Opioid crisis calls for faith response

08.29.19 | Advocacy and Action, Wellness and Missions | by Melissa Lauber

    “We may not be the best qualified to do this, but we are the ones who are here and have the responsibility of doing it. We can’t wait until the best ones come along. Right now, in this place, at this time, we are the best qualified ones to do it.” – Bishop Clifton Ives

     By Melissa Lauber

     In the Vietnam War, 58,250 Americans died. In 2017, more an 72,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses. “We are losing a Vietnam War every year,” said the Rev. Barry Ball, at the Baltimore-Washington Conference Opioid Townhall meeting March 9 at Harmony UMC in Marlowe, W.Va.

    “And this number is small,” said Ball. “This is just the deaths. People are being removed from participating in society in much larger numbers.”

    Alarmed at the wide-spread epidemic of addiction to opioids sweeping the Baltimore-Washington Conference and the nation, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling called a townhall meeting to discuss the church’s response.

    She intentionally set the meeting in the Western Region. In 2017, West Virginia had the highest rate of deaths due to drug overdose. She also chose Ball, an ordained Elder who works with the National Drug Enforcement Administration in Hagerstown, to lead the conversation and walk participants through some of the background of opioids, addiction, and his own experiences in ministries of recovery, hope and healing.

    Ball began by explaining how, since ancient times, opium has been collected from poppies; how when you take opium into the lab, it can be transformed in morphine; and how the Bayer company made a better, less addictive painkiller when it created heroin. In recent years, he said, popular culture discovered fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller created in Belgium in the 1960’s, reported to be 50 times more powerful than heroin.

    While cocaine and meth get your heart going, opioids create a euphoric rush and then slow the heart and respiratory system down. An overdose causes people to stop breathing. “It’s not a violent death,” Ball said. “You lay down and die in your sleep.”

    He went on to explain science behind addiction, the workings of neurotransmitters, and the many roads into addiction and the many roads out.

    “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety,” Ball said. “The opposite of addiction is connection.”

    And that, he believes, is where the church comes in.

    “We can let people know they are known and loved,” he said. “If that’s not a field for the church to be in, I don’t know what is.”

    Ball offered a number of words of advice for churches wanting to become involved in opioid addiction-related ministries. Including:

    • Start small. All ministries start small.
    • Anything the church can do to connect with someone is a start. Knowing someone’s name is a first step.
    • One of the best places to go is your drug court. Meet the judge and some social workers, they’re often desperate for help and for people to be mentors.
    • Some of these people are dangerous. Don’t invite people you don’t know who are actively involved in drug use into your home. Meet at church or another location.
    • Recognize this is not a United Methodist problem. The severity of the opioid epidemic is breaking down walls and silos as people feel compelled to work together. Partner.
    • An empty parsonage can make a good recovery house.
    • You don’t have to look outside your church to do this ministry. Start by having an open forum and letting people come and talk.

     For Ball, one of the most meaningful ministries is working with drug-endangered children.

    In his work, he once was on a raid where agents kick in the door of a house in Hagerstown. There were used needles all over the floor. As they came through the door, they were met by a little girl. In that home, a dead man was sprawled in the bathtub. At about 1:30 a.m., the girl and her brother were taken to a hotel and at 7 a.m. Ball picked the children up to take them to school.

    Looking back, her berates himself for expecting them to perform normally and for not fully realizing their trauma.

    “We don’t know the hell some of these drug-endangered children live through,” he said. “Their fight or flight reflex is on at all times. What if we went out of the sanctuary and into classrooms and mentored them?”

    Churches, Ball warned, want a successful program within a year. But ministry takes time and realistic expectations need to be set.

    “Think of yourselves as missionaries in your own community,” he said. “Help birth one of these programs. Take baby steps to be the hand and feet of Christ Take an initial step into making a concrete difference. … We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”