Why I Offer Clean Needles in Jesus' Name
The woman who walked into the needle exchange that night was filled with piercings. Head to toe, she likely had hundreds of barbs and holes in her body. She held a trashcan-sized biohazard container full of dirty needles. A female volunteer met the woman an asked her about her life, her drug use, her struggles. The pierced woman shed her clothing to reveal the places she had creatively found to inject drugs. Veins stripped, she was having trouble finding more sites.
But she came to the needle exchange. And for once, she heard, "You are valuable. You are important. You are welcome. You are safe here." She was given resources to help her take a baby step toward health. For some clients this means a referral to a treatment center, for others it means finding a safe place to sleep and a hot meal. And yet for this woman and many others, the tiny step is simply to make their next injection a non-lethal one.
Fourteen years ago, I was part of a church plant called Mars Hill. During the first week of services, over 1,000 people came and, in many ways, mayhem has ensued ever since. An early value of our congregation was to give away our resources as much as possible. So when people attended en masse and gave generously, the task of stewarding the resources felt overwhelming. A group began to pray about how to use the resources for our city and globe, and eventually we formed a global outreach team.
In the early 2000s, we were struck by how little the evangelical church was addressing the global HIV pandemic (thankfully, this has changed dramatically), and we decided to donate $1 million to AIDS relief in East Africa. However, in one of our subsequent meetings, we realized that it was hypocritical for us to care about a pressing issue "over there" without acknowledging it in our own backyard. The members of the outreach team agreed and said, "Great idea, Ruth. Why don't you figure that out?"
Thus began my journey into the heart of the HIV/AIDS community of Grand Rapids, Michigan. In American Christendom, Grand Rapids is a holy city, akin to Wheaton or Pasadena or Dallas. Hundreds of churches, not to mention Christian colleges, seminaries, publishers, and faith-based nonprofits, operate within our city limits. We are second only to Salt Lake City in our philanthropic giving. Yet in light of all this activity and generosity, the "faithful" were scant within the HIV circles I began to frequent.
Since I needed a place to begin, I started to connect with events and organizations important to the HIV community, with the objective to "show up and shut up." I made an appointment with the program manager of HIV/AIDS Services, Inc., a man named Dave, the organization's only employee. I found him in a rented, closet-sized office within a building called "The Network"—known around town as the gay building. It's in an eclectic part of GR, behind the only store that caters to customers interested in New Age materials. As I walked into the rainbow-flagged edifice for our meeting, I had a boatload of fear. It's not that I was afraid of gay people, per se—I just didn't know very many. The Network's lobby was strewn with magazines and brochures about coming out, gay sex, HIV, and local events catering to the LGBT community.
I squeezed into an extra chair shoehorned into the miniscule office and began to chat with Dave about their programs and volunteer positions. He mentioned the organization's HIV prevention efforts aimed at the demographics most at risk for the virus: gay men and intravenous drug users. He explained the work of the needle exchange and the "outreach" programs in gay bars throughout our city. He explained the philosophy of meeting people where they are and moving them one baby step at a time toward health and, in that process, informing them about HIV and how to prevent its spread. Genuinely wanting to learn about this agency and their work (my notebook and clipboard in hand matched my earnest expression), I vigorously nodded to suggest this was all familiar information.
As Dave finished his presentation, I eagerly asked, "Well, how can I help?"
Dave smiled and leaned back in his chair.
I was stunned. I am from a large church with outreach funds and a huge population of eager volunteers. How could a local nonprofit not need our help?
"How could you help? You are a straight female," he explained. "No guy in a gay bar is going to listen to what you have to say. Perhaps you could do HIV outreach on lesbian night, but . . . ."
He had a point. And the needle exchange would not want me either. The best volunteers are former users, not church girls who have never used a needle for illegal purposes in her life. All of my good intentions and desires to make a difference were not needed. At least not here.
Salt and Light in a 'Sketchy' Field
That conversation with Dave was 10 years ago. I eventually became the president of HIV/AIDS Services, Inc., renamed the Grand Rapids Red Project. By continuing to "show up" and listen, stumbling and falling sometimes in my efforts, I gained the trust and love of the incredible members of the Grand Rapids HIV community. I approached our interactions with the posture of a student. Who am I to speak to the realities of those living with this virus? I had so much to learn about not only the virus itself, but also about the modes of transmission, the realities facing those individuals who engage in "risky" behavior, the politics surrounding the issue, and—of course—the strange web of shame that being HIV-positive carries in this culturally Christian city.
Sadly, in Grand Rapids it can be difficult to be in the HIV prevention world and be overtly Christian. Churches and Christians have reputations, both earned and entirely unwarranted, for being unloving toward those in the HIV community. I have been challenged to love and listen and be patient in my interactions with those who have been marginalized by HIV. This has grown my heart and compassion.
Now, as an HIV activist, I have had the privilege of representing the Grand Rapids Red Project at our annual Gay Pride Festival, on local television and radio, and at various regional events, college campuses, and national conferences. I get the chance to be salt and light and a person of faith in venues where Christians have not historically had access or influence. These opportunities, however, are not as reciprocal as I would hope. Churches other than my own rarely invite me to speak (although that is slowly changing). Even as U.S. Christians have grown exponentially in our compassion and activism for global pandemic, we still have a bit of a blind spot for the realities of "American HIV."
Not long ago, Michigan Public Radio interviewed me about our needle exchange. What, really, is the value of harm reduction programs like needle exchanges? Aren't we just giving drug paraphernalia to users? Shouldn't we be encouraging them to stop using drugs? Is there something sort of backward-seeming about the whole enterprise? What does a needle exchange do?
Actually, at the needle exchange, individuals who choose to inject drugs are given the option of exchanging their "dirty" (used) needles for clean, new ones. By injecting with clean needles, the risk of transmitting a virus like HIV (or HepC) plummets. Additionally, the Red Project counsels the clients in how to prevent and reverse drug overdoses (the second leading cause of accidental deaths in our city). Lives have quite literally been saved because of these interventions. But beyond the technical details of the program lies the safety of being a place where vulnerable and marginalized people are treated with dignity and respect. The clients of the needle exchange range from homeless junkies to suburban professionals—yet everyone is treated equally. The reality is that not everyone is ready to stop using drugs. Some are—and they are referred to treatments options—but many of the clients are only ready to take that next baby step toward health and wholeness. A clean needle is often that next teeny, tiny step forward. When the clients are met by volunteers who have walked the road of addiction and have emerged on the other side, a redemptive and profound connection emerges. As "sketchy" and misunderstood as this kind of work can be, it is undeniable that there is a redemptive element at work.
And aren't redemptive endeavors the ones Christians celebrate the most?
This is unconventional and challenging work, to be sure. Daily, however, I can celebrate what God is doing in my city under the radar. There are hands and feet of Jesus driving the mobile clinic to hard-core neighborhoods where the message of HIV prevention is needed the most. There are dedicated Christians spending time in the gay bars hearing heartbreaking stories of youth who were kicked out of their homes and churches when they came out. There are lovely men and women sharing their own stories about living with HIV and how it is not a death sentence any more, but rather an opportunity to live a different kind of life, one more in tune with the reality that life is fragile and needs to be handled with care.
I attended a Christmas party at the needle exchange last year and sat chatting with a woman at a corner table. I introduced myself in an effort to gently uncover whether she was a volunteer or a client. She said she knew who I was; she attends my church and had heard me speak about HIV a few years prior and her heart had been moved to get involved. She had been volunteering for the Red Project ever since. Salt and light. Love without argument. Reflecting the kingdom on earth one conversation and one beautiful act at a time.
Ruth Bell Olsson is a writer, teacher, and AIDS activist in Grand Rapids, Michigan.