Reconciliation House in Webster, Massachusetts, will open soon as a home for former inmates. • Janice Ford photo

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

For the Rev. Janice Ford, America’s opioid crisis is no abstract issue. For nearly four years, she’s been leading Bible studies and offering spiritual direction among men at Worcester County House of Correction in West Boylston, Massachusetts, where the majority of inmates struggle with addiction. When they are freed, they run a big risk of relapse.

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“They’ve had a year to a year-and-a-half of sobriety, depending on the length of their sentence, but many of them have nowhere to go,” Ford said. “Going back to the environment they came from is not helpful at all for them. It’s not a good influence.”

That frontline experience has convinced Ford that medical professionals are not the only ones with a key role to play in defeating the epidemic, which claimed more than 28,000 American lives in 2014. She believes congregations can be pivotal, too, in helping reduce relapse rates. And growing numbers of congregations are keen to prove her right.

As many as two dozen clergy have been turning out for sessions of Ford’s traveling workshop, “Spiritual Care for the Addicted,” which she’s been offering at sites around Massachusetts since last year. Meanwhile, her parish — Church of the Reconciliation in Webster — is turning its former rectory into a transitional home for six newly released ex-convicts who are determined to stay off drugs, including such opioids as the prescription painkiller Oxycontin and heroin.

“We want it to be a recovery house that is an expression of God’s love,” Ford said. “However we can do that is what we’ll do.”

In supporting recovery from opioids, Church of the Reconciliation is part a fledgling movement in the Episcopal Church. Congregations are finding that much of what recovering addicts need, from a loving community to referrals for services, can be delivered through a local church. Philosophies and methods vary somewhat, but all agree the church has much to offer. Many are in the early learning stages with hopes of diving in.

“People are hungry for how to respond compassionately to those on the margins in their cities, but they don’t know where to begin,” said Ruby Takuski, program director at Recovery Café, a Seattle center that welcomes homeless addicts and traces its roots to a young local church.

After intensifying for a decade, the opioid crisis is triggering public-health alarms and calls for community groups, including churches, to be more involved. The White House reported in February that America’s heroin death rate quadrupled from 2002 to 2013. Every day, 44 Americans die from prescription opioids. The problem is national but growing fastest in the Midwest and among white men under age 44, according to a 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In answering the call, Episcopal congregations build on heightened awareness of addiction both within and outside of the church. After the now-deposed Heather Cook killed a cyclist in a drunken driving incident last year, while serving as Suffragan Bishop of Maryland, attendance doubled to 200 at the annual Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church (RMEC) conference.

General Convention last year passed resolutions to encourage best practices for supporting people in recovery. Now congregations are going beyond hosting addiction-support group meetings in their buildings and taking more proactive steps.

Jan Brown, vice president of the RMEC, visits parishes in the Diocese of Southern Virginia, training teams of clergy and laypeople in how to tell when someone is struggling with addiction and what to do. Among the signs of alcoholism: increased family conflict, serial job losses, and alcohol on the breath during ordinary activities.

With opioids, telltale signs include nodding off at inappropriate times and acts of petty theft, including stealing medications. Brown trains church leaders, parents’ groups, and others in how to spot signs of overdose and to administer Naloxone, a drug that can restore vital functions. The Diocese of Southern Virginia is considering whether to equip all its parishes with kits that include injectable Naloxone.

“We need to frame addiction within the church as a safety and risk-management issue,” Brown said. “If it’s looked at as a safety-management challenge, recovery becomes the expectation instead of something that’s rare or unusual.”

Brown reassures congregations that they can save lives and should not hesitate to do so. She confronts what she calls the myth that says a person must hit rock bottom and truly want to change before anyone can help. By then it’s often too late; the person is apt to die first. Instead, a Christian’s love of neighbor can inspire a wake-up call.

“If you’re a counselor or a physician in the community, you have to wait until that person comes to you and seeks help,” Brown said. “But part of my Baptismal Covenant says that I’m supposed to tend the sick. And if I know that somebody is sick, then I believe that we as a church have a responsibility to take that on and not wait until the sick person approaches us.”

A prayerful walk can help addicts manage cravings and stay sober by complementing secular techniques, according to Charlotte Day, director of the Christian program at Ocean Breeze Recovery, a Florida treatment center that offers a Christian track among its options.

Day offers an example: Psychological treatment encourages the addict to feel capable of resisting temptation. The Christian approach accepts that premise entirely and augments it with Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Day encourages addicts in recovery to write out that verse and others so they can read them anytime they feel overwhelmed by temptation.

She also encourages congregations to be clearinghouses for resources. Among her tips:

  • Know where to steer addicts who need treatment beds and medical intervention.
  • Host support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous or Celebrate Recovery.
  • Convene a regular prayer session for addicts’ families.
  • Do not allow fear of addicted persons to make your community unwelcoming.
  • Follow the lead of churches that no longer shun addicts but instead embrace them as broken souls in need of healing grace, just like everybody else.

“That’s the main complaint that I hear from [addicted] people: ‘I went to church and I was shunned,’” Day said. “Or they say: ‘I went to church and they didn’t know what to do with me,’ or ‘I went to church and they kicked me out because I couldn’t stop using drugs.’ I’ve heard that a lot over the years. And I think now the churches are changing with much greater awareness.”

In Seattle, more than 400 volunteers (including many from congregations) operate Recovery Café, which provides food and programming for homeless individuals daily from noon to 6:30. The café’s 350 members are mostly addicts who have been homeless and have made a few basic commitments. A person has been sober for 24 hours, attends a weekly support group, and helps out with café chores, has full member benefits, including meals, a warm and dry place to relax, and programs from yoga to 12-step groups.

The café functions as a therapeutic community but not as a treatment provider. On site is a local resource expert who steers members to any medical, counseling, or social work services they might need offsite.

“Treatment in the medical system is: come, get diagnosed, get treatment, get better, and then go,” Takuski said. “Our model is: come and stay. Come and rebuild your life, build relationships, and become family. So when you come into our place, it’s a community center but it’s also — it’s like church without the church label.”

Takuski says a community can launch a Recovery Café with as few as four staff people plus volunteers. The Seattle group is replicating its model: about 15 groups have visited in the past two years with hopes of launching a Recovery Café in their communities. New ones have cropped up in San Jose, California, and Everett, Washington. Among those exploring an East Coast site is the Diocese of New Hampshire, which serves a region hit hard by the opioid epidemic.

Every Monday morning at 8:30, a group gathers at Diocesan House in Concord to pray about the crisis and listen for God’s voice. They are discerning a possible call to establish a Recovery Café in the economically depressed town of Franklin on the former site of St. Jude’s Church.

“One of the things we found is that there’s a lot of people coming in and saying, ‘this is the way you have to do it, and if you don’t do it this way, then you’re going to fail,’” said Steve Eckerberg, a Diocese of New Hampshire seminarian who leads the prayer group. “There’s a lot of ego and attitude. We’re really trying to be prayerful, slowing down, and listening to where is God calling us and how can we partner with God.”

The diocese is considering various options for the St. Jude site, but the main idea is to create a place where addicts in recovery can find the love and support they need to sustain a healthy lifestyle for the long haul.

Sandi Albom of Grace Episcopal Church in Manchester expects no one will preach or help addicts build a relationship with Christ there. But they will partake of the church’s gift for fostering relationships while also steering people to resources.

“When they come out of treatment programs without continuing support in the community, the likelihood of recidivism is really high,” said Albom, who is a nurse. “So we’re looking to see, where does the Church fit in there? Because if the Church with a big ‘C’ knows anything, it’s about creating community.”

Back in Webster, Church of the Reconciliation takes a different approach. The former rectory is expected to open by September as a home to former inmates, most likely individuals whom Ford knows from her work at the Worcester County Jail.

With a $50,000 annual operating budget, Reconciliation House will have a live-in manager, whose salary and benefits will be covered by residents’ rent payments of $125 per week. Community fundraisers are expected to generate the remaining $14,000 needed for utilities and maintenance.

To qualify, former inmates will need to make a few commitments. They will resolve to follow Christ, participate in congregational life at Reconciliation, attend support-group meetings daily, seek or retain gainful employment, and stay sober. If they live by those codes, they can spend six to nine months at Reconciliation House. Ford aims to create a template for other congregations to use in replicating the model.

“Not every parish can do this, but I think there are many that probably could if they had a template, a guide, or someone to help them,” Ford said. “It is a lot of work, but it’s definitely worth it. And it’s definitely the work of the church. It’s a way for us to be the church in a new and exciting way that helps people who need help the most.”

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