The black church is still healing bodies and souls


November 30, 1997|By Norris West

SOME PEOPLE remember good old days that never existed -- when everyone who walked into a public school walked out literate; when race didn't matter in employment, education or enterprise; when money didn't matter in politics.

So much for the old days.

But not all recollections are faulty. Some people talk about the importance of the black church. "Take your burdens to the Lord and leave them there" was more than a line in a spiritual song. The black church was the focal point of spiritual and social well-being in many communities and a driving force behind the civil rights movement.

Two separate substance abuse programs in Howard County show that black churches still can heal bodies while healing souls.

St. John the Evangelist Baptist Church serves as the local home for the nationally known One Church One Addict program, the brainchild of the dynamic Rev. George Clements.

Father Clements, who has helped thousands of black children find adoptive homes through another program called One Church One Child, has turned some of his attention to people with drug and alcohol problems. His goal is to persuade churches to help people in critical stages of recovery.

The minister's impressive message reached Jasper R. Clay, a member of St. John and a federal parole commissioner who wanted to serve his church and help his church serve the community. Working in the criminal justice system for 42 years, he's had a close look at the way addiction ravages the mind, body and soul.

"I told the pastor that there is a need for this kind of kind of ministry," said Mr. Clay, recalling his conversation a few years ago with the Rev. Robert Turner. "He said, 'Ok, why don't you head it up.' "

With those words, St. John was on its way to becoming home to Maryland's first One Church One Addict program. Although he was an unwitting volunteer, he welcomed the challenge. This was, after all, a place where the church could make a difference.

Community in denial

"Our community was in denial that we have this problem in this utopia they call Columbia," says Mr. Clay, a 24-year member of St. John's who is an usher and has become a trustee since starting the program. "They think it's all in Baltimore. But I knew it was there, in our community, at all levels in our society."

Mr. Clay formed a team of church members who went through a training program to learn how to aid the recovery of addicts without enabling them to relapse. One Church One Addict team members refer addicts to services that can assist them.

The first addict to receive help is a woman named Robin, who told the congregation of her problem. Mr. Clay's team helped her find a job and served as mentors to her children. They stood by her as she earned her high-school equivalency diploma and recently paid for her to attend a recovery retreat.

St. John doesn't take the name of the program literally. Mr. Clay says the church has helped seven other addicts since beginning the program in 1994.

"I've seen the problem, and I've seen the need for someone other than the government getting involved and helping people," he says. Actually, the government is a partner with another Columbia church.

The Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention has granted $28,455 to help the Long Reach Church of God run its Freedom Now substance abuse ministry. Unlike One Church One Addict, which aids recovering addicts, the Long Reach program tries to get addicts to recovery.

Hot spots

The grant comes through the Maryland Hot Spot Communities Initiative, a program that focuses on 36 communities across the state. The effort, led by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, provides $3.5 million to help residents regain control of their neighborhoods. Police and service programs like Freedom Now use the money in a multifacted attack on crime.

The Long Reach program assists people with substance abuse problems who live in the neighborhood. The community was bedeviled by an open-air drug market a year ago, but residents say the atmosphere has improved since hot spot began.

In addition to St. John and Long Reach, the Clergy for Social Justice also operates an education and referral service for people with substance abuse problems.

These programs are a blessing to Joyce Weddington, director of Howard's substance abuse office. She says that 340 people entered government-funded alcohol and drug programs in fiscal 1996, the last year for which statistics are available. That does not include admission to the county's eight private treatment facilities.

"We're not able to provide the full continuum of services needed," she says. "The faith community is filling that gap."

One Church One Addict and Freedom Now show that churches still can make a difference in the lives of communities in the present, just as in the "good old days."

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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