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Catholic Charities brings together parish liaisons to tackle the opioid crisis

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Diocesan Catholic Charities hosted its quarterly Parish Liaison Network meeting at St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax June 14. The liaisons learned about the opioid crisis through the lens of a counseling center, a recovering addict and a parish support program.

Father James R. Gould, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Warrenton, began the presentations with prayer. “Justice is virtue that gives to a person what is due, rooted in our perception of who we are (as) children of God,” he said. “We need to be sensitive to who (the addicts) are and sensitive to the fact that they are more than just numbers.”

He told the liaisons to be attentive to where they are coming from and where they are. “You become more capable of bringing solutions to the church,” Father Gould said. “Be strong in your faith. You have the roots that should affect your insights.”

George Swanberg, executive director of Life Line Counseling in Fairfax, said addiction is a brain damage issue. He showed scans of the brain and how they change when drugs are introduced. According to Swanberg, 175 people die every day in the United States from opioids and there were 1,422 deaths in Virginia in 2016.

Swanberg said families need to be involved in the recovery process. “It is harder to get the family to come to family meetings than it is to get the impaired one to attend,” he said, pointing out that families are changed by living in a house with addiction.

Dan Stendeback spoke about opioids from a personal standpoint. He became the first client in the Catholic Charities Welcome Home Re-entry Program after being released from the Fairfax Adult Detention Center last October. He is now a mentor in the program and is president of his Oxford House, a sober living program.

Stendeback shared his past drug use and how he was introduced to opioids when he was an adult — people who owed him money paid him in OxyContin. He got hooked, turning eventually to heroin, spending up to $500 per day on it. He started a shoplifting ring to afford his habit. He was in three different jails before things started to turn around. And now he wants to help others.

“I need to give back to keep me on the path that I’m on,” he said.

Susan Infeld, a parish nurse at St. John Neumann Church in Reston, spoke from the perspective of parish involvement. She described the opioid crisis as a pro-life issue and one that is an elephant in the room for families and parishes. When Infeld shared her son’s addiction struggle, it prompted discussion with others in the parish who shared their own struggles or sought guidance and support for their loved ones.

St. John Neumann has sponsored educational programs for parishioners and for those from other parishes, including one on alternative treatments for chronic pain, prescription drug and opioid abuse geared toward youths and adults, and an eight-week study support group for people from different areas of concern about addiction, including Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and others.

Infeld said prayers are not enough and people need to be proactive, not just reactive.

“What does a successful parish support program look like?” she asked. “It starts with the pastor, acknowledging addiction is not a moral failing, and affirming that substance abuse disorders affect everyone.”

Trina Black, the parish liaison for St. Bridget of Ireland Church in Berryville, hopes her parish will be able to provide support for those with addictions. “Addiction always sounds like a personal problem. It sounds like it’s all your fault or a moral issue,” she said. “It’s a personal thing when you notice there are lot of families that are suffering and don’t say anything. Having this amount of knowledge is enough to say there is help and it’s not your fault.”

The church holds a more powerful key to recovery than a secular perspective, said Beverly Tauke, Catholic Charities board member and counselor. “What is needed for those who are in recovery is acceptance and a lot of them are walking wounds emotionally,” she said. “They are hurting, and often in faith communities, you can be embraced in a way that doesn’t happen anyplace else.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018