Initiative assists faith leaders in covid-19 outbreak

A Clinton Foundation initiative focused on combating the opioid epidemic has shifted its efforts to focus on the covid-19 outbreak in tandem with faith leaders in four U.S. cities, including Little Rock.

The Clinton Health Matters Initiative, an arm of the foundation, first established a partnership with faith leaders in Houston in 2018. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the more than 70,000 people who died of drug overdoses in 2017, 68% involved a prescribed or illegally obtained opioid drug. The foundation's initiative to fight those numbers sought to familiarize faith leaders with facts and resources concerning opioid abuse, and to engage clergy in a way that allowed them to more comfortably address the topic with their congregations and facilitate help when needed.

Partnerships between the foundation and faith leaders have since been established in Little Rock, Atlanta and Jacksonville, Fla., said Chris Thrasher, the Clinton Foundation's senior director of substance-use disorders and recovery, and work through the initiative was ongoing when the virus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in mid-March.

"When covid-19 came it threw everyone for a loop," Thrasher said. "But we at the [initiative] immediately kind of hunkered down and said ... 'We're here to help, but we want to be effective in the help that we offer.'"

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That help has taken the form of assisting faith leaders in two main capacities: finding ways to disseminate accurate information about the virus while maintaining social distancing, and to establish a weekly peer support group through which faith leaders in all four cities can meet one another and share resources.

Dr. Joanna Seibert, a professor emeritus of pediatrics and radiology and a deacon at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church in Little Rock, has lauded the efforts of the initiative with regard to the work to counter opioid abuse, and bringing discussions about the topic into the open.

These days, instead of spending many of her days in and around Saint Mark's, she leaves her home once a week to help with the church's small gathering of clergy who stream Sunday services. She occasionally is part of the church's noonday service, which is also streamed. Her work with the church and its congregants continues by virtual means; it's one outlet to the outside world, while the peer group meetings serve as another.

"It's a place where it's safe to talk about how difficult this is," Seibert said of speaking with other faith leaders virtually during the pandemic. "It's a safe place, because there's people we've been [meeting] with for a couple of years now."

Dr. Basem Hamid, a physician and imam in Houston, said the foundation's action "at the forefront" and immediate shift to Zoom meetings among faith leaders has been a "well-organized" effort.

Hamid, who attended a previous meeting between faith leaders in the different cities, said the camaraderie in the virtual meeting room was palpable.

"You get a lot of inspiration from other people -- how they're coping with the epidemic, and how we're going through rough times," Hamid said. "More importantly, [you hear] how they're providing support to their congregations and exchanging ideas on how to continue providing the spiritual [needs] and maintaining the emotional and spiritual connection despite the social distancing."

Houston-based Rev. Melissa Maher, pastor of Mercy Street, a United Methodist church, said two-thirds of the 22-year-old congregation she leads, which numbers approximately 225 members, are in a formal 12-step recovery program. While social distancing has changed the way those meetings are held (many were held in now-closed churches), there is an ongoing environment of support through the pandemic.

"During this time ... we are facing a lot more isolation, and this kind of low-grade trauma and anxiety as a society we are experiencing. Both of those things are really critically important to pay attention to," as isolation and trauma are the two primary triggers of addiction, Maher said.

Maher said Wednesday that while she hasn't yet attended a Zoom meeting of clergy from the four cities, the interfaith effort of spiritual leaders encouraging one another and sharing resources is "a really great thing."

"There's probably no better example of a crisis that provides both an opportunity and a challenge than covid-19," Thrasher said. "We just hope that we can continue to work with our faith leaders to offer them the skills and the resources and the tools that they need to know, the confidence that they need to continue leading their congregations, leading their communities in a way that keeps their congregants' faith."

Information for faith leaders about covid-19 and its impact on those struggling with substance abuse can be found at clintonfoundation.org/sites/default/files/cf_covid-19_faith_leader_resources.pdf; the foundation's main website for covid-19 is clintonfoundation.org/covid19.

Religion on 04/18/2020