Faith community invited to help

Faith Partners, Blair Drug and Alcohol pair up for training to assist addicts

A faith initiative to address addiction — in all of its forms — is underway, and churches in Blair County are invited to take part in the training that will give faith leaders and congregations information to help people in need.

Blair Drug and Alcohol Partnerships has connected with Faith Partners to train the faith community to become a part of the solution to addiction, said Judy Rosser, executive director of Blair Drug and Alcohol Partnerships.

The first training session will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 26. A second session building on the first will be held this fall. A third session, which also will include the work being done in the congregations, will be held early next year.

Rosser said she’s had numerous people in the faith community talk to her about the opioid addiction crisis, as well as other addictions. These individuals expressed the desire to help, she said, but they didn’t know what to do.

That’s where Faith Partners can help, said executive director Drew Brooks.

Joining forces

By joining forces with the Minnesota-based Faith Partners, the Blair group hopes to train clergy and lay people on a variety of topics related to addiction. It’s not an overnight session, Brooks said, noting that the program usually takes about a year to complete.

Basically, Faith Partners teaches clergy and lay people how to create a safe place for those needing help and gives them the tools needed to offer that help.

Offering help can be as big or as small as the church wants, Rosser and Brooks said.

Brooks has learned there is a gap between the desire to help and the understanding of how to help.

According to a So Help Me God poll, 95 percent of clergy are working with addicted people, but only about 12 percent have any training.

“That’s a huge gap,” Brooks said.

That poll reaffirmed Faith Partners’ work to train clergy and lay people, because “people in the pews may be the experts,” he said. Most church congregations are made up people with a variety of life experiences — teachers, health care workers, people in recovery, people who have a family member or loved one who is addicted and more, he said.

Brooks admits the faith community is only one factor in a comprehensive approach to addiction, but “the faith community is ideal for prevention as it’s built around that.” If a church is intentional, it can be very influential in not only preventing people from becoming addicted but in helping people recover.

That recovery is a lifetime process, Brooks and Ryan Custead said.

Custead, director of Youth Ministries at Zion Lutheran Church in Hollidaysburg and board member of the Blair Drug and Alcohol Partnerships, is a recovering addict, as is Brooks.

“Recovery is something you do one day at a time. It’s about finding people who are going to help you make the next right decision, one decision at a time,” Custead said.

Church leaders and congregants who take part in the upcoming training will learn how to help without pushing people away.

That help could be as simple as sharing knowledge with the congregation to help break the stigma of addiction or it could be a bigger outreach into the community in the form of programs, meetings and missions work, Brooks and Custead said.

Clergy, lay people and congregations are not asked to do the work alone.

“This is a partnership. It is not about any particular church or denomination or organization. It’s about what we can do together as the capital C church in this community,” Custead said.

Hollidaysburg’s Zion Lutheran Church is uniquely positioned to help, Custead said.

Located near the Blair County Prison and a bus stop, the church has welcomed many visitors who stop in as they are leaving the prison and waiting for a bus. Oftentimes, those people don’t have a support system and have nowhere to turn, he said.

“There’s got to be a way to help. People are suffering, people are dying, families are falling apart,” Custead said. “There has to be something as Christians we can do.”

While Custead and others in the church reach out to help, they are looking to add to their repertoire. The upcoming training aims to help them be more confident in what they are trying to accomplish.

“We see people coming out of jail … waiting on the bus … in need of bus fare. We need to have a plan in place to point them in the right direction,” he said.

“You can’t make people take the first step, but you can point them in the right direction” and be there to support them as they make the journey to recovery, he said.

‘Monster in our Midst’

John Wells from Grace Bible Church, Hollidaysburg, is also taking part in the training session.

He’s been involved with Blair Drug and Alcohol as far as supporting families of loved ones with substance abuse, he said. As a retired veterinarian, he also has the medical knowledge to understand how the brain works on various substances and knows there is more to the problem than just not knowing when to stop.

Wells likens what happens to a person who becomes addicted to that of Seymour in the movie “Little Shop of Horrors.”

In the movie, Seymour discovers an unusual plant that he names Audrey II, which feeds only on human flesh and blood. The more he feeds it, the more it wants.

The same thing happens with individuals who are addicted.

“Their brain gets reprogrammed,” Wells said. “The substance inserts itself into the chemical pathways of the brain. It has that portion of the brain thinking that it needs it to survive,” he said. “And what started off as a little innocuous thing becomes larger than life … screaming to be fed … overriding all other morals. Everything is overridden by this urge to satisfy this bottomless pit of desire,” he said.

By taking part in the training, “We’re hoping to mobilize the Christian community in the area to start having an impact on the monster in our midst,” Wells said.

Because his church has about 800 people attending on Sunday mornings, statistically there has to be a number of families or individuals who have been touched by this problem, he said.

Once the church starts developing and publicly promoting the program, he hopes people step up to get help, whether they attend the church or not. The church hopes to create a program open to the community at large.

Addiction has a ripple effect in a community, he said, noting the individual is affected, which in turns affects the family dynamic and then the community.

“What we’re counting on is the opportunity to show the love of Jesus to those who have great need,” whether an individual or family, he said.

But churches want to avoid missteps and want to learn how to identify what they can do, which is part of the training, he said.

Relationships important

“Over the years, we’ve seen families and people at the church struggle with the drugs and all, and it hasn’t gotten much better,” said Associate Pastor Lou Hileman of Grace Bible Church.

“John has a real insight into all that,” Hileman said of Wells. “We believe that having Christ and having a relationship with God and God’s care of people is a very big part to help people feel valuable,” he said, adding God “won’t give up even if people in our lives give up.”

At the same time, Hileman said the church realizes that congregations lack expertise in addiction.

“We’re exited to develop something here to help,” he said.

Part of the Faith Partners program is learning a church’s and its individuals’ strengths and building on that to create teams that can help those in need.

Mixing those teams with resources provides an opportunity to reach far into the community.

All of those who spoke of becoming involved in the program said they hope to instill in people the love and compassion of Christ and his redeeming forgiveness.

But they also know they need to learn how to help without hurting.

“We found that not just in this area, you have families who are wanting to help, but not knowing they are hurting the situation,” Hileman said. “It will be good to get some direction that can be helpful in those areas.”

He also hopes to break the stigma of addiction and to encourage addicts to come forward.

The feeling that many people experience is that “everybody is looking at me.” In reality, though, whether someone is going through divorce, drugs or other situations, no one seems to pay attention for long, he said.

That’s actually a detriment to helping people recover, he added.

“I wish people would care longer. Your story comes and goes, and then no one is thinking about you any more. … I wish people would care longer. They’re still suffering through the affects of the drugs or alcohol in their family,” he said. “I think this (training) can create a culture where we stay engaged down the road; keep in touch.”

Getting started

The amount of commitment congregations want to make will be topics of conversation in churches as they embark on the training. Through surveys and other internal worksheets, each church will come up with a plan, an idea of how much it can realistically do, Brooks and Rosser said.

Perhaps the first step is to break the stigma of addiction, Wells said.

“A lot of people don’t want to seek help because they’re ashamed. If it’s a family member who is addicted; they feel they failed in teaching right from wrong. That stigma splashes over to families,” he said.

Wells said he hopes pastors can help educate the congregation on acceptance so that people who need help will come out into the open about the need. That will provide an opportunity for the church to be encouraging and to step forward with resources, support and whatever is needed in the situation.

Substance abuse and other addictive behaviors are chronicled in the Bible, and while there may be no way to win the war, “We can say, ‘We saved that one,'” Wells said.

Addictions, including drugs, alcohol, eating and shopping, are often approached like it’s happening out in the world, “but isn’t happening in the congregation,” Brooks said.

“It’s not OUT THERE, it’s everywhere. They are sitting right there in the pew, but they are also feeling alone,” he added.

“Congregations can be a powerful force in the community and in prevention efforts,” Brooks said. And, the faith community is the only sector that is intergenerational, giving access to parents, families, youth and older adults.

Addictions cross all denominations and all faith traditions, and so does the training, he emphasized.

“We address a shared humanity,” he said.

The deadline to register for the training is April 23. The cost is $100 per congregation.

For more information, contact Tricia Maceno at Blair Drug and Alcohol Partnerships at 381-0921 or email tmaceno@blair dap.org.

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