Churches have long recognized their role in the community, and that it isn’t limited to a church service on Sunday and Bible study on Wednesday. Especially in the African American community, churches are home bases, hosting community events, helping children grow in summer camps and assisting the less fortunate with food banks. Many churches, including in Indianapolis, were stops on the Underground Railroad in the 1800s.
More recently, church leaders are realizing their place in public health. Some churches now have programs for people addicted to anything from opioids to stealing, and they are slowly evolving to include a more health-based approach, rather than strictly spiritual.
Gina Fears, assistant director of recovery and community services at Public Advocates in Community re-Entry (PACE), was caught up in the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ‘90s and said her church family played an important role in her coming to terms with her addiction and going to rehab in 1996. Fears now works closely with churches across the city as the faith community finds its place in battling the opioid crisis.
Fears gave credit to Overcoming Church in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood for its work with people trying to overcome addiction. The church has had an addiction program — Overcomers Unanimous Recovery Program — for about 11 years and, along with PACE, has partnerships with the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, probation office and social service agencies. The program includes volunteers who those struggling with addiction can reach out to if they need someone.
Participants start in a general session with everyone, then go into smaller groups for men and women where they go through exercises such as memorizing Bible verses. Bruce Farr, pastor at Overcoming, said pain is the “driving force behind all addictive behavior” and that the religious response to the opioid crisis includes providing a supportive community.
“It’s in community when people get an opportunity to walk out and walk through those issues,” Farr said. “You’re allowed to talk out anything.”
But Fears said churches also need to be more aware of how they’re packaging that religious response to a medical issue. As the daughter of a pastor, Fears said she grew up seeing churches “pray about it, and we may douse you in oil.” Fears’ faith plays a role in her work. She said she wakes up every morning praying for God to work in someone’s life before she reaches them.
“God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, but we’re gonna have to do some stuff,” she said. “And I think churches are now coming to that realization that there’s so many issues in life that we can’t just say, ‘Pray and it’s gonna be OK.’ We have to do something different.”
At PACE, Fears can be directly involved in that “something different” as she works with churches. Although she said churches aren’t yet where they need to be, she believes they’re getting better. Fears said this is especially important for the African American community.
“Because culturally in the African American community churches are the hub,” she said, “… it is very important for churches to have a true education of the actual health issues and the health component of addiction.”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.