“… Harm Reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.” harmreduction.org
My new car has this feature where, if you forget to put on your seatbelt, it starts making a dinging noise. And if a certain interval of time goes by without you buckling, that noise gets louder. It doesn’t stop dinging until you and your passenger are safely buckled in. Driving a car is a dangerous activity, but seatbelts make it safer. Seatbelts are, in fact, one form of the practical side of what is called harm reduction.
What is Harm Reduction?
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” (harmreduction.org). Harm reduction strategies, like providing clean needles, distributing naloxone (the opioid overdose reversal drug), offering HIV and Hepatitis C testing and treatment, and more, aim to make drug use safer. While some worry this could increase drug use, in fact, users who access syringe service programs are more likely to enter treatment.
Harm Reduction & Our Faith
Harm reduction does the hard work of meeting people where they’re at, loving them as they are, and inviting them to see their own worth and dignity. To me, that sounds an awful lot like the kind of work Jesus did and calls us to do.
In the Wesleyan theology that I claim as my heritage, we talk a lot about prevenient grace, the grace that God offers us before we are ready to accept it, the grace that enables us to grow into the fullness of our identity as beloved children of God. Harm reduction is a practical embodiment of prevenient grace. It declares to people who use drugs, “You are worthy of health, of safety, of love, even if you don’t yet believe it.” It offers the tools and stability needed for people to seek treatment and recovery, and it asserts loudly that even if a person never decides to get sober, that person is still worthy of dignity and respect and connection.
Churches around the country and around the world are finding innovative ways to support harm reduction and to tell people who use drugs, “God loves you.” From shining a light on the stigma experienced by people who use drugs and their families, to doing practical things to support syringe service programs, there are many ways to participate in the grace-filled work of harm reduction. Here are some ways your church can support harm reduction efforts in your community:
- Consider Your Language – Practice using person-first language (i.e. “people who use drugs” or “people experiencing addiction” instead of “addict,” “junkie,” etc.).
- Donate Containers – Collect used (clean) coffee containers and laundry detergent containers to donate to your local syringe exchange for safe disposal of used syringes. You can find a local syringe exchange through the Harm Reduction Coalition’s list of syringe exchange programs by state.
- Educate Your Congregation – Host a Sunday School class discussion about substance use and its impact on your community—and invite a harm reductionist!
- Clean Up in Your Community – Work with a local syringe exchange or public health department to organize a volunteer group to pick up trash and needles in the community.
- Offer Space – Open your building as meeting space for non-abstinence-based groups* like peer support groups, Any Positive Change groups, and Medication-Assisted Recovery Anonymous (MARA). *Abstinence-based groups include Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc., which many churches already welcome—but if your church does not, that’s another good place to start!
- Host a Prescription Pill Drive – Work with your local health department to host an event where people can safely dispose of unwanted painkillers and other medications.
- Get Trained to Reverse Overdoses – Keep naloxone in all first aid kits at your church and have staff and members trained on how to recognize and reverse an overdose.
Even More Resources
These ideas were adapted from the North Carolina Council of Churches. They have a large section of their website dedicated to Resources for the Opioid Crisis. You can also join the Faith in Harm Reduction network to learn more about how communities of faith are engaging in the practices and ideas of harm reduction.
Sarah Howell-Miller is a pastor-bioethicist-musician living in Winston-Salem, NC. An ordained United Methodist minister, she serves as Prioress of The Foundry House, an intentional Christian community for young adults, and as Music & Worship Coordinator at Green Street United Methodist Church, in addition to writing and performing music with Martha Bassett. She recently completed her M.A. in Bioethics at Wake Forest University and is exploring opportunities to write, speak, and teach at the intersection of faith and health.