When I came to Second Church in Plymouth, I explained to members that my family’s problems with addiction may make it necessary to travel to New Jersey at a moment’s notice. The church was very supportive of me, and more than once, my wife and I had to make the five-hour trip down to New Jersey.
Today my son is married with a new baby, and my parishioners always ask about them. An unintended consequence of my family’s story was the opening up of parishioners who have also been affected by addiction or helping a family member in recovery.
September was National Recovery Month, a month dedicated to increasing awareness and understanding of mental and substance use disorders and celebrating the people who recover. I realized that although the church building was used for Alcoholics Anonymous and other similar group meetings for many years, the problems of addiction were seldom addressed directly by the church. I hoped a Recovery Sunday worship service – similar to services held by my former church in New York -- would bring the problems out into the sunlight and help to remove the shame and stigma associated with these issues.
The Recovery Sunday worship is designed to help the church begin to talk about the problems of addiction and to help make the church a safe and welcoming place for anyone affected by these many problems. (You can read more about the church’s efforts in this Spotlight article.
At the first Recovery Sunday, I asked all those who had been touched by addiction problems to stand. Almost everyone stood. I then asked how many had talked about this to other church members. Most sat down. The conversation then began, and now during each Sunday service, there is a time for “God moments.” People talk about how God has been working in their lives during the week. There is no longer any reluctance to speak about addiction among other issues.
During my sermons, I like to include a quote from Brennan Manning: God loves me…beyond all worthiness and unworthiness, beyond fidelity and infidelity, that God loves me in the morning sun and in the evening rain, that God loves me when my intellect denies it, when me emotions refuses it, when my whole being rejects it. That God loves without condition or reservation, and God loves me this moment as I am and not as I should be.
Since that first service, the church has become very involved not just in helping people who have an addiction, but also people who are homeless and hungry, because many times those problems go hand-in-hand. In addition to holding the special worship that helps with their spiritual needs, church members also reach out to the homeless in the local Plymouth community and Boston area, to help with their physical needs. Parishioners help feed, distribute clothes, and hand out bibles with cards that have social services contact information.
The Church has a clear message to offer people living on the margins of society, to people who feel unloved and rejected because of their illness of addiction. It is a message of a loving God whose arms are always open to those who hurt and feel unloved. The Church has the many stories of the Tanak and the New Testament of God loving those who are rejected and cast aside. We have stories of Jesus going to those who no one else would touch or love. These were the friends of Jesus. They still are.
Recovery Sunday is a time for churches to shed the judgment often leveled at people sick with the disease of addiction. It is a time to ruthlessly root out the evils of stigma and shame.
Why have churches seemed so unwelcoming to so many people in need in the past?
Thankfully, I like to think that times are changing.
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