Dear Haywood Street Congregation and beyond,
Nearly dead from the overdose, splayed out face down between the stalls, her body surrendering to the toxicity, a beloved congregant lay lifeless on the tile. Seconds later, a passerby entered the women’s bathroom and screamed for help. Staff rushed to the scene, dialed 911, and administered Narcan on their knees. Then chest compressions and a silent prayer as the shrieking sirens raced down Patton Avenue.
Fentanyl, a synthetic drug one hundred times stronger than morphine, killed 109,680 Americans last year alone (1). Of the twenty cities in the United States with the highest opioid misuse per capita, two of the top five, Wilmington and Hickory, are in North Carolina (2). At best, congregants who use report, “I become a Zombie, unrecognizable even to myself. My soul temporarily vacates.” At worst, “I roll up my sleeve, not knowing if it will be the last time.”
In the past week, a dozen children of God have overdosed on campus or the surrounding Department of Transportation property. At this moment of calamity, I wanted to share what’s happening on the front lines. We ARE housing the Buncombe County Community Paramedics in our lobby offices, offering space to harm reduction and abstinence-based recovery groups, supplying staff with Naloxone, extending peer support and addiction counseling to folks living in Respite, stopping drug use and distribution, and keeping our doors of welcome wide open daily. We ARE NOT exchanging needles or distributing clean paraphernalia, sanctioning overnight camping, or perpetuating the criminalization of unresolved trauma.
As hostility towards poverty organizes, gentrification encroaches on urban sanctuaries, and the response to torment increasingly militarizes, downtown is rapidly segregating. In his book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Johann Hari writes, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection” (3). Often conflated with a social service agency transacting resources, Haywood St. is a congregation called to “relationship, above all else,” a family of faith intent on disrupting estrangement.
Long before substance use disorder created us and them, the woman hemorrhaging was ostracized because of her cycle, the man with leprosy was quarantined because of his skin condition, and the Gerasene with Schizophrenia was chained to the headstone because of his psychosis. To interrupt the persecution of isolation, Jesus unflinchingly moved towards each exile with a beatitude of grace and an invitation to the banquet. Although our attempt is imperfect, we are disciples trying to follow, believing the kingdom come must include the sister in emotional agony stabbing her arm for an open vein to mute the pain.
Even as practiced stewards of suffering, nothing compares, even after fifteen years on the streets, to the impossibility of urban ministry right now. For onlookers, the impulse to turn away, frightened and overwhelmed by the helplessness of it all, is entirely understandable. But the Church, at its most Spirit-filled, is the one remaining place where we respond relationally irrespective of circumstance, practice courageous empathy, and risk turning toward the very crisis most avoided.
Miraculously, all twelve overdoses were reversed. Still, countless more are immanent across state lines and here in Asheville. If you feel called to mobilize your belief, then come join us in the holy chaos of Christian community.
Rev. Brian Combs
1 Ahmad FB, Cisewski JA, Rossen LM, Sutton P. Provisional drug overdose death counts. National Center for Health Statistics. 2023.
2 Taylor Knopf, Four North Carolina Cities Make the Top 25 List for Opioid Abuse, North Carolina Health News, July 27, 2017.
3 Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015).