I am a person in long-term recovery, and my passion is harm reduction!
What is harm reduction?
It is anything that keeps people safe. Seatbelts. Car seats. Helmets. All are harm reduction (HR). But, so are needle exchanges, fentanyl test strips, Narcan dispensers, and wound care kits. When addiction becomes involved, certain people become less supportive of harm reduction measures. It may seem obvious, but we have to keep people alive before we can help them. A key component of harm reduction is education. Supplies matter, but education changes the narrative. Educate the users, yes. But, more importantly, educate the legal and political systems, along with the general citizenship and the members of local congregations.
Harm reduction measures can be hard to get started in a community. Many people may think it is needed, but their attitude is “not in my back yard.” The thing about HR is that it has to be “hands on” to work. Harm reduction of any kind has to be a very active kind of service. Most of us are familiar with recovery groups, maybe meeting in our church basements. We know they are down there working on getting better, but we, as congregations, are pretty much “hands off” with their actual programs. As somebody in recovery, I am a part of both worlds. And we are not that far apart in reality. In fact, we upstairs in the sanctuary can learn a lot from those who are down in the basement.
- How “hands on” was Jesus’ ministry?
- Which of Jesus’ actions could be considered harm reduction?
- How do the two questions above relate to your congregational life?
The story of friendship Fairmont
In Fall 2019, some of us opened a new daytime drop-in service center for the unsheltered people in rural Fairmont, West Virginia. Our purpose was to be a one-stop shop for everything from housing referrals to personal hygiene items and backpacks full of snacks. We had named the place “Friendship Fairmont.” There was a director from a major medical non-profit who ran the place, and the rest of us were volunteers, mostly from local churches. We wanted to be a different kind of place from the usual community service center, trying to make life bearable for the poor and unsheltered in our rural community; and we found that difference in focusing on harm reduction.
The opening of Friendship Fairmont had been advertised for several weeks on social media and by word of mouth, and it was way past time for such a place. So, when we opened the response was pretty controversial. In rural North Central West Virginia, we not only face the usual issues that the whole state wrestles with daily, but there is also a dearth of hope of any kind. Like the adage says, “When you are all the way down, the only way to go is up.” The problem here is there is no up. Local leaders and businesses were not receptive to giving our unsheltered—including those dealing with substance use disorder (SUD)—a central location in which to gather. But we kept the faith and today Friendship Fairmont is a major part of our community.
People are so hungry for any kind of answer, any kind of help. It is no longer enough for a few churches to run food pantries a couple of days a week and send a “love offering” to the various community organizations that help the unsheltered and the poor when they can. We need to find different ways of both looking at, and solving, the problems we face in our communities. A step in the right direction is harm reduction. In fact, it has to be the very first step.
The main benefit we have to offer in the faith community for harm reduction is that there are churches everywhere. We have a ready-made distribution network in place already. With a little training and the ordering of the proper supplies, we can be ready for action in no time at all. And maybe, when we have helped keep our neighbors alive, we may just offer them a little hope.
The biggest problem we face in bringing that hope is stigma. We are going to have to change the way we see those in need of harm reduction in our communities. They are us. People suffering from addiction are not stupid. They sense the judgment when large groups come from a church to help them. Most of them avoid church for that very reason. It is not that they do not believe. It is that they are made to feel somewhat inferior for just needing the kind of help they need.
So, what can we do to make a difference as people of faith?
First, we need to educate ourselves on harm reduction. I have listed some books at the end of this post. More important than the reading, though, is talking with people already involved in harm reduction. People down in the trenches. Look around your community for groups that normally work with the unsheltered and those with substance use disorder as volunteers. They can show you whom to talk with.
Second, educate your fellow congregants. There may be some pushback, but you have to remain persistent. It is our duty to care for our communities. Lead the way yourself. Get out there and volunteer! And, finally, after learning how to start a harm reduction program … do it! You don’t have to have any sort of special skills, or medical degree. You just need to be devoted to following what Jesus said, and love your neighbor as yourself. Peace and all good to you!
For more information
- Undoing Drugs by Maia Szalavitz (Hachette Books, 2021)
Over the Influence (2nd Ed.) by Patt Denning and Jeannie Little (The Guilford Press, 2017)