On July 3, the United Church of Christ (UCC) approved the first harm reduction resolution by a mainline Protestant denomination. It encourages congregations to facilitate access to harm reduction resources like syringe service programs.
“[A]dopting a covenant to become a harm reduction engaged congregation or community is a way of demonstrating commitment to live out the Gospel as expressed in the values of Harm Reduction,” the resolution states.
Though UCC is known for being one of the more socially progressive churches, the proposal met resistance from those espousing the common misconception that harm reduction encourages drug use. But people with lived experience of drug use had been pushing for what Reverend Erica Poellot, UCC minister of Harm Reduction and Overdose Prevention Ministries, described to Filter as a “more loving and just church.”
Ultimately, the resolution found support in its emphasis on healing and justice for the people most impacted by the drug war, namely in communities of color. It reflects a growing network of community organizers who work at the intersection of harm reduction and faith.
Poellot is the founder and executive director of Faith in Harm Reduction (FIHR). Launched in 2017, FIHR was initially operated by the National Harm Reduction Coalition (NHRC). In spring 2023, it became an independent nonprofit.
Poellot, who had worked at NHRC for 16 years before shifting to the newly independent FIHR full-time, spoke with Filter about spiritual care within the movement, barriers to outreach for certain communities, and how it’s the church—not people engaged in drug use and sex work—that needs “saving.” Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“Congregations interested in harm reduction can get practical guidance.”
C Dreams: In 2020, FIHR published “Spirit of Harm Reduction: A Toolkit for Communities of Faith Facing Overdose.” It noted that while the focus of the material was Christian faith in drug-user communities, the intention was to expand to work with additional religious faiths and impacted communities, like sex workers. What does this movement look like today?
Rev. Erica Poellot: We are seeing a lot of allies and new comrades amongst those who are practicing Islam … but we still continue to be pretty significantly Christian, and I think this is based on kind of where I find myself rooted in the circles that I’m connected to.
Because we are now a 501(c)3, we’re doing a lot of fundraising in this moment, which is proving extra challenging. But at the end of August we’re set to publicly launch a multifaith alliance, which we’re super excited about.
It was developed by an FIHR leader who runs a nondenominational ministry that’s almost entirely online. Congregations interested in engaging with harm reduction can become part of the alliance, get practical guidance about how to promote harm reduction both in policy and practice, and be in community with people who use drugs and people who do sex work.
“I have been surprised—but not surprised—by how difficult it has been to move my own church towards harm reduction.”
Has the church welcomed people who are actively using drugs?
My theology is very much that we should be led by people with lived and living experience—and I think living experience is perhaps the most critical—of substance use. People engaged in sex work or drug use often seek to be welcomed into spiritual communities, but are never fully embraced there.
I was quite certain for the longest period of time that I was not going to make it to being ordained, by virtue of my lived experience of substance use, and some of the ways that that was being kind of used against me in the ordination process.
United Church of Christ is a very progressive denomination in a lot of ways, and I have been surprised—but not surprised—over and over again, with how difficult it has been to move my own church and progressive Christianity towards harm reduction, quite honestly.
“Without legal syringe access, many faith leaders stepped in so that folks who use drugs weren’t the ones absorbing the risk.”
Harm reductionists have at times cited religious freedoms to support unsanctioned work, like the Church of Safe Injection (COSI) in Maine, or Safehouse Philly in its ongoing litigation with the Department of Justice. Do you see this further evolving?
I was a COSI board member up until the death of our incredible founder Jesse Harvey. I’m also on the board of Safehouse, which recently received notification that the DOJ intends to dismiss our case, and so we’re in the process right now of crafting our response. So right now I am looking at mobilizing harm reduction leadership across the country to sign on in support of this understanding of harm reduction in the pursuit of life—which is far, far greater than any law or legal statute might hold.
Colleagues in places like Puerto Rico, West Virginia and Florida have been facilitating sterile syringe access in highly contested legal environments. We have faith leaders who were insistent that they be able to step into that gap, so that folks who use drugs were not the ones absorbing the risk.
As a movement, we’ve now got a presidential administration that’s dedicating federal funding for harm reduction, that’s articulating it as part of their National Drug Control Policy, and so all of a sudden we’ve got a whole lot of folks stepping into areas that historically they’ve been really reticent to. So some of the challenge is ensuring continued leadership by the folks who have been doing this work since long before many of us were willing to take the risk, and who are the experts.
“We really need change on structural levels, in addition to hearts and minds.”
Prisons, especially in the South, hold a lot of people of faith who have lived experience of drug use and sex work. But the reality is that our capacity to organize around this kind of work is limited, and we need an infrastructure that’s rooted in outside support. Does FIHR’s community organizing work reach those who are currently incarcerated?
Colleagues in Indianapolis have been encouraging us to partner with folks who are [currently] incarcerated. We have also just recently expanded to have some designated Southern work based in North Carolina, and really attempting to expand where there’s unmet need. Colleagues in Texas and New York who were formerly incarcerated have been very interested in growing this part of FIHR. But beyond that…
This is what we’re recognizing now—that we really need change on structural levels, in addition to hearts and minds.
After the [UCC] resolution passed, someone who’d previously expressed concern told us that they’d finally, finally realized what the work was about. That it was not people who use drugs or people who trade sex that needed to be healed or saved. It was the church, and then it was people such as themselves, who were the ones who needed healing.
Photograph of Judson Memorial Church via National Harm Reduction Coalition