According to the Harm Reduction Coalition, “Harm Reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm Reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.”
When it comes to Harm Reduction, I think the first part is clear. Studies clearly show how Harm Reduction helps the larger community. Syringe exchanges, Narcan distribution and recovery gateway navigation have all shown to improve overall health in the wider community. There are lots of reasons that, from a health care perspective, Harm Reduction makes sense. But the second part is where our faith should inform our work.
The theological framework for Harm Reduction can be found through many different lenses in scripture. Personally, I find that following the example of Jesus’s life and teachings concerning care and love for all people – accepting them where they are – is perhaps the most useful.
Stepping away from scripture and looking at other influences that affect our faith, Harm Reduction can be seen through the Mission of the Church and through our Baptismal Covenant. “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (BCP, pg. 855)
To restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ takes a lot of work. And the root of that work is in relationships. Harm Reduction is a clear and visible sign of a loving relationship with those that use drugs. Through my work in Harm Reduction, the single most important thing that I do is tell people that I love them and so does God. Many people have been torn down by religion, seeing their drug use as a sort of moral failing. Simply explaining that God does love them begins to build a relationship built on dignity and mutuality.
Our Baptismal Covenant asks us, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people,and respect the dignity of every human being?” These questions provide a lived understanding of our faith and how we are to relate to the world and each other. Dignity is hard to come by. And for those that use drugs, it is even harder to come by.
A long history of abstinence-only messaging, the war on drugs and the criminality of simple possession have influenced our culture and causes many to view those that use drugs as outcasts at best. But Christ is at the heart of each person and seeking to serve Christ, even in those that use drugs, creates relationships that are built on dignity and love. When we build upon that foundation, we can restore people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
My own theology of Harm Reduction is one that is in continual development because it is one that is based on lived experience. My journey began, in earnest, in 2017 when I decided I needed to learn more about Naloxone. I felt there was a need for parishes with their shelters, feeding programs and recovery ministries, to be equipped to respond to a potential overdose. I went through training on how to administer Naloxone and then became a licensed trainer in the state of Virginia. With encouragement from the administration of Virginia Theological Seminary, a fellow student and I began training our fellow seminarians and local clergy on the importance of keeping Naloxone on hand.
Like with any social justice work, I began to see deeper, more systemic problems. That is when I discerned that the work of Harm Reduction was part of my calling. I found that it wasn’t enough for me to only train people in case someone overdosed on the church property. I eventually found the courage to follow the example of Jesus and meet people where they are.
I began by securing a supply of Narcan, the nasal spray form of Naloxone, from the local health department. Through a grant and initiative from the National Institutes of Health called Project DAWN, I am now able to distribute Narcan directly into the community to people who use illegal drugs and the people that live with and love them. Like the clergy training before it, this movement too has forced me further into the work of Harm Reduction.
There are many ways that you can help support Harm Reduction. Where to begin? The number one thing is to help push back against the stigma that exists surrounding people that use illegal drugs, especially intravenous drug use. With a quick internet search, you can contact local Harm Reduction groups and see if they need volunteers. You can donate to local Harm Reduction efforts. Most importantly, you can voice your support for overdose prevention and syringe access programs to your local and state representatives. And remember to seek and serve Christ in all people, because everyone deserves to be treated with love, respect and dignity.
Learn more about Harm Reduction at the National Harm Reduction Coalition website, harmreduction.org.
The Rev. Paul Bennett serves as Priest Resident at All Saints, Portsmouth.