Jesus  says that the greatest commandment is this: “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and mind.” And the second greatest commandment is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Our Lord tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to the following question: “So, Jesus, who is my neighbor anyway?”

In the parable a man is injured by robbers and is left by the side of the road. Two people of high distinction in Israel’s society purposefully pass by him. But a third, a “looked-down-upon” Samaritan, the underclass, a foreigner, takes very compassionate care of him.

After telling the story, Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Answer: “The one who showed him mercy.”

On February 28 Tenth’s Medical Campus Outreach and Renewal Presbyterian Church hosted Opioid Overview: Christian Perspectives on the Current Crisis. We framed our conversation with this parable in mind, one that profiles a human being in need and a human being to respond. It is a beautiful picture of mercy, which may look different in different circumstances. We were reminded that everyone needs neighbors, everyone needs mercy.

We heard from Tim Leaman, MD, Kensington and Allegheny Site Medical Director for Esperanza Health Center; Kimberly Leonard, Senior Healthcare Correspondent for the Washington Examiner (now with Business Insider

Our discussion focused on several themes:

We have had drug epidemics before, such as the crack cocaine crisis of the 80’s and 90’s, yet the approach to that crisis had a strong punitive component and less of a therapeutic or healing response to addiction. That epidemic disproportionately affected communities of color and of urban inner cities and resulted in missed opportunities to develop an infrastructure to help people with addiction. Lack of accessible addiction care remains a hindrance to us now in addressing the opioid epidemic.

The pharmaceutical and medical communities of the last few decades have fostered the perfect storm of the current opioid crisis. A well-meaning push to require pain assessments in all health care encounters and prevailing opinion to treat chronic pain led to a quadrupling of opioid prescriptions from 2000 to 2014 with nearly half of a million deaths. And it has become clear that the motive for some pharmaceutical companies, and in rare cases health care providers, was profit over patient.

The outcome of the opioid crisis is overwhelming and heartbreaking. The mortality is staggering with nearly 50,000 deaths due to overdose in 2018 alone. Since 2013, death rates have been going up almost exponentially affecting all socioeconomic and racial and ethnic groups. Methamphetamines, cocaine, alcohol, and other drug combinations are also becoming more lethal as the battle continues. And what we see in the most alarming statistics is just the tip of the iceberg. More functional substance abusers are never counted; there are also increases in HIV, Hepatitis A/B/C, skin infections, and sepsis. While these collateral effects are additionally seen in this population, there are untoward effects of the opioid crisis to the entire society.

The United States has an addiction problem and lacks the systems to handle it; only 10% of the 22 million people with substance use disorders will get treatment. We all shared what we knew was being done regarding prevention, harm reduction, and recovery. We discussed the positive efforts, like getting kids into Christian neighborhood activity programs, and the controversies related to the pros and cons of supervised injection sites.

The full program, Opioid Overview: Christian Perspectives on the Current Crisis, is available on MCO’s website, including the slide presentations given. Please contact Laura Layer, MD, if you have questions or want to hear about volunteer opportunities.

There are no quick fixes, and we will be dealing with the opioid crisis for the next decade, at a minimum. We all have something to do. Pray, vote, work, volunteer. We know that the Lord cares for us, as his image bearers. Let us seek his wisdom, guidance, and compassion to serve those whose lives cross our paths and  who may be struggling with addiction. And let us find joy in his words: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

© 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Laura Layer and Phil Scribano. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org