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Churches aren’t safe from opioids

Addicts have 'taught the rest of us to be honest,' says Celebrate Recovery director as he urges Churches of Christ to reach out — and in — with God's love to heal the hurting.

LAKE FOREST, Calif. — “It’s something that if we, the church, don’t address, there’s going to be a lot more people that don’t have a chance for eternal life.”

Mac Owen believes those words wholeheartedly as he speaks about the nation’s raging epidemic of opioid abuse — a crisis that has no respect for class, age, race or religion.

Mac and Mary Owen

“You can’t go anywhere now” to avoid the problem, said Owen, national director of Celebrate Recovery. “Even if you’re at church, there’s going to be somebody that’s involved in opioids.”

Owen spoke with The Christian Chronicle at the recovery ministry’s birthplace, Saddleback Church, during its 2017 Summit.

Congregations across the country, including dozens of Churches of Christ, host Celebrate Recovery programs. The annual conference helps train and equip ministry leaders.

Owen, who worships with a church in Colorado, is a former elder of the White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, La. He and his wife, Mary, addressed the conference’s 2,000-plus participants the same week that President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, a designation that offers states and federal agencies resources to combat the epidemic.

In the U.S., one death after another — an average of 91 a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control — is blamed on opioids, drugs that act on the body’s nervous system to relieve pain. Many are legal, prescription medications such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone.

Since 1999, the use of prescription pain killers has quadrupled, according to the CDC. In 2015, 33,000 people died as a result of opioids. More than half of those deaths resulted from prescription opioids.


Illegal opioids include heroin, a drug that Owen said was the choice for many addicts looking for pain relief decades ago.

“When we were coming up in the 60s, heroin was everywhere but then it sort of went on the downturn,” he said. “But then doctors started prescribing all these drugs, like OxyContin and other opioid drugs, and what people found was they were getting hooked on it but they couldn’t afford it.

“(It’s) not just for drug addicts and alcoholics, but for anyone with a hurt, habit or hang-up. We’re still trying to figure out who doesn’t have one of those.”

“So, the natural thing was to go back to heroin because it’s cheaper and they could get the same high.”

Recent research supports Owen’s words. Heroin use in the U.S. reached the highest level in 20 years, according to the 2016 World Drug Report produced by the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime. The CDC reports similar numbers and notes a rise in heroin addiction among women, the privately insured and people with high incomes.

“What I love about Celebrate Recovery is we’re not sitting on the sidelines talking about, ‘are these things we’re going to talk about?’” Owen said. “We’re saying we need to address them and we need to address them now.”


Launched in 1991 by John Baker, a recovering alcoholic, now a Saddleback minister, Celebrate Recovery uses biblical principles to help people overcome their hurtful habits — from codependency to anger and addiction.

Kilo and Jill Cerda coordinate Celebrate Recovery for the Visalia Church of Christ.

For Kilo and Jill Cerda, Celebrate Recovery offers the chance to help others find healing and a relationship with Christ — the same blessings they’ve received from the program.

“I was an alcoholic for over 25 years and tried to quit on my own time and time again,” Kilo Cerda said. “I would always fail.”

Through Celebrate Recovery, he found Christ and a way to fill the void he had inside.

“I filled it with Jesus Christ and that was what I was missing,” he said. Now he and his wife are Celebrate Recovery ministry leaders for their congregation, the Visalia Church of Christ in California.

The ministry gives the couple the chance to walk alongside others struggling with addiction, whether it be alcohol, opioids or something else. Those who participate in the program “find that there are people that care about them,” Kilo Cerda said. “There are people that support them and keep them accountable.”

They also find transformation, he added, and witnessing change in someone’s life as they go through the program shows him the power of the cross.


The Owens said they’ve also found joy as they’ve worked in the program. Mac Owen found healing from his addictions through secular recovery programs years ago. Then, in 2005, he and Mary helped to start Celebrate Recovery at the White’s Ferry Road church.

“We saw a ministry that was amazing,” Mac Owen said. “(It’s) not just for drug addicts and alcoholics, but for anyone with a hurt, habit or hang-up.

“We’re still trying to figure out who doesn’t have one of those,” he added.

Mac and Mary Owen address hundreds of Celebrate Recovery ministry coordinators during the program’s 2017 Summit at Saddleback Church in southern California.

The Celebrate Recovery ministry at White’s Ferry Road has grown tremendously in the past decade, the Owens said. Weekly meetings often draw in a crowd of more than 400 people.

In addition, “the whole culture of our church at White’s Ferry Road really changed,” Mac Owen said. The church “started reaching out to people that the rest of the community didn’t want to reach out to.”

That outreach, he added, had a positive effect on the church.

“When the drug addicts got here, they taught the rest of us how to be honest,” Mac Owen said.

“When we finally figure out that — compared to Jesus, because he is the standard — we’re all messy people, then recovery doesn’t have to be scary.”

The couple recently moved to Colorado to be closer to their children and grandchildren. But their home in Louisiana is a still a place where lives change for the better. The White’s Ferry Road church has turned the house into a recovery home — a place for addicts to come and live while they get sober.

In the battle to against addiction, Mac Owen said that more churches need to come to the front lines, look past the stigma and find ways to be the hands and feet of Christ by serving those who can benefit from knowing the cross.

Unfortunately, he believes that many congregations are hesitant to do so — because they’re afraid of the word “recovery.”

In recovery, “we’re going to work with messy people,” he said. “When we finally figure out that — compared to Jesus, because he is the standard — we’re all messy people, then recovery doesn’t have to be scary.”

Filed under: addiction Celebrate Recovery Features hope National opioids recovery Top Stories

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