General Synod asked to follow ‘the gospel of harm reduction’ in proposed resolution
The 2023 General Synod of the United Church of Christ will consider 17 resolutions and several bylaw changes when it meets June 30-July 4 in Indianapolis. This is one in a series of articles about them. Full texts of each of the proposed resolutions are available at the General Synod website.
The United States is facing a growing crisis of drug overdose. It took the lives of over 107,000 beloved people in 2021.
A proposed resolution coming before the General Synod of the United Church of Christ describes how the national response has too often resulted in the criminalization and dehumanization of drug users, with disproportionately harsh impacts on Black, brown and Indigenous people.
Philosophy of care
Harm reduction is a set of practices for minimizing drug-related harm and stigma. Some of its more well-known measures include distributing naloxone that can reverse overdoses and offering access to clean syringes.
But beyond outward practices, there is a deep philosophy of care: it is a person-centered philosophy and movement for justice that recognizes how social determinants impact someone’s vulnerability and relationship to substances. “Harm reduction is love that stands in awe at the burdens that people carry, rather than with judgment at how they get through,” the proposed resolution says.
Terrell Jones, an advocate and member of the UCC Harm Reduction and Overdose Prevention Ministries working group, described the element of “meeting people where they are” without judgement as a key component.
“It’s simple. It’s all about treating a person as a human being, something that is God-given,” he said. “There are things that happen in people’s lives that put them in certain situations. Nobody woke up and said they wanted to be homeless today or use drugs. Things happen. People have trauma that changes life for them, and people need to understand that.”
As a former user who has become a face of the harm reduction movement, Jones said that coming through harm reduction got him to where he is today: an outreach member at the organization OnPoint NYC who serves others in New York City with a harm reduction approach.
‘Bold and prophetic stance’
Harm reduction has gained growing attention in recent years. The Biden administration identified it as a federal drug policy priority, while federal bodies hosted the first national summit on the topic in 2021 and designated the first federal funding to harm reduction work in 2022.
Significant national dialogues around the topic are being led by faith leaders as well, and there is a need for more faith communities to get involved, according to the Rev. Erica Poellot, UCC minister for Harm Reduction and Overdose Prevention Ministries.
“We believe the church has a really significant role in both challenging the stigmatization and criminalization of people who use drugs and really taking a much more bold and prophetic stance when it comes to challenging these unjust laws that prohibit people who use drugs from being able to access health and wellness in the ways that they deserve,” she said.
‘Gospel of harm reduction’
The proposed resolution describes harm reduction as in-step with Jesus’ teaching and ministry that prioritizes love, compassion, centering people who are marginalized and experiencing suffering, and actions that seek to build justice. It notes that Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately impacted by overdose deaths, and Black men are sent to state prison on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men.
It calls the church to “the gospel of harm reduction,” which it describes as both prophetic and pastoral in “its response to the crises of racialized drug policy, accidental overdose and other harms of the war on people who use drugs.” It resolves that the denomination get involved through specific steps and processes that include:
- Encouraging congregations to create harm reduction covenants and commitments, similar to how congregations can be designated as W.I.S.E. for mental health support or Open and Affirming for LGBTQ inclusion.
- Encouraging all settings to increase access to resources such as naloxone distribution, overdose prevention programs and syringe access programs.
- Establishing an annual Harm Reduction Justice Sunday to be observed on the third Sunday of August, near International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31.
Broadening the conversation
The 2019 General Synod passed a resolution recognizing opioid addiction as a health epidemic, ensuring access to treatment and naming pharmaceutical corporate responsibility.
Poellot believes there remains space to broaden courageous conversations around substance abuse in the church. She said this means to “challenge the moral narrative around substance use and lift up the dignity and autonomy of people who use drugs” and also “to really allow ourselves to be stretched and challenged by experiences and understandings that perhaps are far beyond what we feel capable of really understanding, and really decentering ourselves in this.”
The harm reduction movement aims to center “the creativity and wisdom of people with lived and living experience of substance use,” the proposed resolution says.
Jones often shares his testimony to help people understand the movement’s impact.
“We’re about meeting you somewhere and getting you to the next level in your life,” he said. “That’s what happened to me, for me to get where I am today, to now being one of the faces of harm reduction. I’ve got my own place and a powerful support network, and that’s coming through harm reduction — learning to trust, addressing the issues in my life.
“The road was hard, but when you have support, when people are showing you genuine love and concern, it makes things a whole lot easier.”
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