By Andrew Reimer
In Ezekiel 34 God describes how his people are like sheep that have been abandoned by their shepherds and are “easy prey for any wild animal” (v. 5). Similarly, people who are marginalized or have experienced complex trauma are vulnerable to predatory forces. Over the past five years my teammates and I have witnessed crystal meth addiction become one of the most destructive forces preying on vulnerable people whom we know and care about.
Meth addiction overtakes people’s minds and lives. Meth, known commonly on the streets as “jib,” is mentally and emotionally destructive often causing “drug-induced psychosis characterized by paranoia, hallucinations and delusions” (Jill Coubrough, “Winnipeg: A city wide awake on crystal meth,” CBC online, Oct 23, 2017). Users are often awake and “flailing” (engaged in manic activity) for days. Loss of sleep, manic activity and loss of appetite lead to dramatic weight loss. Meth addiction impacts communities through increased property theft and armed robbery, violence, human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Families of meth addicts often feel overwhelmed and unable to help their loved ones.
A while ago I was working on a Bible study on Acts chapter 2 for a group of young adults in our community, most of whom have friends or family who are struggling with meth addiction. As I read about the Holy Spirit being poured out on Jesus’ followers, I began to notice some striking similarities between the way the Holy Spirit works in Acts 2 and the way crystal meth works in peoples’ lives and the community. I was intrigued about how this Scripture might speak to one of the burning issues in our community.
For many of our friends who feel defeated, overwhelmed, discouraged and powerless in much of their life, a meth high provides a feeling of empowerment and motivation. The first disciples also felt intimidated and powerless. The coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter 2 is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in chapter 1, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:8). After receiving the Holy Spirit, the disciples who had only recently been cowering behind locked doors, became empowered and emboldened to speak publicly about Jesus and his kingdom.
Part of the reason meth addiction is spreading so fast is its accessibility. It is easy to get and it is very affordable. Meth sells for only $10 per “point” or one dose of meth, which gives a high that can last from 6 to 12 hours (Coubrough, CBC). This accessibility means that it doesn’t matter how poor or marginalized a person is, meth is one of the few things anyone can have access to. If you can’t get hired for a job, if you don’t have access to your own children, you still can get meth. You may be excluded, unwanted and unwelcome in almost any social setting, but you will still be welcome in the places where meth is sold and used.
Sometimes people on the margins and in the church think of God as being very inaccessible and imagine that only certain kinds of people are eligible to receive his presence. As we read in Acts 2:17-18 about Peter’s explanation to the bewildered onlookers, we took note of how available God’s Spirit is to all people, regardless of gender, age or social status: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all people”—sons, daughters, young men, old men, “my servants, men and women alike.” Many of our friends on the margins constantly bump into the messages: No Access. You Are Not Eligible. I proposed to the group that, according to this passage in Acts, the Holy Spirit is even more accessible to “ineligible” people than meth.
In our study, I asked the young adults, “Can you tell if someone is hooked on meth?” Everyone agreed that it is obvious and listed many of the changes in behaviour and demeanor that are evidence someone is using.
People under the influence of substances often do things they would not normally do sober. Similarly, the behaviour of the newly Spirit-filled believers in Acts 2 was so obviously changed that some of the bystanders thought they were drunk (v. 13). Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the believers spoke in other tongues and Peter acted in a way he never would have otherwise, boldly preaching his first public sermon. Galatians 5 describes the changes in behaviour or “fruit” in the life of someone who is under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, we talked about the meth’s tendency to spread from person to person. People addicted to meth often began using after family members or friends began using or when they ended up living in a place where people are using. The Holy Spirit also works by spreading quickly from person to person affecting more and more people with God’s love and power. The second chapter of Acts concludes by describing the fellowship, generosity and miraculous signs evident among the believers after the Spirit had been poured out on them (vv. 42-46) and says “each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved” (v. 47).
While he visited a friend at an apartment building that had essentially become a “trap house” (residence overtaken by drug activity), one of my teammates was both disturbed by the concentration of people whose lives are controlled by meth and impressed by the sense of community and mutual support he witnessed among the residents of the building. Later he commented to me that, “It was almost like a dysfunctional book of Acts!”
As we concluded, I invited the group to imagine, “What if, instead of meth spreading through our neighbourhood, we saw more and more people’s lives being changed by the Holy Spirit? What if instead of seeing our friends staying awake for days or being paranoid, we saw them becoming more joyful, peaceful, patient, kind and self-controlled? What if instead of trap houses where anyone can go to get access to meth, there were houses throughout our community where anyone can come and have access to the Holy Spirit, where everyone knows they can come and people will pray for them?”
I do not mean to oversimplify the issue of addiction or to suggest that recovery happens just by praying a few prayers or having a few Bible studies. It is important for us to learn about the social marginalization and personal pain and trauma that are at the roots of addiction. People struggling with addictions need us to understand that compassion and connection are keys to healing. A variety of community responses and resources are needed.
I believe these insights about meth and the Holy Spirit can help us understand some of the real and legitimate human needs that meth users are attempting to meet: empowerment that you can access, the ability to feel and act different, acceptance and community. In fact, we all have these needs. God understands these needs. These insights have also challenged me to consider what resources we have as followers of Jesus that can make a real difference in addressing the issue of meth addiction.
How could the Holy Spirit be good news for our vulnerable and addicted friends and family? I hope these insights can spark faith, prayer and action that connect the real, accessible and transformative power and presence of the Holy Spirit with the lives of hurting people in our communities.
Andrew Reimer (Steinbach EMC) is a community minister with Inner City Youth Alive in Winnipeg’s North End.