Folks of faith come together to address opioid crisis

Rick Wagner • May 18, 2018 at 7:30 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — The faith and church community of the region came together Friday, with about 450 people participating in a summit focused on the opioid crisis. 

Along with health care professionals, officials from various religious denominations and other groups from Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, Western North Carolina and as far away as Indiana attended. Called the Holy Friendship Summit: Healing the Heart of Southern Appalachia, the event was held at Celebration Church off Exit 66 of Interstate 81.

The summit continues Saturday. Registration costs $30 and can completed at holyfriendshipsummit.com or at the door. 


In a session called “What to Do With Pain,” Dr. Ray Barfield, a faculty member of Duke’s medical and divinity schools, said that for folks who find themselves in pain or addicted to opioids, “the real solution that everything else is in service to is a spiritual solution.”

In most any 12-step program, he said, step 1 is admitting a drug has power over you and steps 2-12 are more or less spiritual. 

“That is a place the church can speak powerfully,” Barfield said.

He said those addicted to opioids and other drugs many times face chronic pain and shame.


Among the event’s Steering Committee members, Susan LaGuardia of Kingsport, initiatives manager for the United Way of Great Kingsport, said the faith efforts dovetail with United Way’s Drug Task Force formed 18 months ago.

She noted that neonatal abstinence syndrome is high among Northeast Tennessee newborns.

She said the Holy Friendship Summit began with a group including Roger Leonard of Bristol, a Duke University graduate and former Wellmont Health System board chairman, and Dr. Farr Curlin, a native Tennessean and co-director of the Theology, Medicine and Culture Initiative at Duke, also a Steering Committee member.

LaGuardia said the idea is to look at “what can Christians do about this” crisis.

Lottie Ryans, First Tennessee Development District director of workforce initiatives, said she first heard about the opioid crisis at a book club and said it is something economic development efforts need to address since 70 percent of those addicted are in the work force. It’s also something the 12,000 faith-based organizations in Tennessee want to address, with the summit providing practical ways churches can help.

“Opioid addiction is a prerequisite for a lot of behaviors that drive people into the criminal justice system,” said Wally Boyd of Kingsport, chairman of the former ad hoc Sullivan County Jail Committee and former Kingsport school board member.

 “They’re not just in jail for doing drugs.”

Instead, Boyd said, of up to 700 jail inmates, only 20 are there charged with drug use. “The rest were the criminal actions to get or keep the drugs or their behavior while on the drugs.”

LaGuardia said drugs are related to about 80 percent of inmate incarceration. Boyd said that’s why county officials are looking at building a small hospital in a jail expansion or construction to serve as a rehabilitation facility.

“The church has been surprised by the opioid additions. We’re not immune to that,” Boyd said. He said it will take God, each other and clinicians to overcame the epidemic and that Christ’s instruction for the church mandates that it get involved.

LaGuardia said individual churches can work with those addicted to opioids as well as with other churches to help.

“It’s not a moral failure,” LaGuardia said. “I’m convinced opioid addition is a disease.”


Out of the summit will grow a resource guide, to be written by Katelyn Beaty, who will speak Saturday, for pastors and lay church members to use in helping overcome the opioid crisis, Steering Committee members said.

The sponsors of the event are Ballad Health, Chick-fil-A, Gregory Pharmaceutical Holdings Inc., BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Jacqueline F. Leonard in memory of Frank Leonard, State Street United Methodist Church, the Kingsport Times News, Johnson City Press and Bristol Herald Courier.

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