When Rev. Brent Fugate, senior pastor of Byfield Parish Church in Georgetown read a Spotlight story on how the Second Church of Plymouth put recovery first and found ways to reach out to the addicted, he was stirred to address the same social ill at his own church.
“It’s no secret that towns across Massachusetts are overwhelmed with the problem of addiction and that the illness has no regard for ethnicity or economic status,” said Fugate.
But while addiction to alcohol and drugs has always been an issue, opioid addiction has become a public health crisis. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, there were almost 2,000 confirmed opioid-related overdose deaths in 2018. And one news outlet recently reported that Byfield’s neighbor, Salisbury, experienced five overdoses in one weekend, with two people suffering fatal overdoses in a 24-hour period.
Within months after the Spotlight article was published, the need for this conversation hit home with Fugate. Early in 2018 a friend who struggled with addiction took his own life. Fugate believed that the cause and effect between his friend’s addiction and final desperate act were undeniable. “Having tragedy strike so close to my own life steeled my resolve,” he said. “And I was inspired by the efforts of the Plymouth church.”
“It is wonderful to hear that other churches are beginning to make an outreach beyond the walls to help people and families struggling with addiction,” said the Rev. Robert Everett, pastor of Second Church of Plymouth. “The stigma still remains, but it is being challenged. Addiction can strike anyone at any time. No person or place is immune: rich or poor; people of any race; people of any age; people of any religion. Addiction takes a demonic hold on a person and all those in his or her life.”
From the beginning, the Byfield congregation was overwhelmingly supportive of addressing the issue. In addition to those who had struggled with addiction themselves, there were others who had friends and family members who had been affected. In the members’ eyes, it was obvious that addiction was a problem that needed to be addressed by the church. The question was how they could make a meaningful impact when the extent of the addiction problem is so great, and the amount of church resources is limited.
Through internal conversations and reaching out to those struggling with addiction, Byfield’s unique calling became clear. The decision was made to offer an addiction program to the community based on the spiritual resources unique to Christianity.
After doing some research, Byfield chose The Recovery Course because it offered a structured format, and was based on the 12 Steps.
Fugate explained that The Recovery Course is a free 15-week course that integrates the Bible and the Christian faith into a 12-Step structure. Each week’s meeting focuses on one of the 12 Steps within a safe and open community environment. While it is Christian in nature all are welcome to attend whatever their higher power might be. “Spiritual need, forgiveness, grace, and self-control are all rooted in biblical truth, and the Recovery Course is not intended as a replacement for Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous,” explained Fugate. “Instead it is a supplement for those who identify God as their higher power, or those who are interested in exploring God as their higher power.”
“In classic UCC fashion,” he said, “all are welcome.”
Byfield became one of the first churches to run this program in the United States; it originated in the United Kingdom. The church elected to promote the course as ALPHA Recovery Course to increase community awareness of the purpose.
“The church need not offer platitudes. Rather, the church should reach out in love and acceptance,” said Everett. “Let us call to all those struggling with addiction to come and find a home in a church. Let the church begin to welcome and accept those who come. No more judgment. No more stigma. Let's open our arms to those who feel unloved and unwanted.”
Reaching beyond the membership, Fugate formed a team from people he knew in the addiction community. The group decided the program would take place Wednesday nights at the church. To promote the course, signs similar to those that political candidates would use were placed around the communities that Byfield serves.
It started in October, and over the next several months, they had an average of 10 weekly attendees. “All of the folks who came were from outside the Byfield congregation,” explained Fugate. ”Some were Christians from other churches while others stated no explicit faith.”
The course wrapped up in mid-February, but several of the people who attended committed to continue to meet at a local coffee shop biweekly with a more informal structure. Folks from the congregation are welcome to attend.
“This is a day-by-day ministry. There is no clear end point,” explained Everett. “Addiction is a fickle master, and it easily gives false hope. The church must be ready to heal broken hearts and broken bodies. If those who feel like they are living on the edge of society don't feel welcomed in church, where will they find sanctuary and healing? We have a message of grace and healing. Let’s start putting it into practice.”
Those who took advantage of The Recovery Course reported it was a positive experience for their recovery. The congregants of Byfield Parish were motivated by the knowledge this effort was being made.
“I can speak for the people who were praying, and giving faithfully every week for the recovery program,” said Joseph Grifoni Jr. “As supporters, we are leaning on the understanding that Jesus reveals to us in Matthew 28:40, that our lives are not lived outside of His Sovereign Majesty. Jesus commands us, and as his disciples it is our pleasure, to love everyone. Regarding our neighbors in need, from the greatest to the least, how we love them is how we love Jesus. Loving our God and loving our neighbor is intimately connected. The recovery program is just a high profile example of what I pray we are all doing even in the mundane moments of our lives.”
The church also heard positive feedback from the community reflecting a shift in how they are being perceived. Several congregants reported friends and neighbors asking if it was their church that was offering the addiction program. Byfield’s hope is to continue to build on the success of the first installment of this program with future efforts to address the spiritual needs of hurting people in their community.
“God bless the Byfield Parish Church of Georgetown,” said Everett. “What a great idea to have members of a church do it together. Let’s us hope this is the beginning of a UCC church-wide ministry to the addicted community. “
Pastor Fugate states, “Scripture tells us to love our neighbors. Addiction to alcohol drugs, technology, and other things is having an impact on our neighbors. We should apply the unique resources available to us as a church to meet this need, especially God’s love, peace, and community.”
Rev. Brent Fugate can be reached at the Byfield Parish Church office at (978) 352-2022 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/byfieldparishchurch/
Editor’s Note: Rev. Everett recently completed the Recovery Coach Program, and is hoping to work in rehabs and hospitals as a coach. You can contact him at the church office at 508.224.7220 or email email@example.com.