” This is true about addictive behavior, she insists, and caregivers and religious communities need to deal with this complexity in order to be of help to others – to those who are addicted, to those who love them, and to a society prone to take advantage of them. Thanks, Al, for the recommendation.


Review: Addiction and Pastoral Care

“My aim,” Sonia Waters states, “is to take an issue that is often highly individualized and trace its webbed connections to the relational and social contexts that make one vulnerable to addiction, create its stigma, and complicate its recovery.” With that she begins her depiction of addiction not as a sin or a disease but rather as the result of a person trying to cope with personal, relational, and social vulnerabilities. Waters, who is an Episcopal priest, directs her analysis especially to pastoral caregivers, but her insights are eye-opening to a more general audience.

Having said that addiction is not a sin or a disease, Waters devotes the rest of her book to what it is. Calling on her pastoral perspective, she uses the framework of “soul sickness” to describe the debilitating power of the combination of personal, relational, and social vulnerabilities. Addictions can start benignly enough as acts of self-protection – a drink after work to relax, a stop at the casino for excitement, a few minutes on the internet to check messages, and most of these acts do not lead to addiction. But for those who are caught in a net of “attachment vulnerabilities and social sufferings, poor stress-regulation and poor social skills, impulsive choices and genetic propensities,” the pain is enormous and constant. One of Waters’ persistent points is that pleasure is not the motivating factor for addiction, but pain.

If addictive behavior is not a moral sin or a cerebral dysfunction but the result of an attempt to cope with the pain of living daily lives, then Waters points out that there are certain aspects of our public life that make matters worse rather than better. If a consistent factor that leads to addictive behavior is a sense of marginalization, then poverty, racial discrimination, gender-stereotyping, cultural prejudice, and criminalizing addiction only deepen the addict’s agony. In this public setting she sees the Church having a duel role as an “empathic body” for those within the religious community and as an advocate for addicts in the public domain. The Church can be a therapeutic community where everyone belongs and where alternative practices are offered “to manage negative affect and stress.” In that manner it can treat “soul-sickness” as the result of “solutions that have turned against us.” At the same time, the Church can advocate for addicts being treated as people needing compassionate attention and not as criminals needing jail time. American drug policies have been based on race and class, a bias made clear when the recent opioid epidemic moved from the back alley to Main Street, from the poor to the rich, from black to white. Only then did the definition move from a crime to punish to an addiction to

In Chapter 5, entitled, “Soul-Sickness and the Legion,” Waters turns directly to her pastoral understanding of addiction and the primary role of the caregiver. She uses the episode in the Gospel of Mark 5:3-13 where Jesus cures a man suffering from a “Legion” of demonic powers: stress, pain, sleeplessness, estrangement, a bruised body, and an addled mind. The man personifies “soul-sickness” in Waters’ terms. He does not see the danger that he repeatedly confronts, he has retreated to a supremely self-protective mindset, and he is isolated from everyone. Ultimately, Jesus rids the man of his demons, but not through an act of power but by perceiving the “person within the possession,” sensitive to the fear the man might have about losing his protection against reality. Recovery, she emphasizes, is not the result of a magical intervention or a single act of resolve but of a long and complex process. The role of the pastoral caregiver is to create a space within which an addict can face bravely questions of meaning. “We co-create interpretation and meaning together, as we plan for spiritual renewal. At the most basic level, we can communicate Christian love by being an attuned listener, not shocked by these stories of moral failure, and consistent in our assurance of God’s loving presence.”

In her final two chapters Waters outlines two specific patterns of pastoral interaction and applies them to working with an addict. She first outlines the foundations of Motivational Interviewing, with the emphasis on listening intently, asking open-ended questions, and reflecting back without judgment. Next she outlines the five stages of change therapy: an increased awareness of the need for change, an analysis of the pros and cons of current behavior, the creation of a plan for change, the implementation of the plan, and a commitment to sustaining the plan, with an expectation of re-starting after relapses. Both general patterns of pastoral caregiving accommodate the reality that recovery for an addict is not a quick and total reversal of behavior, but a long process that most likely will include many steps backward. And it just might be, Waters concludes, that as we enter the suffering and heartbreak of another, we will learn about our own brokenness.

Phil Blackwell
March 24, 2020

For Too Many, Our Jails and Prisons Have Become ‘Death Traps.’ This Must Not Continue.

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization, Harm Reduction, Take Action

Even in the best of times, but especially now, we must take great care not to put in jail those who do not belong there.  That is why on March 26, Clergy for a New Drug Policy was pleased to sign on to an open letter drafted by The Marijuana Policy Project: “Law Enforcement Officials, Medical Professionals, Clergy, and Cannabis Advocates Call for the Cease of Cannabis Arrests and Release of Incarcerated Cannabis Offenders in Light of COVID-19.”

The letter notes that “prisons and jails are breeding grounds for infections and diseases due to close quarters and lack of ability to practice social distancing…all prisoners, whether young or old, are increasingly vulnerable to being infected with the novel coronavirus.”  

We believe this letter has relevance to all of you, regardless of where you live.

 In my community of Chicago, Cook County Jail has been cited nationally as a “death trap.” Close to 300 inmates are now infected, and 6 have died due to the virus. In response, the mission committee of my church assisted each member of the congregation in contacting our county commissioner. We asked that he urge the county board to  “(1) release as many prisoners as possible immediately to prevent the spread of COVID-19, (2) create safer and more sanitary conditions inside the jail for the prisoners and guards who remain, and (3) provide adequate health care for those who become ill.”  

We also invited the members of our congregation to sign on to a petition urging Kim Foxx, our States Attorney, as the lead law enforcement officer for Cook County, to take additional steps to dramatically lower the number of people in the jail in response to COVID-19. 

Specifically we asked that she: (1) “Decline to file new charges in cases that do not involve danger to a specific person; (2) Agree to release most people seeking bond reviews from custody without payment of money; (3) Immediately dismiss all pending misdemeanors and class 4 felony cases not involving danger to a specific person, starting with cases in which people are in jail; and, (4) Cease filing violations of probation and violations of bail bonds for technical violations or reasons not involving danger to a specific person.”

The MPP letter notes that “many localities – including Baltimore, Suffolk County, Massachusetts; Cuyahoga County, Ohio; New Jersey; Los Angeles; and New York City – and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have already begun to release inmates incarcerated for non-violent, drug-related offenses with the understanding that infections in prisons and jails are rampant, and releasing inmate could save the lives of not only inmates but also the custodial, medical, and safety staff that serve them.”

It is my experience that individuals in churches often want to raise their voices in ways that will make a difference, but are not quite sure how.  Contacting elected officials to urge them to take steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus among people being jailed for minor offenses, and those who work among them, is one important way we can protect the most vulnerable. Your local elected officials—including states attorneys, county commissioners, and sheriffs–will pay attention to you on this issue.  Call and write to them now.

“I Don’t Want to Come to Your Church, Your Synagogue, Your Circle. I Want You to Come to Ours.”

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Harm Reduction

Kassandra Frederique: 
“The Drug War is a manifestation of the things that we have failed at. How do we have a conversation about alternatives? How do we build the capacity for our communities to care for each other?  

“People create hospitals and churches. But sadly, what we also recognize is that both those institutions have failed us miserably.   If those institutions don’t see that they have helped to create the conditions in this moment, then we’re not actually having a conversation about what their true role is.

“For some people, faith and spirituality fill a spiritual void. But if their institutions still traffic in stigma, miseducation, racism, sexism, a prosperity gospel… [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]”

Monique Tula:

“I can’t get away from the fact that the War on Drugs is as much driven by capitalism as it is by racism. Today’s governing bodies and corporate CEOs are overwhelmingly white, wealthy, cis men. Although we’re seeing countries like China and India changing some of those demographics, the endgame looks like colonization and domination of the earth’s resources. This keeps the oppressed in a constant state of struggle: constantly distraught, constantly distracted, constantly divided. All we see is ‘other.’ “

“You list the Fortune 500 companies. What about the faith community? The faith communities often have the same kind of leadership, the same kind of investment, the same commitment to upholding the status quo of the people that benefit most from capitalism.”

“Or to upholding those Victorian values and religious dogma—the idea that abstinence and chastity will keep you off of the road to perdition.” 

“I’m excited for anyone that wants to help us end the overdose crisis. But what I ask about is the purpose of the faith institutions. Is it for control or as an ally towards freedom? Are you trying to control people or are you trying to give people strategies to take down the structure that created the circumstances we are navigating through right now? We can’t save anybody. We’re not going to fix anybody. We have to give folks the resources to do that healing within themselves.”  

“I had this spiritual awakening sometime after the last Harm Reduction Conference in New Orleans, and I’ve been chasing that high ever since. I started listening to Eckhart Tolle. His latest book is called A New Earth. He writes about global transformations. One is the global market economy, driven by capitalism.  Another is the reality that people around the world are awakening to a new state of consciousness.  Although we exist in separate bodies in separate forms, the energy that flows through us is the same. At our core we’re actually connected. 

“Tolle talks about how many of us are awakening to the primacy of unconditional love. He says that people are gaining this greater self-awareness.  We’re beginning to understand our symbiotic relationship with the planet which cannot be sustained if we continue to exploit its resources with no regard for the future, for our children. If we’re all connected, then harm to one is harm to us all.

“Have you noticed that there is a shift away from top-down decision making, from those values that are rooted in the patriarchy and in white supremacy?

“The reality is that there are enough resources on this planet for all of us.  It is just a matter of how they’re distributed. Policies that formed the foundation of the War on Drugs are rooted in a dying paradigm fueled by capitalism and criminalization.   

“Let us remember Audre Lorde’s classic quote, ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.’ Problems can’t be solved with the same level of consciousness that gave rise into them in the first place. We need a shift—a complete shift—a new way of thinking. Deconstruction of the old world needs to happen in order to make space for this new consciousness to emerge.

“Those of us who practice and believe in the power of harm reduction, we’re the culture makers. We’ve been on the edge, we’ve been on the fringe.  I want to point to my dear colleague Allan Clear, who was one of the founders of harm reduction in this country, the first executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition 26 years ago.

“We were not in churches very much. But I will say that there have been faith leaders and faith communities that low-key supported harm reduction since the very beginning. The first needle exchange program that I worked in was housed in a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

“Harm reduction is often limited to describing public health strategies and interventions to prevent people from contracting infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis or fatal overdoses. But harm reduction is more than a public intervention. Think of these interventions as harm reduction with ‘lowercase HR.’

“Harm Reduction with ‘uppercase HR’ is a local grassroots advocacy effort that bridges public health with civil rights and community mobilization. Our aim is to shift power and resources to people most vulnerable to structural violence. We are challenging the prevailing notion that people who use drugs are bad and that they’re broken.”

“I struggle with ‘lowercase harm reduction.’  We think that the goal is syringe exchange or an overdose prevention center. We see Naloxone as harm reduction. Then abstinence-based organizations say, ‘We’re harm reductionists because we use Naloxone.’  That’s not what it is. 

“Harm reduction is a beautiful thing.  I consider it a part of my ministry because of the church I belong to. But we operate in the framework of capitalism. This causes us to violate the integrity of our framework.

“We are allowing other institutions to judge our spirituality in a way that we never would.  The fact that the academy can take something like syringe exchange or Naloxone and then talk about moral hazards shows that they are claiming the high ground. 

“We have to be clear about who the moral compass is because those institutions are not without sin. They are so ready to tell us that we are the sinful ones. Why is it that we bow our heads down to false prophets? The economy is a false prophet, organized religion is a false prophet, the medical system is a false prophet.

“We are the moral ground, high and low. There are no hierarchies in our morality. And that is why when we have a conversation about what the role of faith groups are in the overdose crisis, in the drug war, if you believe that you are the moral leader, that you will dictate what morality looks like, then keep it.  I don’t want to come to your church. I don’t want to come to your temple. I don’t want to come to your synagogue. I don’t want it to come to your circle. I want you to come to ours.”

(This dialogue has been edited for clarity and length.) 

Recovery Dharma: A Buddhist Path to Recovery

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Harm Reduction

Anya Lukianov
psychotherapist, clinical social worker

Recovery Dharma is a non-profit organization that uses traditional Buddhist teachings, which we know as Dharma, to overcome addiction through meditation, self-inquiry, wisdom, and compassion. Recovery Dharma encourages full abstinence and renunciation from all recreational mind and mood-altering substances. For those with process addictions such as food, technology, gambling, sex, pornography, of course, complete abstinence may not be possible. 

“Support in navigating the program of Recovery Dharma is available through mentors who have experience in the program, who have a period of renunciation or sobriety under their belt. They are matched specifically with newcomers who are struggling with any specific addiction.

“It is important to take a look at what substance abuse treatment opportunities are available. For many individuals, there is detoxification, which of course is limited to several days. There are inpatient rehabilitation centers, outpatient rehabilitation centers, halfway houses, and medication-assisted treatment. It is critical to focus on aftercare. In general, about 75%-80% of individuals who do not remain connected to a sober support community will tend to relapse and struggle greatly with maintaining long-term recovery.

“Recovery Dharma is based and centered on the idea that meditation on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path—most importantly, the support of sangha (community) in our meetings—can foster a journey towards long-term recovery.

“The Four Noble Truths tell us that in life there is suffering. The cause of suffering is craving. The cessation of suffering comes with the cessation of craving. The Eightfold Path leads from such suffering. This includes: wise understanding, wise intention, wise speech, wise action, wise livelihood, wise effort, wise concentration, and wise mindfulness. 

“Why meditation? To pray is to ask and give thanks. To meditate is to listen. It is quieting the mind and calming the body long enough to receive the guidance for which we pray.  There are numerous meditations that focus on gratitude, compassion, and loving kindness.

“Meditation is also an excellent tool for down-regulating the nervous system, especially for those who have survived trauma. Meditation has been proven to be helpful with various medical conditions, stress, burnout, anxiety and depression, chronic pain, sleep disturbance, improved focus, emotional regulation, and perspective.  

“The prevalence of trauma in addiction is astounding. The co-occurring ranks as high as 90%. As a result, trauma-informed care is critical in combating substance abuse disorder. This is one of the greatest differences between Recovery Dharma and many other community sober support programs. Our literature is trauma-informed because we understand the prevalence between trauma and addiction. 

“Non-identification as an addict or alcoholic is something we practice in order to reduce shame and stigma.  In our meetings, it does not matter if you have a substance abuse disorder. It does not matter if you have a process addiction. It does not matter if you show up with a codependency issue. We simply introduce ourselves by our name and our preferred gender pronoun.

“We also provide regular overdose prevention and Naloxone training. We have regularly planned social leisure programming for our in-person and online meetings. And most critically, we are open to people of all faiths and walks of life. Our program does not require belief in a God or higher power. A spiritual program has to be developed by the individual. No one should be stressed into believing something that they are not open to at a particular time.

“We do not ask anybody to give up participation in any other meeting, recovery program, or spiritual practice. Many of us actually combine traditional 12-step or other recovery programs with our Recovery Dharma program. 

“We are easily found on This will take you to our major website, which covers national and international programs. We are an international program with an international board and founder that provides us with the support that we need and the resources that we need, whether you’re in the United States or not. 

Faith and spirituality are complicated. As a survivor of religious abuse, it was extremely difficult for me to conform to a 12-step program for quite some time. Eventually it saved my life, but mindfulness and meditation and turning more towards Buddhist practices was critical. Without this option, I do not believe I would still be standing here today.”       

(This presentation has been edited for length.)