We’d been saving each other for years

By Blyth Barnow

In 2017 over 72,000 people died of an overdose.

There has been so much grief. So much unnecessary loss.

I was 20 on the day of my ex’s funeral. He was 22. He’d overdosed at the local Motel 6.

We sat quiet and still in that church. Cold, a bit emptier inside. And so the pastor’s words had room to echo through us when he softly lamented just how easily my ex could have avoided going to hell. It echoed through us when he condemned us to the same fate.

He told us that only the altar could save us. But we knew better.

See, we had been saving each other for years.

Maybe our families kicked us out, our schools, our churches, but we remained. We loved each other through rehab, relapse, poverty, death.

We knew better. And what that pastor did that day, it was not the work of the Gospel. Shame is never the work of the Gospel. Because it is death-dealing and not life-giving.

I know we are still in Lent, but Easter is my favorite holiday. I love it because it reminds me to honor and celebrate the simple and profound ways that people resurrect their lives every day. People change, they come back from the brink, they strive to bring their communities back to life. Everyday people defy the destructive forces of the world by choosing dignity, grace, and connection. It is worthy of our celebration.

And I think it’s what that pastor forgot that day. What too many of us have forgotten: Christians are called to be an Easter people. A resurrection people.

Perhaps that is why their church is dying.

Naloxone, which is also sometimes called Narcan, is a medication that blocks the effects of opiates like vicodin, oxycontin, heroin, and fentanyl. Its ability to block opiates means that it can be used to stop or reverse an opiate overdose. It saves lives. It’s easy to use, low risk, and comes in 3 forms. You can get it as an injection, a nasal spray, and most recently an auto injector, which has a voice recording that walks you through all the necessary steps.

But even among a media frenzy about the new opiate overdose crisis (which is not actually new to communities of color, working class communities, or those living on the streets) many people still don’t know that Naloxone exists or how to use it.

Harm Reduction has sometimes been controversial. But it shouldn’t be. Certainly not in churches.

“Harm reduction refers to policies, programmes and practices that aim to minimise negative health, social and legal impacts associated with drug use, drug policies and drug laws. Harm reduction is grounded in justice and human rights – it focuses on positive change and on working with people without judgement, coercion, discrimination, or requiring that they stop using drugs as a precondition of support. (Harm Reduction International)”

Simply put, it is meeting people where they are at and supporting them in keeping themselves as safe, healthy, and connected as possible. Without the condition of their sobriety.

Theologically put, it is the unconditional love of God. The love of neighbor. The work of the Gospel.

Those  doing overdose prevention work have handed out countless doses of naloxone. Collectively, they have helped save thousands of lives. But those lives were not saved by police or paramedics. They were saved by drug users. The vast majority of overdose reversals are completed by people who use drugs.

So if the church is the body of Christ, and the body of Christ is the people, than who is it that is really saving our church?

Drug users have been doing the gospel work that the church has been avoiding. They have been preaching resurrection. And we are missing it. Worse than that, often we are making it harder.

We make it harder, when we attach shame, stigma, and yes, sin, to issues of drug use and addiction.

We make it harder when we suggest that connection to God requires our purity.

We make it harder, when we treat people who use drugs like the “other”, instead of like a child of God and a part of our family.

We make it harder when we draw distinctions between the saved and the lost. As if we aren’t always both.

And we make it harder when we allow people to use words like Junkie without objection because we know that God does not make junk.

After all, scripture teaches us that when you sit in the mess, when you do not leave someone to die alone on their cross, when instead you sit at the foot of it and are willing to accompany them to the tomb, then you are there to be first witness to resurrection.

It’s not easy. Or simple. Not everyone lives. Sometimes the tomb stays sealed. And always there is grief. But even grief can be sacred. Even grief can transform us. Even grief can be a resurrecting force.

We are not saved at the altar alone. It takes a kin-dom. The power of resurrection lives within us. In our hearts, in our hands. We need only choose it. We need only claim our legacy as an Easter people in this Good Friday world.

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Blyth Barnow is a harm reductionist, preacher, and community organizer. She is the founder of Femminary, an online ministry focused on reclaiming dignity by finding divinity in the profane. She is currently working with folks nationally to establish harm reduction resources for faith based communities and has already brought her worship service, Naloxone Saves, to several states. Naloxone Saves celebrates the power of resurrection by training people to recognize and respond to an opiate overdose. Blyth graduated from Pacific School Of Religion where she received a Master of Divinity and the Paul Wesley Yinger preaching award.

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