Pastors fight heroin epidemic for lives — and souls

JOHNSTOWN (AP) — In recent years, Pastor Bob Wagner has found himself conducting more funeral services for people he never met.

“The last one was a young mother of two,” the Moxham Lutheran Church minister said.

“It’s tragic.”

That scenario has become far too common in a region overwhelmed by an opiate epidemic, clergy members said.

Nancy Hoover, vicar at Grace Lutheran Church, said she understands that heroin and other opiates are claiming people from every walk of life.

And every creed.

Hoover said she was stunned three years ago when she was asked by a young woman to speak at a funeral service for her brother, who had died of a heroin overdose.

“They were from a good, middle-class family,” Hoover said.

“Their parents and grandparents were longtime (church) members and I remembered thinking, ‘How could something like this happen to a family like that?’ “

The rise in overdoses is putting additional pressure on area ministers.

A number of them are vying to break that cycle, offering new ways to draw the lost and suffering into churches while they are still walking the Earth.

And one group of church leaders from a growing list of denominations is planning to work hand-in-hand to deliver a message of hope and salvation where the pastors know those struggling with addiction will hear it: the streets.

“I feel for them,” Hoover said.

“A lot of times, they don’t realize what they are doing to themselves … until it takes everything from them.”

‘Death and brokenness’

Hoover and Christ Centered Community Church Pastor Sylvia King said they have heard horror stories about the realities of addiction.

Families are torn apart.

And lives are, too — not just of those who fall prey to heroin and other powerful drugs — but of those who have to live with a family member’s problems, Hoover said.

King said she’s talked with frustrated parents on the brink of losing hope for a son or daughter.

“It gets to the point that they feel relieved when that child goes to jail,” she said. “They might not like the fact they are (behind bars). But when they put their heads down at night, at least they know where their child is.”

Anyone whose life has been touched by addiction knows there are worse consequences than jail, King said.

Overdoses — most of them fueled by heroin or synthetic opiates such as Fentanyl — claimed more than 90 lives in Cambria County alone last year.

Hoover and Wagner both said they’ve handled several overdose funerals in recent years.

Oftentimes, those duties involved young men or women who were never members of their churches.

But the pastors haven’t hesitated to respond.

“It might be someone who’s never been to church,” Hoover said. “But (their family) wants a Christian funeral and, somewhere in the background, they want that reassurance, I think.”

“Who are we to judge?” Wagner said.

He said many have made poor choices in life, turning to unhealthy habits — smoking, consuming alcohol, unhealthy eating — when times get tough.

“This difference is — what are the consequences of those choices?” Wagner said. “With drugs, it’s crime, death and brokenness.”

King, Wagner and Antoinette Allen, the associate pastor at Kernville’s Christ Centered church, said the church’s walls have become a barrier to a generation of struggling Johnstown-area residents.

The area’s population of addicts might seem daunting — “but there are far more people in this community who claim to love Christ,” Wagner said.

And side by side, the churches can serve as a mighty force for hope, he said.

The three have formed the group The Body of Christ to recruit church members from every house of worship to collectively reintroduce salvation to the streets, the group said.

“We have to tear down our walls and go to them,” Allen said. “Let’s go from community to community and support one another.”

Trying to force someone into one denomination could push him or her away from faith entirely, Wagner said.

“It’s not about increasing our rolls,” King said. “It’s about souls and salvation.”

“God didn’t put us here for ourselves,” Wagner said. “He put us here to walk with one another and to help one another.”

Organizers said they hoped an upcoming Neighbors Night Out on Friday at Christ Centered Community Church would be the first of many that will be held throughout the city, drawing people from every neighborhood for a night of music, food and fellowship.

The ministers are reaching out to churches across the Johnstown area to join in their cause.

Wagner envisions judgment-free zones that would stretch from one corner of the community to the other, where people can come together to share concerns, cry or celebrate milestones.

“None of us alone have all of the skills or resources to help everyone,” he said. “But if I don’t have an answer, maybe Pastor Sylvia does.

“There’s a church for everyone,” Wagner said. “And I think there’s an increased willingness among leaders in our community to understand we’re not trying to make Lutherans or Baptists or Roman Catholics. It’s about getting them to the best place where they can be engaged by Christ … and finding that center of faith to walk through each day.”

To local clergy, the area’s young children — sons, daughters and neighbors of a generation of addicts — are the biggest victims in the crisis.

Hoover recalled a young child telling her she witnessed a loved one overdose in front of her.

“She thought (the person) was smelling salt,” Hoover said. “Imagine explaining that to a child.”

There have been overdoses on Christmas morning in her church’s West End neighborhood.

Some households include parents who are too worried about the next drug fix to plan their children’s meals, Wagner said. Sometimes parents disappear, leaving children at home with siblings too young to handle the responsibility.

“You’re talking 13- or 14-year-olds that suddenly have the responsibility of taking care of households,” Wagner said.

They might be doing their best, he said.

“But they’re also dealing with adult problems … and they don’t have the tools yet to make good decisions,” Wagner said, noting that the stresses can end up leading teens toward destructive paths of their own.

“Instead of playing basketball, they’re at home taking care of their brothers and sisters,” said Allen.

Such problems can only worsen when a parent’s overdose proves fatal, Hoover said.

That victim might have been a child’s only provider, she said.

Brothers and sisters can quickly end up shuffled into different homes — sometimes with relatives or even foster parents.

“All of a sudden, they lose a parent and they might end up moving to another city,” Hoover said. “They lose their school, their home, their friends. They might even lose a brother or sister, if the kids get split up.”

It’s heartbreaking, King said.

Too often, it leaves those children with the feeling they have nowhere to turn, she said.

“Times have changed,” Allen said. “We used to say it takes a village to raise a child. But it seems like there are no villages anymore.”

Hoover responded in her church by moving a Sabbath staple — children’s Sunday school — to 5 p.m.

Organizers started mixing Bible lessons with regular activities — such as bowling or ice skating — that some children might take for granted but that might be luxuries for others in the church’s West End neighborhood.

Before long, the effort was drawing a new crowd of neighborhood children who she said are likely still fast asleep when most early morning children’s services typically begin.

“Children need support circles,” Hoover said. “And one of the best places to find good people is in church, because there’s strength in God.”

Over the years, trying times, economic downturns and disasters have traditionally driven people back to church. But it hasn’t been that simple with the opiate epidemic, even with all of the heartache it’s brought, Wagner said.

Wagner, whose Moxham church’s membership is white, and King, whose Kernville church is mixed but predominantly black, said they see different challenges.

He suspects there are still remnants of a “culture of shame” within a local population of people whose European ancestors formed most of the area’s mainline Christian parishes.

“If someone got pregnant out of wedlock, you hid them away. If you have a problem with addiction, you hide it,” Wagner said, noting that while that reality is changing, the perception that “that’s what you do” still deters struggling addicts and their families from reaching out for help.

King recalled times when drug-dependent men and women walked into her church, pleading for help.

She’s heard every story from people — both black and white — “who aren’t afraid to come to the African-American church and say ‘I’m addicted.’ “

The trouble is, those stories are sometimes little more than that — stories, King said.

For every addict she meets looking for God, she meets a handful seeking handouts, she said.

Often, they ask her to sign a work release form or provide gas money, King said.

“And I come straight down the street at them,” she said. “I ask them ‘What do you really want? Do you want to change or do you want $20 to get high?’ “