GC Stop needle exchange (copy)

Charlie Counselman and Tequan Powell carry signs for the GC Stop needle exchange program that they posted outside College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro, NC on Sept. 4, 2019. (H. Scott Hoffmann/News & Record)

GREENSBORO — An unspoken sermon of sorts is playing out here, just inside a side entrance to College Park Baptist Church. It isn't based on a Bible verse, and a choir is nowhere to be seen.

Some might think it's for the addicts who use the entrance to get the clean needles offered inside by the Guilford County Solution to The Opioid Problem program. It's not.

It's about what happens when the faith community partners in battling the burgeoning opioid crisis. And it's meant for the faith community.

"This is a problem," said church member and retired Greenboro Police Capt. Bill Ingold, who with a few others refurbished a room used as storage for the clinic, which is open two nights a week. "Why not us?"

The faith community is sometimes considered a missing partner in the fight against opioid abuse, but this congregation is one of a few in the state working with health professionals to reduce opioid deaths through a syringe-exchange program.

At the intersection of two busy streets, in a corner of the church, addicts stop by for clean supplies, wound care, case management, counseling and access to treatment.

"There's lots of things in life that are sort of counter-intuitive, and I think this is one of them," said the Rev. Michael Usey, the church's pastor. "I believe the statistics that someone who comes to an opioid clinic or free needle exchange — and we just call it the free clinic— is three times more likely to get off addiction."

He also hopes the church's involvement helps to make the connection about all human struggles.

"I hope the message is that we are all in this together, trying to get it right," Usey said, "and that we are all helping each other because we can't really do it alone."

Leaders with the N.C. Council of Churches felt so strongly about the faith community getting more involved in the opioid crisis that the nonprofit is using a grant through its Partners in Health and Wellness initiative to encourage congregations to get involved.

The group created a position for someone to reach out directly to faith leaders to draw attention to an issue that might not get talked about at church.

"I was very nervous that people would get angry with me and put up their walls," said Elizabeth Brewington, who has degrees in sociology and religious studies. "It's been the most welcome surprise. People want to figure out what's right for their church. A lot of churches, they're not ready for syringe exchange. But they want to do something."

Talking about it, she said, can also reduce the stigma of opioid abuse so those those struggling with it can ask for help.

Brewington was at Grace United Methodist Church in Greensboro, which hosted a breakfast meeting with faith leaders from around the city, earlier this year. She's back this coming week at College Park.

Even as churches figure out what's right for them, she's hoping they'll at least take that information back and spark conversations with their congregations.

They all end with a question-and-answer segment.

"In Durham, the conversations were very focused on how to provide spiritual care to parents who are grieving," she said. "In Wilmington, how do I partner with the local education group? In Hickory, one person said 'I can't hand out syringes, but I'll help pick them up.' I think the common thread is people want to do something. They want to do something, and they are not sure where to start."

For Green Street United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, sharing space with The Twin City Harm Reduction Collective was an easy yes, said the Rev. Kelly Carpenter. The program there, which gives out Narcan for reversing the overdosing effects of opioids, had 180 reversals in 2018 — and this year passed 180 by July.

"That’s 180 lives saved, so we feel really good about that," Carpenter said.

But the need for outreach is much greater, Carpenter said.

The religious community has been one of the biggest perpetrators of the stigma of drug addiction, he said.

Carpenter said it reminds him of the church grappling with issues such as AIDS/HIV.

"The stigma is still there, but more and more people are seeing it as a disease that needs treatment, instead of a moral failure," Carpenter said.

In Greensboro, the GCSTOP syringe exchange takes place twice a week at College Park. The congregation already hosts a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in the building.

GCSTOP is a collaboration with UNCG's department of social work, which provides wound care, counseling and access to treatment at the church. The Interactive Resource Center shares a nurse from the Cone Health System's Congregational Nurse Program.

"The main thing we want to do is reduce opioid-related fatalities," said GCSTOP's program manager Chase Holleman, a former opioid user who works directly with overdose survivors. "We steer people toward any positive change, and we celebrate that."

Getting someone to go from using a needle multiple times to using that one needle once means they've greatly reduced the risk for a number of conditions that could land them in the hospital for months, or worse, including endocarditis, Hepatitis C and HIV.

Holleman had been looking for a place to open a clinic and was hoping to find a faith community, where some people more easily turn for help and to share their struggles.

Church member Melissa Floyd-Pickard, chairwoman of the social work department at UNCG and a former substance abuse therapist, had heard that initially another congregation had turned the group down.

She texted Usey, her pastor.

"It was, "Absolutely,'" Floyd-Pickard said.

"Some traditions would say 'Pray more,'" she said of how to help drug addicts.

The church vote was unanimous.

"I’m no Bible scholar, but I can’t remember Jesus ever closing the doors of the church to anybody," said Ingold, the retired police captain.

Members worried how welcome participants would feel. Third- through fifth-graders at the church helped decorate a white cabinet with colorful handprints and routinely fill it with items ranging from food to hygiene products collected from donation bins at the church.

"We knew that nobody was going to push anything on people, but they didn’t know that," Floyd-Pickard said.

The clinic has its own separate door near two busy intersections and draws a mix of college students, sex workers and professional types.

"Some faith communities do the traditional blame, shame and moralizing with folks, which isn't helpful for anyone," Holleman said. "What we've found here is, like this is what we do as Christians, and that we love people and offer them kindness and respect no matter where they are in life."

One of the clinic times is right before the Wednesday church meal, and those who come for the clinic can seamlessly grab a plate and a chair without questions.

"We are trying to really normalize that people struggle, and that they are welcome in their struggles," Floyd-Pickard said.

Floyd-Pickard says she's been in discussions where people say they couldn't imagine being a part of such a giveaway. Not only does GCSTOP exchange syringes, but they provide plastic containers for needle disposal.

"I said, 'You have to focus on the public-health part,'" Floyd-Pickard said. "For every needle that goes into a Sharps (disposal) box, you are not going to find it in a park. It's also keeping people alive to make better decisions."

GCSTOP is talking to another church in High Point, and a north Greensboro church recently voted to offer clinic space to GCSTOP to open there soon. Holleman participated in a showing of a movie about people in recovery and the discussion afterward at Temple Emanuel.

All give him hope that the faith community will become a strong partner in the opioid crisis.

He tells the story of a couple who had just started using drugs who began showing up at the clinic at College Park about a year ago.

"We'd talk about treatment, but they'd talk in circle, and we'd slowly see them getting worse and worse," Holleman said. "One day, when they were ready, they came to us, because we had the relationship, and said they wanted to get into treatment. For whatever reason, they had a moment of clarity."

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Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.

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