DOBSON — In a big meeting room that once housed a discount grocery store, people sat around paper plates of sliced barbecue and bowls of banana pudding, wearing name tags bearing the names of churches.
Oak Grove Baptist Church. New Hope Church of Christ. Mount Airy Friends. Central United Methodist Church.
In all, about 10% of Surry County’s 260 churches sent representatives in May 2019 to the first in a series of meetings with the local faith community about the county’s opioid problem, one of the worst in North Carolina.
Mark Willis, a former Marine and federal agent, had called the meeting. Analytical, thorough and mission-oriented, he had been hired the year before by Surry County commissioners to be the county’s first opioid response director, charged with finding ways to curb the misuse of opioids among residents.
For months, Willis studied the issue from every angle, reading books and quizzing nearly 200 people from law enforcement, health care and social services from around the country.
He reemerged from this immersion convinced that the county’s high rate of opioid use resulted from a pervading sense of hopelessness that has taken seed in rural regions that are struggling to find their economic footing after years of building furniture, farming tobacco and weaving textiles into baby clothes and blankets. Those jobs have dwindled.
“I’m telling you, my theory is we have a crisis of hope,” Willis told the crowd of 100 people that day in May. “And who else is equipped to address a crisis of hope? It’s not the sheriff. It’s not social services. It’s not the court.
“Who can lend compassion to people who are lost? Who else can provide hope for people who are abandoned? Who else can bring people together?”
A woman sitting far from Willis whispered: “Jesus.”
Willis had another answer in mind.
“I’m looking at them,” he said.
Call to action
Eight months and six meetings later, a call to action directed at the county’s vast faith community, has gone largely unanswered. Corralling people from many faiths and backgrounds to turn words into action proved more difficult than Willis anticipated. The idea was to first educate members of the faith community about opioids, let them hear about the alarming increase in the number of foster children, the lack of affordable housing and the overcrowded jail, then guide them toward some sort of action they could take. Whatever their idea, Willis promised to help set it in motion. He would write letters and make phone calls on their behalf, talk to the Surry County commissioners about funding, if needed.
But he was only one person. To make any sort of dent in the county’s opioid problem, he would need the collective manpower of the county’s faithful.
Across the South, communities ravaged by opioid misuse are tapping into this resource of people, hoping to draw on the spirit of compassion within churches to help quash an epidemic that resulted in 47,600 deaths in 2017. From 2014 to 2018, the number of opioid overdoses death in Surry County was 17.1 for every 100,000 residents, well above the 13.6 average for North Carolina as a whole
Though the number of fatalities in Surry has dropped from 55 in 2017 to 26 in 2019, John Shelton, the director of Surry County Emergency Services, said the decrease is due to the rising use of naloxone, an opioid overdose-reversal drug, not a drop in drug use. More first responders and caretakers are carrying the antidote.
The county responded to 347 overdose calls in 2019, Shelton recently said.
Michelle Mathis works with Olive Branch Ministry, a nonprofit organization based in Hickory that helps churches and other groups combat opioid misuse. Mathis attended almost every meeting of Surry County’s faith community.
Mathis said it makes sense that faith communities are called to act.
“Our education, our community, our sense of socialness centers around our faith group. When you move to the South, they don’t ask you what you do, they ask you if you’ve found a church. It’s a huge focus,” Mathis said. “Though there may not be a lot of money in our faith communities, there’s a lot of ‘people resource.’”
Willis had reason to feel optimistic after that first meeting in May. Attendance was good. People came away with lots of valuable information on such things as how to store their medications; how naloxone, often called by the brand name Narcan, works; the role of stigma; why police can’t search suspected drug houses without cause.
They asked lots of questions. They seemed energized.
Though attendance dwindled to about 40 people at the next meeting in June, Willis started steering them toward a goal, something they could do. It didn’t have to be an enormous undertaking.
“We crawl before we walk. We walk before we run,” Willis said. “Right now, we’re just sitting.”
They tossed around ideas — they could mentor foster children, advocate for more mental-health care options, convert parish halls into temporary shelters.
Finally, they landed on the idea of driving opioid abusers to treatment, connecting a dot that prevents many users, up to 25% in Surry County, from getting treatment.
The county is sprawling, with mountainous pockets that can isolate people. Many people with substance use disorder don’t have cars. They’re too broke to maintain them or have lost their license from driving infractions. The potential of a 60-mile round trip, much less a 5-mile trip, is daunting, if not impossible.
Outpatient treatment can be time-consuming, with some programs requiring three-hour sessions, three days a weeks for 13 weeks.
A reliable ride is crucial, said Emily McPeak, the executive director of Daymark Recovery Services in Mount Airy.
“We lose people to treatment because we can’t remove that barrier,” she said.
If the churches could provide drivers, McPeak assured them that she could find riders.
Not everyone was on board. That was to be expected from such a large contingent of people from a variety of faith backgrounds.
An alliance of churches in Jonesville and Elkin decided it would advocate for a drug court, which reduces or eliminates punishment for offenders who complete a recovery program. Judges shot down that idea in a meeting with the pastors, leaving them discouraged and unsure of their next step.
In August, Willis called another meeting of the faith community, this time to hammer out details for a transportation network, another step toward implementation. About 10 people attended.
Willis remained upbeat and praised them for their commitment.
“You don’t go to war with the army you want. You go to war with the army you have,” he told the crowd, quoting former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Over the previous weeks, he had crafted a set of protocols for what he hoped would be a fleet of volunteer drivers. It covered scheduling, privacy and security issues. He handed out his third draft of the protocols and a spreadsheet that would show how volunteers could sign up to drive.
He solicited feedback. Some concerns were raised: What if someone starts using while they’re in my car? Should we have Narcan in our car?
Willis smoothed the wrinkles. The plan was ready to roll.
A few pastors spread word among their congregations, calling for drivers.
No one signed up.
In late November, Willis reflected on the six-month effort to galvanize the faith community and turn talk into action. It could be, he opined, that people feel more trepidation about having someone addicted to drugs in their car than he realized (the protocols recommend that each vehicle has a driver and escort).
Erasing the stigma — an issue that came up over and over again the meetings — would require more work, more education.
“I’m not going to push it,” Willis said, sitting in his office in the old Surry County Courthouse. “I’ve tried to re-engage with pastors as to why we’re not getting a response. I’m pretty sure it’s human nature. But I won’t give up on it. Everything is in place.”
When it became clear that a volunteer-driven transportation network had stalled, Surry County commissioners asked Willis to research starting a county-run program that would support treatment providers and the county’s social services and health departments. That could cost taxpayer money.
Though the transportation effort was a setback, the series of meetings with the faith community did serve another purpose — it brought the issue of opioids out of the shadows and into the light of day. The faithful few who attended the meetings may have a better understanding of Narcan, for instance, which some people have criticized as a waste of public money.
Others who attended may take a hard look at their churches and wonder if they can show more compassion toward families with addicted loved ones.
Maybe they were moved by Teresa Brown, whose daughter’s addiction started with a prescription for pain pills.
“Not one time did anyone from my church reach out to me,” Brown said at the faith community’s final meeting in November.
She found support, instead, from the contemporary Christian music playing on 94.1 FM.
Mathis was encouraged that many pastors approached her about harm reduction, an approach to treating opioid misuse that tries to minimize the harmful effects of drugs, such as handing out clean needles, recognizing that people will continue to use drugs.
“I hope they took away the knowledge that this isn’t a moral failing but a brain disease and that it deserves the same dignity and respect that other diseases have,” Mathis said. “Some of them may have been introduced to the idea that we don’t have to have a theological conversion to serve someone, that we can let service speak for itself.”
Many clergy members, such as Sue Anne Morris, who pastors small churches in Pilot Mountain and Pinnacle, feel better-informed about opioids, and they can pass that knowledge on to their congregations.
“To talk about something, I need to know about it,” said Morris, among a handful of pastors who attended a majority of the meetings.
Her church in Pilot Mountain, Whitaker’s Chapel, has plans to turn a fellowship hall into a coffee house that will include information on drug-treatment options in Surry County.
Alex Martin, the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Mount Airy, has led funeral services for young people who have died of opioid overdoses. He said he needed to learn more about opioids so he could be a better pastor.
The meetings encouraged him to talk with his congregation about opioids.
“Every Sunday morning, we have a pastoral prayer, and I don’t think anybody feels comfortable saying their grandchild or their son is an abuser of alcohol or opioids. I’d love for us to get to a place where we could acknowledge that this is a real issue,” Martin said. “We’ve got work to do to be where we hope to be.”
There will be another community discussion on opioid misuse in February, this one organized by a network of United Methodist churches in Mount Airy. Willis has been invited to speak. He will limit his comments to the size and scope of opioid misuse in the county.
Willis still sees the county’s faith community as its largest resource of people power. And he remains convinced that it will play a big role in helping heal a county of 72,000 that has averaged roughly an overdose a day for the past two years.
“I’m certain,” he said, “that we can’t keep doing what we’re doing.”