Community leaders calling for churches to help address opioid epidemic

Holly Viers • Nov 14, 2017 at 5:30 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — As the opioid epidemic continues to plague the region, some community leaders are asking the faith community to help solve the problem.

To help build the alliance between clinicians, educators and the church, community and faith leaders gathered at Northeast State Community College on Tuesday to announce the Holy Friendship Summit, a two-day event that will create a long-term vision for beating the opioid crisis.

“The name is important, Holy Friendship Summit,” said Lottie Ryans, director of workforce and literacy initiatives for the First Tennessee Development District. “I think friendship is really what we want people to feel when they come to the summit, to understand that we are all trying to find solutions together in the region. It doesn’t matter what size church someone attends, what size their congregation is. We need everybody to reach out and help each other.”

The roots of addiction

One of the most important steps of remedying the opioid crisis, Ryans said, is to first understand how a person could become addicted to these medicines.

Becky Haas, development and implementer of community crime prevention programs at the Johnson City Police Department, said research indicates that childhood trauma is a big factor in determining whether someone may become an addict later in life.

In her work at the JCPD, Haas has seen an overwhelming response to the department’s new trauma-informed system of care, and she expects the Holy Friendship Summit will expand that progress.

“This event is bringing together clinicians and practitioners who understand the effects of trauma and the churches of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia that understand the healing power of God,” Haas said. “This combination is a dynamic formula for change.”

The church’s role in the solution

Marvin Cameron, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Kingsport, said he, like many other pastors in the region, has observed the deadly impact of the opioid crisis firsthand. He said Christians have two choices when it comes to addressing the problem: They can remain on the sidelines, or they can do what Jesus would do.

“We can act as Jesus did by learning everything we can about the enemy we face, but we need each other, and we need God’s help to win this battle on behalf of all of His children,” Cameron said. “No one church can do this alone. It will take every church and every Christian in our region working together with God’s help to save some of the neediest among us.”

Mark Hicks, associate pastor at State Street United Methodist Church in Bristol, Virginia, has already seen success with his church’s recovery program, Recovery at Bristol. As part of the program, a worship service is held every Thursday night that focuses solely on addiction recovery.

“When we launched the program in 2014, I was leading one of these worship services on Thursday night, and to my right, there was a very distinguished gentleman, a very successful businessman. He had just come from his office and was still wearing his coat and tie. A few feet from him on the same row, separated by only a couple of seats, there was a woman who was wearing everything she owned in this world. That image is a powerful image for me,” Hicks said. “I think it shows the scope of the problem, and I think it shows the nature of the solution.”

The Holy Friendship Summit

Andi Clements, professor and assistant chair of the department of psychology at East Tennessee State University, said the summit will cover several topics, such as understanding addiction from a biblical standpoint and weighing the pros and cons of various treatment options. It will also provide action steps for attendees to take as groups or as individuals.

“We’re going to offer everything from activities that whole churches can participate in to things that a single person would be able to do, things that are resource- and time-intensive to things that are very simple, baby steps,” Clements said. “So we want people to leave knowing that they have something in hand that they can go out and do right now.”

One of the guest speakers at the summit will be Farr Curlin, palliative care physician appointed to Duke Medical School and Duke Divinity School. Curlin believes partnerships between the medical community and the church are key to addressing the opioid crisis.

“Until now, clergy and laypeople have generally been able to look to healthcare professionals like me to tell them how to respond to pain … but the opioid crisis makes clear that pastors can no longer simply delegate this issue to the healthcare profession,” Curlin said. “Rather, every pastor needs to understand pain. Every pastor needs to understand how opioids work and needs to understand addiction so that they can help their people avoid becoming another casualty of the opioid crisis.”

The summit will be held May 18 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and May 19 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Celebration Church in Blountville. Early registration is $25 per person, and special rates for groups and students are available. For more information, visit www.holyfriendshipsummit.com.