Rev. Lance Rhoades recalls a month in 2018 when every single meeting he had was with someone who was either suffering from addiction or had a family member who was suffering.
The next month, he said, he pushed the Brookline-based Tree of Life Open Bible Church into the addiction treatment business and hired a coordinator to help out.
Rhoades, the church’s senior pastor, is one of a number of recovery workers who says they’re seeing a spike in overdoses just as the pandemic has made it harder than ever to offer them help.
“If we can provide healing with one-on-one prayer counseling, provide healing through Sunday messages or through providing naloxone,” he said, "we’re going to provide it in any way that we can so every member of our community has the privilege to stay alive."
Pre-pandemic, the church drew about 100 congregants every Sunday. And also before COVID, Rhoades said, hundreds would show up for various 12-step programs, spiritual recovery groups and family recovery groups at the church.
He estimates that about 75% of his congregation has in some way been impacted by the opioid epidemic. Now, the church only draws about 40 people in person with the rest online for its regular Sunday service. For recovery meetings at the church, they allow about 10 people whom they know well, who wear masks and keep social distance.
They have virtual meetings as well but attendance has dropped more than 65%, according to the pastor’s estimates, and the church has started to offer technology support.
Every week since the pandemic started, Rhoades said, someone will stop in at the church for a meeting only to be turned away. Before the pandemic, people didn’t always show up regularly; they came when they could. It’s been challenging getting the word out that meetings are now online because the people who need them often work irregular shifts, don’t have great phone or internet service or a stable place to live. And he hasn’t yet had a chance to add information about the opioid meetings to the church’s website.
“Whenever there isn't a public gathering where people can just come, it makes it really hard for people to maintain connectedness,” the pastor said.
Barriers to helping when it’s needed most
The number of overdoses and fatal overdoses is growing, and it’s disproportionately impacting Black residents.
In February, Rhoades — who is white and whose parishioners are predominantly white — said he reached out to several Black pastors because he’d learned during a meeting of the South Pittsburgh Opioid Action Coalition that overdoses were rising in the Black community. Those pastors, he said, told him that it was true, that they had not seen anything like it before.
“Historically, people associated heroin or other opioid things as a white male-driven issue,” he said. "But this has crept out beyond racial stereotypes and the need for us as a community to provide care for everybody is essential. Because addiction is not racist, it affects all of us.”
The combined efforts have largely been put on hold because of COVID-19. He said he knows they need to find increasingly creative ways to address the opioid epidemic without exacerbating the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I don’t fault any 12-step group that says they can’t meet right now or any church that is closed because of COVID,” Rhoades said. “We have a lot of risks right now. But I do believe if we just are waiting we’re not doing enough."
He’s discussing holding smaller meetings or outdoor meetings but it’s paradoxical to try to get people to sign up ahead of time for anonymous groups, he said. He used to be able to lead a meeting of 100 people on his own. He says he’d need to lead at least four addiction recovery meetings to maintain social distancing, he said. There is one person who the pastor calls every week to check on. “It takes a lot of energy. And that’s one person,” he said.
Rhoades worries he, the church and the greater community might be missing out on opportunities to help people in the throes of addiction at a time when it’s needed most.
"The thing about recovery is we have to have an open-door policy, whenever they are ready for recovery,” he said. "Because sometimes their boldness to ask for support is at a time when it’s tough to get it.”
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.