“Please help me,” plead the 32-year old Christian woman, frantic after finding her 50 year old mother suffering a brain hemorrhage due to an aneurism. Secretly, her mother has been addicted to opiates; legal prescription pain medication prescribed by her physician, and illegal narcotics including heroin. This secret probably would have remained under wraps much longer if her bleeding brain didn’t send off a distress signal indicating that something was terribly wrong.

This woman is one of the lucky ones who didn’t die from her secret addiction.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 4,102 people died as an unintended consequence of heroin overdoses in 2011 (the most recent year for which data are available). Think about that statistic. Approximately one person died from a heroin overdose every two hours! According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), in that same year, 14, 091 Americans died from accidental overdoses of prescription opioids. (Drugabuse. gov) If parishioners know church as a safe place to come for help when they are in distress, where they will be loved and cared for not only by the clergy but also by their fellow parishioners, they may be more likely to share their secret struggles without the fear of being stigmatized or ostracized?

Trained Care Teams can offer the additional emotional support and encouragement that is necessary for parish members to face personal and family challenges in life.

A team of three caring women is now being recruited for training to meet with this recovering woman on a weekly basis as a supportive Care Team. Their purpose is not to “fix” her but simply to be present with her and love her. Their presence will encourage her in her recovery efforts, reminding her that she is not alone. It is amazing how much a caring team can do to encourage healing and restoration.

Demetri (pseudonym) was a cradle Orthodox Christian who grew up in a loving home. He married a wonderful Greek woman named Eleni (pseudonym), fathered two beautiful daughters and became a successful businessman. What most people didn’t know was that he harbored a secret gambling addiction that spiraled out of control, causing his life to become unmanageable, filling him with anxiety. In an effort to remedy the situation, he began to bend the rules in his business dealings, ultimately committing serious financial misappropriations.

The day he was arrested, his family was devastated. His wife felt ashamed and humiliated. She didn’t even want to be seen in public. She stopped going to church and quite often didn’t even answer her telephone.

Their two children, ages five and seven, were too young to comprehend what was happening, but they felt the tension in the house. They often thought that they did something wrong. The day that daddy went away was especially confusing. He said that he was going to work at a faraway place and they couldn’t go along. He promised that he would think about them every day until he returned home. He tried to smile when he left but he cried instead. Their mommy also cried a lot. Their house became a very sad place.

Overnight, Eleni’s world was turned upside down. Prior to her husband’s conflict with the law, she was a stay-at- home mom and her husband was the main breadwinner of the family. Now, he was locked up in a federal prison in another state, their bank accounts were depleted and she was only able to find part time employment. Raising the children as a single parent, she frequently had to shift them from one caregiver to another. Had her husband actually died, the family would have received an outpouring of support. In essence, she was as a widow and her children as orphans, silently suffering shame and humiliation in the shadows during the husband/father’s incarceration.

This is not an isolated incident. On any given day, over two million adult Americans are confined to our nation’s prisons. Prior to their incarceration, many of these people were struggling with harmful addictions (drugs, alcohol, gambling, and even shopping) that made their lives unmanageable.

Eleni was visited often by her parish priest who encouraged her to attend Liturgy and keep the kids plugged in to the life of the Church. She was grateful for his paternal love, yet the stigma of her husband’s arrest caused her to feel ashamed and alone. Eleni would have benefitted from the additional support of a trained Care Team of women from her parish community.

A team that understands the challenges that families face when a loved one is arrested and incarcerated. They would embrace the woman in her pain, pray with and for her and protect the confidential nature of the relationship. Eleni would find rest, knowing that she is not alone.

The peer Care Team approach for supportive care in the parish is in harmony with the scriptures.

In the Gospel of St. John 13:34, our Lord commands us to love one another. St. Paul, writing to the Galatians said, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2). A few verses later he continues, “…let us do good to all men, and especially to those of the household of faith” (6:10). In similar fashion, he instructs the Thessalonians to, “…admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” (1 Thess 5:14)

The Care Team approach is also congruent with the teachings of the early church fathers, including St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great. In his homily, “Against Publishing the Errors of the Brethren,” Chrysostom presents the Church as a hospital for sinners, and the sacramental life of the Church as therapy. St. Basil’s New City was founded as a safe place where the poor, the diseased, orphans and the aged could have their needs addressed by laity working together with monks and nuns.

Through the establishment of parish support Care Teams, the Orthodox faithful are presented with opportunities to grow spiritually through service to the parish that is personal, meaningful, and effective. One peer Care Team was recruited to assist a Greek Orthodox woman face the daily challenges associated with her husband’s diagnosis of stage four COPD. Another Care Team is supporting a man who is working through grief over the death of his spouse.

Operating under the direction and guidance of the parish priest, these Care Teams support his ministry by helping to manage challenging situations and thereby preventing them from becoming emergencies or tragedies.

Finally, parish Care Teams are valuable for outreach and evangelism. In the Gospel of St. John 13:35, Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” As the world continues to advance technologically, vast numbers of people express feelings of isolation and loneliness. Many times the search for God begins with the search for friends. Parish Care Teams can provide opportunities for neighbors to find each other in a Christ honoring way that leads to salvation.

For more ideas to help your parish develop this ministry contact the Center for Family Care [email protected].

Patrick Tutella is director of the New Hope Project. He is the former national director of Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry under the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America. He and his wife Cheryl reside in Berks County, Pa. They attend Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Lititz, Pa.