Recently, I ushered for “How to Be a Respectable Junkie” at Dobama Theatre. It is one of the most gut-wrenching plays I have seen. “Respectable Junkie” is written by Greg Vovos and tells the story of Brian, a heroin addict. Christopher M. Bohan as Brian takes command of the stage and the story from the moment we first see him.
When I realized God was calling me to the Presbytery of the Western Reserve as their General Presbyter, I thought it might be helpful to learn something about the area to which I would be moving. I’d never spent much time in Ohio so Google got quite a workout. Whether I typed “issues” or “challenges” or “problems” facing northeast Ohio, the first entry was always the same—opioid crises, heroin addiction.
Whoa—what is going on here? I will confess I wasn’t aware of the extent of the crisis coming from metro-DC. If there were stories posted and written about this epidemic, they didn’t make it to my newsfeed or I didn’t “see” them as I read the morning paper.
Soon after arriving in Cleveland, this article appeared in The Plain Dealer. It begins “Heroin and other opioid-related drugs have become the scourge of Ohio, racking up dozens of deaths by overdose each month and leaving a trail of heartbreak that shows no signs of letting up.” The article then goes on to examine how we got to this point—major factors include legal prescriptions of pain medications, a growing aversion to pain, the liberal use of opioids for chronic, nonterminal pain, and the aggressive marketing of OxyContin by Perdue Pharma. Lawsuits have been filed and settled; the CDC has issued new guidelines for the treatment of chronic pain; the Ohio General Assembly passed a law shutting down pill mills in the state. While the number of opioid prescriptions in Ohio is decreasing, at least 4,149 Ohioans died from unintentional drug overdoses in 2016 and many coroners say that 2017’s overdose fatalities are outpacing 2016’s. Ohio also has the unfortunate reputation of leading the nation in opioid overdose deaths. One in 9 heroin deaths across the US happened in Ohio.
The statistics and news articles are, unfortunately, easy to find. As are other writings. The latest book I’ve downloaded is Dreamland by Sam Quinones. The subtitle is “The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.” This is not necessarily the education I was hoping for and yet realize that this is reality for my new home and if I want to be community minded and engaged, I need to learn as much as possible.
So, back to the production. In the playbill, Nathan Motta (artistic director for Dobama) wrote in part: “as Greg (playwright) was doing rewrites, article after article and statistic after statistic kept popping up about the rapid growth of the opioid epidemic in the United States—and Ohio was the epicenter. This crisis was touching everyone. With every passing day we were more convinced that our work on this production was becoming increasingly vital. HOW TO BE A RESPECTABLE JUNKIE gives a brief look into living with this disease, puts a face on heroin addiction, and shows the heroism, heartbreak, and hope that comes with fighting opioid dependency.” Leaving the theatre, two competing thoughts were running through my brain—thanksgiving for the theatre and wondering how the church is engaged.
The Theatre: Thank God for the theatre—for actors and playwrights, directors and stagehands, costume and set designers, make-up artists and choreographers. All those who take words and ideas and bring them to life on the stage—so we can be challenged, disturbed, comforted, and propelled to act.
My own life is enriched by friends who are actors; the gifts they bring to the stage are surpassed only by the gifts they share in their daily living. One quality they exhibit and that I greatly value is their willingness to push the boundaries, to face issues head on; they don’t shy away from challenging issues or pussyfoot around, on or off stage. They tell the truth; they are direct; they hold up a mirror so we can see more clearly. They take seriously real life issues and offer them in such a way as to say “Here, look at this; think about this; reflect on this; act on this; make this better; work to bring about wholeness; help this change.”
In order to act, we first have to be aware. And for me, the theatre is the one place where my awareness is heightened. Oh yes, I always look forward to stage productions—what could be nicer than a night at the theatre—and more often than not, I walk away “Dang…they did it again; they’re making me think; they’re challenging my assumptions; they’re bringing to light something I didn’t even know needed attention.” And once again, my worldview shifts and I have to figure out what I’m going to do with this newfound awareness.
As hard and as difficult it was to sit through “Respectable Junkie”, I can no longer ignore the destruction and pain of opioid addiction. The personal question for me is “what now? how am I called to respond? will I respond?”
Which leads me to The Church. I’ve got two thoughts here (well, more than two and for the purposes of this note, I’ll stick with two!)—a broader question: how does the church decide how and whether it addresses the tough issues of the day and a more narrow question: how are churches in the Presbytery of the Western Reserve (and their sister churches in the state of OH) responding to the opioid crisis? I’m going to start narrow and then go broad. As for the more narrow question—I don’t have an answer. In making my way around the Presbytery thus far, I haven’t seen or heard of specific involvement by churches. To be fair, I haven’t yet been to all churches or spoken with all pastors or sessions. And I am hoping someone will read this and offer some correction and insight—which I look forward to receiving. And also, to be fair, if I have this question, what would involvement by churches look like? And here is where my education needs to continue. What resources are needed by those committed to addressing this crisis—money? volunteer hours? space? How many churches in the geographical boundaries of the presbytery have been touched by this crisis? Does that experience lead to a discernment of action? Yes, I have more questions than answers, which is how I usually roll initially. PWR people, what say you?
And now the broader question—how does the church decide how and whether it addresses the tough issues of the day? My own experience is that faith communities first have to be aware of the neighborhoods in which they live and move. What are the pressing issues here? What is it that is breaking God’s heart where we live? What is breaking our heart? And how do we respond to that brokenness? The tough issues of the day vary from community to community. As many have heard me say “all ministry is contextual”. And so, what is the context here? Again, questions that invite thought and reflection—which will hopefully lead to “answers” and action.
A hard reality for faith communities is that at times, we weigh community engagement over against acceptance—or put another way—we don’t want to offend people. This outlook has unfortunately become something of a prevailing reality in churches today. We don’t want to rock the boat; we don’t want to ruffle feathers. On some of my more “combative” days, my response is “really, have you read the gospel lately?” Meaning, in an unoffensive way, that Jesus was in the midst of the pressing issues of His day; He did not shy away from community engagement. Jesus rocked many a boat and ruffled many feathers.
In this respect, I think faith communities have much to learn from the theatre. I don’t mean to suggest that theatres seek to be offensive. I do think that companies worth their salt aren’t afraid to name, tackle and address the pressing issues of the day. And their willingness to engage those issues means they are brought out into the light; they are presented in such a way that they can be examined and thought about.
After the performance of “Respectable Junkie”, there was a talk back—those interested stayed and with Mr. Motta’s direction, talked about what had just happened and what their reactions were. That was pretty powerful as well. With the play still fresh in their minds, people were free to share their own stories, ask questions, express sadness, sorrow, anger. It was a bit like what I wish worship was like on a regular basis. Interacting with the gospel and the community in which we are located calls for response. We’re not meant to be left alone with no avenue for conversation, reflection or action. This is life changing stuff we’re dealing with!
In this instance, I think the theatre was better at being church. We who love and value the possibilities of faith communities can learn much from our brothers and sisters who take to the stage.
Images: Signature Theatre (Arlington, VA) and Dobama Theatre (Cleveland Heights, OH); two voices telling important and needed stories