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Asking the Clergy: How can houses of worship help opioid abusers?

From left, Richard Koral of the Ethical Humanist

From left, Richard Koral of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island in Garden City; Dr. Isma H. Chaudhry of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury; and the Rev. Margaret H. Allen of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook. Credit: Lyn Dobrin; Islamic Center of Long Island; Samantha Jack

Long Island’s opioid crisis has shown signs of abating this year with a sharp decrease in overdoses seen in Suffolk County, a trend officials attribute not only to local law enforcement measures, but to community outreach by nonprofit service groups to drug users. This week’s clergy discuss how their own religious communities attempt to offer nonjudgmental support, connections to treatment and spiritual guidance for individuals and families seeking relief from opioid addiction.

Richard Koral

Leader, Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island, Garden City

One of the challenges for our time is the terrible opioid crisis that burst upon our communities with a ferocity and a lethality that few people could have anticipated. There needs to be an “all hands on deck” urgency to grapple with the impact it has had on users, families, entire communities and especially the children upon whom so many of the consequences fall.

Faith communities can contribute to solutions. For example, many congregations have offered meeting space for peer-based recovery groups, such as 12-step programs. Our Ethical Humanist community hosts AA meetings and has conducted forums on this subject. But faith communities have other strengths to employ. Many people in recovery need emotional support and occasional practical support as they progress along the difficult path back to sobriety and health.

Many typically suffer from low self-esteem, loneliness and discouragement. Offering nonjudgmental acceptance, companionship and respect is invaluable. As relapses are a natural part of the recovery process, and the challenges of living do not abate right away, just knowing that one’s faith community will not abandon them can support the confidence and resiliency necessary to persevere.

Safe communities can also strive to instill ethical values and compassion in public policy. We have learned from long experience that the criminalization of addiction does not contribute to a cure. Skilled addiction treatment is necessary for restoring people to health. Faith communities have a unique and valuable role in offering holistic emotional support for recovery and reintegration.

Dr. Isma H. Chaudhry

Chair, Islamic Center of Long Island, Westbury

It’s usually very difficult for people dealing with addiction to turn to houses of worship for support because of fear of being judged and disgraced. The role of houses of worship should be based on empathy and compassion.

In the Muslim tradition, a mosque is not just a place for worship. It is the social hub and a robust, responsive brace for the community. Houses of worship and the clergy have a critical role in providing support for the families in need, and in fulfilling the role of safe space for community members. There should be a conscious effort on the part of the clergy and youth leaders to identify at-risk individuals and provide them with nonjudgmental support and resources to deal with addiction and mental illnesses. There should be a systematic follow up so that these individuals are not left alone to deal with addiction in isolation.

Houses of worship should work very closely with rehab centers and train their youth leaders and clergy to identify and support individuals with addiction challenges. They should have information on resources and training for proper follow-up. In this way, houses of worship can become active and reliable partners with other agencies recognizing and providing support for individuals dealing with mental-health issues and addiction.

The Rev. Margaret H. Allen

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook, East Setauket

Deaths due to opioid addiction are on the rise, especially among the white population, and especially among those using opioids for control of chronic physical pain. This suggests that there is more suffering than we want to acknowledge going on among folks we might otherwise assume have more opportunity for safety and prosperity in our country.

I find it helpful to think of drug addiction as a kind of distorted spiritual practice, an anti-spiritual practice, born of disconnection and desperation in an overwhelming field of personal suffering. We know that looking to opioids to address feelings of shame, fear, loneliness and loss of purpose and hope is futile and dangerous.

Our congregations can help by offering connection in a caring community and effective, time-tested spiritual practices that, regularly engaged, can begin to breathe new life into a tortured human spirit. Our congregations can serve as oases of revitalizing connection to others, to a lost self and to a source of inspiration, reassurance, gratitude and hope. We can help by serving as no-blame, no-shame sanctuaries for truth-telling, creating clear pathways to safe revelation about personal failures and struggles.

We can make information, resources and referrals available. We can help people learn to protect their precious bodies from the kinds of injuries that often result in chronic, debilitating pain. In weekly communal worship, in working for others, in study and support groups, in such embodied practices as meditation and tai chi, broken lives can be salved and saved.

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