How Harm Reductionists Keep the Faith

By Tessie Castillo 03/26/19

Morning to evening, nearly seven days a week, Karen and Michelle endure taxing commutes to bring harm reduction services to drug users in North Carolina’s hard-hit, rural areas.

Karen Lowe and Michelle Mathis, harm reductionists with Olive Branch Ministry
"We take the message of harm reduction to faith communities…but we don’t evangelize." - Michelle Mathis (right), with Karen Lowe

It’s a bitterly cold afternoon in early March as Karen Lowe and I pick our way down the broken sidewalks of a semi-abandoned neighborhood in Statesville, North Carolina. All around us, squatter houses stretch for blocks. Every window is busted or boarded up. Thin, dirty mattresses lie on sunken porches and feral dogs scrounge in the trash-strewn yards for scraps. Some residents are huddled inside for warmth, though in most of these homes, there is no electricity.

The neighborhood is a depressing sight, but it’s hard to feel blue when you’re on outreach with Karen Lowe. Co-founder of the Olive Branch Ministry, a faith-based non-profit that brings harm reduction services to the seven foothill counties of North Carolina, Karen is the embodiment of love.

Harm Reduction in the Deep South

As I burrow into my thin jacket, Karen strolls down the middle of the street extending warm greetings to the few brave souls who venture outside. Though the pockets of her cargo pants are bursting with clean syringes, naloxone, and other supplies to prevent death and disease among people who use drugs, she doesn’t flaunt her wares.

“I just want people to see me,” she explains. “It’s about building trust. They know why I’m here. If they need something, they’ll come to me.”

As we walk, the 52-year-old fills me in on the colorful cast of characters who call this neighborhood home, including a man who claims he hasn’t bathed in a year and an old woman who pees on the sidewalk. Karen describes everyone with great affection.

“There is a certain kind of love that goes with being an untouchable,” she says. “And [the people of this community] have it. But it’s not allowed to grow.”

There certainly isn’t much growing in this neighborhood. Judging by the columned porches on every house and what looks like abandoned flower gardens, this was probably once a desirable place to live. But shifting economic winds have devastated entire cities in the South and Statesville is no exception. 

A small inland city—population 26,000—Statesville boasts neither North Carolina’s green mountain range nor its sparkling coastline. It’s stranded in the flatland area of the state, mostly buried under strip malls and fast food restaurants. But despite so few bragging rights, Statesville embraces its Southern pride, describing itself on its website as “a city where fish is fried (as our Lord intended they be) and a bottle of Kraft French Dressing is good enough for anybody --- so get over yourself.” Also true to its Southern roots, while Statesville has recently invested in a splash park and a $330,000 home for veterans (more than double the average price of a house in the area), the city has allowed this particular neighborhood, in which residents are almost all black, to fall into ruin. The only people who venture into this place are the churches who occasionally come evangelizing and of course, the police, who make neighborhoods like this one their second home.

But Karen brings cheer to this desolate area. Twelve years ago, she was homeless herself, struggling with mental illness and depression, and searching for both a literal and metaphorical place to set down roots. She found a surrogate family and a calling in a faith-based organization in Greensboro that provides services to people living with HIV. The community welcomed Karen with open arms and she became a regular at meetings, outreach events, and retreats, which she describes as “mad love and dealing with yourself, everybody crying and snotting.”

Not Your Typical Faith-Based Outreach Organization

Karen says she knew then that her life was about to change in remarkable ways. And was it ever. A couple years into her involvement with the faith community she met the love of her life, Michelle Mathis, a woman who shared her passion for helping people in need. Though they have the same heart for harm reduction, the pair is about as opposite as two people can be. Michelle exudes elegance with a powdered face and coiffed hair that somehow survive even in the god-awfullest North Carolina humidity. Her partner is more salt-of-the-earth.

“I did the make-up and heels thing when I was young…somebody should have stopped me,” Karen laughs.

The yin to the other’s yang, the two married in a private ceremony in 2009 where they exchanged olive branches instead of rings, thus creating what would become their joint life’s work, The Olive Branch Ministry.

Olive Branch is not your typical faith-based outreach organization—and not just because its founders are an interracial queer couple spreading the word of Jesus in the Deep South. True to the tenets of harm reduction, whose guiding philosophy is “meet people where they are at,” Karen and Michelle serve without pretense or expectation.

“We say faith is why we do [this work], but it’s not what we do,” Michelle explains to me over the phone. “If someone asks us to pray for them, we will pray for people…We take the message of harm reduction to faith communities…but we don’t evangelize.”

During afternoon outreach with Karen, she utters not a whisper about faith. And yet, if God’s love for others were perfume, you’d smell her coming from blocks away. Helping others comes as naturally to her as breathing. Several times during our conversation she offers to assist me personally with everything from community partnerships to my writing career, and after I mention casually I’ll be traveling abroad soon, she offers me money to buy a goat or chicken for a family in need.

Morning to evening, nearly seven days a week, Karen and Michelle endure taxing commutes to bring harm reduction services to drug users in North Carolina’s hard-hit, rural areas. They ask nothing in return for their services. In fact, they seem critical of faith-based groups who use community outreach programs as a carrot to boost membership.

“It’s hard to be trusted in a neighborhood like this [because people think] everyone wants to take them to church,” Karen explains, adding that this is why she maintains such a low-key presence on outreach. Instead of rolling up in a van stashed with free giveaways, she roams the streets where people can see her, offering nothing but a greeting unless she is asked.

The Intersection Between Faith Communities and Harm Reduction

The Olive Branch Ministry’s approach could serve as an example for how faith-based communities and harm reduction can work together. The relationship is not always harmonious: some in the faith community accuse harm reductionists of enabling drug use or not doing enough to discourage problematic behavior. Conversely, many harm reductionists criticize faith groups for the hypocrisy of claiming to serve “the least of these” while refusing to help drug users, who belong to one of the most stigmatized and marginalized of all groups. Even when faith-based organizations do offer assistance, some peddle a strict, abstinence-only agenda or approach outreach with an attitude that appears to place more importance on gathering lost souls into the flock than on addressing people’s immediate needs.

But despite the tenuous history between the groups, there is much cause for hope. Across the country, faith-based groups like The Olive Branch Ministry, Judson Memorial Church in New York City, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Arkansas, the national Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, and many more are forming active partnerships with harm reduction groups. Other organizations, including the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), United Church of Christ and National Council on Jewish Women have publicly proclaimed their support for harm reduction programs.

The relationship between the faith community and harm reduction shows promise and room for growth. Especially in the South where faith is so important and drug users have so few services, these alliances are critical to stem the tide of deaths and disease caused by an unregulated drug supply, draconian laws, lack of sterile equipment, dearth of adequate treatment, stigma, and misunderstanding about what causes drug use to become problematic for many people.

“I feel that faith communities in general think that harm reductionists are a bunch of left wing radicals,” says Michelle. “They think that we will come in and demand that the church hold drug user union meetings and do syringe exchange, but they don’t realize that we meet the congregation where they are…we figure out where they are comfortable and [decide] how to go from there.”

Harm reduction groups and faith communities need to work together rather than at cross-purposes in order to reach and help as many people as possible. It's not always easy to find common ground; an olive branch is a good place to start.

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Tessie Castillo is a writer and drug policy advocate in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her articles explore topics such as criminal justice reform, drug policy, and harm reduction. Castillo previously served as the Advocacy and Communications Coordinator for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC), a statewide nonprofit that advances drug policy and criminal justice reform. During that time, she played a pivotal role in helping to legalize syringe exchange programs and expand access to naloxone, a medicine that reverses opioid overdose. Find Tessie at her website or on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.