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Practice Justice

Systemic Prevention, Especially for Youth

Dignity strengthens resiliency
by Joy Gonnerman | September 14, 2022

When I was only a few days into a new position, three children wandered into my church office and asked if there was anything to eat. We went together to the kitchen and made some sandwiches, talked for a while, then they went home. Sharing this with the church ladies who came in later for Bible study, the first thing they told me, in hushed voices, was that “their father is an alcoholic.” Even then, before my current work, I wondered why they thought that was so important, when my point was that they were hungry. 

There is certainly work to be done in the church on issues of justice, systemic enabling, social stigma and shame, inequities, and modeling discipleship inside and outside of the walls of church. When realities are spoken of in hushed voices or those who live in recovery are relegated to basement rooms because they feel the need for anonymity and we feel the need to shelter “good” people from “those people,” we are a part of the problem. 

When I preach about prevention, addiction, recovery, harm reduction and loving those who suffer, people begin to speak aloud. There is always someone who patiently waits apart to speak to me about someone for whom they are concerned.  Why should they have to bear that burden alone? Can’t we do something to share the load of fear and worry? Yes. The answer is yes.  

One truth that prevention and faith have in common is that we just plant seeds trusting that those seeds abundantly cast will fall on fertile soil. 

Bishop Desmond Tutu once said, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.”  

We need to know why people are falling into the river that Bishop Tutu speaks of and also be ready to wade in and pull them out. And churches certainly need to stop pushing people in. 

Prevention strategies places us all along the river’s course. Communities and individuals of faith have parts to play both because we are called to care for the neighbor but also because the church has much to atone for. So many of the people I encounter in this field have felt shame and stigma from misguided church actions. The church must own this and be a part of moving from a purveyor of morality to a provider of love. We must humbly admit our part in creating stigma and shame around people who suffer and work to be the source of hope and compassion that people need. 

What follows are some means by which the gospel can be present in the conversation and actions taken to prevent high- risk substance use, by simply being a part of the process and boldly loving without judgment. 

Show up for coalitions 

Addiction and its prevention is a public health issue. SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) has determined 12 sectors of public life that are stakeholders in coalitions. Faith communities are one of 12 sectors of public life (including parents, law enforcement, schools…) that can show up as stakeholders in coalitions for addiction prevention, although faith communities are often the most difficult to get to the table.

So the first thing congregations can do is show up at these tables. As leaders of faith communities (pastors, deacons, ministerial members) present at the table: give the gospel a voice in decision making.  The people in our pews serve in these many sectors and when we learn to de-compartmentalize our faith so that it guides our actions outside the sanctuary, a voice of the gospel (inclusion, service, compassion, love) can become a part of the work toward addressing substance use prevention systemically. We need voices at the table that proclaim our horizontal faith—to love and care for those around us—even when they are in active use. While I know that adding yet another committee to churches seems daunting, since about 10 percent of the American population has a substance abuse disorder, there are people invested in this who are already around you. Inviting them to action on behalf of their youth might be what they are looking for. 

We have the power to move addiction from the shadows and into the light where shame and stigma cannot survive. 

  • We can preach that Legion (Mark 5:9) may be suffering in a life similar to those who live with addiction. 
  • Or that the least of these (Matthew 25:31) who suffer hunger, imprisonment or illness, with whom Jesus identifies, might describe those who suffer in the grip of active addiction. 
  • Speaking with compassion about a disease historically associated with a flawed character may help more faith communities recognize our role to play in healing. 
  • Engaging conversations about addiction through adult and multigenerational education elevates communities of faith as sources of prevention strategies and normalizes conversation. 

Understand ACEs: Adverse Childhood Experiences 

Perhaps the clearest connection between the science of prevention and the passion for this work lies in the understanding of ACEs. Questions like the following will reveal them. 

Yes or No, prior to your 18th birthday:

  1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often … swear at you, insult you, put you down, humiliate you, or act in a way that made you afraid you might be physically hurt? 
  2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often … push, grab, slap or throw something at you or ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured? 
  3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever … touch or fondle you or have you touch your own body in a sexual way? Or attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?
  4. Did you often or very often feel that … no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? Or your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other? 
  5. Did you often or very often feel that … you didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? Were your parents often too drunk or high to take care of you or take you ro the doctor if you needed it? 
  6. Were your parents separated or divorced?
  7. Was your mother or stepmother, often or very often: pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? Or: sometimes, often or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? Or ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or a knife? 
  8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker, alcoholic or used street drugs? 
  9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide? 
  10. Did a household member go to prison? 

Just 4 or more of these childhood experiences exponentially increases the risk for addiction or being in the justice system. 

The kids I work with are at risk for addiction for so many reasons listed above. Imagine being trafficked by your father or brother. Imagine having to go to school hungry because it was not your turn to eat that morning. Witnessing your mother being hurt is just as impactful as being hurt yourself. In a household where these experiences are taking place, there is a need to disappear and anesthetize. Substances can offer an escape, especially if use has become normalized.   

Knowing what I know now, it is impossible for me at this point to read Matthew 25 outside of the context of ACEs.  Hunger, neglect (nakedness), homelessness, and loneliness are Adverse Childhood Experiences and Jesus draws our attention to them again and again.

Protective factors and resiliencies 

The CDC names 15 resiliency factors, which protect at-risk children from chronic health problems, mental illness and substance abuse in adulthood. Faith communities are well-positioned to create the conditions for at least 7 of them:

  • When I was little, other people helped my mother and father take care of me and they seemed to love me.
  • When I was a child, a neighbor or my friends’ parents seemed to like me.
  • When I was a child, a teacher, coaches, youth leaders or ministers were there to help me. 
  • My family, neighbors and friends talked often about making our lives better.
  • When I felt really bad, I could almost always find someone I trusted to talk to.
  • As a youth, people noticed that I was capable and could get things done.
  • And… an unrelated adult knew/knows my name. 

This is hugely important. 90% of those who suffer with addiction started using in their teens. There is a major role for communities of faith here! Substance use puts a bandage on deep wounds, but healthy relationships can actually heal the injury.  

In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Church on the Street pastored by Rev. Chris Wernicke Matson is a model of what churches can do. On Saturdays, free services like dental exams, heart checks, manicures, haircuts (and then having your picture taken), socks, and food are offered to all. Prayer, tiny prayer shawls and communion are available. Without even being aware of what they were doing, this church was providing protective factors to all the children present. When a child sees their mother treated with respect, it strengthens them. When a child sees their father treated with kindness it strengthens them.  And note, this church is thriving. 

The good news is that you don’t have to know all this by yourself. Systemic prevention requires many people at the table. As communities of faith, we can proclaim that each person is loved and we are the embodiment of this. Simply practicing discipleship, following where Jesus leads, and daring to love as we have been loved might be just the resiliency experienced by a child or youth that averts or diverts them from reaching for a different solution. It really can be just that simple.  

Your turn

Set a time to read through and discuss this article with youth and parents in your congregation. How does knowing about ACEs guide your next steps in protecting and supporting youth?

About the Author

Joy Gonnerman

Pastor Joy Gonnerman was ordained (ELCA) in 2008 and has served several congregations in Minnesota and Iowa. Her work as a Certified Prevention Specialist has been recognized by the Western Iowa Synod as her Synodically Authorized call. Joy has a passion for advocacy and justice that has led her down several career paths but this cohesion with the gospel and prevention is a gift. Joy lives in Sioux City with her husband, Wayne Gallipo (retired ELCA pastor), her dog who partners with her in her work, a parrot, a tortoise, 2 cats and a tarantula.

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