taking the words of Jesus seriously

Every morning, I wake up and read the obituaries. That may seem like an odd way to greet the day, but I am a pastor who has a deep calling to walk with those who are mourning. So, I read the obituaries to see who from my congregation may be experiencing the loss of family and friends within the pages of the local paper. 

When you read the obituaries, you notice patterns in how people talk about life and loss. There are some key phrases in particular that, while fading over time, are still prevalent. Statements such as “died at home.” In the community in which I live, it is not uncommon for such a phrase to accompany death from overdoses.

I, like many of you, live in a community that the opioid crisis has deeply impacted. A situation that the Church universal seems to be falling in the face of. Before the pandemic, I have always had a congregation that has hosted Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. One Church went so far as to offer their building to any group that would like to use it to share what had been entrusted to them. However, following the pandemic, I do not see as many churches willingly reopening their doors to these critical groups. 

The Church I currently serve is temporarily hosting an NA group. The group dismantled shortly before COVID, but in the face of the stress of the pandemic, we resumed meeting for the good of the community. The building they had been using had limited space, so they asked if they could return to our building, the very place they launched from, during the months when their new home was being used as a warming shelter. 

To many in the congregation, this was a given. They had forged deep, albeit unusual, relationships with participants from this group in the past, as group members forfeited their right to be anonymous in order to be prayed with by church members as they entered meetings and served home-cooked dinners from time to time. However, that does not mean this was a given for all in the congregation. 

One Sunday, I walked into loud complaints about how the social hall and downstairs bathrooms were messy and that water had been left running. While those issues certainly needed to be addressed, they did not need to be aired to the congregation. A bit later, I spoke with the person voicing such complaints, and I was dismayed when he said, “I just don’t understand why we need to help those people, Pastor.”

His words echoed in my head and heart for days to come before finally penning this article to all churches about why we need to reach out to people in need, people suffering from the devastating effects of addiction. First, it is not “those people” but beloved children of God who have a name and a story and deserve to be treated with the dignity that we would afford anyone else. Jesus is pretty clear in articulating that we are to love God with all we have and all we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves. I would propose that this command includes our neighbors struggling with addiction. So, what does it look like to love our neighbors as ourselves in such instances? Perhaps it begins by asking about their story and creating space where the vital work of recovery can take place and not putting the sacredness of our buildings over the sacredness of human life. 

Second, treat everyone who enters your doors as if they know someone who is struggling with addiction because they probably do. There is so much shame and stigma that surrounds addiction, which extends both to the person working with the disease and their family and friends. Churches can play a role in dismantling such stigma. Thinking about the conversation that was happening one Sunday morning about the disappointment some congregants felt towards how the building was being treated – what if someone who struggled with addiction walked through the door and heard them having that conversation? Or a loved one? Or someone who was a part of the NA group? Would they have felt like they could have stayed and been part of this community, or would it have been unsafe for them?

Third, get training. Get mental health first aid training to help understand addictions. Get trained in using Narcan and carry it with you. Be informed and be prepared. As I worked through my gut reaction to hearing the statement, “I just don’t understand why we need to help those people, Pastor,” I realized that a particular family came to my mind—a beloved couple from my last Church who lost their grandson to addiction. I didn’t have the words to bring them comfort as their pastor, but I could get trained, and to this day, I carry Narcan in my bag in his memory. 

Lastly, return to the red letters in scripture. Two of the requests that came out of the disgruntled conversation about NA using the space we are stewards of as the local Church were to ask them not to park where other people want to park (i.e., on a public street but where people have their “spots”) and to ask them not to swear outside of the building. Both of these issues made the neighbors talk about what was happening at “that” Church. I said I would do neither. Why? Because I don’t want my words or actions to turn anyone away from the love of Jesus or the help in the church basement. If even one person finds a place where they are supported on their recovery journey, it is worth it to me. The scripture that kept running through my mind was Luke 5: 31-32, where Jesus said, “It is not the healthy people who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to invite good people but sinners to change their hearts and lives.” What if we measured our words, actions, and responses to discomfort around these red-letter words? What could change in our communities and the world? And what could change in us as the body of Christ? 

About The Author


Michelle Bodle has served for over a decade as a pastor in the United Methodist Church in the Susquehanna Annual Conference (PA) and spiritual director. She creates sacred spaces of holy listening through Abide in the Spirit, www.abideinthespirit.com .

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