Congregations can also invite 12-Step and other recovery support groups into their midst and encourage their attendance. They can create “circles of trust” that, along the lines of the spiritual writer Parker Palmer’s model, invite the safe, authentic participation of every member.

By implementing these sorts of measures, faith communities can become sacred laboratories for testing out what freedom from shame and stigma feels and looks like. In the process, they’ll be building recovery-friendly community.

The “Tough Love” Approach and Language That Alienates — A Better Alternative

A third big obstacle to recovery-friendly community is theological language that can further alienate those in recovery. Case in point? The iteration of the more popular Christian cliché, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” (which in reality often gets reserved for only a few behaviors singled out for their perceived egregiousness).

“Love the addict, hate the addiction,” goes the saying — and for writer Tracey Helton Mitchell, it’s synonymous with a “tough love” approach to addiction that may be just the thing that, however unintentionally, pushes a drug user into deeper alienation from the close, supportive relationships they need in order to recover.

Mitchell, a recovering heroin user who authored the book, The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin, remembers what it was like as a young teenager to hear her mother mouth these very same words while watching dramas about addiction play out on her nightly TV programs. “‘Love the addict, hate the addiction,’ she would say as she sipped her diet sodas,” Mitchell recalled in an article in The New Yorker this April. The same article goes on to catalogue Mitchell’s ensuing, decade-long descent into the hell of addiction, starting with a seemingly harmless prescription for painkillers … and then what saved her.

Poignantly, the one unifying thread of hope that interweaves those years, beckoning Mitchell back to her old self and to life itself, is also the love of Mitchell’s mother, a mother who, when push came to shove and those nightly TV dramas became her own living nightmare, ultimately rejected “tough love strategies” (Mitchell’s words) and chose to love her daughter unconditionally. Indeed, what Mitchell recounts are her mother’s countless efforts to stay connected no matter what — Mitchell’s late night calls from jail or while homeless on the streets of San Francisco, notwithstanding. Mitchell’s mother did everything she could to stay in relationship with her daughter and to assure her she had a place to come home to.

That same costly commitment to staying in relationship, no matter what the circumstance, seemed to require letting go of a felt need to express how much she hated her daughter’s addiction: “On one visit, I told her,” Mitchell recalled, ‘I have been living as a junkie prostitute out in California. If you can’t accept me, let me hop the next freight train home.’ She quietly handed me a plate of food. ‘I think you need some rest,’ she said as she closed the door.”

Ultimately such motherly expressions of unconditional love and acceptance won out over the opiate-induced feelings of euphoria and blissful escape. Mitchell, now 18 years sober with three children of her own, said she’s lucky her mother never ultimately bought into “tough love, a strategy based on the idea that cutting a drug user off from everything that is familiar will somehow be a motivator to get clean.”

Mitchell’s story can be a lesson for churches and faith communities, too. When it comes to building relationships that support lasting freedom from addiction, love “that’s strong and welcoming and accepting,” and that’s sensitive about its choice of pastoral and theological language — avoiding statements that may further isolate those in addiction’s grip, for example — is a better alternative to tough love approaches.

The Healing Power of Connection

Just how important is a supportive community to recovery from an addiction?

The latest studies from addiction science suggest it’s hugely important. They reveal that one incredibly powerful antidote to the lure of addiction is meaningful human connection, in the absence of which, the heroin syringe or bottle of vodka are far more tempting to return to in an endless cycle of lonely escape. That’s because the disease of addiction is as much a condition of social, psychological and spiritual alienation as it is a chemical dependency.

Churches and faith communities are thus uniquely positioned to play a tremendously important role in recovery, one that therapists, addiction treatment centers, law enforcement, government and even families in recovery cannot fulfill: they can provide a spiritual home and surrogate family to those who are hurting; and they can surround those in recovery with meaningful, relational connections that exude unconditional love and support.

The three big hurdles to getting there — lack of awareness about addiction, the shame and stigma of the disease, and alienating language and a tough love approach — are real. But they are also very scalable. That means the finish line, “recovery friendly community,” is also reachable. There you’ll find a warm plate of food, a familiar bed, and a mother who, in response to your most shame-laden confessions, gently says, “I think you need some rest.”

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