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Church workers tackle strategies for fighting drug abuse, violence

2/23/1999 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) -- Ryan Boles, a 15-year-old from Oklahoma City, has been a victim of violence for much of her life.

Growing up, she saw the physical and sometimes violent arguments of her parents, and watched her mother succumb to drugs. Eventually, her parents divorced, and drug abuse led to a five-year prison sentence for her mother. Ryan went to live with her grandmother.

Enter Redemption Church of Oklahoma. The church, operated by the United Methodist Church's Oklahoma Annual Conference and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, works with prison ministries and seeks to improve prisoners' lives. Prisoners attend worship services and self-help meetings at Redemption.

"My mom is the only federal prisoner to go to the church," Boles said. After her mother began attending services, congregation members began transporting Boles to the church from her grandmother's home in a nearby city. Boles and her mother began a new relationship and were sent to Exodus House to find a place to live.

Exodus House is a Redemption Church ministry. When someone is released from prison, the ministry provides a rent-free place to live for six months, puts them into a rehabilitation program and provides drug testing. "Exodus House puts families back together, strengthens the community and works to get drugs off the street," Boles said.

Today, Boles is a speaker and representative for the church, addressing substance abuse and advocating for prison and justice ministries. She shared her story with a United Methodist task force that is tackling violence and substance abuse.

Representatives from churchwide agencies and mission initiatives relating to the denomination's Special Program on Substance Abuse and Related Violence (SPSARV) met for the first time Feb. 16-17 in Nashville to discuss the church's role in addressing drugs and violence. They also worked on coordinating their individual ministries.

"I'm interested in SPSARV and becoming a part of its mission because I'm interested in young teens and want to help them know about drugs and violence before they reach junior high school," Boles said. They must learn about substance abuse early because many young people have already experimented with some type of drug by the time they reach junior high school, she said. "I want to stop this cycle."

In 1996, the program was mandated by the United Methodist Church's top lawmaking body to coordinate the denomination's drug and alcohol abuse ministries nationally and internationally in cooperation with the Council of Bishops. The initiative also collaborates with the boards of Global Ministries, Church and Society, Discipleship, and Higher Education and Ministry, as well as the United Methodist Publishing House, United Methodist Committee on Relief, and Commission on Religion and Race, to support education, prevention, treatment, community organization and other efforts aimed at substance abuse and related violence. The national coordinator is Melissa Davis, and the initiative is based in Washington.

Since its inception in 1992, the program has worked across program and agency lines, and the recent consultation was an opportunity to enhance that kind of coordination and collaboration, Davis said. The consultation also marked the first time that young people have been at the table when staff and church leaders have discussed approaches to the drug issue.

Task force members included the directors of the churchwide mission initiatives: Asian-American/Pacific Island Ministries, the Hispanic Plan, the Native American Comprehensive Plan, Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century, Communities of Shalom, Restorative Justice/Prison Ministries and Shared Mission Focus on Young People.

Throughout the meeting, phrases such as "scourge of society," "debilitating worldwide crisis," and "endemic and epidemic" were bantered around to describe the effects that drugs, alcohol and violence are having on society.

The program should "declare defeat in the war on drugs" and admit that government has lost the battle, said the Rev. Harmon Wray, director of the Tennessee Annual Conference
Restorative Justice Ministries in Nashville. His suggestion was part of a seven-point strategy for conquering the increase of substance abuse and violence worldwide.

Wray said the current "war" has amounted to two things: war on African-Americans and people of color, reflected in the discrepancy of sentencing around crack and cocaine, and the desensitizing of a culture addicted to substances and violence.

To overcome the drug problems, Wray suggested that the church and nation reject militaristic, police and penal measures because the "solutions are the addictions" of various state and local government entities. He cited prisons, many of which are for-profit, as examples of such an addiction.

Harmon also encouraged the church to attack poverty, the root of both substance abuse and violence. "Poverty is the primary cause," he said. "It crosses all lines and is both a theological and spiritual issue."

Society is addicted to materialism and consumerism, he explained. There needs to be an "examination of what it is about society that make people so miserable that they feel compelled to alter their realities."

Within this exploration, racism as a cause must be addressed, he said. "Racism is all over the place and is intrinsically bound with class."

Wray encouraged the consultation participants to seek help in their mission by looking at the restorative ministries in existence all over the country, including victim offender projects and conflict resolution approaches.

The Rev. Bjorn Elfving of Finland, a representative of the Northern Europe Committee to SPSARV, gave updates on what the United Methodist Church is doing in his area to combat drugs and drug violence and how the denomination can move forward.

Responding to Wray's strategies, he said, "Our cultures are different. We don't punish people who use drugs anymore. We put them to work."

People involved in ministries against drug use go into schools, evaluate students and determine which children have a propensity for drug addiction, he said. "It is important for us to listen to children to determine who will have a problem," he said.

In other action, the 17-member task force developed an interagency and mission
initiative plan for the remaining and next quadrennium. It included specific ways the members will work together to tackle the global drug crisis.

One course of action being planned relates to alcohol abuse and binge drinking on college campuses. Four Arkansas schools will be part of a pilot project of shalom on college campuses. They are the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and two United Methodist-related schools, Hendrix College in Conway and Philander Smith College in Little Rock. The model that is developed with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock will be replicated at United Methodist-related institutions.

The task force will meet again on July 13 in New York.

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