“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.)

We Are Witnesses: Chicago

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Drug Education, Harm Reduction

My purpose today is to urge you to watch a powerful and haunting short film called “We Are Witnesses: Chicago.” Through the testimony of 15 individuals, the series captures the tragedy and anguish of violence in Chicago. We hear the voices of victims, police, and court officials.  It is a story of suffering and pain, systemic cruelty and corruption.  It offers moments of compassion, courage, and forgiveness. It speaks to our hearts, and helps to open them. It makes us cry out for change, especially in our criminal justice system.  Violence tears our cities apart.  Chicago is synonymous with gun shootings, even though some other cities have numbers worse than Chicago’s.  In CNDP’s advocacy to end the War on Drugs, I have long wanted to argue that this failed War is a primary cause of urban violence. My problem in making this case is that the topic of violence is hideously complex.  It is what academics call “a wicked problem.” As such, it hard to generalize about. It has so many causes.  “We Are Witnesses: Chicago” helps us to identify and begin to connect them.  The War on Drugs is certainly key.  It calls for prohibition. As a result, gangs rather than sanctioned outlets become the economic vehicle for distributing drugs.  There are no legal means to settle disputes, so violence, usually with guns, becomes the vehicle for doing so. Huge amounts of easy cash from drug sales lure kids to the streets rather than school.  This same cash finances the guns that are so plentiful on city streets. This misguided and unjust war undermines the relationship between police and communities.  How could it be otherwise when officers are trained to track people down in pursuit of often low-level economic transactions that, in poor communities, may be their only way to feed their families? The War on Drugs feeds upon itself.  When parents are incarcerated for low-level drug possession, their future is obliterated, their families are destroyed, and their children suffer. All of this, in turn, feeds the poverty and despair than can often lead the next generation to escape into drugs. The cycle continues.   In “We are Witness” Chicago we meet Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, until recently the Executive Director Of The Cook County Department Of Corrections.  At age eight, growing up in North Carolina, she witnessed the arrest and incarceration of her father for possession of marijuana: “I can only imagine being the man in the house and watching your young daughters seeing you arrested,” she recalls. “It’s humiliating.” After her responsibilities for Cook County Jail, she writes, “When you walk into those doors and you see hundreds of young black men chained together you see the hopelessness in their eyes and it does something to you.  I saw them as my brother. I saw my father in them…We are more than our charge. We are the whole person who can still have the ability to offer good in the world.” The War on Drugs does not fully explain the tragedy of urban violence in our cities.  There are many causes. But is time that we started to realize what is also true. The violence in our cities will not end until, at long last, we decriminalize low-level drug possession, thereby effectively ending the 47-year-old War on Drugs.  I am grateful that “We Are Witnesses: Chicago” is so effective in helping to make this case. Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director

Inside Out Network: Connecting Churches to Returning Citizens

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Harm Reduction

Our nation continues to incarcerate over two million individuals annually. They will return to their communities, with limited prospects for housing, education, and jobs.  Many need mental health and substance abuse treatment. How can clergy and congregations help? Most just do not have the information to connect service providers and returning citizens.   That’s why I am delighted to present to you the Inside Out Network.  This interactive online system connects service providers, including clergy and congregations, with those coming out of prison. And vice versa.  It has been developed by Rev. Fred Nelson, a Lutheran parish pastor in Park Ridge, Chicago, who 13 years ago felt drawn to prison ministry.  He wrote the book Spiritual Guide for Prison and Beyond, which now has a national circulation of about 65,000.  He surveyed inmates and those who on the outside about their first year after release.  He reports, “They were talking about the dream they had of what would happen when they got out, how they would be a force for good, and even what role they wanted to play in the church.  Not every inmate, of course, but a surprisingly large number of them.” “It just wasn’t happening,” he continues. “What was going wrong? I landed on the twin evils of isolation and invisibility.  They are isolated from their support networks and families and friends while they’re locked up, but also the service providers, people working on the outside.” Rev. Nelson’s first step was to create RED Chicago, a hardcopy, 50-page Re-Entry Directory for the Chicago area:  “Our church produced that because we didn’t find anyone that had done something that was really geared for people getting out of prison.  “The Department of Corrections loved it and asked ‘Can you do something for the whole state,’” Nelson recalls. This is prompted him to take the basic concept to a “whole other level and make it available online.” Here’s how he describes the Inside Out Network: “It’s not an app.  It’s a website. Don’t think of it as an online database. Think of it as a dating site. It’s for people who want to connect, who want to find relevant matches that are proximate enough, near where they can actually connect with each other, filtered for the things they are looking for so that we can make that connection.  “You want to be known and seen and connected with the relevant people.  It’s the same for service providers. There are a lot of under-subscribed programs, unfilled beds.”  The services listed include housing and shelter, substance abuse treatment, food pantries, legal services, and multi-agency programs.   The Inside Out Network operates in Chicago, with a database of over 200 providers and several hundred returning citizens.  It is also active in cities in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. At the end of September, Rev. Nelson will be moving to Tucson, AZ to devote himself full time to the Network.   How will he bring it to scale? Basically, he sees the process as building a “network of networks.” He notes that existing coalitions have come together: “They reach out and say, ‘Hey, we’re in.  You want to be in? Then we can go to a Department of Corrections saying, ‘We’ve got a network going. Work with us.’” When I asked how anyone reading this piece could get involved, he said, “They can register their organization today.”  In addition to the web link, Rev. Nelson is eager to speak with anyone wishing to participate in or support the Inside Out Network. He can be reached at: Fred@insideoutnetwork.net and at 847-323-3744.  Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director

Book Review- Addiction Nation Offers a Path to Those in Need

Tom Houseman Harm Reduction

Addiction Nation opens with a deeply personal story told in visceral detail. It describes  the weeks that author Timothy McMahon King spent in an intensive care unit, suffering from pancreatitis, on the verge of organ failure and death. He describes the agonizing pain he suffered, as well as the only resource that brought him any relief: opioids, specifically fentanyl. “Addiction Nation is my story,” he writes, “but it is our story too.” The subtitle of the book is What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us. King is not a journalist, nor is Addiction Nation a PhD thesis. The opioid crisis, and the challenges of treating substance use disorder, have been examined by several authors, from Gabor Maté to Beth Macy to Sam Quinones. King references their writing, as well as the mountain of research done on the spread of opioid use disorder, but his approach is unique. Instead it is King’s personal experience, and his faith-driven approach to recovery, that power Addiction Nation. King experienced opioid use disorder, describing his addiction to opioids that began with his time in the hospital. He is extremely lucky, and he understands that. “My story is one of early detection,” he explains, “of things that went right. It is a story that should be more common than it is… If everyone had what I had, the opioid crisis would not be what it is today.” King grew up in a religious household, and he has spent his life pondering and understanding the role that faith plays in his life. Few authors have explored the relationship between faith and addiction as deeply as King, or in a way that is as accessible to a Christian audience. Those who do not share this perspective may find the biblical allegories and quotes off-putting, as if King’s religious background detracts from the seriousness of his writing. But for those who share this worldview, it offers fascinating insight into how people treat both themselves and others. “Addiction is a kind of faith gone wrong,” King posits. King explains how he was able to come to terms with his own addiction and gain control of it. He needed to reckon with his own shame, fueled by the stigma that addiction was a “moral failing,” a sign of a weak will and a weak mind. Using his own experience as a jumping-off point, he tries to explain how complex addiction is, how universal an experience it is, and how shame and “tough love” are often the worst ways to handle it. King’s goal is loftier than garnering sympathy for people who use drugs, or pushing policy proposals that will save lives, although he does both. He wants to diagnose all of us, and help us understand how our lives have become steeped in addiction. “The idea of addiction as a disease,” he writes, ‘allowed me to let down my defenses and accept help.” But he also explores the idea of the so-called Disease Model of addiction and finds it imperfect and lacking. King argues that the opioid crisis, and addiction in general, is “more than a disease.” It is a complex hydra of impulses and emotions, a mobius strip of blame, shame, need, and fear, a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle. In order to defeat it, we must first untangle it and understand it. The drug addictions plaguing communities, cocaine and meth and heroin, have been exacerbated by politicians who, rather than trying to help people in need, choose to “wage war on our citizens.” These “tough on crime” policies have fed on racial stereotypes of “super predators” and “welfare queens,” but they hid the growing problem of drug addiction surging in affluent white communities as well as poor rural communities. King believes that addiction “reveals something about our culture, our economy, and our world that is very much considered ‘normal’ but is actually destroying what is human.” Opioids, he explains, “are not the cause of addiction, even though they are addictive.” Instead, addiction is driven by a desire to escape pain. For some that pain is physical, as it was for King, but for others it is emotional, psychological, even spiritual. Poverty, isolation, and hopelessness are all types of pain from which addiction offers a momentary escape at a great cost. There are no easy answers to the addiction crisis, because King explains that addiction itself is the easy answer. Instead, he promotes the idea of slow, deliberate changes made on both the personal and the systemic level. That is what King means when he writes about faith: that faith in ourselves, each other, and the slow process of growth are the only way to overcome addiction. We must grapple with our own shame and fear in order to promote positivity, rather than condemning addicts out of a misplaced superiority. “To struggle with control of our own actions is at the heart of what it means to be human.” As the opioid epidemic rages, more and more people either struggle with their own substance use disorders or know and love someone mired in addiction. These are the people for whom Addiction Nation is written: people who are afraid, who don’t know what to do, who know that the old answers won’t work and are looking for new solutions. For Christian audiences, and people who find strength in their faith, King’s story and perspective are inspiring and enlightening. For  anyone scared or ashamed, the ideas explored in Addiction Nation will help them remember the most important message in overcoming addiction: You are not alone. We are all in this together. Tom Houseman, Policy Director

Clergy Join Suit to Keep Drug Users Safe

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Harm Reduction

In Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love, community leaders, service providers, and key public officials have joined together to bring safe injection to their city. At the proposed facility, aptly named “Safehouse,” individuals struggling with addiction could use drugs under medical supervision.  This would be the first such program in the United States. But on February 6, the U.S. District Attorney in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania sued to keep Safehouse from opening its doors. William McSwain argued that it would violate the Controlled Substance Act, which is intended to ban the operation of “crack houses.” When Clergy for a New Drug Policy was asked recently to join an amicus brief rejecting efforts to block Safehouse, we couldn’t say “yes” fast enough.  Here is why. The United States is woefully and shamefully lacking when it comes to supervised injection facilities (SIFs).  Worldwide, there are over 120 in 12 countries, including Australia. As we reported last month, the score in North America is:  Canada 44, U.S. 0. The arguments on behalf of Safehouse are strong.  Evaluations of SIFs have demonstrated that they: reduce both overdose deaths and infections due to unclean needles; increase access to health care; and provide opportunity for treatment without requiring it.  Nor have there been negative consequences such as an increase in crime or public disorder where facilities are located. The amicus brief invokes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).  It argues that in moving against Safehouse, the U.S. attorney is “substantially impair(ing) the ability of its Christian and Jewish Board Members to practice at least two tenets that they sincerely hold.”   It raises an interesting and important question:  if you were asked to draft a brief that supported an SIF based on your faith, how would you make the case?  What would you consider to be the religious values at stake? The amicus brief offers two fundamental concepts. First, all humans are created in the image of God.  We have “a unique and unrivaled status in creation.” (All quotes are from the brief.) This special status lies at the heart of the commandment to love others as ourselves: “all therefore have value and significance and are worthy of others’ time, understanding, and advocacy.”  Guided by this concept, the brief argues that “In attempting to prevent adherents from providing care to those affected by the opioid crisis, the U.S. Attorney has dehumanized those in need and thus tainted God’s image… (and ) has also put the affected outside the reach of the community…thereby distancing neighbors from each other and God’s love.  The end result demeans the affected and strips them of their dignity, leaving God’s image in tatters.” Second, the brief asserts the inherent dignity and immeasurable worth of each human being. It argues that “in recognizing the dignity and humanity in all, Jesus announced that everyone, including the poor, the sick, and the sinners, are worthy of salvation and protection.”  It follows that “all humans, even opioid addicts, possess an intrinsic, sacred worth that adherents must honor with respect.” The drafters of the amicus brief make clear that it draws upon the core tenets of the Judeo-Christian, Islamic, and other traditions.  But in the final analysis, perhaps it does not entirely matter what its supporters call themselves and which faiths are represented. When Safehouse is finally up and running, it will embody the fundamental injunction that we love our neighbor. To love our neighbor is to know God. In this sense, Safehouse is a religious organization.  This is why it is worthy of our support. Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director