Rampant addiction sparks new ministries and church engagement
By Bob Smietana
Johnny Morelock isn’t sure when he first started drinking. He might have been 12 or 13.
He spent 30 years lost in a haze of booze, heroin, and prescription painkillers. Along the way he left a couple of ruined marriages and a string of broken family relationships.
By 43, Morelock was ready to die. His wife had left with the kids, and life was falling apart again.
“Give me three days and we won’t none of us have to worry any more,” he told his mom when she checked in on him.
“I think not,” she replied.
With the help of his family, Morelock chose life over death. He went to a rehab program in Knoxville, Tennessee, in November 2006 and began the long road to recovery.
“I came out of that place a new person, and I’ve not looked back,” says Morelock, who now runs a faith-based recovery group at First Baptist Church in Weber City, Virginia, about 10 minutes from his home in Kingsport, Tennessee.
Morelock is one of a growing number of church leaders who are helping address the nation’s opioid epidemic. He’s one of the leaders of a faith-based recovery network in his home state of Tennessee, where drug overdoses (1,631) killed more people than car wrecks (1,097) in 2016.
He’s also helping to organize a similar network in Virginia, where overdoses (1,420) are now the number one cause of accidental death.
More than 59,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016, according to an analysis by The New York Times, up nearly 20 percent from the previous year. Drug overdoses killed more than half a million Americans from 2000 to 2015, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
From 1999 to 2015, according to the CDC, overdoses from drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone have more than quadrupled. Drug overdoses have become such a threat to public health that President Donald Trump recently declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency.
The hope factor
Churches play an important role in helping people who suffer from addiction, says Monty Burks, director of faith-based initiatives for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.
They can start by offering community and support to those in recovery. Those who are addicted are often isolated from family and friends. And their addictions are often seen as shameful, says Burks.
“When people suffer from cancer, we bake them a casserole,” he says. “When people suffer from addiction, we ostracize them.”
Burks works with about 300 congregations in a faith-based recovery network and is constantly on the lookout for more congregations and faith leaders who are willing to become involved in recovery ministry.
Those struggling with addictions need both medical treatment and spiritual community, says Burks. And they need people who will stick with them when times get hard or when they fail. That’s something churches specialize in, he says.
“When people fall, they need someone who can help them get back up,” says Burks.
Hosting a recovery ministry is just one way a church can help those dealing with addictions. They can also offer fellowship, provide meals or financial assistance, or help families whose loved ones are dealing with addiction.
Sometimes people who have been struggling with addiction need a job, and churches may be able to help them find connections with work.
The opioid crisis and other addictions leave a lot of chaos in their wake, and churches can help pick up the pieces, says Burks.
His program offers training, networking, and online resources for churches wanting to be more involved with recovery ministry.
Burks also offers a word of wisdom: Recovering from addictions takes a long time.
That’s something he knows firsthand. He’s been clean for more than 17 years—and it’s been a long road. He stumbled a few times along the way.
His church played a big role in his recovery, which started after a friend invited him to a faith-based recovery program.
Not everyone is so lucky, he says.
“People are afraid to come and tell their story,” he says. “They’re afraid of being judged. And sometimes the people in our pews are afraid to help.”
That’s why churches like First Baptist Weber City and leaders like Morelock are so important, says Burks. They make it easier for people to find help when they need it.
An open door
At First Baptist Weber City, recovery ministry takes several forms. A faith-based recovery meeting, called Joy in Recovery, meets Tuesday and Thursday nights at the church.
Morelock, whose brother, Lester, is the church’s pastor, also leads a recovery Sunday school class called Serenity.
Most weeks about 16 people show up for Joy in Recovery—some from First Baptist, some from other local churches. Some of the newcomers have been as young as 17.
They meet over coffee and study lessons from the Life Recovery Bible. Then they go around the room and share their stories—how their weeks went, what their struggles are, and what’s going well.
The meeting is supposed to end by 8 p.m. but never does. There’s too much to talk about.
And there’s almost always someone new.
“Churches are sending people all the time who need help,” says Johnny Morelock. Sometimes newcomers show up on their own. Other times a friend from church brings them.
And Morelock believes there are many more who don’t show up, in part out of fear. In this part of Appalachia, where opioids are epidemic, being an addict makes you suspect, he says.
“There are people who are sitting in church right now who would love to come to our recovery class,” he says. “But there is that stigma—‘Well, he may be clean today but you’d better watch out because he’ll rob you tomorrow.’”
The help at First Baptist Weber City isn’t just for folks in their congregation or local community.
Morelock and other church members volunteer monthly at a recovery center for women in Evarts, Kentucky, holding services and bringing supplies like clothes and toiletries to patients there.
Every month, the volunteers pass around a T-shirt to patients at rehab. The women can sign it and write a prayer request, if they’re comfortable.
That T-shirt is then shared with the congregation at First Baptist, so people can take turns praying. It’s also put on display in the church’s entryway, so people coming to services are reminded to pray.
A long struggle
In Manchester, Kentucky, dealing with opioids, meth, and other drugs has landed Ken Bolin, pastor of Manchester Baptist Church, in court.
He serves on the local drug court, where he sees the chaos drugs cause in the lives of locals. The drug epidemic has also touched his congregation.
Bolin first became aware of the problems caused by addiction in December 2003. He got a call in the middle of the night from a 12-year-old girl who had been attending the church. Her mom was a prostitute and drug user.
“Brother Ken, can you come over?” he remembers her saying. “My mom—they just found her.”
When Bolin arrived at the girl’s house, he learned that her mom had collapsed on the way home from a local drug house and died of exposure, leaving behind three children.
The church tried to help care for the kids but they wound up in the custody of the grandparents, both of whom were drug users.
The daughter grew up to become addicted as well and is now in jail. But one of her brothers is still part of the church.
That incident helped spark the church to action. The church started a ministry called God’s Closet, which provides clothes, diapers, formula, and baby wipes to young moms in the community.
Many of them are addicted—or have a family member who is addicted—and are resource-thin, says Bolin.
The ministry runs a 12-step program called Lifeline every week to help those in recovery. It also runs a homeless shelter during the winter and serves meals to 60 or 70 people every Monday.
Along with serving on the drug court, Bolin is a regular volunteer at Chad’s Hope, a recovery ministry run by Teen Challenge in Manchester. It’s named after a local businessman’s son who died of an opioid overdose.
Chad’s father had hoped to build a home for his son on some property he owned in the area. After Chad died, his dad donated the property for a drug rehab ministry.
At first, Bolin and other ministers tried to run the center—built with a grant from the Commonwealth of Kentucky—on their own. After a few years, they partnered with Teen Challenge.
Among the program’s graduates: Bolin’s son-in-law, Carl, who is now on staff at the church.
“I remember the day he came in—a scrawny, drug-sick kid,” says Bolin, who was preaching at a service that day.
The two hit it off, and after Carl graduated from the program, Bolin took him under his wing, taking Carl on pastoral visits to the hospital and letting him volunteer at the church.
One day, during Vacation Bible School, a volunteer called in sick. Bolin asked his daughter, then home on furlough from serving as a missionary in Brazil, to teach a class with Carl.
The two became close—and are now married with two kids.
Seeing the change in his brother, Johnny, gives Lester Morelock, pastor of First Baptist Weber City, a similar personal motivation for being involved in recovery ministry.
Along with running recovery groups, the church has hosted meetings for mental professionals at the church and a training event for medical professionals on how to give doses of NARCAN, a medication for treating opioid overdoses.
Pastor Morelock says he supports this work because it can help the community—and because he knows the difference recovery can make.
“I am in full support—because I got my brother back,” he says.
Bob is the former senior writer for Lifeway Research. In September 2018, he joined Religion News Service, where he currently serves as a national writer.