Wheeling Faith Communities Address Opioid Epidemic

Man honored for effort to rally support on state level

WHEELING — As faith communities respond to the area’s addiction problem, a Wheeling man has been honored for his efforts to galvanize support from state religious leaders to address this issue.

Local clergy and community members turned out in large numbers for a Faith Community Town Hall on Addiction discussion held this week at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. The event was organized by the Community Impact Coalition, United Way of the Upper Ohio Valley and the Upper Ohio Valley Ministerial Alliance.

Prior to the discussion, the Rev. Jeffrey S. Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, presented the organization’s Mary Virginia DeRoo Ecumenical Service Award to William N. Hogan Jr. of Wheeling. Allen said Hogan was instrumental in encouraging the council to become involved in outreach efforts to tackle substance abuse.

Hogan, who has been in recovery for decades, dedicated the award to his daughter, Peggy, who died five years ago. Hogan said he considers “my life, especially my second life, as an undeserved gift … I will be 89 on Friday. It’s never too late to try,” he added.

Keynote speaker for the town hall event was the Rev. Barry D. Steiner Ball, an ordained United Methodist minister and retired natural resources police officer and Drug Enforcement Administration task force member. “Every church can do something,” he said, “Every ministry starts small … We need to step out of our sanctuaries.”

Calling on churches to help, rather than stigmatize, people struggling with addiction and their family members, he said, “These folks need our love and support … They need to know they’re not alone.”

Steiner Ball commended clergy and churches for becoming involved in harm reduction programs such as needle exchanges and distribution of naxolone to reverse opioid overdose. “These folks are choosing life. They don’t want hepatitis; they don’t want HIV,” he said. “These folks are coming hurting, but they are choosing life.”

To help people in recovery, he said, “We can walk behind them, beside them, and say, ‘We are with you.'”

Steiner Ball also suggested that church members establish Bible studies at halfway houses, give cooking lessons and teach mindfulness meditation to people in recovery.

During DEA raids, he noticed that “90 percent of the time, a child was in the house, thinking this is normal.” He said the need is great for volunteers to mentor children at elementary schools.

George Smoulder, United Way executive director and Catholic deacon, cautioned that in responding to the addiction problem, “We have to be sensitive to other faith communities that aren’t Christian.”

Audience members offered several suggestions for next steps for faith communities to pursue, including: explore resources in Judaism and Islam to address addiction; provide bulletin inserts and educational materials; work together as churches; train clergy; use community coalitions as resources; cultivate faith traditions and practices from all faiths to implement recovery; monitor public policy to ensure non-detrimental political advocacy; get into the community and build relationships with active addicts and residents of recovery houses; end isolation; mentor students; hold after-school programs at churches and reflect on how churches encourage health, joy and nurturing.

Most of the town hall session was devoted to conversation between a panel of experts and audience members.

Serving on the panel were Steiner Ball; Doug Spears, northern regional representative for Celebrate Recovery; Ann Hammond, a recovery coach with Help 4 WV, and the Rev. Joel Richter, pastor of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church and Impact member.

Spears, who has been in recovery 18 years and is an ordained minister of the Church of God, said, “There’s freedom from drugs, freedom from alcohol, freedom from addiction. What God did for me, He can do for anyone.”

Richter, a recovering alcoholic, noted the spiritual nature of 12-step programs. He said, “To pull this together, God had to do this, not me. We have to look to God at work in the world.

“We have to believe that people who are suffering have something to offer and to teach us,” Richter said, adding, “We have to have leaders in the church willing to say, ‘This person deserves grace.'”

Hammond, who also is in recovery, said her church, the United Methodist Temple in Clarksburg, is turning a donated building into a recovery home for women.

The United Methodist Church is offering a free Lenten program that “focuses on our response of how we’re going to stop this epidemic,” Steiner Ball said.

Spears said, “I challenge everyone to get involved. Cross the dividing lines, support another church.”