Providing people who use drugs with life-saving medication is an act of unconditional love to Blyth Barnow, who is trying to spread that idea to faith leaders across the state.
Barnow, harm reduction coordinator with Faith in Public Life Ohio, took her beliefs on the road and went to four churches recently to conduct a "Naloxone Saves" service, bless the medication and then hand it out free to those in attendance.
"When you give someone some naloxone, you give them hope," said Barnow, who started at the nonprofit group in April. Since then, she's worked with faith leaders to educate them about harm reduction and how they can use it in their pastoral care and speak about it in services.
"For too long, faith communities have unfortunately participated in the shame and stigma that so many people who use drugs feel," she said. "Those things are often chalked up to moral failures and that's absolutely not the case."
In the sermons Barnow gave at the Naloxone Saves services, she talked of resurrection.
"That's how we talk about participating in overdose reversals, we talk about it as an act of resurrection that Christians are called to participate in," she said. "If our faith is founded on the power of resurrection, how are we participating in that and working with folks? Being prepared to respond to an overdose is a very tangible form of resurrection that we can all participate in and be prepared for."
Barnow is a harm reductionist working to reduce the stigma and shame around drug use and provide drug users with sterile equipment and naloxone, a powerful medication that blocks the effect of opioids and can bring someone out of an overdose.
She got involved in harm reduction work — which focuses on making sure people who use drugs are healthy, loved and connected whether they are sober or not — after one of her "first big loves" died of an overdose in 2004.
At his funeral, the pastor did not bury her friend Kotschi with dignity, she said, instead saying how easily he could've "avoided going to hell."
"Shame can never be the work of the Gospel," Barnow told a group of about 30 people assembled at the United Methodist Church for All People in Columbus last week after telling the story of her friend's funeral.
"Harm reduction is an approach to drug use," she said. "It focuses on addressing the reality of drug use."
Barnow is an example of how faith communities across the country have begun to take on harm reduction efforts in recent years.
"We want to help create spaces that welcome all people," said Erica Poellot, director of faith in communities at the Harm Reduction Coalition, a national organization based in New York City. "There are ways we can promote a much more extravagant welcome for folks … so they can come to church with their whole selves."
People who use drugs have been providing support for each other for years, Poellot said, but that is also the work of the church.
Though, oftentimes, churches aren't those supportive spaces for people who use drugs, some faith leaders say.
In Portsmouth, along the Ohio River in Scioto County, the Rev. Josh Lawson educates faith leaders about how to treat people who use drugs, as his town has been heavily affected by the opioid epidemic.
"There's still a lot of stigma about drug use, that it's simply a moral failing," said Lawson, pastor at Evangelical United Church of Christ in Portsmouth and regional clergy coordinator with Faith in Public Life Ohio. "It has to do with an old school understanding of what addiction is and isn't."
Part of harm reduction is "keeping people healthy and safe in the hope that they'll recover," Lawson said.
And sobriety isn't an expectation, Barnow said.
"God loves people who use drugs and there are no exceptions to that," she said. "If we reach faith leaders and we help them to bring a transformative word around harm reduction, that filters out to the community in a really meaningful way. It's powerful to hear your pastor say you are beloved and not only are you beloved, but we value your life and here is something that can save it if you need it — that's powerful ministry."
It's also an act of unconditional love, she said.
"It is how we love our neighbors, and for me, harm reduction is the work of the Gospel," Barnow said. "When Jesus was working with folks, he worked with folks who were on the margins to help bring them to the center. That's how healing took place, and harm reduction does that."
"Most healings in the Bible took place after somebody asked for what they needed and we believe that's the same way things ought to happen in a harm reduction framework," she said.