Last week, state leaders unveiled an ambitious plan to invest $45.8 million in new federal funds to create a comprehensive system of care for those battling opioid addiction.
Now some in New Hampshire are bringing a different kind of weapon to that fight: The power of prayer.
The New Hampshire Council of Churches is encouraging churches to offer prayers, homilies and special activities next Sunday, Aug. 26, to support those struggling with addiction. The observance is planned to coincide with International Overdose Awareness Day (Aug. 31).
The Rev. Jason Wells, executive director of the NHCC, said it's a natural fit for churches to respond to this crisis. "Throughout the Bible, we have stories of Jesus being interested in healing other people," he said.
Just as congregations offer prayers for those who are suffering from physical ailments such as cancer, Wells said, healing prayers are needed for individuals and families whose lives have been torn apart by addiction. "I think that prayer does, in fact, work," he said. "And I don't really think we can address this without it."
"For me, one of the powerful aspects of prayer is that act of trusting in God," he said. "We have said that this is a problem for which we must pray; we acknowledge that we cannot fix it alone and that we are relying on God. We are relying on something outside of ourselves for support and for help."
It's the same reason 12-step programs recognize a reliance on a higher power, he said. And that recognition, Wells said, "changes us."
"When we turn to God in prayer, we find ourselves filled with hope, and that is not something to be discounted. It gives us courage. We may not see that ... God waves a magic wand and takes away an opioid crisis, but we are given the moral qualities of hope and courage to face something we otherwise couldn't face."
The Rev. Sandi Albom is curate at All Saints Parish in Peterborough. A former nurse and a person in long-term recovery, she was ordained as an Episcopal priest last April and now co-chairs a statewide recovery ministry for the Episcopal Church of New Hampshire.
The role of faith communities in the current crisis, she said, "is to pay attention to what's been presented to us in our holy writings. Which, over and over and over again, urge us to look outside of ourselves and to pay attention to what's going on around us. And in the midst of that to say: What's my response to it?"
But that doesn't always happen, according to the Rev. Susan Grant Rosen, the interim pastor of United Church of Winchester. She also started an opioid crisis mission group for the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ.
Grant Rosen said individuals and families dealing with addiction often feel isolated, even within their own faith communities. "This issue is basically silent in most churches," she said. "The people who have this issue going on in their families are afraid that they will be judged and shunned, and actually that has happened."
"So they don't tell the minister, and they don't lift it up at prayer time."
Grant Rosen wants to change that. "The first thing I'm hoping people will do is to break the silence from the pulpit, to give the necessary message of support and encouragement so people will be able to talk about it, and to have it in the prayers."
Next, she wants faith communities to help reduce the stigma around substance use disorder by learning about how it happens and what can help people recover.
She wants churches on Aug. 26 to offer up prayer intentions around addiction and recovery. "Prayer is a way to connect with the transcendent around any issue," she said.
But it's not just about prayer; she'd also like to see churches sponsor Narcan training, provide resources for those who need help and hold memorial services for those who have been lost.
Albom said the current opioid epidemic is particularly devastating because addiction and overdose can happen so quickly, sometimes after someone uses just one or two times. "There are a lot of people who, because it comes on so fast, they may not even know it's happening and they're gone before we could even know to do something," she said.
So what good can prayer do in the face of such a daunting crisis?
"What harm can it do?" Albom replied.
Then she went on: "When we're praying for someone who we may not understand, it opens our own awareness to their humanity, and ours. And it encourages us to really see each other as children of a creator that loves us.
"And especially for families of those who are addicted, to be able to know that although they may not be able to control what was going on with their loved one, there are other people around them that are praying ... and that the person they care for and love is also cared for and loved, both by the community and by their own understanding of the Holy."
In her own ministry, Albom recently reached out to an individual who was dealing with addiction, offering to connect that person with resources. "Who knew when I went to seminary that I would also need to be a social services specialist?" she asked.
Did it work?
"I guess that remains to be seen," she said.
But Christian pastors say it's clear what Jesus would be doing in the midst of this epidemic.
"He would be out there, right alongside," Albom said.
"He would be going out and healing people," Grant Rosen said. "He would be touching people who are considered to be untouchable. That's what he did."
But he would also be holding the rest of us to account for how we treat all of God's children, she said. "Jesus was very hard on people who distanced anyone who was sick or outcast," she said.
In Jesus' time, she said, Jewish communities understood they were responsible for taking care of each other.
That same tradition thrived in the small towns that were first settled in New Hampshire, including her own adopted community of Winchester. "There was probably very little of what we would call medical care," she said. "But if someone was sick, people would go over and pray with the family. They would use what they had to help."
"We've gotten away from that," she said.
Beyond the Stigma, a series exploring solutions to the state's addiction and mental health challenges, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, NAMI New Hampshire, and private individuals. Contact reporter Shawne K. Wickham at firstname.lastname@example.org.