LEWISTON, Maine ― Some are calling him Narcan Jesus.
But Jesse Harvey, a 26-year-old recovery coach with long sideburns and a Che Guevara T-shirt just visible under his unzipped black raincoat, isn’t having it. “I’m not Jesus,” he said. He is, however, the founder and face of the provocatively named Church of Safe Injection.
What sets the Church of Safe Injection apart from faith-based addiction recovery programs is its insistence on science, a tenet Harvey, who went through the 12-step program a few years ago and is in recovery from addiction to alcohol, opioids and methamphetamine, holds closely. “It’s a miracle that I’m sober right now,” Harvey said. “My recovery was not at all evidence-based,” he added, referring to addiction treatment backed by scientific evidence. “In fact, a lot of it was evidence-hostile.”
Also setting it apart: It’s not actually a church. Or a religion. At least, not yet.
Far from a brick-and-mortar house of worship, Harvey has been running the “church” out of the back of his Honda Fit since October. One night a week, he parks his car by Lewiston’s Kennedy Park, where drug users often congregate, and, along with a group of volunteers, distributes clean needles and Narcan, a brand of the overdose-reversal antidote naloxone, to anyone who stops by. All the while, Harvey preaches that Jesus would have embraced and supported people who use drugs, not shunned them. His philosophy has proven to be an appealing refuge for some religious people, who say they are frustrated that traditional church congregations have turned their backs on the vulnerable in the midst of a drug overdose crisis.
Those people have taken up Harvey’s cause, establishing 18 branches of the church across eight states. Each must abide by the organization’s only three rules: Congregations are required to welcome people of all faiths, atheists included; to serve all marginalized people; and, most importantly, to support harm reduction, which involves keeping drug users safe and healthy, instead of focusing solely on getting them into addiction treatment.
Harvey has plans to incorporate the church as a nonprofit, and then to apply for a religious exemption to the Controlled Substances Act so that he can open a safe injection site, where drug users who aren’t ready for treatment would be able to inject in a clean, safe place, under supervision.
His timing couldn’t be more urgent. Drug overdose deaths set a record in 2017, killing more than 70,000 Americans and surpassing other deadly crises like HIV, car crashes and gun violence during their peak years. The majority of those deaths, nearly 49,000 of them, were linked to opioids. Harvey feels certain that the 418 overdose deaths that happened in Maine in 2017 could have been avoided.
Those who resist instituting these methods of harm reduction argue that these strategies jeopardize public safety and enable more drug use. Research shows that’s not true.
“We have decades of solutions showing that those deaths can be prevented,” Harvey said. “Our religious belief is simply that people who use drugs don’t deserve to die.”
The science on needle exchanges is resoundingly clear. Numerous studies, backed by both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicate that these services reduce the transmission of bloodborne diseases like HIV and hepatitis C, cut down on the number of used needles in public spaces and connect people who use drugs to addiction treatment.
In October, Harvey explained his rationale for starting the church in an op-ed he wrote for the Portland Press Herald.
“All too often today, people who use drugs are offered only two choices,” he wrote.
“Get sober or die. Jesus would have rejected this shameful and lethal binary. He’d have been on the front lines providing the third option that Maine and the United States so desperately need: harm reduction. Naloxone, safe injection sites, sterile syringes, the works.”
But despite the evidence supporting them, needle exchanges remain controversial, especially in rural areas, where authorized exchanges are sparse. In parts of the southern and western United States, they’re still banned altogether. In Maine, there are only six certified needle exchanges, most of which are clustered in a handful of counties in the southern part of the state, leaving large swaths of drug users in northern Maine without reliable access to clean syringes. There is not one in Lewiston.
“We’re closing in on the end of the second decade of this crisis,” said Leo Beletsky, an associate professor of law and health science at Northeastern University. “The fact that we’re still having these discussions around syringe exchange, especially, is extremely frustrating.”
Even more controversial are supervised injection sites, which have yet to gain a foothold in the U.S., even in large, progressive cities. Despite research in Europe, Australia and Canada demonstrating their potential to save lives, they remain prohibited under federal law.
If the Church of Safe Injection seems like a ragtag operation with quixotic plans, the authorities aren’t taking it that way.
The response to Harvey’s efforts was swift.
By the end of November, the Maine CDC had sent letters with a stern reminder about the rules for mobile exchanges to the organizations that run the state’s certified exchanges. While Harvey wasn’t mentioned in the letter, Maine CDC spokeswoman Emily Spencer confirmed that “recent media coverage of Mr. Harvey’s endeavor” had prompted the letters.
At the same time, after weeks of turning a blind eye to the uncertified mobile exchange operating less than a block from the police station in Lewiston, the police department warned Harvey that he could be charged with a misdemeanor if he continued to give out free needles.
It’s illegal to possess more than 10 syringes at a time in Maine. If Harvey had followed that law, he would have only legally been able to serve one person per night, he said. Instead, he stocked his trunk with as many as a thousand needles.
“[Harvey] is familiar with the laws and crimes for which he could be charged if he possesses or distributes hypodermic apparatuses,” Lt. David St. Pierre of the Lewiston Police Department told HuffPost in a statement, noting that the department had been in touch with the Maine CDC.
By all outward appearances, Harvey has complied with the directive to stop distributing syringes out of his car, although he continues to distribute other supplies, including naloxone.
Harvey said he didn’t think the state CDC would approve his application to start a certified exchange because of his criminal record related to his own struggles with addiction, but said the church would exhaust its legal options before knowingly breaking the law. The state CDC does take criminal convictions into account when considering applications, though they’re not automatically disqualifying, according to Spencer, its spokeswoman.
And Harvey hasn’t ruled out the prospect of civil disobedience in the future.
“There’s nobody better to get arrested than a darling media recovery boy who opened five sober houses and is white, male, heterosexual and cisgender,” he said.
His knowing bravado recalls a storied history of civil disobedience and activism, dating back to the crusaders who ran illegal needle exchanges during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s.
“Public health innovation has often pushed the boundaries of the law, and the law has followed,” Beletsky said. “Oftentimes, public health officials do not lead, they follow.”
“I wish the CDC would do more to support harm reduction around the country, instead of getting in the way,” he added.
Civil disobedience paid off in New York City, where in 1991, a judge ruled in favor of a group of activists known as the “Needle Eight,” who were arrested for trying to distribute free syringes. The threat of AIDS was more damaging than any harm caused by violating the needle possession statute, the judge explained, noting that AIDS was threatening hundreds of thousands of lives.
“This court is satisfied that the nature of the crisis facing the city, coupled with the medical evidence offered, warranted the defendants’ action,” the judge ruled.
“Our religious belief is simply that people who use drugs don’t deserve to die.”
Beyond the threat of a Maine CDC crackdown, Harvey and the Church of Safe Injection face an even tougher road ahead in their quest to use religion to skirt the federal rules banning safe injection sites.
Research from Europe, Canada and Australia, which have operated safe consumption sites for decades, indicates that they may decrease disease transmission, drive down emergency calls and reduce fatal overdoses. But in the United States, action has lagged behind the evidence.
In Portland, Maine, where Harvey tried to start a conversation about safe injection sites at a city council meeting last year, a city-authorized safe injection site seemed all but off the table. It was that stonewalling at the local level that prompted Harvey to take matters into his own hands, he said.
Bigger cities like New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle, are proceeding with plans for supervised consumption sites, even as the Justice Department has vowed swift and aggressive action against any violator of the federal law against injection sites.
Yet significant public conversations about safe injection have largely been isolated in a handful of municipalities. “[It’s] evidence that nowhere near enough public health professionals are taking this seriously,” Harvey said.
In that fraught environment, Harvey sees a religious exemption as an opening. As precedent, he cited a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that found a small religious sect could continue to import ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea, for its religious rituals.
Eugene Volokh, who teaches religious law at the UCLA School of Law, said that it’s certainly possible for a small religious group to prevail in an exemption case. The 2006 ayahuasca case only included about 130 people in the American branch, he said. But unlike the Church of Safe Injection, that religion was founded in Brazil 45 years before the Supreme Court ruled in the group’s favor. “It does help if it looks like something that wasn’t just made up for legal purposes,” Volokh said.
“Public health innovation has often pushed the boundaries of the law, and the law has followed.”
In November, before the police crackdown, a group of volunteers, including a public health worker, a food pantry organizer and a substance abuse counselor who had previously been a street minister, circled up around the trunk of Harvey’s car in the half-light.
“We’re going to destigmatize public health,” he told them.
As the night wore on, Harvey and Kandice Child, one of the Church of Safe Injection’s founding members, tag-teamed the slow stream of people picking up supplies, asking them to like the church on Facebook and offering up their services for helping return used needles for disposal. Other volunteers filled paper bags with saline, cotton balls, alcohol wipes, cookers, rubber ties and condoms, logging supplies given out and used needles collected.
“If you want to get involved and help us do this, I’m really interested in setting up a drug users’ union in Maine,” Harvey told a man picking up supplies. Organizing was less about using drugs and more about advocating for drug users’ health, wellness and safety, he explained, and drug users themselves should be on the front lines of that advocacy.
The man nodded and tucked Harvey’s business card, identifying him as a “disciple & acolyte,” into his pocket.
“God bless,” Child called out as the man receded into the darkness.
As long as they follow the church’s three basic tenets, the sister branches of the Church of Safe Injection are free to operate as they see fit, and so far, the movement has centered around marrying religious teachings with promoting the rights and safety of drug users.
In Charles Town, West Virginia, Shannon Hicks, 38, who used IV heroin, cocaine and prescription opioids for nearly two decades, said she felt “completely shunned” by her Christian church while she was actively using drugs. “I tried going to church and praying away my addiction,” she said. “I tried to do everything that good people did.” When she needed it most, the church abandoned her, and eventually her fellow churchgoers’ hypocrisy ate away at her, she explained.
So when Hicks saw Harvey wearing a Church of Safe Injection T-shirt at a harm reduction conference this fall, she knew she had to get involved. Days later, she founded her own small branch in Charles Town, which now has around 17 members and a growing Facebook following.
Now when she does peer-to-peer outreach and hands out clean supplies, she tells people about the Church of Safe Injection.
“For people who are actively using, at first they chuckle and then they really like the idea,” she said. “This is a church I might actually go to.”
Often, the religious people who are flocking to the church have family members or friends who have been affected by opioids, or have been affected themselves, Harvey said.
“I don’t think they’ve seen churches doing enough about this issue.”
Luke, a member of the Church of Safe Injection based in Bangor, Maine, asked not to be identified by his real name because he feared the kind of police crackdown Lewiston was experiencing. “We’re helping a lot of people and I don’t want folks to be afraid to speak with me,” he said.
Luke works in harm reduction and joined the Church of Safe Injection because he was frustrated that religious people weren’t doing more to help drug users.
“All people of faith right now are doing is going to funerals,” he said.