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Seeking a Prayerful Response to the Opioid Crisis

Seeking a Prayerful Response to the Opioid Crisis

Dear people of the Episcopal Church in Vermont:

Please see this note sent to Province One Bishops from Heidi Shott, regarding the opioid crisis. The Bishops discussed our support of a New England voice on this at General Convention, and so I am sharing this with all of you to see who among you might have an interest in working further with Heidi and others on this topic. I am aware that it is a matter of urgency in Vermont and that it is a matter of considerable interest to many in our congregations. Please contact me at if you are willing to take a lead on increasing our involvement.

Thanks for your attention to this.

Love in the time of fentanyl

By Heidi Shott
Canon for Communication and Advocacy | Episcopal Diocese of Maine

A light skim of snow covered the ramp as I prepared to merge onto U.S. Route 1 last Thursday morning. As I looked for traffic to my left, I realized I needed to wait for an oncoming car and hit the breaks. Instinctively, my right arm swung out to protect the front seat passenger. My computer bag gave my hand a gentle love tap and settled back in its place. I laughed at myself and headed south to Portland.

As I drove, I recalled the times my mother, though my father must have done it too, threw out her arm to protect me from imminent disaster. I was born in 1962, six years before seatbelts were standard safety equipment and many years before wearing them was required by law. That my mother had so much confidence in the ability of her humerous, radius, ulna, and assorted phalanges to protect me was a kind of magical thinking. And, though I roamed the countryside far and wide with no supervision or bike helmet, ate tons of processed food (loved me some Fritos!), and watched a ridiculous amount of television, she must have believed that it was in her power to protect me, when worse came to worst, from any harm. My own twin sons turned 24 in December, and I am just now emerging from a cloud of maternal omnipotence and hyper-vigilance. Clearly, we lovers must believe in our ability to save our beloveds, a superpower we can muster in times of peril.

That’s what I was thinking on my way to work last Thursday. But then, driving along, I thought, that wasn’t enough for our niece.

Last May, 29 years-old and six months pregnant, she was found dead of an overdose. The obituary I wrote was both vague and upbeat, but people here in Maine are getting used to reading between the lines. If someone under 50 dies with no stated cause of death, it’s assumed to be an overdose.

The magical thinking imbued in the deep love and desperate concern of her family, particularly her parents and sibling, was not enough to protect her in the end. Love alone wasn’t enough. The instinctual impulse to protect her, to throw out an arm to shield her from harm, didn’t  match the challenge of addiction and despair. And the well of their grief is so deep it’s impossible to sound.

It’s 55 miles from my house to the office of the Diocese of Maine, so I still had time to think. I thought about the meeting scheduled that evening for the General Convention deputation. Its members would talk logistics and begin to think about the issues they would focus on in Austin come July.

As I rounded the curve on I-295 that reveals the Portland skyline and Casco Bay, I recalled an evening in May 2016 sitting with some of my colleagues and diocesan leaders after a Diocesan Council meeting in Bar Harbor. It was a jolly gathering until someone said – me, I fear – “What can the church do about the drug crisis? How can we help? What do we have to offer?” We kicked it around for awhile, but no one had any good answers. We sighed and moved on to  how we can assist New Mainers and asylum seekers whose problems the institutional church  is better equipped to address.

That year 376 Mainers died of an opioid-related overdose and, according to the Center for Disease Control, 42,249 people nationwide.

On Thursday evening, our General Convention deputies and Bishop Steve Lane gathered for soup and sandwiches. After talk of plane reservations and per diems, members of the deputation began to discuss the issues they might work on as Austin approaches: prayer book revision, support for immigrants and minor asylees, how to proceed with a diocesan  convention resolution directing the deputation to hold up the rights of children in Palestine, minimum wage, missional communities, the elderly. I looked over at John Hennessy who is my advocacy partner and the director of the Maine Episcopal Network for Justice. I had told him the story of saving the life of my computer bag that morning and suggested that he, as an elected deputy, might bring up the opioid crisis as an issue of concern. Like, who am I to suggest the deputation address an issue? I’ve been elected by exactly nobody.

Before John could respond to the nudge from my wiggling eyebrows, Bishop Lane, about the kindest person I know, looked over and said, “Heidi, didn’t you have an issue you wanted to bring up?” I forgot I had mentioned my little epiphany to him too.

As we talked of how to respond to the opioid crisis, Bishop Lane said, “Sometimes concrete resolutions do best at General Convention.” This is someone who hasn’t missed a Convention since 1988 so the man knows of what he speaks. “Perhaps we should submit a resolution that asks all churches to provide Narcan? That would get the conversation going.”

Ben Shambaugh, dean of St. Luke’s Cathedral, piped up from the other end of the table to say they had just held a training on how to administer Narcan. An overdose at the Jubilee Center housed at the Cathedral had scared everyone silly, but now they were ready for the next time.

As the deputation talked it over, I texted my son, Martin, who works as a paramedic in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

most doses of Narcan you’ve had to administer to a patient?

Before last summer, when I read an article in The New Yorker on the opioid crisis in West Virginia, I never knew that emergency medical people sometimes have to give multiple hits to bring an overdose patient to consciousness. There was a lot in that article that I found heartbreaking, not least how a young woman struggling with recovery characterized addiction. She explained, “…the constant hunt for heroin imposed a kind of order on life’s confounding open-endedness. Addiction told you what every day was for, when otherwise you might not have known.”

As the meeting came to a close and we settled on groups to address various issues, Martin texted back:

4 doses, which is 8 mg

My imaginary arm shot out across the miles. My son, my darling boy, has knelt on the street beside an unconscious human being, another child of God, and injected four doses of Narcan into him. As a mom who still wants to shield her beamish boy from sadness and the painful things of the world, this is hard to take in. It hits me every now and then that he has already seen some serious shit out there.

I reply that we’re talking about how the church can respond and that we’re wondering if Narcan should be available in churches.

Just make sure they ensure the patients are actually unconscious first. Concerned citizens of Cambridge [where Narcan is now available in kiosks on certain street corners] occasionally give it to healthy homeless people who are sleeping. 

Now there’s a mental image.

The deputation party breaks up, and we all say good night. As I drive 55 miles back home, I ponder what the church might have to offer those struggling with addiction and to the people who love them.

In the morning, I pulled up an order of service my friend, the Rev. Maria Hoecker, rector of St. Columba’s in Boothbay Harbor, crafted for my niece’s memorial service.

In the days following her death last May, her mother asked us if we knew someone she could speak with. She wanted to speak to someone, and my husband I were the only religious people she knew to ask. Maria immediately cleared her schedule and what happened next is holy business known only to the two of them and God. The next thing I know is an email for an order of service to use at the funeral home turned up in my inbox at five minutes before midnight.

It is beautiful, but one prayer1 stood out for me:

In the midst of our sorrow, we pray for the strength to choose life. We choose to affirm the goodness and sacredness of the life of our N. We acknowledge her worth in your sight and we hold onto our love for her and her baby even through the pain. We pray that you will remove all traces of regret, guilt, and shame from our hearts and minds.

We pray your forgiveness and mercy over every difficult incident between us and N. You know the road we have walked and how often we have felt that we should be doing one more thing to help, prevent or rescue.

We lay this entire journey at your feet and offer it up to you as our baptism into the suffering of Jesus, believing that we did the best we could and that this is all that you ask of us.

Although we cannot bring N. back, we pray for the future time when you will show us how to honor her by somehow taking up the good fight against addictions so that others might live. Right now we’re not ready. Right now we pray that you will help us to take the time to grieve and to heal. Simply place a small glimmer of hope in our hearts that one day You will show us a healing path that will be unique to who we are and in memory of N’s love for all.

And so dear God, heal all of our yesterdays, strengthen and sustain us today, and enlighten all of our tomorrows with your Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 Adapted from heroine-overdose/

I began to wonder if there is more we could do than offer Narcan.

Could we offer comfort to people who are grieving? A litany, perhaps? Could we offer support and options to people who feel there is no hope? I think of the op-ed Bishop Lane wrote in the Portland Press Herald back in November titled, “Despair should serve as a wake-up call.”

He wrote, in part:

It’s time now for communities of faith and all people of good will to reach out to our neighbors with renewed conviction; to offer aid, yes, but more importantly, to offer hope

– to say to our neighbors that they matter, that we care what happens to them, that we will walk with them as they work to keep body and soul together and build a life worth living.

…The antidote for despair is love and compassion, and we have them in abundance. Let the despair of the moment be a clarion call to action, to truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

Could we offer hope to those struggling with addiction? Could we offer support to those who love them but do so in isolation because of shame and fear they have failed?

Are we so bound by the beauty of our prayerbook and the requirements of our Canons that we couldn’t craft services for those who need our help but don’t want the trappings of the institutional church? People who, in their grief, yearn for the comfort of God, but don’t care about the rubrics? Could we find a way to offer hope to people who don’t see any way out of the rugged, seemingly-intractable place they find themselves? Could those things come out of Austin? Could – at least – the conversation start there?

I think of my son down in Cambridge responding every day to emergency calls and caring for people he’s never met, will never know, except for the time it takes to treat them and see them safely to the hospital. He is present in their time of need. His care is demonstrated by the power of his actions on their behalf and, by extension, on the behalf of the wider community.

What does love in the time of fentanyl look like? The power of a family’s love, however strong, is clearly not enough. Public policy that offers a range of proven treatment options is key, but not enough without community support. What can we as people of faith, what can we as a church offer that might just shift the balance and make a difference?

Paul asks, “Who can separate us from the love of God? Famine, persecution, danger, or war?”

“No,” he writes, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through the one who gave us love.”

And that’s love way more powerful than the Mom arm.

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