While many Americans celebrated Christmas Eve in a church or at home, Jesse Harvey was on a mission. His goal was to spread the good word — not so much of the Lord, but of the Church of Safe Injection. Harvey is the founder of the Church, although he refers to himself as harm reduction disciple and safe-injection acolyte. On Christmas Eve, Harvey — who is from Maine — led a service in Worcester, MA. Subbing in for an alter was his car’s trunk. The sacrament was the syringes, naloxone, and fentanyl testing strips. There were no pews, just people standing in the cold. Harvey told the Inquirer that during services, "we are just sharing the gospel of harm reduction with one another.”
Harvey, a 26-year-old person in recovery, started the Church in September. In the few months since, 12 branches opened in three states. According to the Church’s on-boarding guide, to join the Church congregates must agree to be interfaith, support all marginalized groups, and support harm reduction. The first step to opening a congregation is starting a Facebook page. After that, in-person meetings depend on the need and capacity. They can include prayer sessions, protests, training, needle exchange, organizing advocacy campaigns, or facilitating safe injection.
In October, Pat Dooley and his wife Stacey Huber opened the Facebook page of Philly’s Church of Safe Injection congregation. The page has 200 followers. A Catholic who spent his Christmas Eve attending Midnight Mass, Dooley’s path to recovery was aided by his faith. At the same time, he is aware that there are many pathways to recovery, and faith can mean many different things: “I am not going to tell anybody what is and isn’t God.” Aside from the Facebook page — the Church’s bulletin of sorts — the Philly congregation isn’t very active. But Dooley hopes that by next Christmas that could change: "What matters is people getting together, gathering as human beings, to try to save people.”
The Church started out of Harvey’s frustration with city officials who didn’t respond to the opioid crisis. “I was working in recovery houses for about a year before I realized, wait a minute: These 418 people in Maine who died last year in 2017 from drug poisoning, what were we doing for them?” Harvey started a group to lobby the Portland, Maine city council to open an overdose prevention site. “After six months I was getting tired of getting the run-around from city officials while people were dying on the street.”
Sounds similar, Philadelphia?
Philadelphia is on its way to see an estimated 1,100 overdose deaths in 2018 — about 100 fewer than the year before. Many advocates are frustrated with City officials who announced last January their support for an overdose prevention site, yet have since changed little on the ground. There have been some developments — mainly former Gov. Ed Rendell’s announcement that he is incorporating SafeHouse, a nonprofit intended to open a site. But given that people are dying, and that sites all over the world are preventing overdose deaths, the pace feels too slow.
One reason that there isn’t a site up and running in Philadelphia is the threat of legal action. From Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to Philadelphia’s U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain, law enforcement has threatened to crack down on an overdose prevention site on the grounds that it violates federal law.
The Church of Safe Injection might offer a solution.
According to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, members of a religious group can be exempted from certain laws if those laws prevent them from exercising their religion. In 2006, the Supreme Court cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when it allowed a small religious group to import the ayahuasca plant, which contains DMT that is illegal for any use in the U.S., to New Mexico for “sacramental use.”
“If they [SafeHouse] decided that they want to go forth with the safe injection,” Dooley says, "if they needed an extra line of defense, we can become the airbag to that car crash.” Hopefully Philadelphia will have an overdose prevention site running before then, but if not, once — and if — the Church gets a religious exemption that could be a way to open one.
Both Harvey and Dooley emphasize that the most important thing about the Church is not the legal opportunity, but the community it creates with people who are pushed to the margins of society. Harvey says that including injection in the name is “radical solidarity with people who use drugs by choosing the most stigmatized drug use.”
“My wish for Christmas is that we could get the word out a little bit more and that people could be a bit more tolerant,” Dooley says. Reflecting on the stigma around safe-injection, Dooley is reminded of a children’s Christmas story, in which “the Grinch starts out as the guy who is all against everything and hates everything, and by the end he is changed.”