Church opens arms to those chained by substance abuse

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

In the blink of an eye, the reality of the “battle” hit home with Father Beau Charbonnet, pastor of St. Angela Merici Parish in Metairie.

Two young men had died of drug overdoses in quick succession, and as the spiritual shepherd of a suburban parish that might be considered economically advantaged and relatively carefree, Father Charbonnet was both puzzled and convicted.

“I’ve done a number of funerals for men and women in their 20s, and it hit home just how bad the opiate epidemic is right here in Metairie,” Father Charbonnet said. “We think we’re immune because we’re in suburbia, but the reality is it’s out there, and seeing these funerals taking place, it hits your heart.”

How bad is the opiate epidemic? Anthony Cruz, a recovery support specialist for the Jefferson Parish Human Services Authority, says more people in the U.S. die from overdoses than from breast cancer.

“Really, it’s out of control,” Cruz said. “The impact of losing so many young people is quickly becoming the status quo.”

While the most recent data is two years old and links many of the overdose deaths to an abuse of prescription medication, Cruz said physicians have become stricter recently, writing prescriptions for fewer days and tightening up on the creative practice of addicted patients to search out multiple doctors for extra pills.

While that sounds like good news, Cruz believes the new reality is the existence of an alternative supply system that could be even more dangerous – the easy availability of street heroin, an opiate, or heroin that is laced with synthetic fentanyl, a controlled substance that is up to 50 times more potent than heroin.

When Deacon Louie Bauer was in formation for the permanent diaconate in 2003, he did his clinical-pastoral training at Bridge House, a residential treatment facility for people addicted to drugs or alcohol.

“I feel like God called me to this ministry because I realize a lot of people are hurting, and not enough is being done for them,” Deacon Bauer said.

In 2011, he preached at all weekend Masses at St. Margaret Mary Church in Slidell and asked for an honest show of hands: How many in the congregation were either afflicted with or affected by substance abuse or addiction?

“You’re in church, so you can’t lie,” Deacon Bauer told the congregation. When 80 percent of the people raised their hands at every Mass, Deacon Bauer knew where those hands were leading him.

Since starting the Substance Abuse Ministry (SAM) at St. Margaret Mary in Slidell, Deacon Bauer has spearheaded the establishment of five other SAM groups across the archdiocese, including one at St. Angela Merici. The groups generally meet twice a month, and the idea is to bring together both those who are addicted and those who are affected by addiction to receive information from drug abuse and mental health professionals about the resources that are available.

“Addiction is a disease of the brain, identified by the American Medical Association,” Deacon Bauer said. “It’s not a moral weakness. So many people look at themselves and say they can’t recover because ‘I’m such a bad person; look what I did to my family, my spouse, myself.’ Their whole image of self is depleted. Addiction disconnects us from who we truly are, from our family, from God.”

For an addict to make the decision to walk into an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting can be quite daunting, Deacon Bauer said. Making the decision to see what SAM is all about, especially since it is anonymous and hosted by the Catholic Church, may be less threatening.

“Staying home and doing nothing is not a choice,” Deacon Bauer said. “Information is power. You cannot fight something you know nothing about. I’ve found it’s so difficult for somebody to walk into an AA or NA meeting, but it’s not too bad to walk in here and go around the tables to see what services people can provide.”

Father Charbonnet said he knew even by 2013 that a SAM group was needed in his parish, but he admitted he had “so many things on my plate” that the priority continued to get pushed down his to-do list.

Then, when Pope Francis visited the U.S. in September 2015, Father Charbonnet said he was overwhelmed by the pope’s message of charity to others. Almost at the same time, Lisa Carroll, a parishioner who is a registered addiction counselor, walked into the parish office and asked: “When are we going to start this?”

“Right now,” Father Charbonnet said.

In the nearly two years that the SAM ministry has been running at St. Angela, Carroll and Deacon David Aaron have run the meetings, and they have been stunned by the response. At an information session at St. Angela on Feb. 5, about 50 people attended to get information from 23 treatment organizations.

Carroll said when the meeting date was announced, she got four calls immediately and found places for those persons to get treatment. “There are resources out there,” she said, even if a family does not have insurance coverage.

Because he believes in the sacredness of the ministry, Father Charbonnet makes sure he announces the SAM meeting dates at the Masses closest to the Monday gatherings.

“I make it a priority and I keep mentioning it, over and over, and people come,” he said. “Right now, this is where the battle is, and Jesus goes into the battle and he meets the battle on that front. The front we are on now is addiction. You can just see it from the statistics. When I open up the paper and see people in their 20s and 30s dead with no real explanation, this is a matter of we, as church, having to be out there. The church is called to go out.”

In his research, Father Charbonnet has watched the Netflix series “Dope,” a documentary that chronicles drug abuse from the perspective of dealers, users and cops. Among the most difficult reality for him to accept came from a dealer, who said, “Sometimes you got to drop a fiend (a drug addict) in order to get your product known.”

It’s a marketer’s dream scenario: The more lethal the fentanyl, the better it is for business.

“He was willing to let two people die in order to get the name out,” Father Charbonnet said. “His conscience was bothering him, but at the same time, he was so deep into it that he obviously couldn’t get out of the dealing. It’s a mess.”

There is hope. Father Charbonnet finds it welling up inside whenever he sees a person who had come to him for information on SAM actually walking into a Monday night meeting.

“I will pass by and see that person walking in, and I realize, wow, this is great,” he said.

Deacon Aaron, who works as a sales engineer for AT&T, said one Monday night – “Maybe it was one of those Monday Night Football nights” – he and Carroll held a meeting for the only person who showed up.

“Jesus did things one-on-one – and I’m not comparing myself to Jesus,” Deacon Aaron said. “Yes, he had the 5,000 and all that, but he also had the woman at the well.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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