I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried since we started working on this service. There has been so much grief. So much unnecessary loss.
I was 20 on the day of Erich’s funeral. It was in a large church with wooden paneling. His body lay near the altar. The sky was December grey and the sanctuary was full. His parents sat in the front of the church, his chosen family in the back. He was 22.
A year before he had asked me to marry him. But I’d told him no. Told him I needed to finish school first. A year later he was dead. He’d overdosed on heroin and crack at the Motel 6.
We sat quiet and still in that church. Cold, a bit emptier inside. And so the pastor’s words had room to echo through us when he softly lamented just how easily Erich could have avoided going to hell. It echoed through us when he condemned us to the same fate. He told us that only the altar could save us. But we knew better.
See, we had been saving each other for years. After our families kicked us out, our schools, our churches. We remained. We loved each other through rehab, relapse, poverty, and the violence we suffered at our parents hands. The ones who got to sit at the front of the church.
We knew better. And what that Pastor did that day, it was not the work of the Gospel. Shame, is never the work of the Gospel. It is death dealing. You know, our dignity and divinity, they are related.
We are three weeks into Easter. Which isn’t a sentence I would have understood before coming to PSR. I thought Easter was a day. But it is a season. It stretches from Easter Sunday to Pentecost. Because Easter, is a new way of living.
It is my favorite holiday. I love it because it reminds me to honor and celebrate the simple and profound ways that people resurrect their lives every day. People change, they come back from the brink, they strive to bring their communities back to life. Every day people defy a world that tries to destroy them by choosing dignity, grace, and connection. It is worthy of our celebration.
And I think it’s what that Pastor forgot. What too many too many have forgotten. That Christians are called to be an Easter people. A resurrection people.
Perhaps that is why their church is dying.
When I think of resurrection I think of my friend Doug. After Erich died, he came to live with me in New York at school. He was trying to quit heroin and needed a change of scenery. He slept on my floor and I remember coming home to him after class. He would be laying on his back listening to the same Johnny Cash record, over and over again. That was his routine. Food, rest, walk, Johnny.
After a few months he was feeling more confident and decided to go back home. I called him the day I moved back and we made plans to see each other, but he never showed up. I didn’t worry much, it was pretty typical. But a week went by and I hadn’t heard from him. Then a few days later I got a call, it was Doug asking if I wanted to go for a drive.
That was what we did for fun in that smallish Ohio town. We’d drive. Through the forest, near the farms, just away. For hours. A while into our drive that day, he apologized for not showing up. Then he got quiet and told me he’d overdosed that day. He’d died. He’d decided to use one more time and because his tolerance was low, it killed him. Luckily his Mom came home unexpectedly. She found him unconscious and called the paramedics. They were able to revive him with 3 doses of Naloxone.
But he’d been dead. And now he is alive. Real life resurrection.
He owns his own business now. He’s married to a lovely woman and they have a daughter. Her name, is Grace….
That wasn’t the day I learned about Naloxone. In fact, neither of us knew what he’d been given. Nobody ever told us. We didn’t understand how his life had been saved. Only that it had been. I didn’t learn about Naloxone until I started working at the Harm Reduction Coalition. 8 years and too many deaths later.
Naloxone, which is also sometimes called Narcan, is a medication that blocks the effects of opiates like vicodin, codeine, oxycontin, methadone, and heroin. It’s ability to block opiates means that it can be used to stop or reverse an opiate overdose. It saves lives. It’s easy to use, low risk, and comes in 3 forms. You can get it as an injection, a nasal spray, and most recently an auto injector, which has a voice recording that walks you through all the necessary steps.
But even among a media frenzy about the new opiate overdose crisis, one that is only new to white affluent communities, many people still don’t know that Naloxone exists. We never did.
Harm Reduction has sometimes been controversial. But it shouldn’t be. Certainly not in churches. The Harm Reduction Coalition describes it as ”a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm Reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.”
Simply put. It is is meeting people where they are at and supporting them in keeping themselves as safe, healthy, and connected as possible. Without the condition of their sobriety.
Theologically put, it is the unconditional love of God. The love of neighbor. The work of the Gospel.
I worked at the Harm Reduction Coalition almost all of my time here at PSR. In some ways they were strange worlds to try and marry. But as time went on I came to see them as connected.
I came here to learn how to bury my dead with dignity. And Harm Reduction taught me that resurrection was possible.
Those doing overdose prevention work like Savannah, the Dope Project, and workers at syringe exchange sites, have handed out countless doses of Naloxone. Collectively, they have helped save thousands of lives.
But those lives were not saved by professionals, or clergy, or even paramedics. They were saved by drug users. The vast majority of overdose reversals are completed by drug users.
So if the church is the body of christ, and the body of christ is the people, than who is it that is really saving our church?
Drug users have been doing the gospel work that the church has been avoiding. They have been preaching resurrection. And we are missing it. Worse than that, we are making it harder. And it is time for us to join in.
Afterall, scripture teaches us that when you sit in the mess, when you do not leave someone to die alone on their cross, when instead you sit at the foot of it and are willing to accompany them to the tomb, then you are there to be first witness to resurrection.
It’s not easy. Or simple. Not everyone lives. Sometimes the tomb stays sealed. And always there is grief. But even grief can be sacred. Even grief can transform us. Even grief can be a resurrecting force.
Resurrection comes in many forms. This is one.
For me, today, resurrection is getting to speak Erich’s name, Erich Kotschi, in this place, from this pulpit, with this voice. Knowing that there is no threat of hell. Knowing instead, that people are gathered to learn a skill that could have saved his life. Meaning that somewhere, here, there is a group of people gathered who knows that his life was worth saving. That he was beloved by God. No matter what. And that we all are.
12 years have passed since Erich’s funeral. And many of the people who sat beside me that day, are gone. Dead. Like I said, shame… it is death dealing.
We are not saved at the altar alone. It takes a kin-dom. The power of resurrection is in this room. Today. Because it lives within us. In our hearts, in our hands. We need only choose it. We need only claim our legacy as an Easter people in this Good Friday world.