Julie Huneycutt is seeing significant progress as director of a Hendersonville, North Carolina-based organization fighting opioid drug abuse — a national epidemic with a mortality rate that has quadrupled in recent years and now claims 33,000 lives per year.
But she would never have chosen the circumstances that brought her to this role. In 2010, she lost her 20-year-old daughter, Anna, to an opiate overdose. “Sometimes, even now, I’m driving and I’ll say out loud, ‘Anna, I’m so sorry. I do this work for you, in hopes that no one else has to experience loss.’”
In her junior year of high school, Anna descended into opioid addiction after two routine surgeries. Her mother noticed that she seemed to need more pain relief than normal, but “her doctor was happy to prescribe more medication for her.”
By the time Julie and her husband realized there was a problem, Anna was heavy into a drug habit that would eventually take her life, despite five rehabs and tens of thousands of dollars toward recovery. “You can throw money at it but addiction can be stronger than a human will,” says Huneycutt. “It hijacks the brain.”
The Huneycutts, longtime members of Grace Blue Ridge PCA where her husband serves as an elder, were overwhelmed with grief for their daughter. “Church was a lonely, lonely, lonely road to navigate,” says Huneycutt. “We felt tremendous stigma with addiction — spiritually and parentally.”
“The church must provide an environment that invites the honesty and humility necessary to begin healing and provide the context for continued recovery after treatment.” – Skip Ryan
But they made a decision. They would not be silent; nor would they be ashamed of their daughter. They would be proud of her fight and use her short life to raise awareness for others who might yet be saved.
A Church Reluctant to Respond
If community support was what her daughter needed to beat her addiction, Julie Huneycutt says she didn’t find it in the local church.
“The church failed her so terribly,” said Huneycutt. “It left Anna to navigate this alone.”
Hers is a perspective shared by many who have dealt, either directly or peripherally, with the scourge of addiction, whether to drugs or alcohol or sex.
Perhaps one problem is the tendency to view addiction as a moral failure and a higher class of sin. Though churches may allow quiet efforts to help addicts, many shy away from public, from-the-pulpit promotion of these programs, sometimes the addiction problems are even worst, so they need person need the help of psycotherapy to change the part of the brain that is causing the addiction problem.
Dr. Michael Woodham knows this firsthand. As an ordained Presbyterian minister and missionary for 29 years, he knew all the ins and outs of church dynamics. But none of that prepared him for his own battle with alcohol addiction. Ultimately, it was a provocative statement from his Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) sponsor that challenged Woodham to view his addiction through a redemptive lens.
“He said, ‘I know your problem. You are ashamed to be an alcoholic.’”
“Of course I’m ashamed,” Woodham replied. “I’m an ordained minister and I am a missionary and I am a drunk.”
His sponsor told him, “Do not be ashamed that God has allowed you to be an alcoholic. As soon as you are grateful that God has allowed this, you’ll be in a position to help a lot of people.”
The sponsor’s words proved to be prophetic, as Woodham went through recovery and then went on to found the Alive Again recovery program in 2002. Alive Again offers weekly support meetings for church and community members struggling with addiction.
Woodham says he is still grateful for the way his addiction changed him. “I have realized how completely and totally I depend on Christ for my salvation. When Paul says, ‘I am not ashamed,’ it means I am not ashamed to admit that I am totally lost in my sinfulness.”
Ministering Beyond “Polite Sins”
As the former pastor of Park Cities Presbyterian (PCPC) in Dallas, Texas, and as a recovering substance abuse addict himself, Skip Ryan has experienced all sides of pastoral care for addiction and issues that reach beyond “polite sins.”
The pastors, elders, and many others in PCPC initiated much support for Ryan and his wife, Barb, and so did many PCA pastors from other places. Surprising to him though, the fellow members of his presbytery were almost completely silent. During 18 months of suspension from office, Ryan was contacted by one minister from the presbytery offering pastoral support. “They simply didn’t know how to handle someone like me,” he says.
To him, the solution is not more church programming but a change in mentality. He keeps coming back to one question: as staunch believers of grace, why aren’t Reformed and Presbyterian churches leading the charge in these areas of extreme brokenness? Ryan believes the grace we preach and teach often has not made its way from head to heart.
“The culture of our churches has to be more like Jesus, who talked to, touched, and ate with sinners,” Ryan says. “The church must provide an environment that invites the honesty, humility, and willingness necessary to begin healing and provide the context for continued recovery after treatment.”
A New Way Forward
It has been said that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but connection. Huneycutt agrees, and believes churches can play a role in addressing isolation and the addictive behaviors that flow from it. Her organization, Hope Rx, not only offers pill drops and prevention programs, but also recruits churches to follow up with drug users who call 911. First responders in Hendersonville provide “hope packets” to drug users. Local churches then follow up, asking how they can help.
“Some [drug users] come into the ER regularly because it’s the only attention they get,” says Huneycutt. She has a vision for a church that is willing to engage with desperate people even when it’s not easy.
Ryan envisions a similar future, in which the Reformed church applies its precious grace to a population who needs to hear its message most: “Grace produces love and love makes us courageous to enter into pain which we don’t understand.”