A colorful banner outside Memorial Road Church of Christ in Edmond doesn’t promote a new sermon series or an enticing children’s program, but instead elevates the needs of the addict.
Faith communities have always known there were plenty of people trapped in one form of addiction or another sitting in the pews, afraid to suffer the shame that would come from sharing their problems with others.
But some places of worship are now offering their own recovery programs or hosting others, minimizing the traditional stigma of the “addict” label.
“People in the church are just as broken as people who are not in the church, and a lot of times we are good at masking that and faking it,” said Micah Hobbs, who oversees the Celebrate Recovery ministry at Memorial Road Church of Christ. “But the reality is that we are all broken and are in need of healing and hope, encouragement and support.”
While Celebrate Recovery programs have sprung up like daffodils in the spring in a variety of Christian denominations, many houses of faith have long been supporters of 12-step recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
Other faith groups have developed their own programs to teach clergy and laity about addiction and its treatment.
Annette Harper directs addiction ministries for the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church, which offers an education program and support group.
The church started its Summer School on Chemical Dependency 30 yearsago after an addict confided in a pastor and found the spiritual leader did not have the resources to help.
“It was one layperson who went to his pastor to seek help and did not receive it because the pastor did not know what to do,” Harper said.
“That layperson took it upon himself to find what needed to be done.”
The 12-day education program is open to anyone who has been sober for two years. It serves as a opportunity to learn about the addictive mind, the spiritual dynamics of addiction and how substance abuse impacts faith communities.
The United Methodist Church also supports Faith Partners, a program that creates teams in churches to help people deal with addiction.
“On a Faith Partner team, you may have a person in long-term recovery that the pastor can call on to take somebody to a 12-step meeting that day, immediately,” Harper said.
Rabbi Barry Cohen of Temple B’nai Israel in Oklahoma City said Jewish faith communities typically address addiction issues in a straightforward manner, most often working directly with clergy.
He said the stigma of addiction has decreased, providing “a much bigger opening for us to help within a congregational setting, rather than have them go outside the Jewish community.”
During his rabbinical training, Cohen said he learned about addiction and its treatment while serving in a Veterans Administration hospital in Atlanta.
“I take those formative experiences and translate them to a congregational setting,” he said. “I’m always trying to hone my skills.”
Sister Jennifer Harmon, a student at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa and member of an ecumenical monastic order, has found that clergy and congregations aren’t the best at providing the help addicts need.
“Oftentimes faith communities do not do a good job,” Harmon said. “I don’t mean to say that they have any kind of negative intent. I think it’s more of a lack of understanding about the person who is trying to recover.”
Harmon, who is recovering from her own addiction to prescription medication, said only surrender to God can free an addict from bondage.
“Addiction is not the problem, recovery is the problem,” she said. “I didn’t have a problem being an addict. I had a problem recovering. It wasn’t about God replacing something, it was that God had to be in charge completely, wholeheartedly. It had nothing to do with a lack of willpower on my part.”
Harmon views addiction as the most “in-your-face example of bondage to sin” and says her recovery started when people in church told her, “God loves you, no matter what!”
Followers of Islam historically “engage in practices that bring them closer to God when they’re having difficulties overcoming sin—such as fasting, praying, reading Quran, and engaging in charity,” according to Muneer O. Awad, executive director of the Oklahoma Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“But if we understand addiction as an illness, then it may need more attention that that of a sin,” he said.
For Cohen, God never gives up, even when someone is trapped in addiction.
“Anybody and everybody has the ability to change,” Cohen said. “For whatever we’ve done in the past, anything that we’re ashamed of, anything we’re embarrassed by, any kind of hurt that we’ve inflicted, you can find atonement and heal the pain.”