Monday, February 19, 2018

The 21st Century Lepers -- by Leo Yates Jr.

The 21st Century Lepers: Opioid Addicts

By Rev. Leo Yates, Jr.

The opioid epidemic is a global problem that affects individuals, families, communities, churches, and society in general. According to a Market Watch 2017 article, opioid addiction costs the U.S. $500 billion a year. Part of the problem with opioid addiction is that when these drugs are taken regularly, the body builds a tolerance in which the low dose will no longer be as effective and a higher dose is needed to receive the same effect.

Opioid addiction infiltrated the church many years ago. Once, this writer walked into the church’s men's bathroom and caught a person sniffing (inhaling) heroin. Despite the personal, family, and financial costs of using or abusing opioids, there are often reasons why individuals use or abuse opioids. One significant reason is experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Another reason is self-medication (it provides a sense of detachment from emotional pain). Not surprising, some develop mental health symptoms due to the dependence, the addiction, or the potential problems associated with it. Still another reason is it provides relief from pain, while another is lacking the needed supports.

As with other addictions, opioid abuse often occurs because the individual (mistakenly) turns to it as a way to cope with underlying problems and everyday life stressors. This is why most addiction counseling includes teaching natural and healthier coping strategies as a part of treatment.

It seems most churches and faith leaders are at a loss for what to do when confronted with addiction, let alone opioid addiction. Talking in biblical terms, opioid addicts are the 21st century lepers: they are often shunned, mistreated, and/or ignored in our communities, including our faith communities. This mostly comes from stigma, our attitudes, and our values. While most of us see them as lepers, some addicts see themselves as lepers due to internalizing societal biases and shame, which often compounds the social isolation they face. From a Christian ethics perspective, it is our Christian responsibility to provide care and mercy to these individuals and their families while not mistakenly enabling the problem. However, not knowing what to do does not absolve us from our Christian responsibility.

In a former church appointment, I had a parishioner who was on methadone medication temporarily until she was stabilized, had therapy, and was able rebuild her support system, which included building relationships with her church family. While the church cannot do anything specifically for the withdrawal, it was able to love her, model unconditional love, and support her family while she pulled herself together. She has come a long way since her heroin days, even to the point of being a faith leader in her church. This is how Christ would have them do it. Another parishioner relapsed twice, was arrested and went to jail for several months. During that time, he was visited by church members, prayed for, and his family was supported. He returned to church after his release. Again, unconditional love. His particular relapse wasn't due to withdrawal, it was due to unresolved issues and emotional pain. For one, the passing of his mother while he was a child led to a complicated cycle of grief. He also learned to take seriously the life of recovery (it's a life-time commitment and lifestyle).

How does the church get involved or begin the conversation of having an addictions recovery ministry? It often starts with developing awareness, having knowledge, and developing sensitivity. This can begin with a sermon series, a Bible study, posting articles on the church bulletin board, and including bulletin inserts about overdoses or general drug awareness. When it comes to addiction recovery, focusing on prevention, treatment, and after-care are considered. Remember, stopping drug use is not the same as recovery, which can be complicated due, for instance, to doctors over-prescribing opioid medications and/or abruptly stopping the medication.

There are many ministry ideas churches can consider doing. Some include:


  • Teaching awareness with youth groups 1 or more times a month. 
  • Teaching awareness with older adult ministries and groups (older adults are the fastest growing population for addiction). 
  • Hosting community awareness trainings including overdose prevention. Have addiction recovery observances and celebrations (e.g. International Overdose Awareness Day is Aug 31 and September is National Recovery Month). 
  • Do a sermon series on the various addictions. 
  • Opioids are often cheaper than other pain relief drugs and people with limited incomes or who lack insurance become trapped. Work for economic justice in medical care and drug prices. 


  • Begin a bi-monthly or monthly grief support group for your community to support for family members who lost a loved one to an overdose. You can promote this at ERs and funeral homes. 
  • Adopt a recovery house near you; this might include bringing weekly meals, hosting a Bible study at the house, keeping them in prayer, and/or inviting them to church-related activities. This helps the residents know they're loved and that people care. 
  • Adopt a drug treatment center. For instance, this ministry focuses on those working on the front lines, such as the counselors and staff. Show them love and encouragement by bringing weekly coffee and donuts for them. Some facilities may have staff who would be welcome to a moment of prayer. Certainly keep them in prayer, as addiction work is a burnout field. 
  • Extend hospitality. Some churches have coat closets and food pantries. Offer these ministries to drug treatment centers as resource to share with clients. 
  • Provide referrals to human service agencies, social services, and drug treatment centers. In most areas, dialing 211 can get you to a referral line for such referrals. 

Recovery Focused:

  • Become a recovery-focused church by becoming a recovery church. Contact AA, NA, and other 12 Step groups to come host their meetings at your church. Extend hospitality to them by offering refreshments. 
  • Begin a Celebrate Recovery meeting, which focuses on both the addict and the family member. 
  • Host an annual revival that includes hearing testimonies. 
  • Have a Recovery Sunday. 
  • Begin a recovery ministry that includes pastoral support, training individuals in techniques such as motivational interviewing, having monthly prayer vigils, and regular general drug awareness. 
The lepers in Christ's time had names, just like they do in ours. These 21st century lepers should not be shunned (or labeled lepers), but they should be loved and reminded they are children of God. Jesus emphasized our need to care for others throughout the gospels (e.g. Matthew 25:34-40). The church needs to be the church and offer the hand of Christ.

* Rev. Leo Yates, Jr. is a provisional deacon and a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor serving in the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

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