A couple of years ago, my church was wondering how we could respond to the opioid crisis in our region, when a new group approached us. They wanted to offer peer-to-peer recovery support for folks with substance use disorder. It was the perfect match: we had the space, they had the knowledge, and we all looked at the situation as ministry. Not as evangelism, but as ministry: as doing the work of caring for the world that God loves. Feeding, housing, listening; seeking healthcare and employment and justice.
Nearly two years later, the recovery organization has expanded within our shared space. Our coffee hour now takes place among their posters and couches and schedule of activities; their outreach sometimes happens during our pancake breakfasts. We have learned from one another and partnered together in ways that feel both natural and amazing.
Nearly two years later, the surrounding community decided our partnership was harmful, and petitioned the city to make the church cease and desist its ministry to people with substance use disorder, and to make the recovery organization move away from downtown. We were, according to the petitioners, recruiting « junkies » and homeless people into the area. We were causing a rise in crime, an uptick in discarded syringes in the street. The local and regional media wrote story after story, scandalized by our relationships with « those people ».
I have never been so proud of my church and our partners.
As the situation played out, one reporter asked me to comment on the petitioners’ motivations. Couldn’t I understand that a single mother with young children would want her neighborhood to be safe?
I’m a divorced mom. I live near my church. I know what it is to find syringes. I know that my younger kids’ school has someone sweep the perimeter of the playground with a metal detector daily, looking for paraphernalia. I know that some of their classmates have family members who use illegal substances. I know that the mom who started the petition has hopes and dreams for her children that are probably not much different than my own.
But I also know that “those people” are also the children of worried parents. I know that members of my church have been directly impacted by the opioid crisis. I know that my neighbors have watched their daughter struggle mightily with her own addiction to heroin. I know that every time a parent like the petitioner cries, “think of the children!” they don’t mean these children, the ones who come into my church seeking support and compassion and treatment.
She may not mean these children, but I know that God does.
I know that God sees the children of all ages whose pain and fear leads to self-medication. I know God sees the children who are shamed and stigmatized because of their substance use. I know God holds them close through all the struggles of substance use disorder. I know that God does not abandon God’s beloved children.
And I know that God holds their parents tenderly, for God knows what it is to watch one’s own child suffer and die alone.
How can we, who profess to follow the God of compassion, do any less? How can we say that our own children are more worthy of care than the children God holds fast? Our call is to care for the least of these, as though they were God’s child, as though they were our own. Our ministry is to put recovery services in places where people can access them; it is to reduce stigma and break down shame until we see every individual as a child of God, worthy of love and compassion. Our ministry is to see these children through the eyes of God.
I do “think of the children.” I think of my own, and hope that they will never use illegal substances. But if they do, I think of how I would want the world to treat them: with mercy and love, as children of God, able to access networks of support and treatment in their own community.
This is our ministry. This is our call. This is how we can be the church in our community – the church to our community – here and now.
Rev. Eliza Tweedy is Senior Pastor of First Church Congregational in Rochester, NH. She blogs at sermonizing.wordpress.com
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