No church can remain untouched by the drug crisis, says antidrug leader Bishop Felton May. Churches are fighting back.

A year and a half ago, members of the A. P. Shaw United Methodist Church in southeast Washington, D.C., were gathered for an evening prayer meeting, when a drug turf battle erupted nearby. Two young men wounded by gunfire tried to seek sanctuary in the church. They got as far as the front entrance, where they collapsed, bringing the drug wars to the church’s doorstep. Church members at the meeting came out to pray with the young men as they awaited an ambulance; the two men died.

That incident, says Pastor Bernard Keels, served as the “clarion call” for his congregation to enlist in the war against drugs. “That really showed the church that God has placed us here for a reason,” Keels said.

Who’s Winning?

“We’re on the road to victory,” President Bush declared at the end of 1990, backed by statistics released by his administration. Bush’s optimistic report had been preceded by comments from drug czar William Bennett when he left his post in November, saying things are “now getting better.” And in December, a survey released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) suggested that 72 percent fewer Americans regularly use cocaine today, compared to five years ago, and about 25 percent fewer had tried some illegal drug in the past year.

But statisticians have criticized the methodology of the NIDA study, saying it substantially undercounted hard-core crack users and depended too much on self-reporting. And drug-treatment specialists and pastors on the front lines are especially skeptical of purported victory.

In southeast Washington, Pastor Keels says he sees things as getting worse. “We look at statistics to assuage our collective societal, moral guilt,” he says.

In Florida, Maj. Leon White, administrator of the Fort Lauderdale Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center, says he has yet to see any signs of improvement at his facility, which is still filled to capacity. “If we doubled the number of beds we have, even then it would not be enough,” he says.

United Methodist Bishop Felton May fears the church may be lulled into complacency. “We as a people are always looking for easy answers and quick victories, but … we dare not turn our backs or close our eyes,” he says.

In the years since the U.S. declared war on drugs, churches have had a variety of responses. Some have ignored the problem as “someone else’s.” But May, who spent 1990 addressing the drug crisis in a special assignment for his denomination, believes “there is no family, nuclear or extended, that has not been touched by substance abuse and violence.” Thus, he concludes, no local church has remained untouched either.

For those churches that have confronted the crisis, their work has usually been done quietly, without fanfare, and often without concrete success. But, says May, “I’m convinced that if the church were not involved, this country would be in chaos.”

What follows are a few reports from selected church battlefronts in the war on drugs.

Washington, D.C.

Nowhere is the military language of the drug wars more apt than in the nation’s capital, where again in 1990 a record number of drug-related murders occurred. “The proliferation of drugs and violence holds the entire community captive,” says Methodist pastor Keels. “Everything revolves around either getting drugs or protecting yourselves from drugs.” This poses myriad challenges for the pastor, who must not only minister to the addict, but also to those around him or her.

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For example, Keels describes trying to help a young girl, early on in his ministry, who told him her mother was a “rock star.” It turned out the woman was not a singer, as Keels had naively assumed, but an addict of “crack,” the highly concentrated form of cocaine sold in rocklike chunks.

It was because of the situation facing Shaw and so many other local United Methodist churches that the Council of Bishops decided to dispatch May on his special one-year assignment in D.C. to help develop a coordinated response to the crisis (CT, Nov. 19, 1990, p. 58). Shaw and 13 other United Methodist churches in the area participated in the demonstration project.

Last summer, five of those churches set up “Saving Stations”: special ministries of outreach campaigns, children’s activities, drug-education seminars, and family programs under huge army-surplus tents. Advertised by large red-and-white signs in front of each church, they produced “tremendous evangelistic benefits” as well as helped the community, Keels says.

In the next few months, Shaw Church will begin a new partnership with the District of Columbia, called the Community Health Ambassadors Access Project (CHAAP). Specially trained church volunteers will identify and refer pregnant addicts to the available public-health services, with a special emphasis on prenatal care and drug treatment. In addition, the church has developed the “10 Steps to Deliverance,” a scripturally based substance-abuse program. The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries recently announced it will adopt the program nationally.

Last month, Bishop May returned from Washington to his regular post in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. However, the Drugs and Violence Initiative of the United Methodist Church that took form in D.C. has been extended under his leadership for another year, and in the coming months will be replicated in eight other cities.

Pickups And Bmws

About 20 miles away in the middle-class suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, people aren’t being gunned down in the streets. But every Thursday night at Immanuel’s Church, the violence that accompanies substance abuse is just as evident when Ephesians 5:18, a drug and alcohol ministry, sponsors its Family Night. After an opening worship service, the congregation breaks into small support groups, and such issues as abuse, abandonment, rape, and incest are common topics.

Ephesians 5:18 began in 1980 as a ministry of Halpine Baptist Church and was later spun off into a separate organization. The group applies Christian teaching to the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. They begin using the program with children as young as three, hoping to break generational patterns of brokenness and addiction. In addition to the weekly support-group meetings at the independent Immanuel’s Church, Ephesians 5:18 offers more in-depth clinical counseling on addiction issues and conducts educational seminars for churches.

On Thursday nights, the parking lot has new BMWS and rusted pickup trucks. “This problem crosses all lines,” says program director Dee Bissell. “But our common denominator is the addiction, and the belief that Jesus Christ is the center that brings us together in recovery.”

South Florida

A stained-glass window at the front of Granada Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Coral Gables dominates the stately sanctuary. It is a huge portrayal of Christ the Shepherd, his arms outstretched, with the words “Come Unto Me.” Economically and culturally, this white, upper-middle-class congregation seems a million miles removed from nearby Liberty City, one of Miami’s most drug-infested areas. Yet the drug crisis has reached into this affluent neighborhood.

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At Granada Presbyterian’s Thanksgiving service, a young man whose family is prominent in the church told the congregation how, for eight years, he had come through the church doors, listened to the sermons, and looked at the stained-glass window.

“He wanted to come to Christ, but he felt he couldn’t because he was carrying around a dirty secret. He had used cocaine recreationally, and wound up being an addict,” says the Reverend James Smith. Finally, after being confronted by his parents and coworkers, the man went into treatment and came to a meaningful relationship with Christ.

“One of the challenges of the upwardly mobile evangelical church is that people don’t want to talk about the dirt,” says Smith. “They want their Christianity to be nice and safe and clean. Part of the breakthrough has got to come when we start saying from the pulpit that the gospel is relevant in a dirty world.”

That is the message youth pastor Jim Brown is trying to impart as well to Granada’s young people, who are surrounded by drugs. In the junior/senior high Sunday-school class, virtually all of the kids can tell you where to buy drugs and whom to buy them from. Most know other kids who do drugs, and many talk openly about having experimented themselves. Drugs were even smuggled on youth-group trips in the past, they reveal.

Brown says the reasons that the kids he sees get into drugs are varied, but the disintegration of the family seems to be a key for both rich and poor. He works to help teens learn how to think for themselves and make good decisions. “As they start looking for the truth, we can show them that Christianity is the truth,” he says.

“We Are One”

At the Miami/Dade Police Department, Maj. Dean DeJong, Central Division patrol commander, cringes at the “Miami Vice” image that overshadows his city. Yet he acknowledges that the escalating crime that has accompanied the crack epidemic has been a major issue for the entire community, including churches. “Many years ago, the church was sort of off-limits to crooks,” says DeJong, a graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “That isn’t the case anymore, and churches are generally easy pickings.”

Though they may be targets of crime, many Miami churches are beginning to take the offensive on drugs. Using a rallying theme of “Say No to Drugs and Yes to Christ,” a multiethnic coalition of churches called the “We Are One” movement launched a visible campaign last year to fight back. In September, the group assembled 3,000 African-American, Anglo, and Hispanic Christians from churches of many denominations for a march through Liberty City. The demonstration went on for three miles, with stop-off points for singing and special testimonies. Organizers say that in the midst of Miami’s deep racial polarization, the march was a strong testimony to the unity of the gospel. The group hopes to have another one this year in the Little Havana section of the city.

We Are One leaders Cleveland Bell and Jose Hernandez believe the church holds the only true solution to the drug crisis. Bell is the director of Riverside House, a Christian community control program for ex-offenders, and Hernandez is chaplain for Metro/Dade Department of Corrections. Both men are former drug abusers themselves, and both have watched the havoc the drug crisis has created in the nation’s prison systems.

“Without the church, we don’t stand a chance,” says Bell. Hernandez agrees. “This drug crisis is a blessing for the church, because it gives us a challenge to fulfill our responsibility of being salt and light.”

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“You Don’t Give Up”

Within the walls of a recently dedicated red-and-white fortress in Fort Lauderdale, the Salvation Army wages its own form of holy war against the drug crisis. According to Capt. Ron Busroe, staggering numbers of individuals and families have been left homeless and hungry because of drug addictions, and the majority of participants in the Army’s corrections program with the state are convicted drug traffickers.

At the same time, drug-related crime has had an impact on the Salvation Army itself. Security has become a major concern. An elaborate system of closed-circuit television surveillance and electrically operated doors were installed in the new building. Guard dogs stand watch by the thrift-store trucks and buildings.

“Sometimes the parishioners fear that the only reason [the homeless and drug addicts] come to our church is to look for something to steal,” Busroe says. “You have to constantly fight becoming hard and cynical yourself.”

According to Maj. Leon White—who retired last month after nearly 40 years of service—illegal narcotics, and crack in particular, have radically changed the face of the Army’s rehabilitation ministry. Twenty years ago, most of the men in rehab were alcoholics, White says. Today the majority are crack addicts, young men without jobs, education, or families. And, White says, they have much “harder hearts” and are “less receptive to religion.”

The counseling has changed to better accommodate the strong addiction of crack. Still, many men, with little education and poor economic prospects, end up back on crack. “I’ve watched beneficiaries take their food stamps [which the Army holds while the men are in rehab], walk out the front door, go right across the street to that little [drug] market, try to trade the stamps for drugs, and get arrested right there,” White says.

Like so many others who fight the battle against drugs, the evidence of even a few changed lives is what kept him going all those years. “If you’re a Salvation Army officer, you don’t give up,” he says.

New York City

When the crack epidemic began sweeping through New York City in 1986 and 1987, the Evangelica Centro Biblico Church in Queens watched in horror as their corner became the hub of drug activity in the low-income neighborhood. Pastor Nicolas Navarro would sit in his office in the storefront church and watch the nearly constant flow of the sidewalk drug market. Members of the congregation became fearful of walking to the church.

In 1988, the police came to Navarro and asked to set up surveillance teams in the church, which was ideally located for observation. Fearful of retaliations and a negative neighborhood image, Navarro declined. “I told them I’d rather try with the gospel to clean up the neigborhood,” he says. “First, I began preparing the church to reach out to those people, reminding them that for that addict and that dealer on the street, the Lord Jesus Christ died,” Navarro says. He then asked Campus Crusade for Christ’s “Here’s Life” ministry to conduct evangelism seminars at the church.

The congregation prayed for a breakthrough, which came in an unlikely encounter. One day, Pedro, a local drug dealer, was told by his boss to expect a delivery from a woman driving a green car. When he saw her, he was to use the code phrase, “Where is the good feeling?” and receive a package of drugs. About the time the deal was to go down, Navarro’s wife, Nancy, arrived for a church meeting, driving the family’s green car. Pedro approached her.

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“I don’t have the good feeling you are looking for, but the true good feeling is in the Bible, and you will get it in here,” she responded to his question. Later, Pedro came into the church, and that night made a decision to follow Christ. “The Lord changed him completely,” Navarro says. Pedro has now become a leader in the church, as well as Navarro’s best friend.

Drug activity still goes on in the neighborhood, but Centro Biblico’s corner is no longer the hub. Rather than drive the drug dealers out, Navarro says he wanted to bring them into the church. In many instances, the church has succeeded. The ones who tired of being witnessed to left, Navarro says. Now, the church has made a project of targeting the young people with prevention efforts.

Bold In The Bronx

Leaving the familiarity of their Mennonite upbringing in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Martin and Ethel Bender came to the Bronx nearly 25 years ago. They started working in the public schools, but today most of their ministry is with drug addicts and ex-offenders. In addition to having planted Joy Fellowship Church, affiliated with Gospel Crusade, the Benders run a halfway house for women coming out of prison. The church also supports an “introduction center” of New Life for Girls, a local treatment center where drug-dependent women spend three to five months before transfering to the main center in Dover, Pennsylvania, to complete their program.

According to Ethel Bender, crack has had a devastating effect on their already disadvantaged neighborhood. Two doors down, a crack house has been set up in a vacant building, and prostitutes often hang around in front. Last July and August, eight people were killed on their block. The Benders have been robbery victims several times. Last year, Ethel wrestled down a crack addict who had broken into the house to rob it.

But the Benders remain undaunted, choosing instead to witness to anyone and everyone hanging around their street. “We’re very aggressive when it comes to witnessing,” Bender says, in what many on the street would undoubtedly call an understatement. “The Bible says the righteous are bold, and we believe it,” she adds. Most of the members of Joy Fellowship are recovering addicts and ex-offenders won by those efforts.

Hope Christian Center, a Bronx-based Christian drug-recovery program for men, recently began an AIDS outreach to those who contracted the disease through intravenous drug abuse. The center sponsors a halfway house for men with AIDS, counseling for AIDS victims and their families, and weekly information and support groups.

“If you’re success-oriented, you ought not to become involved [in ministry to addicts],” says director Jack Roberts, “because you’re going to see an awful lot of failures if you’re only looking for results. But for those small percentages whose lives and families are healed, it’s worth it.”

Shade Gap, Pennsylvania

Nestled at the foot of the mountains in south-central Pennsylvania, Shade Gap seems an unlikely encampment in the war against drugs. A rural community with a population of about 500, it is the kind of place where residents say, “Everybody knows everybody.” But when Saint Luke’s United Methodist Church assembled a civic group early last year to help determine how the church could better meet local needs, even Pastor Bradley Knepp was surprised when drug and alcohol abuse was overwhelmingly voted the town’s number-one problem.

How deeply had the drug crisis touched Shade Gap? Knepp says he learned that “large amounts” of marijuana are grown throughout the community. But the biggest shock was the discovery in town of a “crank house,” where methamphetamines (“crank” or “speed”) were being manufactured and distributed.

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“Rural people do have a problem—very much so,” Knepp says. “And little is being done on the grassroots level for us.”

As a first response, the church put together an educational seminar to help Shade Gap understand the issues at stake. As follow-up, at Saint Luke’s initiative, the community-wide Shade Gap Drug Task Force was formed with representatives from civic groups, local politicians, and other churches. To raise funds, the task force sold “shares of stock in Shade Gap’s future.” With the money collected, the nine-month-old group has begun a public awareness and educational campaign that includes billboards, poster contests, and community-wide pledges of support.

For its part, the 130-member Saint Luke’s congregation has followed the model set up by Bishop May in Washington, complete with a “Saving Station” sign in front of the church. Knepp is involved in addiction counseling, and the church has appointed a special coordinator for the issue. He speaks with obvious gratification about one man who quit cocaine and now attends Saint Luke’s. “We said from the beginning,” Knepp says, “if we touched one person, we’ll have done okay.”

By Kim A. Lawton.

Drugs as Idolatry

Former National Drug Control Policy Office Director William Bennett talked with CHRISTIANITY TODAY about the place he believes churches have in the war against drugs.
The spiritual aspects of drug abuse. “I believe with Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles that drugs are fundamentally a spiritual problem for many people. Drug use is a misguided attempt to find meaning in life. When people take drugs, they get a feeling of transcendence, of power, of control. That’s a great deception. I said in one of the first speeches I gave in the job that if drugs aren’t a sin and if this isn’t a form of idolatry, I don’t know what is.”
The role of churches. “Churches ought to be able to respond to the interest in meaning and self-realization in a more profound way [than government and other areas of society]. They ought to be able to offer counsel to those who are attracted by drugs. They ought to tell people there are better ways to find meaning. On a practical level, churches can be used as places for meetings and support. They can offer a place for people to recover and to heal.”
The role of government. “There’s enough work for everybody to do something. There’s a government side, a law-enforcement side, an interdiction side, a diplomatic side—all secular aspects of the problem. There is also a lot for parents and families and schools to do.”
The future of the effort against drug abuse. “The situation has improved in all areas—urban, rural, and suburban. The problem remains most intense where we have the most drugs, and where drugs are caught up with other problems. For example, in many of our cities—where there’s poverty, crime, family breakup, and social disintegration—drugs exacerbate the problems. Those are the areas where it will be hardest to gain control of the drug problem, but those are the areas that deserve the most attention.
“It has become fashionable for people to say that because drug use is down in the suburbs and the middle class, it’s left only in the cities. That’s wrong, and that’s a mistake. Drugs are still in every community.”

Teens and Drugs

One in three reports being in personal contact with widespread use or selling of drugs.
By age 16, one in three reports having been asked to purchase or use drugs in the past 30 days.
By the time Christian teens graduate from high school, 57 percent will have tried an illicit drug; 17 percent will have tried cocaine or crack.

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