By / Sep 13

My family lives right next to the elementary school in a middle-class part of Bradenton, Florida, and two of my neighbors are drug dealers. Addiction is not limited by socioeconomic boundaries. The rich tend to hide it better, and the poor tend to be arrested more. But it’s there—in every pocket and corner of our community, especially opioids.

Opioids are consumed in various forms. Synthetic versions, like Fentanyl and Carfentanil, are used to sedate wild elephants and can be found on the streets in Bradenton. Even a small exposure to the skin can kill you. One tiny flake of Carfentanil is lethal and can float through the air. Heroin is popular because it is much cheaper than prescription pills, like oxycodone. One blend of opioids is called “gray death” because it looks like concrete mix. Unfortunately, the entire gamut of opioids is here, and they are all nasty.

A recent headline in our local newspaper describes a bleak reality: “Bradenton is opioid overdose capital of Florida. And still no one knows why.” The words heroin, overdose, and death are often in the headlines and part of daily life in our community. Opioids are so common here that police officers receive training on how to recognize when overdose victims are about to die. Most patrol units carry Narcan kits, which are used to reverse the effects of an overdose. We’ve done Narcan training at our church and have a kit onsite. Those who use it have learned to administer the dose and take a few steps back. The reversal effects are immediate, and overdose victims will either get sick and vomit or get angry and come up swinging.

Ministering in the darkest corners

My church is located right in the heart of Bradenton. We call ourselves “a neighborhood church for the nations.” The call to shepherd a church is a call to shepherd the community. When God led me to West Bradenton, he not only gave me a responsibility for pastoring a church but also a responsibility to serve our community. Churches are not islands in the community, set up to isolate believers from the ails of society. The walls of the church are not protective barriers to community problems. Quite the opposite—the church should be the vehicle by which people are sent into the hardest, darkest parts of the neighborhood. You can’t be salt and light hunkered down in isolation.

For us, that meant tackling something no other church was doing. We already had a dozen or so drug deals a day occurring in our parking lot, so something had to be done. Our student pastor started the movement. He stood in front of our church and made a plea, “I’m sick of people dying. We’re going to do something.” Preaching the funerals is especially hard. I wept after a 4-year-old child asked me why the needles killed his mom. Death is cheap and comes in doses of 0.1 grams; it can be bought for as little as $10 a bag.

When the community started calling us “the heroin church,” we knew we were banging on hell’s gates. We chased the dealers out of our parking lot—literally. Then we started a 5K road race in our neighborhood to raise awareness. The road race brought together several groups who did not know each other. Our church became a gatekeeper for the small, local ministries trying to solve the addition epidemic.

Foster care and homeless ministry

Then a wave hit our congregation. A swell of our families began to foster children. Our county is first in removal rates of children in all of Florida. Of the 500 children removed from their homes last year, over half of them are directly attributed to substance abuse. Most of the children removed are under the age of 5. The foster system is out of beds for children and is in a $3.8 million budget shortfall because of the problem. Our foster son was severely neglected and tested positive for an illicit substance before he came into our home. He was not even 2 years old.

If you want to jump into the thick of evil, then become a foster parent. Whatever issues are producing foster children are often the core of a community’s sins. You are immediately connected to some of the most difficult issues in your community when you take a foster child into your home. In our case, it’s opioid addiction. Our children’s ministry is full of foster kids. Here is what I love about how my church is ministering to these children: The name tags of our foster children don’t have a special label designating them as being fostered. These children are part of our homes, which means they are part of our church family. We’ve opened our doors to the worst problem in our community, and God brought us beautiful children who need to hear good news.

God wanted us to do more, though. He sent us two gritty retired police officers who serve the homeless 365 days a year. They take no breaks, no vacations, no rest. Christine and Ian live for one purpose—feeding the homeless every day in order to share Jesus’ gospel. When you mingle with 200 homeless people a day, it gets a little messy. The vast majority of them are addicts. Our church jumped right into the mix. I even bring my four children with me when I volunteer. You can grow slowly in wisdom and maturity by sitting in pews, but you make leaps when you minister on the streets.

West Bradenton is a neighborhood church for the nations. It is not a fallout shelter from a radioactive world. You can’t be salt and light hunkered down in isolation. We’re not trendy or hip, but we will dig into the best and worst of our community—and we’re proud of our moniker, “the heroin church.” And as a pastor, I’m honored to serve alongside people who get what living out the gospel means.

By / Nov 19

In this episode, Brent and Lindsay discuss drug overdose deaths in the U.S., “QAnon Shaman” sentenced to prison, and religious freedom concerns with the Build Back Better Act. They also talk about National Adoption Month, showing hospitality, and preparing for Advent. 

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. Drug overdose deaths in the United States surpassed 100,000 in a 12-month period for the first time; President Biden’s statement
  2. “QAnon Shaman” sentenced to 41 months in prison
  3. Churches’ financial status after pandemic 
  4. Religious freedom concerns for faith-based childcare and Build Back Better Act; ERLC article

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Sponsors

  • The Dawn of Redeeming Grace // This episode was sponsored by The Good Book Company, publisher of The Dawn of Redeeming Grace .Join Sinclair Ferguson as he opens up the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel in these daily devotions for Advent. Each day’s reflection is full of insight and application and will help you to arrive at Christmas Day awed by God’s redeeming grace and refreshed by the hope of God’s promised King. Find out more about this book at thegoodbook.com.
  • Outrageous Justice // God calls us to seek justice. But how should Christians respond? Outrageous Justice, a free small-group study from experts at Prison Fellowship, offers Christians a place to start. Explore the criminal justice system through a biblical lens and discover hands-on ways to pursue justice, hope, and restoration in your community. Get your free copy of Outrageous Justice, featuring a study guide, videos, and a companion book today! Visit prisonfellowship.org/outrageous-justice.
By / Jul 16

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss the record number of drug overdose deaths in 2020, Oliva Rodrigo visiting the White House, anti-government protests in Cuba, two religious freedom wins, and the winner of the 2021 All-Star Game. Lindsay gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Andrew Bertodatti with “What is life like in the U.S. for an immigrant: One man’s journey from religious persecution in Pakistan,” Lieryn Barnett with “3 ways to be intentional with your singleness,” and Heather Rice Minus with “A new documentary sheds light on reentry after prison: A New Day 1 covers the hopes and hardships of formerly incarcerated individuals.”

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. CDC says drug overdose deaths hit record 93,300 in 2020
  2. Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts
  3. Pop star Olivia Rodrigo visits White House to urge young people to get vaccinated against Covid-19
  4. One reported dead in anti-government protests in Cuba
  5. Capitol Hill Baptist Church, D.C. settle religious liberty suit
  6. Appeals court protects church freedom in employment decisions
  7. American League wins 2021 All-Star Game

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  • Love your church: This engaging book by Tony Merida explores what church is, why it’s exciting to be a part of it, and why it’s worthy of our love and commitment. | Find out more about this book at thegoodbook.com
By / Mar 18

Free, downloadable bulletin insert for use by your church on Substance Abuse Prevention Sunday.

To see additional SBC event dates, visit sbc.net/calendar.

By / May 21

For Terri, a mother of five from Wisconsin, life as she knew it began to unravel after her son, Curtis*, broke his collarbone. The high schooler received prescription opioids after a skiing accident in the early 2000s. This was long before President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency and long before the public understood how dangerous and addictive opioids are. But it wasn’t long at all before Curtis was hooked.

One day at school, 17-year-old Curtis was found with pills in his pocket. The police came and arrested him. Before long, he was sentenced to six months in a correctional facility. 

Terri was devastated. As a mom, she says, “You're dying because you know your kid is sitting [in prison], and who knows what is going on in there. It's never the same, life is never the same. It's almost like somebody died, but they didn't. They're buried alive. That's all I can tell you. It's like they're buried alive.”  

A hidden epidemic

At first, Terri was shocked at the speed with which her son went from a typical high schooler to a prisoner. But over time, Terri would find Curtis’ story increasingly commonplace. She realized that Curtis and others like him were being swept up in a wave of overcriminalization that put people suffering with addiction behind bars. 

After a string of arrests for possession of controlled substances, Curtis is 33 and completing his most recent prison time, which stems for a sentence dating back to 2008, though Terri notes he has had no new charges or cases since then. In the last decade and a half, prison has proven to be an unhelpful response to his issues with opioid addiction.

Simple possession of a controlled substance doesn’t have to result in lengthy incarceration or a lifelong criminal record. In fact, cases like Curtis’ don’t even have the same result in every state. 

The complex problem of simple possession

The Drug Report: A Review of America’s Disparate Possession Penalties, prepared by criminal justice policy experts at Prison Fellowship®, reveals the broad discrepancies in penalties for possession of commonly abused drugs across different jurisdictions and explores the resulting public policy challenges. 

It’s a critical time to discuss these challenges, because as Terri knows all too well, each sentence affects not only people dealing with addictions, but their families, too.

While charges for drug possession remain in the criminal system, we believe (and research shows) that sentences should fit the crime, and there should be a reliance on accountability programs that are demonstrated to decrease drug use. This approach aims to break the cycle of recidivism (people returning to prison) by addressing circumstances like addiction and administering appropriate consequences.

We say this knowing that incarceration doesn’t achieve the goal of rehabilitation and reducing substance use. That’s why we support the use of alternatives to incarceration, such as drug courts. Most Americans agree.

The need for alternatives

In September 2019, Prison Fellowship commissioned a Barna Group poll to find out what Christians think about incarceration and justice. We found that almost one in three Americans and practicing Christians agree strongly that judges should have the latitude to assign alternative forms of punishment when sentencing. 

Some jurisdictions have implemented alternative punishment models for possession crimes, such as opioid courts. These programs, along with traditional methods, should be studied in order to see what works best and how to improve outcomes for the participating individual and impacted community. 

Each human life is created in the image of God, with eternal value and the capacity for redemption. And the onus is on all those who make criminal justice policy decisions to evaluate methods of proportional accountability for possession crimes. They should be evaluating which methods offer the best outcomes for public safety, recovery from addiction, stronger families, and opportunities for personal and community restoration. 

Raise awareness

While Terri’s son Curtis is still in prison, she has turned her pain into passion. She serves as an Angel Tree® area coordinator to help other families impacted by incarceration. And as a Prison Fellowship Justice Ambassador, she works hard to raise awareness in her community and get lawmakers to change the way our nation handles drug abuse. She is determined to see something good come from the pain she and her family have experienced.

“The sentence seems never-ending,” she says, “but God is good. He will use this for His glory someday.”

Terri worked hard to raise her own awareness of drug laws and justice reform so she could inform others. If you want to increase your own understanding of drug possession laws, download The Drug Report. And read our Barna survey to learn more about Christians’ views on criminal justice. 

*A pseudonym for the protection of his privacy.

By / Mar 5

Free, downloadable bulletin insert for use by your church on Substance Abuse Prevention Sunday.

To see additional SBC event dates, visit sbc.net/calendar.

By / Feb 5

As a public health professor, Christ-follower, and substance abuse researcher, my vocation demands that I consistently reflect upon the intersection of faith and efforts that are intended to protect the needs of the population. As the prevalence and incidence rates of a variety of addictive behaviors continue to increase, the stigmatization and misconceptions associated with these behaviors continue to rise as well. 

Addiction, whether related to substance abuse or not, can present itself in many forms. An individual may be struggling with prescription drug use, the use of illicit substances, sexual addiction, overeating, or tobacco and alcohol use, just to name a few. The repercussions of engaging in these behaviors often results in devastation for both the user and their loved ones. 

What is addiction? 

Oftentimes, the general populace may not think of addiction as a disease. While there is a spiritual component, in actuality, it is a disease that is complex and chronic in nature and affects the functioning of both the brain and body. The most common symptoms of addiction are severe loss of control, continued use despite the negative consequences associated with the behavior, a preoccupation with using, failed attempts to quit, increasing tolerance, and withdrawal. There are many evidence-based programs studying best practices in substance abuse prevention and control, but there is still much work that needs to be done.   

As the addiction field has matured, it has tried to integrate conflicting theories and approaches to treatment, as well as incorporate relevant evidence-based practices into a single, comprehensive model. Many positive changes have emerged, and a new view of motivation and associated strategies to promote positive behavior change have been developed. This trend in focusing on motivation, coupled with a shift away from labelling individuals as addicts, places an emphasis on examining the determinants and mechanisms of personal change. 

Researchers and clinicians have become better equipped to apply and facilitate changes in an individual’s unhealthy or maladaptive behavior. With that being said, as Christians, we must remember that helping those who struggle with addiction is not the sole responsibility of a mental health professional. We must keep in mind that the Christian life is also about bearing burdens well. We are not meant to struggle alone (Gal. 6:2). 

The current state of the problem: Incidence and prevalence rates

Currently, there are an estimated 40 million Americans aged 12 and older who engage in substance abuse behavior or are addicted to nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs. That’s more than 1 out of every 7 people. This is more than the number of Americans who suffer from heart conditions (27 million), diabetes (26 million), or cancer (19 million). 

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the 2019 Monitoring the Future Survey Results, the use of illicit drugs among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders remained steady at 38%. The use of marijuana has increased in lower grades, when compared to 12th graders, but the prevalence of marijuana use also remains steady. Prescription drug misuse has declined in the adolescent population in recent years, but use among adults continues to be a major public health concern. Alcohol use continues to decline among middle and highschoolers. Lastly, we have made progress in regards to addressing tobacco and nicotine use among adolescents, but the recent popularity in vaping behavior has threatened these efforts.  

Addiction, stigmatization, and a call to the Christian

Although the word “stigma” is widely used, there is some variability in how it is defined. Stigma, especially in regards to addictive behaviors, occurs when negative attitudes toward those suffering from substance use disorders arise on account of the disorder itself, and are likely to impact physical, psychological, social, or professional wellbeing. This stigmatization, manifesting as preconceived judgments and misconceptions, often results in the exclusion of those suffering from addiction. 

Being present in the lives of those who struggle with addiction provides us with a beautiful opportunity to love people in the midst of their affliction and point them to the One in whom true satisfaction is found.

Stigmatization is an issue we must work through both personally and as a society, but we cannot allow it to be a barrier to gospel ministry. Regardless of how you may perceive the culpability of those who suffer from addiction, Christians should continue to affirm their dignity as image-bearers of God (Gen. 1:26-28). Addicts may be resorting to the things of this world to satisfy, but we know they were made for so much more. We know, and are reassured, that Christ is the only one who will satisfy (Heb. 6:19). Being intentional in caring for this hurting population can provide a God-glorifying opportunity to share the gospel as we strive to minister with love, grace, and compassion. 

Caring for those who are suffering from addiction is not an endorsement of sin, gluttony, or the use of illicit substances. When Jesus called us to care “for the least of these” (Matt. 25:40), I believe it includes those who are in destitute and destructive situations. Being present in the lives of those who struggle with addiction provides us with a beautiful opportunity to love people in the midst of their affliction and point them to the One in whom true satisfaction is found. It allows us to help those in sin turn to the freedom that is found in Christ, walking alongside them on a difficult road. As an individual who has had the privilege of working with addictive populations and hearing their stories, I would urge Christians to seek out opportunities to serve this population as a means of living out the Great Commission. 

By / Mar 7

They are going to do it anyway. So regulate it, tax it, and we all will benefit.

Alcohol is legal, so what difference does it make if pot is legal?

Prohibition does not work; we learned that lesson.

The government has no business telling people what they can and cannot do in the privacy of their homes. Therefore, make pot legal and leave people to live their lives.

These are just some of the arguments for legalizing recreational marijuana. Those who argue for its legalization seem to make their case based on pragmatics. Advocates for decriminalization contend that laws just don’t work—no amount of regulation will stop free people from indulging. Additionally, if we legalize recreational pot, it can be taxed, and everyone in society benefits from the revenue. Consequently, decriminalizing marijuana simply makes practical sense.

Nevertheless, laws do more than simply restrict behaviors. Laws also commend the type of conduct that we want to encourage. Laws curb the behaviors that we want to discourage while at the same time promote the actions that a society champions. H. Richard Niebuhr noted that legislation works toward an end goal: it leads toward the desires of individuals and social groups.

What Niebuhr realized is that legal codes reinforce a vision of the kind of people we want to be, and they promote the values that a society believes will bring about human flourishing. Therefore, when we consider the question of legalizing recreational marijuana, we do well to think beyond pragmatics and ask the bigger question, “What vision does legalization cast for our future?”

The flight from reality

Marijuana is a drug that takes users into a disembodied state, and this is why so many find it relaxing. Marijuana immediately brings feelings of euphoria and heightens one’s senses, including one’s sense of time. And marijuana makes the user feel as though he has entered a new reality—one that is likened to an out-of-body experience. This intensified state happens within a relatively short period of time. So, many prefer marijuana to alcohol. Moreover, marijuana does not seem to have the same side effects as alcohol. Smoking pot avoids all the inconveniences of hangovers (with the exception that it smells). Therefore, advocates argue that legalizing recreational marijuana is really no different than alcohol.

Nevertheless, this argument ignores the reality that marijuana is a different kind of drug altogether. Marijuana alters the mind relatively quickly. While some comparison between marijuana and alcohol may seem legitimate, most proponents ignore the fact that a person can consume small amounts of alcohol without dramatic mind-altering effects. This is not to argue that one drug has more virtue than the other. I only make the point to distinguish the difference between recreational marijuana and alcohol. Marijuana provides immediate sensations of escape, whereas alcohol requires excess to achieve the same result.

Therefore, decriminalizing marijuana encourages an immediate flight from reality. The escape provided in marijuana merely recycles an age-old religion called Gnosticism. Gnosticism believed that the material world was intrinsically evil; thus, true happiness could only be found when we escape our material world. Cultures that encourage citizens to escape reality pay a heavy price.

Some of our lawmakers applaud the potential revenue from numbing the masses. But our states face challenges that have real and lasting effects on our communities. For example, in my New York community, we face problems such as poverty, racism, and city schools where teachers are asked to achieve unrealistic standards with minimal support. While lawmakers are passing legislation encouraging people to numb the mind, we demand our teachers nurture the mind. It seems odd, and a bit disjointed, that on one hand we champion the mind in education, and on the other we celebrate altering our mind for recreation.

The threat to the vulnerable

Nevertheless, many of the laws that promise escape ultimately lead to captivity. We were told that legalized gambling would be a windfall for our states. Scratch off tickets would be the hope for a better future. Yet how many widows and fatherless have lost their property, and their soul, to the local corner store? Promised freedom has actually enslaved the most vulnerable in our communities because we have failed to recognize that ideas have consequences. Escapism and its consequences leave a culture vulnerable to the complicated conditions of a fractured world.

People who are numb tend not to notice the injustice around them. But maybe that’s the point? When our heads are buried in the sand (or floating in the clouds), it is easy to close our eyes to the ills of our communities. Pragmatism can have a cost. And unfortunately, the ones asked to pay the bill are the ones who can least afford it. As Christians, we should be those who think through these issues seriously, with the good of our neighbors in mind—and then advocate for the flourishing of our communities.

By / Mar 6

Free, downloadable bulletin insert for use by your church on Substance Abuse Prevention Sunday.

To see additional SBC event dates, visit sbc.net/calendar.

By / Mar 6

Free, downloadable bulletin insert for use by your church on Substance Abuse Prevention Sunday.

To see additional SBC event dates, visit sbc.net/calendar.