Syringe Exchange: One Pastor’s Experience

Harm reduction is a practical strategy to promote safety among persons who use drugs. Needle exchange is a good example of the approach. Congregations in New York City, Seattle, San Francisco and Boston offer needle exchange services. People who inject drugs often share needles, raising the risk of infection with Hepatitis C or HIV. Providing clean needles (often with education on alternatives to drug use), not only promotes safety but communicates respect for the rights of people who use drugs.

The practice is controversial.  ‘Is it morally acceptable?’ some ask. I asked Matt LaRocco, a substance abuse counselor in Louisville, Kentucky, for his thoughts on the matter.[1]   Matt works for Louisville Metro Public Health, where he provides outreach to doctors and nurses and organizes community meetings to educate the public on the value of providing clean syringes to drug users. In addition, Matt serves as the Family Life Pastor at Memphis Christian Church in Memphis, Indiana.

“I run a syringe exchange program for the county. Recently we had a community meeting and one of the people, a pastor, verbally spoke out against the needle exchange. He later changed his mind.”

“I am biblically conservative. I graduated from Restoration Bible College. It’s difficult to come at it from a biblical perspective. People weren’t shooting up in Jesus’ time. But Jesus turned the water into wine. His first miracle contributed to drunkenness. For Jesus to eat and drink with tax collectors and prostitutes was a massive cultural shift. We see Jesus break these cultural norms with the intention that a relationship be established.”

“At the syringe exchange, the underlying comment I am making to them is, ‘I want you to be healthy and safe.’ People are going to use whether we give them needles or not. I hear people tell me the only way you can get sober is to turn to Jesus. I say two things. First, dead people don’t recover, and second, if someone’s in the grave, we can’t tell them about Jesus.”

“When you look at a lot of other things the church does for social justice or charity or whatever, such as a food pantry, they are really mitigating the consequences of drug use.  We would never say to them, ‘Let them starve, so they can learn how important it is to feed their families.’ Yet we will say, “I’m not going to give out syringes because it only encourages people to use more.”

When I took this job, I had to ask myself, ‘Can I love Jesus and do this job?’ The answer is yes. I don’t think Jesus would say, ‘You shouldn’t be handing out needles.’”

[1]Matt LaRocco, phone interview, 3.24.16

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