Vancouver hosts interfaith service for those affected by opioid crisis

By Alicia Ambrosio, Catholic News Service

OpiateMass-wVANCOUVER, British Columbia — As the strains of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” filled the sanctuary of Christ Church Anglican Cathedral in Vancouver, one by one the people in the pews rose silently. Muffled sobbing could be heard from the back corner of the church as a prayer vigil for those affected by the city’s opioid crisis ended.

The May 18 prayer vigil was organized by an interfaith committee that included the Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver and Providence Health Care, the Catholic organization that runs several hospitals and community clinics in the city.

The Rev. Peter Elliott, dean of the cathedral parish, said various religious organizations came together to hold the vigil because all had been affected by the opioid crisis in some way. He said the committee sought to provide an occasion to remember those lost to drug overdoses and to give their loved ones a chance to “honor them without the sting of stigma.”

Christopher De Bono, vice president of mission, ethics and spirituality at Providence Health Care, told the people gathered at the church, “Excellent care begins with the right facts.” He said 120 people died of drug overdoses in British Columbia in March 2017, an average of four people per day. Most deaths occurred in private residences. De Bono said no one died at Vancouver’s safe injection sites, adding, “Maybe we need to think critically about these services.”

De Bono also urged health care workers, first responders and grieving relatives to continue to gather at events like the vigil and to learn how to share their pain with others.

“Hurt can feel so close to the heart that it feels like it’s on me, it defines me. Prayer is a way of sharing that pain,” he said. He also urged all people who have a religious belief to “advocate to change the facts that are part of this crisis.”

Cathedral doors opened in the early afternoon. For three hours, people could pray quietly inside the church or talk to volunteers trained as “listeners.” Dozens of people passed through the cathedral. Regardless of their religion, most sat and prayed silently. Occasionally the hum of someone singing softly could be heard.

Attendees also could light memorial candles in the sanctuary, receive a traditional First Nations smudging, and toss their tear-soaked tissues on a sacred fire tended by the Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society. Another dozen attendees sat on benches around the fire, quietly sharing their stories with one another.

Kenny, a First Nations man who declined to give his last name, said he was at the vigil to be with a community. He said he had lost one close friend to an opioid overdose but had heard of many other acquaintances who had also died.

Smiling through missing front teeth, Kenny said, “I’m a survivor, I’m amazing.” As a teenager in his hometown near Hazelton, British Columbia, he started smoking and drinking. Eventually he moved to Vancouver and worked in construction but drank heavily and used crack cocaine. “I was working in construction. I made good money. That was the problem, I had lots of money.”

His friends would tell him about the things he had done while drunk or high. “I didn’t like what I heard,” Kenny said. At one point he quit his job and moved back to his hometown, which was a dry town. He got sober and enjoyed being with his community but said there was no work in his town, “there was only welfare.” Eventually Kenny returned to Vancouver, even though “I have nobody here.”

Asked if he had ever considered an addiction recovery program, Kenny laughed and said he had tried more than one but left because he felt the counselors did not have his best interests at heart. “I’m my own counselor,” he said, adding that he no longer did hard drugs or drank hard liquor, but “I smoke weed and I drink some beer.” Kenny said he purchased his marijuana from dispensaries rather than off the street because he heard reports of marijuana being cut with fentanyl. “I want to stop, but I’m just a bad boy,” he said shrugging his shoulders.

At the entrance to the church, canvas strips with painted vine leaves were laid out along with markers. People who had lost loved ones to drug overdoses were invited to write the name of their loved one on a vine leaf.

The afternoon concluded with an interfaith prayer service. Clergy and others representing the Sikh, Buddhist, Jewish and Christian faiths said prayers or read scripture from their respective religions.

Father Gary Franken, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, took part in the prayer service. He told Catholic News Service that local parishes should work to build “relationships of support among our people. Nonjudgmental support. I believe that would point to more formal support.”

Chris Bernard, a spiritual health practitioner with Providence Health Care, explained the vines had been painted by a woman whose daughter had died of an overdose.

“They are a symbol of interconnectedness, ” he explained, adding that the finished vines would be displayed at the cathedral for two weeks before being moved to “another place of connection” in the community.

In 2016, more than 900 people in British Columbia died of illicit drug overdoses. That number represented an 80 percent increase from 2015.

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