“I want to be a part of changing the conversation. Houses of worship should be powerful allies in fighting the opioid epidemic.”

Education & Health Equity | Clinton Global Initiative, Overdose Response Network

Hear from 4 changemaking faith leaders who are making a difference on the opioid epidemic

Faith leaders are an important source of support and information and can influence community-level attitudes and practices. As such, they are a vital part of the solution to confronting the opioid epidemic. In 2018, the Clinton Foundation began working to mobilize faith leaders in hard-hit cities such as Houston, Jacksonville, and Little Rock, in responding to the opioid epidemic in their communities by implementing strategies to build resilience and acting as conduits to recovery.

The Foundation’s network of over 50 faith leaders have received training on opioids and overdose prevention, became certified in Mental Health First Aid, learned how to speak about substance use disorders from the pulpit, developed comprehensive resource guides for their communities, and participated in National Prescription Drug Take-Back Days to collect thousands of pounds of expired or unused medications.

For National Recovery Month, we asked a few of our faith partners about why they got involved in fighting the opioid epidemic and how they are creating environments that are supportive of people in recovery.

Below, you’ll hear from:
· Rev. Melissa Maher — Lead Pastor, Mercy Street
· Tony Springer — Recovery Advocate Director, Mercy Street
· The Rev. Joanna Seibert, MD — Deacon at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
· Rabbi Jonathan Lubliner — Jacksonville Jewish Center

Why was it important for you to get involved in the Foundation’s interfaith initiative on opioids?

Melissa Maher: Places of worship and faith formation are by nature called to be “sanctuaries” or a safe harbor where we connect with God, one another, and ourselves. Too often, the stigma of addiction or substance use disorder keeps people from seeking help. I wanted to be a part of an interfaith dialogue to talk about how places of faith can be a part of the response. Not just reacting to the opioid epidemic, but actively engaging to be catalysts for awareness and change.

Tony Springer: In our community, the opioid crisis hit hard. I lost 14 people last year. Anything we can do to help seems important. This initiative has been a way to find more effective approaches to not only address the opioid crisis but all of recovery.

Joanna Seibert: To learn and share ideas with other faith leaders about how the church can respond to the opioid crisis.

Jonathan Lubliner: I have watched the growing toll of the opioid epidemic on members of my own community. Houses of worship are not impervious; indeed, they are poignant reminders that addiction is no respecter of persons based on religion, income, race, age, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Sadly, religious communities, which are on the ground floor of offering support, are sometimes suffused with the most judgmental of cultures, as if religiously committed families are immune. I want to be a part of changing the conversation. Houses of worship should be powerful allies in fighting the opioid epidemic.

What are one or two ways that you work to address the opioid crisis and other substance use challenges in your community?

Melissa Maher: We have a robust community of individuals in long-term recovery who can speak to the many pathways of treatment and recovery. We also are frequently participating in city-wide conversations in Houston to impact change in perception and policy. The printable resource guide that we created as part of this initiative helped us at Mercy Street further solidify our unique position to be a resource for peer support. In April, we organized a drug take back event which offered the community a safe, secure location to dispose of expired or unneeded prescription drugs.

Joanna Seibert: We invited a speaker from this initiative to come and talk to our congregation as part of a health and wellness series this summer. The speaker presented on the opioid crisis, the risks associated with misuse, and showed us how to save a life with naloxone.

Jonathan Lubliner: I have spoken from the pulpit on the opioid crisis — especially about how the associated shame and stigma serves as an obstacle to seeking treatment. I keep the outer box of a Narcan dispenser on the desk in my study, which serves as a conversation piece to stimulate conversation and discussion. I have also used 12-step materials in our adult education programming. I am a big believer that the 12-steps are a very useful spiritual tool for all people seeking to improve their spiritual lives and relationships, not just those who suffer from substance use disorders. I don’t believe faith leaders can solve the opioid crisis alone, but I am convinced we can do much to dent the wall of shame that discourages people from seeking treatment.

How are you creating a supportive environment in your place of worship for those in recovery?

Melissa Maher: Our church consists of 60% of people in recovery and an entire congregation where we are all in recovery from life. Our weekly worship gathering provides a space to celebrate milestones in life, including recovery anniversaries. After worship, we offer peer support groups including Narcotics Anonymous, Spirituality and Recovery, and a group for people living with mental health challenges. In addition, we are active in networks and coalitions for the work of recovery across Houston.

Tony Springer: During our service, we do a period of celebrations when people can share about the successes or difficulties, they have with substance use or mental illness. These celebrations allow the community to be more vulnerable and share what they are going through. This the glue at Mercy Street. It’s what kept bringing me back to Mercy Street. We give hope by sharing personal experiences of where we were and where we are today. You see people from all walks of life, and it gives you a different perspective of what addiction is. It’s a disease — a health issue. It’s amazing for people who suffer with a substance use disorder to know they are not alone.

We also have a spirituality and recovery meeting each week. People in recovery discuss the topic of the sermon and how it relates to their own personal recovery. A lot of times during a church service, you’re listening, nodding your head like you understand, but to have an outlet to unpack what was discussed, go further and see the direct relationship it has to your personal recovery — it allows you to put your own personal stamp or response on what you heard that night, how it relates to you and allows you to have personal growth.

Joanna Seibert: We have a 12-step eucharist every month to let people in recovery know we are supportive of them. It also lets people in the congregation who are not in recovery know that the recovery process is a spiritual journey. We also have a recovery Sunday where a speaker comes in to talk about addiction and provide information on available resources. We also have a yearly retreat for active members in recovery about ways to practice the 11th step of recovery, which is prayer and meditation.

Jonathan Lubliner: Nothing is more important for faith leaders to accomplish than to remove the stigma and shame from seeking treatment. At my synagogue, we are in the process, of creating a local Narcotics Anonymous group and have sponsored various educational programs about addiction for the community. Visibility is important; building on relationships of trust with those in recovery is also VERY vital. The more that those touched by the opioid crisis know that a place of worship is truly a safe and caring place, the more they can help articulate that message to others.