From the moment I first saw a clean needle exchange taking place in a Tyler Perry movie years ago, something struck my spirit. It was one of those moments that you don’t really know is a moment until years later when it revisits you and you say, “Oh hello. I remember you.”
I remember watching this particular scene and thinking to myself, “Now that is missionary work. That is being like Jesus right there.” The woman brought needles, condoms, and alcohol swabs and was handing them out to people who wanted them. It was beautiful.
So, you might have read the title and thought to yourself, “Wow. Jesus would be part of a clean needle exchange? That’s a pretty bold statement.”
I’d like to unpack that statement.
But first, I want to say that I’ve had friends die from unsafe heroin use, and most recently, my son had a friend who died. I also have countless friends who have moved on from drug addiction but now live with Hep-C, a constant reminder of their former life.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
Opiate addiction is an epidemic…and in the midst of all the arguments about whether addiction is a disease or not, people are dying. People are contracting diseases. They need help.
So…Why A Clean Needle Exchange? How is this being like Jesus?
Opponents of needle exchange programs often claim that it “sends the wrong message.” I think what they mean by this is that giving a person struggling with addiction a clean needle somehow says to them, “Hey. It’s okay. I approve.” Or maybe they view handing out clean needles as ‘enabling behavior.’
I suppose from the outside, an outreach like this could appear to condone injection. It seems to say that drug use is OK. It’s akin to the thought that providing access to condoms to your teenager must mean you are overjoyed they are engaging in sexual activity.
But from the inside, the message is very different. To understand why, it’s important to recognize why people inject drugs in the first place.
At least two thirds of addicted people have had traumatic childhoods. A large percentage of both men and women have been sexually abused. There are common feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, rejection, abandonment and betrayal among those in active addiction. People don’t shoot up because they like to party. They do it because they are in so much emotional pain. As a person who spent a decade in active addiction, I can attest to that. I was bankrupt inside.
Consider a close friend of mine who still struggles; Raped repeatedly by a family member as a young child, she was later held prisoner by abusive boyfriends who fed her habit to keep her in bondage to them. I have witnessed the pain of her struggle. Somewhere during her IV drug use journey, she contracted Hep-C.
When you are in bondage to addiction, nearly every social interaction feels humiliating. People look down on you , which makes even the act of going out in public and doing normal things practically debilitating. Most social contacts implicitly or explicitly require you to acknowledge your low status in some way, simply to get what you need — for example, by having to prove how poor you are when you are trying to get help. We get stuck in this cycle of guilt and shame.
And many drug treatment programs and recovery communities actually perpetuate this cycle. Just think about it…As an active addict, your humanity itself can become contingent on your ability to imply that you want to be abstinent. If you make it through treatment, get to a half-way house and somewhat begin to see the light….but relapse, you often lose everything. Your home, your job. It’s all out the window with one decision. Now I’m not saying that consequences shouldn’t be what they are. That’s not my topic right now.
I just want you to see into the life of an IV drug user just for a minute, with all the damage, the pain, and the stress.
Now picture an outreach worker walking up to them with a clean needle and alcohol swabs. No judgement. No strings attached.
How do you think that feels?
Here is a story I found about an ex-addict, Yale student who started the first clean needle exchange in America. It was completely illegal at the time:
“When I went out in the street with Jon Parker he always rapidly attracted a crowd. Most of these hardened, often homeless injectors couldn’t believe he was for real. And when they saw that this tall, ruggedly handsome blonde guy was actually risking arrest to try to help them save their own lives, they were touched. People whose faces bore the street mask of affectless despair lit up, if only momentarily — some even asked how they could help.
This was unlike their other interactions. Here, they were accepted exactly as they were. Here they were welcomed, not rejected. To addicts, then, the message of needle exchange is powerful. It says, “You are valuable and human, even if you do take drugs.” It says, “I know you want to do the right thing and I want to help you.”
When you’ve been living and operating in a world where family stops taking your calls and people literally cross the street to avoid you — this kind of a message is stunning. And oddly, because it allows addicted people to feel accepted while still taking drugs, needle exchange often opens the door to considering recovery.
This happens in several ways. For one, altering your behavior by practicing safe injecting shows that change is possible, even if it happens in baby steps.
The impact of these baby steps is huge: Needle exchange in New York has brought HIV down to around 3% where it was 50% for IV users in some areas. The success has prompted New York state to label the exchange programs, “the gold standard of HIV prevention.”
Another way that needle exchange sends the right message is through the power of example. Many outreach workers involved in the program are former addicts— and they offer living proof that recovery is real. People need to see successful versions of themselves in the faces of others.
Finally, and most obviously, needle exchanges can begin the conversation that leads to treatment, and ultimately to recovery. It can also lead to spiritual questions and open the door to prayer. As odd as this sounds, one individual described needle exchanges as “some of the most spiritual places I’ve ever visited, because they provide radical, non-transactional acceptance. People feel safe.”
The message needle exchange really sends isn’t the wrong one — it’s a message of unconditional love.
That is the same grace and radical love I have experienced from my walk with Jesus. I do believe Jesus is right there participating in the needle-exchange programs. Wherever there is unconditional love, acceptance and hope without judgement…that is where He is.
I can’t wait til our first clean needle exchange here in Lee County, Florida. We are assembling a team and gathering our supplies!
You can join the conversation about harm reduction on our Recovery Advocacy Facebook Page. Hope to see you out in the field. They are white and ready for harvest. xo