The news hurt, but it didn’t come as a total surprise to Willie Wilson, pastor of the Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, D.C. Earlier in the week, a 16-year-old boy who had grown up two doors from the church was shot in the head and the back—another victim of the seemingly endless drug “turf battles” taking place in many areas of the nation’s capital. “The drug problem is one that touches everyone’s lives here daily in terms of having a family member or friend that is either a user or a seller of drugs,” Wilson said.

As drug abuse escalates across the country, churches increasingly are being forced to confront the problem. The situation has become a particular challenge for urban churches in neighborhoods where drug abuse and drug-related violence have become commonplace. Police in the District of Columbia, Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York report significant increases this year in the number of drug-related homicides and assaults.

Waging Holy War

Wilson and the Union Temple Baptist Church have been in the lead urging local churches to go on the offensive against the drug problem. “The government cannot solve this problem,” Wilson said. “The church must be out in front with the support of the government and the community.”

Wilson’s church has implemented a two-pronged approach to deal with the problem: prevention and rehabilitation. Both emphasize spiritual strength because Wilson believes that “drug abuse is a spiritual problem first of all.”

The preventive approach at Union Temple Baptist focuses on instilling young people “with a sense of self-worth and spiritual strength” through the “Orita Substance Abuse Prevention Program.” Orita is an African word meaning crossroads or the point at which one is forced to make a decision. Wilson said the Orita program sets up “rites of passage,” such as memorizing Scripture and learning a marketable skill. Orita’s goal is to enhance spiritual and physical development and equip young people with the tools to resist drugs.

In addition, the church has received a federal grant to set up “Say No to Drugs” clubs in schools throughout Southeast Washington. Through the clubs, the church tries to build the self-esteem of the children, particularly those children living in severe poverty where the drug trade is most appealing. Wilson tells of a 15-year-old girl involved in dealing drugs. “When she finally broke away, she said to me, ‘You know, at least [the drug traffickers] made me feel like I was somebody.’ That’s one of the ploys they use—making people feel as if they care,” Wilson said.

The church’s rehabilitative approach also centers on building spiritual strength. “As we allow the Spirit of God to work in us, there is a greater power we can call upon,” Wilson said. Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings are held three times a week at the church.

Wilson and Union Temple Baptist have also pioneered a new support program for youth aged 11 to 17. “Prior to this, there were absolutely no programs in this city for youth at that age once they came out of a drug rehabilitation program,” Wilson said. The program brings young people to the church’s Crisis and Counseling Center twice a week to help reinforce rehabilitation as the former young addicts return to the street. Many adult former drug and alcohol abusers serve as counselors and encouragers for the youth in the program.

On The Front Lines

Other religious groups are also taking more aggressive steps in the war against drugs. In April, members of the Nation of Islam drew national attention for their antidrug patrols in the Northeast section of Washington. Muslims from a local mosque patrolled the grounds of two apartment complexes riddled with drug deals and drug-related violence. Initially accused of vigilantism, the patrols, nonetheless, forced drug dealers out of the two complexes. The Muslims have also helped rebuild the community around the complexes.

Around the same time, Union Temple Baptist sponsored a “Unifest March” in Southeast Washington to demonstrate Christian unity against the drug problem. Nearly 15,000 people from local churches participated. Although he sees a “newfound awareness around the nation” about the seriousness of the drug problem, Wilson believes many churches have been slow to respond. He acknowledges that most churches do not have the negative consequences of drug abuse portrayed as vividly as they are in his neighborhood. But, as studies indicate that drug abuse is increasing dramatically in the suburbs, he predicts the drug issue will be “hitting home” for more and more churches.

By Kim A. Lawton.

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