A Pastor’s Journey from Dealing to Healing
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The first time I visited Catalyst Community Church to deliver a workshop on drug overdose prevention, I mistook it for a tire shop. Lost in Fayetteville, North Carolina, I drove by several times before realizing that the crumbling brick building in a strip mall was, in fact, a church. As I entered the cratered parking lot, a young man offered to valet park my car and a welcome committee ushered me inside where a banquet of fresh fruit had been laid out in my honor. In all my years presenting across the state on harm reduction and public health, I had never received so much as a thank you card. But Catalyst, as I would soon see, takes pride in being different.
At Catalyst, local drug users, sex workers and an assortment of misfits that traditional churches have turned away find a home in Pastor James Sizemore’s eclectic family. Before meeting James, I’d heard rumors that he’d been a Miami drug dealer in his youth and that he ran an illegal syringe exchange program out of his church (and blatantly advertised his activities in the state’s largest newspaper). I’d also heard that on Sunday evenings he lays out a hand-prepared gourmet feast to anyone who drops by his home. I expected to meet a mythical figure - part Santa Claus, part Hells Angels - with a deep voice and an ethereal glow. Instead, I mistook the thin, unassuming man with a limp for one of his parishioners.
A few months after we met, I asked James how he came to found such an unusual church. He was quiet for a moment. “God called me to create a church where anyone can feel loved no matter their personal choices,” he said. “I founded the church I wish had been around when I needed love.”
I asked him what he meant. And a year later, seated in my living room, he told me.
A fourth generation Pentecostal, James felt a calling to pastoral life from an early age. In his 20s he enrolled as a seminary student at prestigious Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He traveled the world on mission trips and seemed to have a bright future. But the same openness and caring that made him such a promising pastoral candidate would also be his downfall.
During one mission trip to Spain and Morocco, James was caught in a controversy when religious leaders conducted an international investigation into the mission leader, who was James’ supervisor. Uncomfortable at being asked to take sides in issues he knew nothing about, James decided to return to Durham. His supervisor later sent a scathing report to Duke claiming that James had no future in ministry. Still young and impressionable, when James read the report, he fell apart.
“On some level I realized it wasn’t true, but on the other hand, we all have these feelings of insecurity,” he says. “While I understood [the mission supervisor] had his own issues that influenced what he wrote, a lot of what he said fed into my insecurities.”
Soon after, James attended a party where someone offered him cocaine. He snorted up one line and was hooked. For the next five years he threw himself into drugs with the same enthusiasm he had once shown for spiritual life. With just one semester left at Duke, he dropped out of school and moved to Miami, where he started driving kilos of cocaine back to North Carolina to sell. Within a year, the former seminary student was running a lucrative interstate drug trade.
After a year, James left Miami and moved back up to Durham, where he settled into a dilapidated crack house and continued to smoke and snort drugs to mask his feelings of shame and inadequacy. But one morning, all that changed.
“I woke up and heard the voice of God as clear as anything I’ve ever heard in my life,” says James. “God told me I needed to get up and go home. If I didn’t, I was going to die.”
James called his mother in Fayetteville. “Mom, I need to come home,” he said.
She didn’t hesitate. “I’ll be right there.”
His mother drove up to Durham, marched into the crack house and gathered her son in her arms. James left the world of cocaine and parties and never looked back.
Over the next couple of years, with much prayer and family support, James began to heal. The process was slow and difficult, but James says that’s the way it has to be.
“A lot of people don’t understand why drug addicts can’t quit and get normal tomorrow,” he says. “But you spend so much time destroying your body and mind and emotions that it takes an equivalent amount of time to get right.”
Though James was able to leave drugs behind, he couldn’t run away from his past. In the church community he attended with his parents, he felt like an outsider among the other parishioners whose judgment and preconceived notions of drug users gnawed at him. One morning he drove to church as usual, but couldn’t go inside, as if something – or someone – was physically holding him back.
“God spoke to me again,” says James. “He told me to leave and not look back. So I did.”
Over the coming months James prayed for answers. He realized that God wanted him to redeem those years of drug use by helping others who were going through the same thing. He decided to start a church specifically for people who traditional churches often turn away. Catalyst Community Church became that home for the homeless.
From its beginning nine years ago, Catalyst adopted a harm reduction philosophy: We are all God’s children and deserving of love, no matter our personal choices. James recognized that simply telling people that certain behaviors are wrong, such as drug use or sex work, doesn’t make them stop.
“People get better over time,” he says. “They need to get through their mess. When I was [using drugs] I remember wishing that somebody would help me through it, not just tell me I was wrong.”
Catalyst provides safe sex materials and safe drug use equipment, including syringes, to sex workers and drug users to protect them from disease and early death. It also offers a variety of healthy living workshops, including nutrition, fitness and drug overdose prevention. Members of Catalyst accept each other’s flaws and believe that the journey to wellness is best traveled with company. The road isn’t easy. Catalyst has faced strong criticism from neighboring churches that disapprove of fraternization with people involved in illegal activities. It bothers James, but it doesn’t stop him.
“[We need] to drop the preconceived notions that all addicts are liars and all prostitutes are disease infested whores,” says James. “The modern church is like a country club for Christians. [There is] more interest in the law than in protecting what Christ called ‘the least of these.’”
James hopes to train other churches to embrace the harm reduction philosophy and to open their doors to what he calls ‘modern untouchables.’ Back in the height of his own drug use, James felt that the church had abandoned him when he needed it most. He wanted to provide others with a place of healing and solace, where they could be loved simply for being human. Today, that place is Catalyst.
Tessie Castillo is the Advocacy and Communications Coordinator at the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. She writes a regular column for The Huffington Post on overdose prevention, drugs, sex work, HIV/AIDS, law enforcement safety and health. She last wrote about the rise of naloxone distribution programs and joined The Fix's new Ask An Expert section.