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The National Council of Churches (NCC) was invited to the White House Roundtable with Faith Leaders on the Overdose Crisis this week. It was hosted by Dr. Rahul Gupta, Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy and Mayor Steven Benjamin, Director, White House Office of Public Engagement. Also providing leadership was Melissa Rogers, Executive Director, White House Office of Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships and the Rev. Que English, Ph.D., Director of Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, Department of Health and Human Services.  Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, President/General Secretary and Rev. Dr. Leslie Copeland Tune, Chief Operating Officer, represented NCC. Each of the 11 organizations were asked to share from a list of 5 questions ranging from policies, direct services, challenges and barriers to saving lives from opioid overdose and the role of their specific faith community.

              “We want to hear from you,” said Dr. Gupta in his opening remarks.

              Bishop McKenzie highlighted the work of NCC member denominations, including the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church in her presentation about success stories. Several NCC communions provide resources to congregations to address opioid use and overdose with compassion, others encourage congregations to use their facilities for providing services in underserved rural areas; still others partner with local responders and the medical communities to offer pastoral care to those affected by this epidemic and collaborate with other faith leaders to advocate policies and laws that promote healing and wholeness.

              Bishop McKenzie also cited the NCC’s work in ending Mass Incarceration and the revival of the Health and Wellness Taskforce.  A 2019 report indicated that opioid use was a factor in arrest and inmate intake. One report noted that 14.5% of persons tested positive for opioid use during the inmate intake process, making opioid use a factor in ending mass incarceration. NCC’s new health initiative is focusing on Mental Health. Dr. Gupta observed that mental health was a factor in each of the presentations.

“Faith communities have an opportunity to chip away at the stigma of Opioid abuse and overdose which not only impacts the lives of those who are caught in the vise of prescription drug abuse, but their families who often suffer in silence and the broader community, “said Bishop McKenzie.  “Church is an excellent place to learn about relationship – your relationship with God, relationship with each other and how to repair relationships. The church can be a connector that helps people reenter into community as we learn to change the question from “what’s wrong with you?” to “what happened to you?”

Bishop McKenzie also shared insights from Rev. Dr. Barry Steiner, an ordained United Methodist minister who has developed ministry programs that address the opioid crisis. She quoted him saying, “So, I set about learning all I could about addiction and put together a program for local churches to explain how the brain works and why SUD (substance use disorder) is a medical issue and not a moral issue.  Then to spend time with the congregation exploring what resources were available in their city, town, crossroads, or holler.  Spending time in prayer asking where does God need me…where does God need us, the congregation to respond.  I began going from church to church to church with my anti-stigma program.”