Faith and Harm Reduction: The True Meaning of "All God's Children"

Dec 15, 2013 | Updated Nov 30, 2015

It's easy to drive by Catalyst Community Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, without noticing it. Tucked into an old strip mall next to a tire shop, the crumbling parking lot and bland brick walls don't exactly invite closer inspection. But inside the humble exterior, wondrous things are happening. At Catalyst, sex workers, drug addicts, the sick and homeless, populations that are often turned away from traditional churches, have a home in Pastor James Sizemore's eclectic family. Stepping through the doors, members can shed the judgment and shame heaped on them by the outside world to find healing and solace. In addition to song and worship services, the church offers traditional ministry programs, such as food and health classes, as well as some non-traditional ones, including a syringe exchange program that passes out clean needles to injection drug users and condoms to sex workers. Contrary to the majority of its Christian counterparts, Catalyst Church practices harm reduction, helping its members to reduce the potential harms of their behavior, such as disease transmission through shared needles or unprotected sex, instead of turning them away. Pastor Sizemore believes that love and acceptance of all God's children, regardless of where they are in their lives, is imperative to being a true Christian and he strives to create a space where all people feel welcome.

TC: How did you start Catalyst Community Church? What made you embrace harm reduction as part of your ministry?

JS: Eight years ago, I became incredibly dissatisfied with the "normal" church. Each Sunday, I would get in my truck and drive to church, only to find myself sitting in the parking lot forcing myself to go in. I became nauseous, knowing that outside of the walls of the church, people were hurting and dying. As I drove home each Sunday, I would cry and pray for days only to have this overwhelming feeling of dissatisfaction get worse.
I remember very clearly the Sunday that everything changed. As usual, I drove to church, but this time I could not get out of my truck to go inside. I prayed, "God, whatever you are trying to tell me, or whatever you are trying to do in me, I will do." I started my truck and never went back.

From that point, God began to develop Catalyst in my dreams and spirit. He placed such an intense burden in my life for all of the "modern untouchables" in our society that are not welcome to journey spiritually in "normal churches." To me, it was as if God placed a piece of His heart in my heart for people that are hurting; the poor, the addicted, the sick, the outsider. Catalyst was to be a place of acceptance, not condemnation, a place of welcome, not rejection, a community of healing and hope.

Two weeks later, we held our first service in a friend's home, and a month later we held our first service in a house that we converted to a church. From the very onset, we understood that harm reduction is an integral part of who we are, but more importantly, harm reduction is an extension of the heart of God. As we encountered the prostitutes that worked around our church and noticed the visible signs of drug addiction among nearly all of our first members, we knew that we had to do something to help. The interesting thing is that once that bridge is crossed, it changes the way one thinks about ministry and the heart of God.

One of our first harm reduction programs started by chance when a prostitute asked if I had clean needles. I immediately went to 10 drug stores before I found one that would sell me syringes. From that point, we started our needle exchange in a state where the law says that we cannot. Once we started understanding the role of harm reduction in our community life, we began to implement harm reduction outreach by providing HIV testing, condoms, and helping people learn to protect themselves. Approximately a year ago, we contacted the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition for opiate-based harm reduction training after seeing a rash of deaths from unintentional opiate overdose in our community.

TC: How do faith and harm reduction strengthen each other?

JS: There is a certain theology of harm reduction that all followers of Christ are called to understand. The Old Testament presents an understanding of harm reduction in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 when it presents a concept of taking action in order to reduce harm to those who are vulnerable. In this particular situation, this passage presents a law to protect a woman from being an object passed among men. What this law presents is an idea of reducing harm that is caused by divorce, a concept that is less than God's original idea for marriage. Like modern harm reduction strategies, it outlines the issue (divorce), then presents a strategy (don't engage in this behavior) to reduce the harm caused by the issue.

This concept is reiterated throughout all societal issues of that day as God, through Moses, communicates harm reduction strategies to the children of Israel. One can even make a perfect case that the Ten Commandments is a total harm reduction strategy in that it addresses the major issues of a society and encourages a strong prescriptive action to reduce the harm that is caused by not following them.

In the New Testament, particularly in the ministry of Christ, we find many of the same concepts. In John 3:17, we find that Christ did not come into the world to condemn (or judge it) but to save it. Likewise, the followers of Christ are no longer alive, but Christ lives in them. If we believe that is true, then the process of not condemning others, but the process of saving them from harm is analogous to modern harm reduction strategies.

For a follower of Christ to not be involved in harm reduction, I believe, is to deny the real ministry of Christ and God's original design for those that follow Him. When a conscious choice is made to embrace harm reduction, whether individually or corporately, one's spiritual life is aligned more towards the heart of God and His love for His creation.

TC: Why do you think that the faith community is not traditionally aligned with harm reduction? Is there anything that can be done to change this?

JS: Historically, the church has felt the need to protect itself from outside influences. This has led to faith community homogeneity in which the "outsider" has not been welcome. As the "outsider" has not been welcome, the need for harm reduction has not been felt.

More than ever, I think that the church is living in a very precarious time. Over the past 10 years, as the church has erroneously aligned itself with certain political ideologies, the true calling of God for the church to embrace harm reduction has been politicized as a negative "us versus them" concept. More specifically, I think the church has become more interested in the law than truly being the church and protecting what Christ called "the least of these."

As the church becomes more rooted and aligned with a political ideology, unless God intervenes, I do not see anything changing. Those of us who are living out the calling of Christ to reduce harm, to love people as they are, to not condemn, to consider all as friends, are also being marginalized as part of "the other." In some cases, we are even called heretical and not the true followers of Christ because we refuse to align with political ideologies that do not agree with harm reduction.

My prayer, more than ever, is that the church would become the church that Christ died for. It is a church that loves all in spite of who they are, or what they are involved in. It is a church that seeks to save the lost and dying. It is a church that reflects God's creative order and reduces the harm that is caused by behaviors that war against God's creation. It is a church that provides for the widows, the poor, and the orphan. It is a church that is called to rescue the perishing. It is a church that believes God loves each one of us so much that He would work toward reducing harm through our lives.

Deuteronomy 24: 1-4 THE VOICE

Moses: 1Suppose a man marries a woman but then isn't happy with her because he discovers she is sexually indecent, and he writes a certificate of divorce, gives it to her, and sends her away from his house. 2Suppose she leaves his house and becomes another man's wife, 3and that second man also isn't happy with her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her, and sends her away; or suppose that second man who married her dies. 4In either case, the first man who divorced her isn't allowed to take her back as his wife because the intimacy of the second marriage defiled her for her first husband. The Eternal would be horrified if anyone did this. It would bring sin on the land the Eternal your God is giving you to live in and pass down to your children.

John 3:17 THE VOICE

17Here's the point. God didn't send His Son into the world to judge it; instead, He is here to rescue a world headed toward certain destruction.

Galatians 2:20 THE VOICE

20I have been crucified with the Anointed One--I am no longer alive--but the Anointed is living in me; and whatever life I have left in this failing body I live by the faithfulness of God's Son, the One who loves me and gave His body on the cross for me.