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By Emily Davis
On a recent Monday morning, a clean syringe and a bottle of naloxone got passed around the room at Grace United Methodist Church. Alongside a buffet of bagels and coffee, the Greensboro parish’s tables were scattered with leaflets of scripture recommendations, example prayers and supply lists, all on the theme of harm reduction.
As the overdose-reversing drug went from hand to hand, Autumn Yates ticked off the signs of an overdose to the attending clergy, and what to do in such an emergency.
The North Carolina Council of Churches has been traveling around the state hosting these clergy breakfasts, wherever they’re invited, to discuss the opioid crisis and introduce harm reduction principles to the faith community. Just over 200 people have come to the breakfasts across 12 cities.
Established in 1935, the council is comprised of 6,200 congregations and 18 denominations across North Carolina. Their clergy breakfasts are facilitated by Chris Pernell, the coordinator for their program Partners in Health and Wholeness, and Elizabeth Brewington, coordinator of their opioid response program.
“What we wanted to do was to encourage the faith leaders to get involved at some level,” Pernell said. “And we feel like that is the spot for the churches, is to reduce harm to people who use drugs.”
Harm reduction is an umbrella term for methods to reduce risks and provide resources for people who continue to use drugs. Harm reduction techniques can range from medication take-backs to syringe exchanges, as well as medication-assisted substance use treatment (MAT) using methadone or suboxone (a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone).
Pernell said harm reduction is relying heavily on the faith community, as churches are in a good position to provide such resources to their local communities.
“I mean the one thing you cannot miss in North Carolina is the number of churches, right?” Pernell said.
Yates, along with co-worker Bryan Kendrick, was the day’s guest speaker. Yates and Kendrick work with the Guilford County harm reduction group GC STOP. At the start of the meeting, Yates read off some troubling statistics:
- There’s been a 110 percent increase in all medication and drug overdose deaths in N.C. over the past 10 years.
- In 2016, up to six North Carolinians died each day from unintentional medication or drug overdose deaths.
- Opioids were involved in about 80 percent of those deaths.
“As a social worker and as a sister of someone with a substance abuse disorder, I cannot emphasize how devastating that number is,” Yates said.
Finding the community resources
Kendrick, a former drug user and master’s student at UNC Greensboro, knows the area around the church well through his work in GC STOP.
“A lot of people live in the trees around this church and you’d never know,” he said. “And they all use.”
Drew McIntyre is the pastor at Grace UMC. He had previously attended a council breakfast on immigration with another church and was happy to invite them to UMC. He said he was pleasantly surprised to learn from the event just how many resources are out in the community.
“I think for us as a faith community, we have the opportunity to be a bridge to those resources, and to educate our folks to be more aware,” he said. “It was actually very helpful to know how many innovative things are going on, and that we can play one part in that big chain of help and reducing harm around this.”
The meetings with the faith leaders often include other guests such as law enforcement personnel, first responders, physicians and other providers and local leaders, who gather to ask questions and discuss interventions, as well as how to engage the faith community. A majority of the Greensboro breakfast was spent in question and answer format.
“I had one person who came to the event because she was worried about going to Walmart and touching a cart and dying from fentanyl,” Pernell said.
An attendee at the Greensboro breakfast asked about the risk of contracting hepatitis C when performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, another asked where to send congregants seeking help if they lack insurance.
And why people move from using opiates to heroin.
Olive Branch Ministry is a faith-based, harm reduction outreach organization founded in the foothills of NC in 2009. Their work in harm reduction encompasses syringe exchanges, Naloxone and Narcan distribution, peer support and justice center education.
Their operation includes the Gaston County Opioid Overdose Response Team, formed last year in partnership with emergency services and law enforcement. With patient permission, the ministry’s team of NC Certified Peer Support Specialists conducts follow-up visits with those treated for an overdose, and discussions and meetings can continue for several months if they seek it.
In 2016, Green Street United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem created the Twin City Harm Reduction Collective. This includes an active syringe exchange program as well as live streamed educational sessions on different areas of the opioid crisis and harm reduction methods on Facebook.
Pernell explained they hope to reach churches that aren’t comfortable with hosting needle exchanges by teaching other harm reduction methods, including medication take-backs or donating church vans that sit idle during the week to harm reduction organizations.
According to Pernell, one clergy member who had participated in a breakfast told her she now makes a special effort when she, as a part of her pastoral care, meets with her congregates who have had surgery, to discuss how they are managing their pain.
Brewington said harm reduction relates to her faith as a Christian.
“In the Bible, Jesus goes out and heals people, however, he doesn’t have them come to him, he meets them where they are, which is again, harm reduction,” she said.
Very welcoming, very judgmental
Pernell and Brewington said one barrier for Christians experiencing substance use issues is the stigma, something that came up when the pair presented to a capacity crowd of practitioners and pastors at the North Carolina Opioid Prevention Summit in June.
During the session, a treatment provider asked how to address the ostracization some church-goers feel when facing addiction. She said many people coming to her for help have waited for a long time and remain resistant to intervention. Often, they’ve been told by their families to “pray it away.”
“People wait forever to come get care because they’re waiting for God to lift this thing,” Pernell said, nodding.
She recommended church leaders focus on ending the stigma around drug use, reminding attendees the impact of opiates does not stop at the church door, noting that someone sitting beside you on Sunday service may be struggling with addiction or with a family member who uses substances.
“It is a powerful place that we find ourselves. It can be very welcoming, and it can be very judgmental,” Pernell said.
A list of stigma reducing language was provided in the breakfast meeting packet, as well as sample prayers and liturgies. Pernell said they often find at these breakfasts how overwhelmed pastors are, and how politically torn communities are.
“The most powerful thing you can do is share stories from people who use drugs,” she said.