Relationships key as churches reach out in the opioid crisis

The Rev. Harold George (left) prays with community members during a food distribution at Oak Grove United Methodist Church in Fisher, W.Va. George also serves as an emergency first responder, which puts him in the front lines of the opioid crisis. “You pray on the way to calls, you pray your way through calls, you pray for the people after the calls,” he said. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.
The Rev. Harold George (left) prays with community members during a food distribution at Oak Grove United Methodist Church in Fisher, W.Va. George also serves as an emergency first responder, which puts him in the front lines of the opioid crisis. “You pray on the way to calls, you pray your way through calls, you pray for the people after the calls,” he said.

Story by Joey Butler, photos by Mike DuBose
April 4, 2019 | MORGANTOWN, W.Va.
...Thornton said he tries to get folks off the street and into recovery, but also offers to pray with them and just remind them they are loved. Not everyone is receptive — he’s been ignored and even threatened with violence. He also has a number of people show up at Fourth Avenue “because they know our church is a place they will be welcomed.”
Donnie Smitley met Thornton through his street ministry and now comes to his church. A former crack addict, he said, “It’s only by the grace of God I’m here.”
Welcoming is important to the Rev. Mike Smith as well. Smith pastors Nighbert United Methodist in Logan, another area hit hard by opioid addiction. The church is next door to a clinic that administers suboxone, a medication used to treat dependence.
Smith routinely hits the streets and gets to know the community, which helps build trust with those who are often suspicious of the church.
“There’s a sacrificial aspect to it, committing your life to changing other people’s lives,” he said. “If you’re willing to really get involved, it’s intense.”
The Revs. Harold and Cheryl George and Deb Dague take that intense way of changing lives to another level. In addition to ministering to congregations, they are also EMTs.
Harold George said he focuses on the job at hand but never really takes off his clerical collar.
“You pray on the way to calls, you pray your way through calls, you pray for the people after the calls.”
He also has to pray for other first responders. The rise of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid many times more potent than morphine, has put emergency personnel at risk, as even physical contact with the drug could prove fatal. Crews carry extra Narcan, a drug that can “revive” overdoses, in case they succumb to fentanyl exposure.
Dague works with Brooke County EMS in Wellsburg. “People say you can’t be an EMT and serve a clergy role, but this is someone’s worst day and you’re with them to give care and hope,” she said. “That’s how they’ll remember you. To me, it absolutely is a ministry.” ...

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