As I wake today and prepare to bring hopefully hope to an oppressed and forgotten population here in NYC, specifically Harlem. I’m overwhelmed by the truth of the insidious power of addiction. As a pastor in training with a liberation theology rooted in James Cone’s Black Power Theology, I know that God is for the oppressed and as Howard Thurman wrote in Jesus and the Disinherited, their “backs are against the wall” and it’s imperative that I bring something real, something authentic to ministry but reality has me doubting.
Now I’m getting on the train and heading toward Harlem inside Marcus Garvey Park to provide holy Eucharist through Ecclesia Ministries.
I’m reminded of my early life in upstate NY in Schenectady. The oppressive weight of failed opportunities and closed factories offered my student body nothing more than future addiction and or prison.
Really, every day in highschool I would skip class and drink, smoke weed and try various drugs, and by Gods grace never heroin but my friends were. My friends were in and out of halfway houses and eventually prison. So I’m thinking of Hamilton Hill on the south side of Schenectady near where there used to be a thriving art scene and working class living wage jobs, but now it’s barren and what hope do people namely students have.
Bring it back to now. I live in Bushwick, Brooklyn and I see gentrification and I’m a part of it, but I see hope to. Art collectives business growing and thriving by Bushwick native owners and I see a growing population eager to understand history namely neighborhood history. But still there are homeless folks and liquor stores and churches but people are in pain and liquor can’t stop it, church seemingly can’t mend it. What am I to do as a pastor called to this neighborhood and anywhere where the “truly disinherited reside”.
This brings me to understanding the insidious nature of heroin and its rain of brutality in neighborhoods and cities throughout this country. Why? There is no hope. The church is not offering anything, the system isn’t looking especially in Harrisburg, Pa where a friend of mine literally hangs out and suffers with the hurting. He sees heartbreak everyday. In Philly this is true as well the other day I learned from a new friend that her own brother is suffering with addiction and has overdosed more than once. On his 21st birthday instead of celebrating with friends and those who love him he is in rehab which is good but it’s real. Heroin must be addressed.
What is there to do when there is nothing to do? The RAMONES once sang “now i wanna sniff some glue all the kids want something to do” it was in boredom and pain, but mostly kids being kids in Queens, NY in the early and late 70’s. As much as I love that song and the The Ramones are my favorite band of all time, I’m riddled with sadness and guilt and contradiction to what it means to be a pastor.
I think having that honest reflection is the key to sustained effective ministry. Some issues in life are too much to bear, still we fight for liberation from oppressive structures, but we also must fight for each other. I’m hurting at the moment and confused because I think as any person that chooses to work with the hurting, it’s in our nature to want to end the pain, to destroy the oppression and to see the individual, individuals or society change. But, the truth is that most of the time change doesn’t happen expediently and when it comes to addiction relapse is inedible.
So what can I offer, what can I do or we do? Love. We can put our judgement and preconceived notions down at the front door of our relationships. We can grow together and experience community through being in solidarity with others struggles. We can leave the pews and become the church. We can leave our judgements and experience possibility. Heroin is a ferocious drug, the worst part about it is that it’s incredibly enjoyable and the pleasure while using is beyond comprehension, that to be taken from it, or to stop is like the ripping apart of ones soul and relationships. It’s a traumatic experience. It’s one that I believe we can work toward empathizing with.
A good description to me about the fight, and pain of leaving and getting clean from heroin is sung by Mike Ness of Social Distortion when he said,
“There ain’t nothin’
In this world for free now
So how high of a price
Will you pay
Hear the screams so loud
Wake up to the broken glass
It’s a scene from bad to worse
And many more tears…Dear lover
I can’t take the pain no more
I pick my heart up from the floor
I can’t believe it’s come to this
Give me one last
One last kiss”, from the song Dear Lover on White Light, White Heat, White Trash.
This song can be taken for the painful ending to a relationship but I also believe that it can be used to express the love relationship the very intimate relationship addicts have with their drugs of choice. This is insidious and it takes over the total person, it’s ending is some of the most painful experiences they will ever face. I would dare say that the pain of quitting and getting clean is harder than the pain of damaged relationships and broken bridges. Those are all real and are painful but to kick addiction is spiritual.
I will end on this note. As real as addiction and specifically heroin is to the user and the painful grip it has on their lives. It’s important to mention that Jesus, came so that everyone would be free. Addictions, abuse, systemic injustice, phobias, sexism, ageism, racism all have their part in this unjust world, but it’s not to brush off or to diminish their powerful realities, but to say that our apathy continues the tragedy.
Let’s stop the apathy and do what we can to bring justice to the world. To offer hope to so many who feel abandoned and forgotten, lets not only talk over coffee or in our homes about issues, but lets get educated and allow the move of the holy spirit to bring us out into the streets and to demand justice, to demand that a system that alienates youth and takes away their right to be free and alive and learn at their pace, is one that needs radical restructuring. Lets follow Jesus not only with our heart and faith but with our prayer life, lets be the answer to the petitions we offer. Lets embrace someone different and make new friends, new relationships and if you come across addictions, don’t run from it, use wisdom but try to offer what you can to that hurting person. Like I said I’m not offering a challenge to be some hero. Simply, just be.
May the God of grace and compassion be with you this week, may we never forget about brothers and sisters in prisons in the world, may we never ever forget about those who struggle for liberation in the midst of tyranny globally and may we never ever forget or ignore those in our very communities that experience homelessness and or addiction. Oh God, give us faith to believe that love can break the demonic hold of addiction and that love can be a sustainer of grace in the midst of possible non-deliverance and that we may love and embrace those we work with even if, we don’t see the outcome we wished we would see. Amen