ALCOA, Tenn. -- Checking the latest number of coronavirus cases has become a new routine for some people, but not for Seth Charles and Matt Hall. Their routine is to check the latest number of overdose deaths.
“That’s our people. That could be me,” said Charles, leader of the recovery ministry at Fountain City United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. “Numbers represent people. We always say, ‘Don’t be a statistic.’”
While congregations throughout Holston Conference have resumed in-person gatherings in the last few weeks, some recovery leaders are still agonizing over damage caused when the pandemic closed United Methodist church buildings to support groups and people fighting addiction.
In March 2020, Holston Conference suspended in-person worship and other activities for its 853 churches to help keep people safe from COVID-19. The building closures continued in areas where coronavirus cases were high for many months, until Bishop Dindy Taylor permitted indoor, in-person activities again beginning Sept. 20.
For people in recovery, community and relationships are crucial, says the Rev. Matt Hall, recovery pastor at First United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee. Participants in recovery ministries are told repeatedly how important it is to stay connected in order to stay sober.
It was “heartbreaking” to tell people their worship and group meetings were canceled, especially when other non-United Methodist churches and organizations were still meeting, said Hall. “Everything I said got devalued in one swift move.”
“Recovery is community-based,” Charles explained. “One of the purposes of recovery is to not be isolated.”
Data and media reports confirm the pandemic has been damaging for people dealing with addiction. Earlier this month, the American Medical Association urged legislators and governors to take action after more than 40 states reported spikes in overdose fatalities since March 2020.
In Knox County, Charles is concerned that 280 overdose deaths have occurred so far this year, compared to 259 total in 2019, according to statistics from the district attorney general's office.
Meanwhile, 80 people have died of COVID-19 in Knox County, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
“I have a resentment toward COVID and these guidelines,” said Charles, referring to safety measures that protected people from contracting the virus at church while at the same time leaving recovery communities stranded. “My call is to shepherd these people into both recovery and safety.”
In Blount County where Hall’s church is located, 176 people died from overdoses between January and September 1, according to Be Aware Blount Anti-Drug Coalition. Twenty-seven people in Blount County have died from COVID-19 so far.
“There are by far more overdoses than COVID deaths,” Hall said. “I don’t say that to take away from COVID, but it’s a reality. People were drowning at home in isolation, and we remained tunnel-focused.”
Hall said he struggled with reaching his recovery congregation through online gatherings, especially since some members are homeless or live in halfway houses.
“We just assume everyone has access to the internet at this point in time, and that’s not the case,” he said.
Relapses are common in recovery communities, but recovery leaders say relapses have increased along with isolation, unemployment, and other hardships caused by the pandemic. The same is true at Lebanon Memorial United Methodist Church in Lebanon, Virginia, said the Rev. Jeff Tallent.
“The loss of the community had a lot of people falling back into alcohol and drugs and feeling a sense of desperation,” he said.
In April, the recovery ministry at Lebanon Memorial lost a long-time participant to suicide. Tallent believes the pandemic was a factor in the man’s death.
At Out of the Box United Methodist Church in Hillsville, Virginia, Kevin Harrod noticed not only more relapses but also "substitution using" during the pandemic. Instead of relapsing back to using drugs, for instance, some addicts turned to drinking alcohol.
“There was a real hole in their support system, since we were not having recovery on Wednesday nights but we also weren’t having church on Sunday,” said Harrod.
In Carroll County, even the Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings were conducted online over Zoom for weeks, while high-speed internet is unavailable or unaffordable especially in rural areas, Harrod said.
“There was a lot of depression and fear, because at first we didn’t know as much as we do now about COVID,” he said. “People have expressed relief that we could meet again in small groups beginning three weeks ago.”
Recovery pastors coped with suspension of in-person gatherings in the last several months by creating new ways of reaching out to their congregation members, sometimes with new and positive outcomes. Harrod said he regularly made phone calls to check on his members and visited them on their porches. A new weekly Facebook Live message is reaching people outside Carroll County, including people Harrod knew and used drugs with in his past.
“They watched the videos and have expressed the desire to get clean and have a relationship with Jesus Christ,” Harrod said.
At Celebrate Recovery North at Fountain City, Charles and his crew shared regular social-media messages on where to find hope during the church closures. “The pandemic pushed us into livestream and recording, which we needed to do,” he said. “We’ve tried to focus on what is positive about what we’re doing and not on what is negative about what we’re doing.”
Since recovery ministries have been allowed to resume in-person gatherings, attendance has been well below pre-COVID numbers, just as attendance has typically been lower at regular worship services in Holston Conference.
Recovery at Lebanon on Wednesday nights has welcomed 10 participants in recent weeks, down from 20 to 40 before March 2020, Tallent said.
Celebrate Recovery at First United Methodist in Maryville is logging in about 50 people for Wednesday night worship and small groups, down from 150 to 200 before the pandemic. Hall says he’s seen two to three new faces at every recent in-person gathering, but he’s doubtful most of his former regular attenders will ever return.
“I feel like recovery is so much of a routine for people. Once the routine of meeting on Wednesday night got thrown out, it’s not going to be corrected,” said Hall. “They went and found another community that shared their values and desperation.”
To keep people safe from the virus and to meet Holston Conference reopening guidelines, the format of in-person recovery ministries has changed dramatically, requiring additional major adjustments for participants.
Hugging is out of the question even though many people struggling with addiction are starved for touch, recovery pastors say. Eating together had to be eliminated, even though the free meals “draw people in, give them incentive to come, because most are well below poverty level or transient or homeless,” Harrod said.
The loss of free child care keeps many parents from attending recovery meetings, Charles said. In small groups, participants have to keep their social distance and wear face masks, making it even harder for older people and veterans with hearing difficulties to communicate, Hall has noticed.
However, recovery leaders say they’re so desperate to keep their congregations connected while meeting in person, they’re working through the restrictions necessary to prevent virus spread.
“I want people to know we’re here,” Charles said. “We haven’t gone anywhere. Our doors are open for people sick with addiction. God is bigger than a pandemic and addiction. When we put our hope in God, he gives us the victory.”
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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.