In 2012, The Presbyterian Church of Deep Run lost one of their youngest members, Anna Straw, to a heroine overdose. She was 19 years old. The tragic death of one of their own was a wake-up call to the congregation to view addiction no longer as an abstract issue, but as a very real disease being battled by members of their communities, families, and churches. Even more, the passing of Anna Straw awakened within the faithful a holy empathy and desire to bear the burdens (Galatians 6:2) alongside families in their congregation and surrounding neighborhood whose loved ones battled addiction.
“After Anna’s death, we could no longer say this is a problem ‘out there,’” remarked Rev. Kris Schondelmeyer, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Deep Run. “This very much is a problem right here in the midst of our own community, indeed right here in the midst of our own faith community.”
In the middle of their grief, the saints of this Bucks County church rallied alongside Anna Straw’s parents and inaugurated the Anna Straw Initiative. A separate 501c(3) partnership with The Council of Southeast Pennsylvania (CSP), this initiative offers a PRO-ACT Family Education Program and monthly support group to those whose loved ones battle addiction, strive towards recovery, and grieve in the wake of tragic death. The Anna Straw Initiative ultimately provides safe space and community on a monthly basis for those who frequently experience shame and isolation. “Jesus intentionally reached out to those who were sick, those who were struggling, those who were vulnerable,” added Rev. Schondelmeyer. “We are providing safe and sacred space for vulnerable people who are struggling with a loved one’s addiction while we offer the compassionate hands of Christ [and] teach them about this terrible, chronic disease.”
The Presbyterian Church of Deep Run is not alone in their efforts to extend the compassion of Christ alongside families strained by addiction and loss. Thompson Memorial and Doylestown Presbyterian Churches also have developed programs in partnership with CSP in light of their own experiences with the loss of church members to the devastating realities of addiction. In 2016, after an elder from each congregation witnessed children die from alcoholism, the two congregations began to collaborate and host support networks for families, alternating as hosts each month. Similar to the outreach of Deep Run, trained leaders of Thompson Memorial and Doylestown facilitate small groups and form intentional community alongside those who often feel alone and afraid. “This illness often brings with it shame to the family,” commented Rev. Keith Roberts, Associate Pastor of Doylestown Presbyterian Church. “We want to offer a place where honest reflection takes place yet where no judgment is made of others…Our churches hope to continue opening doors of understanding as we seek to share the hope of the Gospel with those who battle the disease of addiction and their families who love them.”
The reality of drug addiction, whether to opioids or alcohol, heroine or numerous others, has made headlines in local and national news in recent days. The stories of those battling this nation-wide epidemic have also underscored addiction’s ability to transcend race, class, and geographical location. As Rev. Schondelmeyer added, “Addiction is in your church. It is in the lives of the families you serve.” The same is true for the shame associated with and deeply felt by those battling the disease and their families. This despair leaves many to wonder, is anyone willing to help shoulder the weight we have carried alone for too long? Is there even a place for us in this house of worship?
The witness of these three Bucks County churches affirms that in Christ’s church all belong and in the communion of saints all can find healing, hope, and companions to aid in burden bearing. As congregations throughout the Presbytery of Philadelphia become increasingly aware of the broad impact of addiction on our church members and local neighbors, the ministry of Deep Run, Doylestown, and Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church serves as an invitation to imagine new ways to extend solidarity, love, and welcome. We give thanks for their ministry and continue to pray for all who wrestle with addiction and related loss, assured the day is coming when sorrow and death will be no more.
*On November 8, 2017, the Anniversary of Anna Straw’s death, the Presbyterian Church of Deep Run, in partnership with the Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission, will host a community forum on addiction and recovery. All are invited. More details: http://pcdeeprun.org/anna-straw-initiative/