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

In New England, battling the opioid crisis with a mix of science and faith

A police officer speaks to people on New Haven Green on Aug. 15, 2018, in New Haven, Conn. Emergency personnel responded to dozens of overdoses at the park on Aug. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes)

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

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (RNS) — Doreen Abubakar arrived at Manjares Restaurant and Fine Pastries in New Haven, Conn., catching her breath and waiting for a miracle.

Her 29-year-old daughter was in intensive care at a nearby hospital, unconscious and bleeding internally, symptoms that doctors said were connected to years of being addicted to opiates, heroin, cocaine and crack.

Her daughter might need surgery, Abubakar said as she sat down, adding that she might have to leave at a moment’s notice.

“As those children come to you and you go through life, as parents, we realize we can’t fix everything,” Abubakar said. “As a parent, we think all we gotta do is the same thing our parents did, and it will be OK.”

But with her eldest daughter, Abubakar said, more intervention was needed.

This has been her life over the past decade and a half.

Abubakar said her daughter’s journey into drug abuse began in eighth grade, when she started smoking marijuana on the streets with her friends. From there, she began using harder drugs, her mom said.

“She tried to go to a Florida rehab. They even paid for it,” Abubakar said. “But she was still holding on to this attitude of ‘I don’t really need help, I can stop this. This is what I choose to do.’”

But her daughter’s fragile frame started to buckle under the weight of the substances she was taking, and she regularly fainted and fell. Abubakar took her to the hospital in January after one fainting incident, and the doctors kept her daughter for 15 days, treating her for anemia and internal bleeding.

Abubakar was thankful for her daughter’s hospitalization because it kept her away from the streets and the drugs. But after she was released, her daughter fainted again on Feb. 4, went into cardiac arrest on the floor of Abubakar’s bathroom and had to be rushed back to the hospital.

Addiction stories like Abubaker's are rapidly becoming more common in Connecticut, a state the National Institute on Drug Abuse counts among the top 10 states with the highest rates of opioid-related deaths. According to the agency, the state has seen a nearly fourfold increase in deaths from opioid overdoses since 2016.

In a 2017 anti-opioid campaign, the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Connecticut said there were 446 deaths from fentanyl overdoses in 2015, up 3,000 percent from 2012. On Aug. 15, 2018, New Haven ambulances responded to more than 70 overdoses in one city park, the New Haven Green near Yale University, stemming from the abuse of a tainted batch of synthetic marijuana called K2 and other drugs.

The opioid epidemic has hit New England very hard. Photo courtesy of USDA/Creative Commons

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

The crisis has left churches scrambling to respond.

Last year, a man overdosed on the front porch of The Center Church, a First Church of Christ in Hartford. The police were called, but church officials never learned what subsequently happened to him, said the Rev. Shelly Stackhouse, the church’s transitional pastor.

The incident made Stackhouse aware that the church, which already hosts weekly free community meals and runs an outreach center, needed guidance on how to respond to the opioid epidemic, especially how to minister to those with addictions.

Stackhouse pursued training through Faith in Harm Reduction, a program offered by the Harm Reduction Coalition, a New York organization that educates faith leaders on how to deal with drug abuse in their communities. She is also pursuing training in how to administer Narcan, a drug that’s used to treat overdose victims.

“Both our outreach director and I will be trained to use Narcan in the near future, and we will keep some on-site,” she said.

The Rev. Erica Poellot, the coalition's director of Faith and Community Partnerships, is seeing more faith leaders of all denominations across the country reaching out. She said the faith community needs to change the conversation about drug abuse, replacing stigma with compassion.

“I heard from hundreds of people following a sermon on the spirit of harm reduction that they had never heard the drugs issue talked about with compassion,” she said, “that they had never heard their story reflected with love from inside a sacred space, that they have never heard themselves, their children, their lovers, called beloved.”

As the pastor of Maranatha Life Changing Ministries Church of God in Christ, Roger Wilkins said he hopes more ministries in New Haven and across Connecticut will get involved in helping drug abusers in their communities.

Families in his neighborhood, he said, are “spending their money on all these other things instead of the basics, so we are also feeding people and providing food for homes that need it,” he said.

In Bridgeport, Pivot Ministries has seen a sharp increase in the need for its faith-based men’s residential treatment program.

“I have witnessed the drug use demographic shift from predominantly cocaine use four or five years ago to predominantly opiate use via pills and heroin,” said the Rev. Richard Williams, executive director. “The local Bridgeport faith community is alert to the drug epidemic and makes referrals for those who are in need of help and treatment services.”

Pivot also partners with 47 churches throughout Connecticut and New England, according to its website.

After her daughter’s troubles began, Abubakar became a facilitator for Smart Recovery, a self-management program for people with addictions that also provides recovery training for people and organizations who work with addicted populations. Abubakar wants to get more New Haven churches involved in the program as a resource to help people like her daughter.

Education is the key, she said, but churches can combine information with hope. “They can speak to both sides, giving biblical hope but understanding the specifics of what science says is the problem,” she said.

At the café, a local pastor, Mary Ransome, came over to give Abubakar a hug and to ask about her daughter’s health. Ransome knows what it’s like to have a child who struggles with addictions.

She said her 38-year-old daughter was arrested on a parole violation and placed in a court-ordered rehabilitation program in November 2018, after years of using the drug “Wet,” the street name for a combination of marijuana and PCP.

“She’s got to stay clean for five years. I’m glad because she doesn’t want to go to jail,” Ransome said. “She called me this morning. She’s gaining weight. She said, ‘Mom, I feel healthy.’ This was prayer because God has given her people to look at her and work with her.”

At the restaurant table, Abubakar’s phone lit up with text messages and then phone calls. It was time for her daughter’s surgery. She had to leave.

A few days later, she reported that the surgery had stopped the bleeding in her daughter's abdomen. “We give God praise,” she texted.

But later that week, her daughter’s health had deteriorated. On Feb. 9, Abubakar texted again: “Saying our last goodbyes. All tests confirmed no brain activity (brain dead.) We thank God for giving hope and time."


  1. A well written and compassionate article that address one of the most compelling issues of our time.

  2. A sad story, but unfortunately one that could be told in all 50 states. While the church can play a role; both with good moral teaching and support for those addicted or in recovery – only an all hands aporoach will work.
    1) regardless of what the medical marijuana crowd says, weed is a gateway drug for some.
    2) needle programs only perpetuate the problem. In addition, they lead to additional issues as seen in San Francisco.
    3) the pharmaceutical companies and physicians need to own up to the over prescribing of opiates. A 35 year old soccer mom shouldn’t become an addict because she injured her back.
    3.5) both the public and private sector needs to work with addicts and those in recovery to get their lives straight.
    4) the flow of drugs from Mexico needs to stop. Build the wall and enforce movement across the border.
    5) America is at this very moment deciding whether to stop the opiate crisis or embrace it. Legalization initiatives are on ballots on a number of states under the auspices of “for medical purposes”. Everyone knows it’s a Trojan horse, but we are going to do it anyway. If you vote for it, then own it.
    6) addiction is real. Once you’re hooked; your done. A friend of mine that I was in the marine corps with OD’d in a parked car. Alone. With a needle hanging out of his arm. He started his addiction as a kid (weed); continued it at the VA (prescription drugs) and ended it in a parking lot (heroin). He was in rehab a lot through the VA and other places; but just couldn’t shake it.
    This issue reminds me a lot of the abortion issue – you are on one side or the other. And like the abortion issue, one side has horrendous consequences.
    Please pray for those who are addicted and for their families. They truly are lost souls who cannot help themselves.

  3. 1) regardless of what the medical marijuana crowd says, weed is a gateway drug for some.

    Some people have addictive personalities. When they get a taste of a drug, that’s it and Marijuana is often the starting drug. Many opioid addicts, however, started out legally taking them for pain but got addicted. I doubt that the legalization of marijuana will have any impact. Google and you will see that studies are coming out showing medical marijuana can actually help.

  4. 1) Jim Johnson has that one covered throughly

    2) Needle programs prevent turning addiction into a greater public health hazards by reducing the spread of diseases associated with shared needles. Diseases which frequently cross over into non-addicted populations

    3+3.5) I am surprised you are taking an anti-big corporate stance. Good for you. Agree there

    4) Silly response. The wall would never affect narcotics traffic. Mexico is a country the US is at peace with and has open trade. There are realistic limits there which will never be acknowledged by people who typically employ “brown peril” nonsense arguments

    5) Silly response as well. Half the problem exists because of legally prescribed drugs which were under-regulated. For someone who frequently demonizes government regulations, this is a rather uncharacteristic stance on your part.

    6) Cool story bro. See #1

    “This issue reminds me a lot of the abortion issue”

    Me too. There are a lot of self righteous nosybodies pretend to be concerned with life but just use the topic to act like a horse’s posterior. 🙂

  5. #2 That attitude always irked me. It is also applied to condoms and birth control – providing them will only encourage bad behavior. They neglect the consequences of that useless advice.

  6. Ignoring serious public hazards in an effort to sound self-righteous is a common theme with that crowd.

  7. That was a wildly dishonest response. As usual. You have added another part of the equation which changed its nature.

    Needle exchanges have been proved to work against opioid addiction. They’re banned in 15 states.
    “Needle exchange programs are an exhaustively studied, proven public health intervention in the fight against opioid addiction — making them a key component in efforts to halt the opioid epidemic.”

  8. Regardless of what the medical marijuana crowd says, marijuana is not medicine, anymore than alcohol or nicotine are medicines.

  9. Weed is not a gateway for anything. Drugs and alcohol are not the problem. The problem is the need to self destruct, whether it is by drinking, smoking, over eating, bad relationships with the opposite sex, and even weed. I grew up in the sixties with lots of free sex, drugs, and alcohol. Those who felt worth it, deep down inside, had their fun and went on to live productive lives, and those did not feel worth it, no matter how much success and money they accumulated, they found a way to self destruct. Now that I am an old man, I can actually say that I have lost more friends to habits and degenerative diseases associated with over eating of bad foods and lack of exercise than from anything else. Good people who just did not feel worth it deep down inside.

  10. Marijuana is medicine! It is a mild sedative. A glass of wine with you dinner is medicine. But even even aspirin and good food can kill you or make you toxic if not used in moderation. People who want to self destruct will find a way to do it, even if their are no drugs around. Probably the biggest killer out there is consuming too much sugar and fried foods.

  11. Far more people die of self inflicted diabetes and heart disease every year, and that destroys lives as well.

  12. When I mention the systematic teaching of “holy war” against the infidels by clerics and academics, causing the weekly acts of terrorism that we read about in international news, in multiple Countries, you say that I am offending 1.2 billion faithful. But when you say “that crowd”, whom specifically do you speak of at the risk of offending people?? Please do not dodge the question.

  13. Speaking from your perspective as a self-righteous anti-democratic process nosybody through a horse’s posterior, of course.

  14. It was pretty clear from the prior post whom I was talking to, in the context of the conversation you decided to interject yourself into without reading closely. The people who discourage access to birth control because it allegedly encourages sexual activity use the same wrongheaded rationale to needle exchange programs.

    Much like bigots who attack one religion as being evil use the same rationale and tactics as bigots who attack other religions as being evil.

    Some light reading for you

  15. I hate repeating myself because someone has a reading problem.

    Marijuana is often the first substance (other than
    alcohol) people try. I did as did most of my peers. I liked it and I continue to do so. My only substance. Some people went farther and ended up addicted because they have an addictive or destructive personalities. Addictive drugs are the problem.

  16. I was clear enough. If you read the preceding conversation you would have gotten the context.

  17. Everything that tastes good or feels good is addictive. It is like saying food is the problem and the gateway to heart disease and obesity. Food can be your best friend or your worst enemy. We have to make relationships

  18. ‘Marijuana is often the starting drug.’

    That is a true statement. My last word.

  19. Where does tobacco and caffeine fit in amoung the most addictive drugs, and readily available to everyone??

  20. Isn”t it nice that no one cares. The easiest thing in the world is not to care. Great teaching moment

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