By Sam Rainer
I’ll never forget the tears. Stooping down, I swept the 4-year-old child in my arms. The whisper in my ear still rings loudly: “Why did the needles kill my mom?”
The funerals of addicts are especially hard. Wounded families and shell-shocked children are left behind. One of our church families took this child into their home, but there many others who enter a full foster system with little hope.
My community—like many other communities—is overrun with opioids. A recent newspaper headline describes the bleak reality: “Bradenton is opioid overdose capital of Florida. And still no one knows why.” Heroin, along with synthetic opioids like Fentanyl and Carfentanil, are easy to obtain here.
Addiction crosses all cultural barriers. Race, socioeconomic status, and religious background have little to do with who gets hooked. The rich tend to hide it better, and the poor tend to be arrested more. But it’s there—in every pocket and corner of our community, especially opioids.
West Bradenton Baptist—the church I’m blessed to serve—started digging into the problem a couple of years ago. We’re now known as “the heroin church,” and it’s not because of the drug deals in our parking lot. We chased the dealers out of our lot—literally. The moniker came about because of how we were ministering to those who were suffering from addiction.
Ministering to addicts is tough. For every success story, there are 100 failures. Just when you think recovery is about to begin, addiction sweeps a person away again.
Why would a church jump into such an inefficient ministry? Why invest time and resources into people who will likely never be on the top 25 giving list of your church?
Here’s why: If you really believe God’s plan of redemption applies to people of all backgrounds, you’re sinning if you intentionally neglect a group of people because they make you feel uncomfortable.
The church is a vehicle to send people into the darkest corners of the neighborhood. Gospel obedience compels a person to the outcasts, the lowly, and the neglected. If you’re not willing to sit down with a homeless addict and share the gospel because of how she looks and smells, then we don’t believe the same gospel.
Addiction is a problem that can be both public and hidden. There are those on the streets who are obviously suffering. Then there are others who go unnoticed, but just beneath the surface are spinning in chaos. Likely, the problem of addiction exists in your community, and it’s probably a bigger issue than you realize.
How can a church help alleviate the addiction crisis that rages in our nation?
1. Foster children
I often get the question from other church leaders, “How do you get connected to the major problems in your community?”
One of the best ways to jump into the thick of evil is to become a foster parent. The issues producing foster children are often the core of a community’s sins.
In many cities, addiction is the driving reason for filling the foster system. In our city, more than 500 children were removed from their homes last year. Half of these removals are directly attributed to substance abuse.
You don’t need permission from your pastor to be a foster parent. You don’t need to create a churchwide foster ministry before taking a child into your home. The solution can begin with you.
In order to alleviate the pain of addiction, our churches need members to rise up and deal with one of the most underserved segments of our nation—foster children. Our foster son tested positive for an illicit substance before coming into our home. He just turned two.
The people who suffer the most from the consequences of addiction are children of addicts. Fostering is a way to bring immediate aid into the battlefield of addiction.
2. Listen to the neighborhood
Are you attending the town halls in which addiction is discussed? Are you connected to other ministries or government agencies attempting to solve the addiction problem? Is anyone in your church listening to the neighborhood?
Church leaders have a tendency to create ministries that have little connection to actual problems in the community. Take six months and listen to other leaders in the community—those in government, in schools, and in other non-profits.
Listening is one of the most underrated ministries, and it often yields incredible fruit.
3. Partner with schools
Teachers are well aware of the problems produced by addicted parents, but they’re also under-resourced. When you help provide resources for teachers and their schools, you are moving toward the front lines of ministry.
Churches that build a longstanding partnership with area schools will have opportunities to serve families affected by addiction. When churches and schools have high levels of trust between them, people stop pointing fingers of blame and, instead, lock arms in unity.
4. Care for families
Jesus doesn’t call us to serve the most deserving, but He does call us to serve the most desperate. Often, those who are the most desperate are not the addicts themselves, but rather the immediate families.
Most churches aren’t equipped to handle counseling for addicts. Nor is it reasonable to think every church could attempt what addiction-medicine specialists practice. What churches can do is serve and care for the family members of addicts.
Our student ministry adopted a home in our neighborhood with a mother who had a son addicted to heroin. They mowed her yard and kept in touch with her on a monthly basis. In fact, they were working at the house when the son experienced an overdose and passed away.
The scene was tragic, but our student pastor and young people were there during the darkest hour of the mom’s life.
Ministry worth doing is always messy. Serving those who want to get high comes with many lows. The tears of a grieving 4-year-old are tough to experience. But the Suffering Servant will one day remedy the pain and wipe away those tears.
I’m reminded of this great promise every time I wipe the tears of my two-year-old foster son.