The Holy Friendship Summit in Blountville, Tenn., pursued an interdisciplinary approach to confronting the opioid epidemic.  Photo courtesy of USDA/Creative Commons

Faith and friendship as a remedy to the opioid crisis

A panel discussion at the inaugural Holy Friendship Summit in Blountville, Tenn., on May 18, 2018. RNS photo by Katelyn Beaty

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) — In the worship center of a nondenominational church in Blountville, Tenn., Jason Greer told a room of about 450 that he wasn’t used to public speaking. But his rhetorical skills hardly mattered: His story — of years of drug abuse, incarceration and, now, the long road to recovery — powerfully put a human face on the opioid addiction crisis.

“Every day is a blessing to wake up because I’ve been through a lot,” said Greer.

Greer was speaking in May at the inaugural Holy Friendship Summit, led by several Duke University theologians, medical care professionals and church leaders. His testimony was a bright spot at the two-day conference, which was aimed at facing a dark reality: At least 70,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2017. Of those, about 49,000 were opioid-related, according to CDC numbers.

In northeast Tennessee, the rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome — a set of problems infants face when withdrawing from drugs they were exposed to before birth — is five times the national rate. And 80 percent of crimes in Tennessee involve drugs.

The summit was an attempt to engage Christians in “healing the heart of Southern Appalachia.” That goal might sound simplistic, but it was an example of how faith communities are responding to the crisis: offering a place where those struggling with addiction can be known, loved and embraced on the way to recovery.

Last fall, President Trump called the epidemic a public health emergency and promised that stronger enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border would stem the tide of illegal drugs entering the country. This month, Trump asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to pursue lawsuits against large pharmaceutical companies.

But such measures primarily address the supply side of the crisis and overlook the demand side. In other words, why are so many people using painkillers?

The Holy Friendship Summit in Blountville, Tenn., pursued an interdisciplinary approach to confronting the opioid epidemic.  Photo courtesy of USDA/Creative Commons

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The answer, said summit speakers, demands a more holistic understanding of the human person than the medical community typically offers. Plenary talks and breakout sessions underscored the emotional, social and psychological reasons for why people become addicted — and how relationship with God and others can restore and heal.

“The pain that people bring to doctors is often responded to by doctors with tools we have in our toolbox, which is narcotics,” said Farr Curlin, a Duke University physician who serves on the summit's steering committee. “That is not restoring people to health. They aren’t getting better as a result.”

This year, under Duke’s Theology, Medicine and Culture Initiative, Curlin is serving as principal investigator of a research project on how medical and faith communities can work better together to address pain. At a followup meeting in July, East Tennessee churches learned how they could participate in post-conference projects, and the steering committee is considering hosting a second summit.

Greer’s story highlights how effective an interdisciplinary approach can be. In 2014, trying to get clear of the prison system once and for all, he sought help from a Day Reporting Center, an alternative to incarceration for high-risk offenders. Having found Christian faith while in jail, he also became connected to Christ-Reconciled Church, a small Southern Baptist congregation that has attracted others in recovery.

Naturally, other faith traditions want to help. This week, New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey hosted an interfaith summit, convening clergy, medical practitioners and local law enforcement to address the role spiritual leaders play in addressing the opioid crisis. The day started with prayers from the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Yoruba-Kukumi traditions.

In Atlanta, Community Health Interfaith Partnership engages diverse faith communities to provide physical and spiritual support. In LA, Chabad Treatment Center uses Jewish prayers and teachings on Torah to help people in recovery.

Many faith-based programs receive grants via the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide services. For faith communities to be effective, though, they have to overcome the stigma attached to addicts and the subtle condescension that can occur when “the healthy” help “the sick.”

“Those suffering with behavioral health conditions and addiction are much more than patients or clients,” said Holy Friendship organizers. “They are our sisters and brothers in Christ.”

As Raymond Barfield, a Duke University oncologist and speaker at the summit, told Religion News Service in May, “If you can get church leaders to begin to change the perception of these broken, fragile people who are in need of love and help and healing, it can have some significant impact.”

(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)


  1. John 1:12-13
    12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
    John 3:3-6
    3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again[a] he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.[b]

    What a powerful experience, to be born of the Spirit of God. This happens when you receive Jesus Christ into your life. Addictions of various kinds are powerful forces, or cravings, that often control the person’s life. The power of Jesus Christ can overcome the most powerful of cravings and addictions. Church members, strong with their Bibles and strong in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, can provide very beneficial support to help the person overcome addictions … permanently.

  2. Being made to feel a welcome, valued part of a concerned community is a major assistance to those who wish to leave addiction.

    Many religious people will see their religion as being the solution rather than the delivery method.

    Unfortunately there will always also be groups (not all of them religious) which will see addicts as vulnerable potential recruits to benefit the group rather than the addict.

    Properly funded secular programmes exist and have excellent success rates in terms of being addiction-free after five years – without ongoing demands for money, membership or mental acquiescence to a deity/dogma.

    The problem, as I see it, is in the phrase “Properly funded”. All such programmes are expensive – if volunteer organisations save taxpaid input politicians are likely to cross their fingers and hope for success on the cheap. And they will get some – but often the addict merely gives up one harmful lifestyle for another, probably less, harmful addiction – the reliance on an unevidenced and unnecessary deity.

  3. Faith and fellowship can be useful. I can see it in the actions of Jehovah Witness converts who have to give up smoking and drug use. My own sister has given up a 20-year opioid addiction to get reinstated (she was excommunicated). I have seen numerous examples of this during my association with JWs. Of course I am not advocating a god just what motivation and support can do.

  4. Of course you are not advocating a god because you have made yourself a god. Congratulations to your sister, who has made the first step.

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