Faith Responders: The Opioid Epidemic Needs the Episcopal Church to Do Better

In 2017, more than 65,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose. Millions more suffer from opioid addiction in every corner of our Church. GC79 will consider only one resolution concerning the opioid epidemic. Of course, the number of resolutions considered on any given issue is not the standard for how deeply we care, but Jan Brown, deacon of Bruton Parish in Williamsburg, Va., issues an urgent call for us to do more as a Church.

Jan BrownBy the Rev. Deacon Jan Brown
Diocese of Southern Virginia

We are still in the midst of an opioid epidemic. Associated with this crisis are many public health issues, including opioid use disorders, opioid overdoses and fatalities, other drug-related deaths, suicides, Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, and increased spread of infectious diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C.

The impact on family members, especially children, is significant. There are increasing numbers of children and youth being placed in both the foster care system and the kinship care system (child placements with relatives). There is a substantial increase in familial stress when a loved one is sick. Families often look for ways to solve their loved one’s problem and feel heartbroken at their inability to help. There are often growing financial problems, which can be devastating to family members. Bills go unpaid, necessities are overlooked, jobs are lost, and careers are ended.

Jesus’ mission statement and, therefore, our mission statement according to Luke is this: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV).  Jesus was sent into the world so we might be sent into the world. We have therefore been commissioned by Jesus to be faith responders.

We are called to carry out Jesus’ mission in our broken world, to be Christ’s hands and feet and heart to our neighbors. As Christians, we can look at our Baptismal Covenant. As clergy, we can look at the promises we made during the examination, that point in our vows when we profess our willingness to respond to God‘s call in particular ways.


Be sure to see the list of resources at the end of this article, including Heroin(e), now streaming on Netflix.

Our lives as Christians make us uniquely qualified to respond to the opioid epidemic: to give the spiritually hungry, spiritual food; to welcome people who are dealing with addiction and their families who are strangers to our Church; to visit those who are imprisoned by their addiction in hospitals, treatment centers, jails or prisons; and to clothe family members and others with the love of Christ. No other group of people has such qualifications. We are in the soul-saving business and a major aspect of the opioid problem involves soul sickness.

So what does it mean to be a faith responder? How might we as Episcopalians offer a faithful response to the opioid epidemic and the growing number of children, adults, families, churches and communities it affects?

It means putting our faith into action; it means growing into the vision of the Episcopal Church as: a faith community in which all members of a family affected by opioid use disorders and addictions, including the children, know there are knowledgeable and caring clergy and lay leaders who can:

  • Understand what they are experiencing.
  • Care about them and be available to them.
  • Help them find emotional and physical safety.
  • Support their healing and spiritual growth.

What would it be like to offer pastoral care and funeral services to funeral homes in your community for families and individuals who have experienced fatal overdoses? What would it be like to hold a camp or weekend retreat for children whose parents have died from fatal overdoses? What would it be like to hold healing services and reach out to the addiction and the addiction recovery communities and welcome them to the service? What would it be like to include prayers for those struggling with addiction, their families, and those who care for them in the Prayers of the People?

To me, it would look like the Gospel in action.

We need to start by acknowledging that, mostly, we want to help but have no strategies in place to do so. Then we need to school ourselves in the issues related to addiction and opioid use disorders. And, importantly, we need to align our response to the epidemic with Scripture, tradition and reason—acting by faith.

My hope for our Church is that dioceses and parishes will be healing and recovery-ready communities of people equipped with clergy and lay leaders who understand addiction and recovery, and who want to help those affected by addiction to rebuild their lives. We need to be intentional in our efforts to respond to addiction, embracing it as an opportunity to transform lives, minds, bodies and souls. We need to have a model for addiction and recovery support, knowledge that recovery is possible, resources that include time and training for clergy, key leaders and staff, and designated leadership continuously networking with local and national resources, developing education and referral sources, and conducting screening and intervention. We need to offer hope, competent pastoral care, compassion and reliable resources.

The Episcopal Church’s response to the opioid epidemic must include pastoral care, recovery support, education and training, advocacy, and liturgy. Faith responders must be committed to prayer. (In particular, I recommend the collect on pg. 114 beginning with “Keep watch,” and “On the Occasion of a Disaster” on pg. 733 of Holy Women, Holy Men.)

As faith responders, we must put our faith into action immediately. Lives and souls are at stake. We can help in ways and by means where others cannot. We have been called and commissioned by Christ to do so. I bid us all therefore to take our place in working to end this opioid epidemic by committing ourselves in service to others as faith responders.

Suggested Resources:

  1. Provisions for the Journey: curated materials from leading experts on addiction and recovery
  2. Documentaries: Heroin(e) (streaming on Netflix); Heroin: the Hardest Hit (YouTube); Dying in Vein: The Opiate Generation
  3. Opioid Overdose Awareness Day: Host or attend a service of remembrance on August 31, 2018
  4. And, most importantly, prayer

2 replies »

  1. Thank you for this witness. I did a funeral at a funeral home, for a family who I did not know. The service was for the second adult child lost to this addiction. Pain and dysfunction abounded at the gathering. The family sat, each with arms crossed around their chests, faces taught. They were closed. By the end of the service they had relaxed a bit, and I pray that the love of God, and the Holy Spirit touched them.
    Since then I wanted to do more. Sadly, my Diocese (Virginia) talked about it, when one of our then assisting bishops stood among clergy at a gathering and said that we were going to become involved. Then, after the election, when the President to be earmarked the opioid crisis as one of his targets, the Episcopal Church, at least in my diocese, became silent. I believe Jesus taught us to do God’s work despite the ways of the world.
    Thankfully there are voices out there that rise above partisan politics, yours being one of them. Blessings.

  2. Hi Peter, thanks for your response, Jesus did teach us do God’s work, despite the ways of the world. Addiction knows no boundaries, no matter the race,, political party, socioeconomic status, gender, we are all being affected either directly or indirectly. Thank you for your willingness to do the funeral in the funeral home, it matters that we are present during times like that offering the love of God to those who are in the midst of pain and despair. I hope you will continue to be interested. If there is anything I can do to support your efforts feel free to contact me. Hozho