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South Carolina church battles opioid ‘emergency’

Addicts find love, hope — and Jesus — through ministries focused on recovery and discipleship.

SURFSIDE BEACH, S.C. — Opioids, meet Jesus.

The drugs behind a crisis that President Donald Trump characterizes as a “national emergency” are no match for the savior of the world.

That’s the message at the Grand Strand Church of Christ, which has become a haven for prodigal sons — and daughters — caught up in addiction.

Jordan Taylor is a part of the Grand Strand church’s Celebrate Recovery program. Click the image to read more quotes from leaders and participants.

“The whole congregation kind of took me in and just showed me as much love as they can,” said Jordan Taylor, a recovering heroin addict who served prison time for drug crimes. “I went through ups and downs, and they’d always accept me with open arms.

“They would never judge me or anything like that,” added Taylor, who was baptized after showing up for the church’s Celebrate Recovery program and studying the Bible.

The church in this beach town battles an epidemic — linked to opioids such as heroin and prescription painkillers like oxycodone and fentanyl — that has caused drug overdoses to skyrocket nationally.

Overdoses claim 142 American lives each day — “a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks,” a presidential commission reported this month. Opioids are tied to two-thirds of those deaths.

“We have an enormous problem that is often not beginning on street corners; it is starting in doctor’s offices and hospitals in every state in our nation,” the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis said.

‘It can happen to anyone’

While dealing with neck and back issues, Kevin Williams became addicted to prescription painkillers.

He fell into a deep depression and contemplated suicide. He knew his neighbor kept a 9 mm pistol in a closet. He figured he could find it.

“The only thing that really stopped me was knowing I had a wife and two little girls, and if I did that, what mark would it leave?” Williams said.

Leslie Williams eventually took control of her husband’s medication, hiding the pills in their house and — when he started finding them — taking them to work.

But the Christian couple concealed the problem from the Grand Strand church, their home congregation.

Kevin Williams describes his experiences with drug addiction as his wife, Leslie, listens. Minister Jay Thornell is on the front row. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

“I wanted to protect my family. I wanted to protect Kevin,” Leslie Williams said. “I spent a lot of time crying, questioning why God placed this challenge in our family and why he was making us walk this path.”

On a recent Sunday, the couple took seats on the church stage. In a brief interview with minister Jay Thornell before his sermon, they opened up about their emotional journey.

The turning point, Kevin Williams told his fellow Christians, came when he accepted that only God could cure his inner pain.

“God is helping me with the mental problems,” he told the congregation of about 275 souls. “The church here has helped me with it.”

If a typical middle-class family with deep faith — like the Williamses — can fall victim to drug addiction, it can happen to anyone, Thornell said.

“I wanted to encourage our church to continue to be brave enough to help rather than condemn people who are trapped in sin,” he said. “Because while the details of our own story may vary, we are all in desperate need of a savior.”

Drugs were his god

A man named Jackie Gass inspired the Grand Strand church to join the opioid fight.

Seven years ago, Gass — a longtime alcoholic and drug addict — walked into the church building.

The grandson of an Arkansas preacher, Gass had been raised in Churches of Christ. He had served in the Navy and managed Walmart stores. But for most of his life, drugs were his god.

“Alcohol and marijuana were my entry drugs, and then I moved on to harder and harder stuff,” he said.

Jackie GassWhen Gass first came to worship and said he’d be back, Thornell had his doubts.

But the man kept returning.

“He had finally reached the end of his rope,” Thornell said. “He just kept banging on my door, wanting to be taught, wanting to grow, wanting to learn.”

Gass said church members greeted him not with condemnation or judgment but with “the open arms of the Father.”

They welcomed the prodigal son home.

Four years ago, Gass got the elders’ approval to start a Celebrate Recovery ministry at the Grand Strand church.

The Christian 12-step program, part of a national network, helps those struggling with hurts, habits and hang-ups. About 50 to 60 people join the gathering each Monday night.

“Before Celebrate Recovery, it would have been really hard for me to imagine our church reaching out to a recovering heroin addict,” said Jim Barton, who helps leads worship at Celebrate Recovery meetings. “It just wasn’t something in our DNA.”

But now?

“Celebrate Recovery gave us a rallying point that was a real outreach to the community,” he said.

Thornell said he “always believed it was in this church’s DNA to be welcoming and loving to broken people struggling with addictions. Celebrate Recovery gave us a bigger forum to develop those spiritual muscles.”

The postcard-perfect beach of Myrtle Beach, S.C., belies the drug and crime problems that afflict the tourist destination. Two Refuge of Hope recovery houses supported by the Grand Strand Church of Christ are helping addicts find hope and healing. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

Change from the inside out

With the church’s financial and spiritual support, Gass opened two recovery houses for addicts in nearby Myrtle Beach.

The Refuge of Hope houses are in a downtown area that Gass calls the “gates of hell.” When seven people were wounded in a June 18 shooting live-streamed on Facebook, the gunfire could be heard at one of the houses.

“Brothers and sisters, we live in a world and a city that are broken,” Gass told the Grand Strand congregation recently. “And no matter how well-intentioned, the solutions that politicians offer serve as little more than Band-Aids.

“What the city of Myrtle Beach needs is the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he added. “Politicians offer solutions that work on the outside of people to suppress bad behavior or relocate it or drive it underground. But only Jesus Christ can change the lives of men and women from the inside out.”

Grand Strand church members help with a worship assembly and meal at the Refuge of Hope each Sunday night. When recovering addicts decide to be baptized, the Atlantic Ocean is a block and a half away.

“I think the Pacific coast might be a bit bigger, but we have the second-largest baptistery,” Gass said with a chuckle.

On a more serious note, he said, “My goal isn’t to make someone sober and then send them out, because nine times out of 10, they’re going to end up getting high or drunk again. My goal is to turn them into a worker, a fisher of men, someone that has purpose in Christ.”

A resident of one of the Refuge of Hope recovery houses in Myrtle Beach, S.C., cleans the kitchen. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

No more dope or despair

Wister and Helen Basden found that purpose.

The couple met through the Grand Strand church’s recovery ministry, which Wister Basden now leads.

Before, he was a heroin junkie, selling drugs and robbing people to support his habit.

“You see the people begging on the street for change?” he said. “I looked like that. I smelled like that. I wouldn’t take baths for weeks. I didn’t have time. I spent 24/7 looking for dope.”

Helen Basden was “addicted to very sick men,” her life in a vicious cycle of constant despair.

“I figured I could love these guys enough to break down all their stuff,” she said. “I obviously found out I can’t. That’s where my issues arise.”

Through Celebrate Recovery, they found faith — and each other.

“Sin took me down a dark path,” Wister Basden said. “It took me so far down that I accepted that … I’d die that way. But God had different plans.”

Opioids, meet Jesus.

Wister and Helen Basden

Filed under: addiction Celebrate Recovery drugs National opioids South Carolina

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