Rielly McLaren has seen first hand the effects of the opioid crisis in his community and his congregation.
The pastor of Windsor Mennonite Fellowship, a small urban church near the heart of Windsor, Ont., says, “Families in my congregation have lost loved ones to this crisis. All economic segments of society are affected.”
Upwards of 500 people in Windsor have died of opioid/fentanyl-related deaths since 2018.
McLaren and many others in the community were happy to learn that Windsor City Council passed a motion to open a consumption and treatment site (CTS) in the city. Such sites provide supervised consumption of drugs such as opioids; distribution of sterile harm-reduction equipment and supplies, and naloxone kits that reverse an overdose by blocking the effects of opioids; checking to see if there is fentanyl present within street drugs; basic medical care; addiction support; and referrals to treatment and recovery programs.
To those who do not see the value of a CTS, or hold to the idea that these sites simply enable drug abusers to continue their illegal drug use, McLaren would argue that they save lives.
“Addiction is a symptom of trauma, not the cause of the problem itself,” he says. “Recent studies are showing us this. Substance abuse is a way to try to cope.”
After the CTS was approved and renovations were well underway, those who supported it were alarmed when a councillor began preparing a motion to delay the opening of the site, claiming that its proposed location would be harmful for businesses in the area.
McLaren, along with George Bozanich, the minister of Windsor’s Emmanuel United Church, drafted an open letter to council. The letter was quickly spread to other Windsor churches, and within a day more than 30 pastors had signed on with their support.
“We are writing to you to express our support for the consumption and treatment site set to open at 101 Wyandotte St. E.,” the letter says. “We believe that this is a life-saving service and should not be delayed for any reason.”
Further on, it states: “As Christians, we believe we are at our best when we are loving and supporting the most vulnerable among us. It’s clear to us that people who use drugs are vulnerable during this opioid epidemic, and that harm reduction is love. Faith communities across denominations have been preparing to centre their efforts on helping people in proximity to this consumption and treatment site.”
McLaren, Bozanich and many others in the community held a protest at city hall in late January, where they voiced their disagreement with the proposed motion to delay the opening. As a result of their actions, the councillor did not bring his motion forward.
McLaren and others protested again, this time in late February, when another proposal that would have delayed the site’s opening was being discussed. This motion was brought forward, but was defeated.
This prompted another motion by yet another councillor—this time to reaffirm the city’s support of the CTS. This motion passed. The CTS, called SafePoint, was expected to open in late March.
McLaren feels this is a great location for the site, because it is right in the middle of the downtown area, where the opioid problem seems most visible.
“When the church stands in solidarity with the community, speaking truth to power, watch how God shows up—far more than I could have imagined,” he says. “The church can stand with others—not as a power over others, but power together with others. To recover our witness in the community, we need to show up locally.”