Episcopal churches observe International Overdose Awareness Day with prayer services, Narcan distribution

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Sep 1, 2023

Trinity Cathedral in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, hosts a prayer service every year around International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31 to support victims of drug abuse and their loved ones. Photo: Andrew Muhl

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal churches across the United States observed International Overdose Awareness Day, a global event that’s been held every Aug. 31 since 2001.

The Rev. Barbi Click advocates for overdose awareness and the elimination of stigma around drug addiction because her grandson died in 2021 from overdosing on Percocet laced with fentanyl after suffering from an anxiety disorder.

“[Drug addiction] is a city, a county, a state, a nationwide problem. It’s just one of those things that affects everyone; it has the potential to touch everybody,” said Click, diocesan missioner for the Diocese of Missouri’s Jubilee Ministry for advocacy and service for marginalized people.

In 2021, 106,600 people died from drug overdoses in the United States, a 14% increase from 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than one million people have died from a drug overdose since 1999. Worldwide, approximately 600,000 people died from drug abuse, about 25% of which were attributed to opioid overdose, according to the World Health Organization. Opioids — such as Percocet, fentanyl and morphine — are a class of prescription drugs used to treat moderate to severe pain, and they come with serious risks and side effects, including addiction and dependence.

Click told Episcopal News Service she wanted the diocese to participate in International Overdose Awareness Day since she learned about it last year. She decided to host the diocese’s inaugural public requiem service for awareness day at Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Louis — with interim rector the Rev. Mary Korte’s permission — because it’s located less than two blocks from Delmar Boulevard, a street that’s widely regarded as the city’s racial and socio-economic dividing line. The church also operates a large food pantry and free meal service four days a week, and many people who Trinity St. Louis’ food ministry serves have somehow been impacted by drug addiction.

Trinity St. Louis’ requiem service included reading the names of loved ones in the church community who’ve lost their lives to drug overdose. Following the service, a box offering free Narcan 24/7 to anyone who needs it was blessed and dedicated before being permanently affixed to a fence on church property. The University of Missouri-St. Louis Addiction Science Team will supply Trinity St. Louis’ Narcan, which is currently offered at every food pantry operated by churches in the Diocese of Missouri at no cost.

Narcan — the nasal spray version of the drug naloxone —can quickly reverse an opioid overdose when immediately administered. Previously prescription-only, two-packs of the antidote will be available for purchase over the counter nationwide in the coming days and will retail for $44.99.

Like drug addiction in general, Narcan is stigmatized, and the myth that having the antidote readily available enables drug use continues to prevail even though studies have proven otherwise. In fact, having easy access to Narcan has been proven to save many lives.

“A dead person cannot change their mind and decide they want to be free of their substance abuse disorder; they can’t get help if they’ve died, and [having access to Narcan] allows drug addicts to make a decision that they don’t want to live like that anymore,” Click said. “If someone with Narcan had been with my grandson the night he overdosed, he would be alive today.”

A group of parishioners at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, has been observing International Overdose Awareness Day since 2017, and this year the church opened its doors to the public for quiet reflection, remembrance and prayer for people who’ve died from a drug overdose. Attendees had the opportunity to light candles, pray with ministers and sit quietly in the church’s sanctuary. At 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. local time, Trinity Bridgewater rang its bell towers in remembrance of those who have died from or who have been affected by drug addiction.

The Rev. Suzanne Wade, rector of Trinity Bridgewater, told ENS she believes the stigma surrounding drug addiction can be eliminated if more people were educated on the subject.

“Christ calls us to visit the prisoner. We sometimes think of that as meaning people who are incarcerated. But in many ways, families that are impacted by addiction feel very much imprisoned by their circumstances,” she said. “This is very much one of the callings that Christ makes to us to be present to people in the things that they struggle with.”

In Ellicott City, Maryland, St. John’s Episcopal Church hosted the Howard County Opioid Collaborative Community Council’s 7th annual International Overdose Awareness Day candle vigil to commemorate people who’ve lost their lives to drug overdose.

On Aug. 25, Trinity Cathedral in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, hosted a public prayer service for victims of drug overdose, including those who still suffer from addiction, as well as their families. The prayer service, sponsored by local nonprofit organizations, was preceded by Trinity Cathedral ringing its bells 689 times — one ring for every person who died from drug overdose in Allegheny County in 2022.

Click said she hopes other parishes in the Missouri diocese will offer special prayer services for International Overdose Awareness Day in the future to help spread awareness and reduce drug-related stigma.

“[Drug addiction] doesn’t care if you’re white or Black. It doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor. It will addict you and it will kill you,” she said. “We remove the stigma by sharing our stories and letting people know that this can happen to you, too.”

Anyone struggling with drug addiction can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s free and confidential helpline at any time at 1-800-662-4357, or they can text 435748 for support and resource information. Having health insurance isn’t required. The Diocese of Missouri’s Episcopal Recovery Ministries also offers addiction recovery resources for anyone living in the St. Louis metropolitan area.

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.