Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Boston
By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Meeting the new, young-adult neighbors is becoming as easy as a walk in the park for many an urban congregation. What’s harder, though, is hearing how these neighbors ended up where they are: living on park benches, aimless in the prime of life, and ruthlessly addicted to hard drugs, especially heroin.
Just ask the Rev. Canon Cristina Rathbone, canon missioner for Boston’s Cathedral of St. Paul, which abuts Boston Common. She sees exploding numbers of homeless people in their 20s living on the Common, surviving from one inexpensive high to the next. They are the signs of a nationwide crisis arriving on the church’s doorstep.
“Typically young people come in during the warm months, then disappear and return again during the warm months,” Canon Rathbone said. “But last year and again this year, no one is going away. So there’s just this huge influx of young people, many of whom most likely wouldn’t have ended up on the streets at that age unless they’re struggling with very serious, very addictive, all-consuming drugs.”
Or ask the Rt. Rev. Robert Hirschfeld, Bishop of New Hampshire, who had his eyes opened recently in Manchester’s Victory Park near Grace Church. On a two-by-two walkabout with church members, he met opioid-addicted parents in their 20s, pushing children in strollers. He met prostitutes, school dropouts, and others who were disowned by their families as addictions came to run their lives. Lacking job skills and social capital, they tried hard drugs as an escape and their lives spiraled downward from there.
“We had to get over our fear of being outside of our church, but this is the neighborhood,” Bishop Hirschfeld said. “God is up to something. And I don’t know what God is up to right now, except to alert us to a real crisis that is destroying the dignity of God’s children.”
These church leaders are confronting what the Centers for Disease Control calls “Today’s Heroin Epidemic” in a July 2015 report. Its statistics point to a grim and growing problem:
- Heroin use among adults 18-25 has more than doubled in the past decade.
- On average, more than 230,000 adults under age 26 were using heroin yearly from 2011 to 2013.
- Heroin-related overdoses nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2013 and claimed 8,200 lives.
- In 28 states, deaths from heroin overdoses doubled from 2010 to 2012.
The heroin problem is growing fastest in the Midwest and Northeast, where those addicted to painkillers like Oxycontin find heroin can be cheaper and easier to access than prescription opioids. But it’s an expanding scourge in every U.S. region. It’s also part of a larger landscape of life-altering addictions that includes manufactured, high-potency drugs like methamphetamines and K2/spice, which imparts a legal, very addictive high for $1 or less.
Rates of chemical dependency that might have been under the radar a few years ago are now increasingly visible and troubling to Christians. They are seeing signs in places like Los Angeles, where the homeless population has skyrocketed 20 percent in the past year. Some are wondering how the Church might begin to address such a daunting situation, especially among an age group that the Church struggles to reach even when drugs aren’t involved. The first step for Jesus’ followers this time around, it seems, is listening.
“We said, ‘We’re from that church over there. Could you just tell us what’s going on here? Tell us about your life here in the park,’” Hirschfeld said. “It wasn’t: ‘Have you heard the message of Jesus?’ What they heard, maybe, was that the message of Jesus is that people were actually curious about their lives. We noticed, and we’re concerned.”
Urban centers draw the young and addicted from across Massachusetts and other states as they come seeking a place to sleep, eat, or purge the juice that’s been killing them.
But it’s often away from the public eye that Episcopalians have been working the frontlines. They are discovering what the church has to share with those who have deemed themselves hopeless, unloved, and unlovable.
In a remote corner of Plymouth, New Hampshire, addicts learn how to break the chains through a rigorous residency program called Plymouth House. Four weeks of robust devotion to the 12 steps of recovery gives many an alcoholic and drug addict a fighting chance at sustaining sobriety. For battle gear, many turn to God, and the Rev. Susan Ackley guides them in how to suit up.
An Episcopal priest who traded parish life for chaplaincy four years ago, Ackley has seen changes in Plymouth House’s clientele since she arrived in 2011. The residential population of 50 includes more and more adults in their 20s, most of whom have a heroin problem. In most cases they come from well-educated families, she said. Some have been to college.
“It’s mostly heroin because it’s cheap, it’s the drug of choice,” Ackley said. “The most amazing thing to me was that it’s not who you would expect. I kept thinking, these are like my children.”
At Plymouth House, many crave the heroin that they recently purged in detox, but they also crave what Ackley shares with them in Christ’s name. About 80 percent of residents turn out for her weekly eucharistic service, at which attendance is optional. During the service, they bow their heads for her to lay hands on them and pray for them. Some weep in that moment. Others are visibly moved when she preaches on Luke 15 and they hear about the shepherd who has 99 sheep, yet he still goes after the one that’s lost.
“Every time I preach that, there’s a huge reaction because they’re so filled with shame and guilt,” Ackley said. “To conceive of a higher power or God, who cared enough to leave the good guys behind and come and get you and carry you back.”
Heroin addicts might be drawn to the holy ritual, she said, noting that they are accustomed to rituals of their own involving needles and tourniquets. But in the Eucharist, they are bathed in assurance, through Word and sacrament, that God loves and forgives them. Some find the message hard to believe, especially if the Church has disappointed them before. Others find grace empowers them to live again with dignity and purpose.
Researchers at Florida Atlantic University say the Church can have a big role to play in creating the right conditions for overcoming addiction. A team of social-work scholars found the path to successful recovery involves attaining a sense of meaning and purpose. But how do addicts get there?
These scholars have proposed an untested model in which people in recovery have outlets for practicing creativity, serving others, and experiencing solitude, which could include prayer or other contemplative practices.
“We need to be cognizant that there’s more going on here than just showing up for church or synagogue or mosque or whatever it may be,” said Gail Horton, an associate professor of social work and coauthor of a paper in the Journal of Social Service Research. “What the church needs to do, if they really want to help people with addictions, is to somehow find ways to increase that spirituality piece, which is the purpose-and-meaning piece.”
Horton is a member of St. Paul’s Church in Delray, Florida. She noted that religious traditions are especially well-placed to help addicts when they offer grace rather than judgment. In her view, addicts need assurance of grace, which makes way for a renewed, reformed way of life. The Episcopal Church’s emphasis on sacraments and grace can perhaps foster the spirituality that addicts need.
As the Church begins to discern a call in the midst of today’s epidemic, those ministering in hotspots are focused on gathering, listening, and saving lives.
A community forum on the topic this fall in Laconia, New Hampshire, featured presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton on a panel inside the former St. James Church, which is now the Boys and Girls Club of the Lakes Region. A few miles to the southwest, in the depressed former mill town of Franklin, the former site of St. Jude’s Church, which was closed about 15 years ago, houses a food pantry.
“We’re considering moving back in and beginning something new with recovery as its main mission,” Bishop Hirschfeld said. “It’s not going to be a congregation in the old, traditional sense. It would be a congregation of whoever shows up and congregates.”
St. Paul’s Cathedral offered a safety training session in November that reflected the challenges of the times. The 30 in attendance ranged from diocesan staff and cathedral employees to homeless people from the surrounding streets. All learned how to administer Narcan (generic name: naloxone), a medication that reverses opioid overdoses. Narcan has become as important to the urban priest’s toolkit as it is to the concerned user whose friends tend to push the human body’s outermost limits when getting high.
For now, the faithful are learning how to leave their comfort zone, hear unsettling stories without rendering judgment, express God’s love, and save lives with Narcan whenever possible. It’s a start.
“It’s the first time we’ve done that training,” Canon Rathbone said. “It definitely won’t be the last.”