South Carolina church battles opioid ‘emergency’
SURFSIDE BEACH, S.C. — Opioids, meet Jesus. The drugs behind…
A ministry of the 1,400-member North Atlanta Church of Christ, Atlanta Outreach provides a bridge between addiction and faith. In the last nine years, the effort has resulted in more than 200 baptisms, with an average of about four months of study before addicts accept the gospel, elder Ken Shumard said.
A white, upper-middle-class congregation a decade ago, North Atlanta has experienced dramatic shifts in its economic and racial makeup since it started ministering to addicts like Jim and Amanda Kamisky.
“Jimmy had a paper bag with a few clothes in it and the tennis shoes on his feet when I picked him up on the side of the road,” Hale said. Amanda was pregnant with their son, Joey, now 8, and working at a restaurant through a jail work-release program.
After the infant’s birth, members cared for Joey while Amanda entered a drug-treatment center. Now, the Kamiskys have good jobs, own a home and rental properties and serve in the recovery ministry.
“It’s almost like a fairy tale,” she said. “I never dreamed that I would consider church and church people a part of my life. I would never have thought that I would get into a discussion with people at work, talking about God and what the Bible says.”
Like North Atlanta, congregations across the nation increasingly offer recovery ministries — not only as a way of helping members deal with addictions but also as a means of reaching the lost.
The Woodward Park Church of Christ in Fresno, Calif., launched its Celebrate Recovery ministry last summer.
“Our ministry is an outgrowth of the work we are seeking to do in reaching the homeless, marginalized and needy within Fresno,” preaching minister Jim Gardner said. “We have found that to reach them and make a lasting impact, non-traditional, outside-the-box ministries like Celebrate Recovery have to be an integral part of our ministry offerings.”
At the White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, La., an “overcomers outreach” began in 1990 for drug and alcohol addicts, recovery shepherd Mac Owen said.
By 2003, that ministry grew into a Friday night Celebrate Recovery program with a meal, testimonials, fellowship and small-group discussions for anyone with a “hurt, habit or hangup,” from anger to overeating.
“We started with a goal of reaching one hurting person and ended up being the largest local outreach in our congregation,” Owen said. “I am a recovering drug addict who has been an elder for the past 13 years. And I am just one of many who have become leaders because someone cared.”
North Atlanta’s recovery ministry partners with state-licensed drug treatment centers, such as Right Side Up and the Mary Hall Freedom House.
Church members provide clothing and coats for the addicts, many of them homeless, and lead spiritual discussion groups at the centers.
Lucy Hall, president of the Freedom House, said North Atlanta members offer prayers, encouragement, support and love to the center’s clients.
“They also go beyond the walls of the church,” Hall said. “There are many who have been hurt in religion, and being able to heal in a safe and trusting place with others makes it work.”
On Wednesdays and Sundays, the congregation welcomes recovering addicts to special classes and small-group meetings. The church also integrates them into the main worship assembly.
But members purposely take their time in teaching the gospel.
“We’re not trying to do just a quick job,” Hale said. “We really want them to understand what they’re doing. Many, many seeds are planted. … We want to affect people in a way that they will want to come to the cross.”
Ronald Jackson was homeless when a friend brought him to the church.
He was wearing a muddy T-shirt and had witnessed people eating out of garbage cans downtown.
He had drugs in his bag and was accustomed to begging for food.
He recalls that North Atlanta minister Don McLaughlin gave him a hug and told him, “We’ll do our best to help you.”
So began a spiritual journey that led him to drug treatment and a life in Christ.
“You’re going to hear the word love a lot when you interview these people because it’s a true thing,” Jackson said as he joined a dozen or so former addicts and mentors at a North Atlanta church conference table.
“God changed my heart. Right now, I have such a great peace, and I know it’s from him,” said Jackson, a church usher who helps serve communion and owns a home improvement business.
“I’ve tried drugs. I’ve tried alcohol. I’ve tried everything you can think of, as far as shooting heroin and everything. Ain’t none of that that’s like the love of God.”
Trellis Wilson, who served time in prison for dealing drugs, worships at North Atlanta with her 7-year-old son, Gary. After getting clean, Wilson started cleaning the church building. Then members began hiring her to clean their homes.
“They trust me with their keys and their codes to their houses. It’s amazing,” said Wilson, now a “room mom” at her son’s school who dreams of the day Gary can go on a youth group mission trip.
Still, she fights a constant battle.
“For me, I have to fight this battle with Satan every morning that I wake up,” she said. “Before, when I’d go through something, I’d smoke some dope. Now, I have to totally rely on God. Some days, it’s hard. But this church is amazing.”
At least 140 North Atlanta members have served as recovery mentors, many of them never envisioning they could form such close bonds with former addicts.
Karen Henson, a member of the congregation for 24 years, agreed to help with the ministry only after Hale repeatedly begged her.
“The whole thing, all in all, has caused me to have growth in my life that I never experienced,” Henson said.
She suggested that the same is true for the congregation as a whole.
“We were not an integrated congregation before,” she said of North Atlanta, now about 25 percent black and Hispanic. “We were not nearly as open. I think we probably were more like the country-club type (church). … I think it has just humbled us all in ways that we never thought we would be humbled.”
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