Blyth Barnow preaches harm reduction in Naloxone Saves service

Andy Downing
Blyth Barnow

In 2004, Blyth Barnow dated someone who died of an overdose. During the funeral, the pastor at the family’s church handled the circumstances of the death poorly, Barnow said, planting a seed that eventually led her to enter seminary a decade later.

“When I started, and when somebody asked me why I wanted to go into seminary, I said, ‘Because I want to learn how to bury the people I love with dignity,’ because no one else had,” Barnow said.

In the years since, this initial motivation has taken a steady turn toward the light, informed by the Naloxone Saves service Barnow developed while enrolled in the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, and which she’ll lead at the United Methodist Church for All People on the South Side on Tuesday, Aug. 27, as part of a four-date Ohio swing that also included stops in Cleveland and Portsmouth and concludes tomorrow in Cincinnati.

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“It was through the creation of this service that I realized I wanted to keep my community from dying and not just bury them,” said Barnow, who was born and raised in Ohio. “When we do this service together, churches and other faith communities are invited on a similar kind of journey, one away from death and toward life.”

The service, which Barnow led for the first time in May 2017, begins with a prayer for those lost to overdose and the war on drugs, during which attendees are given the opportunity to light a candle and speak the names of the dead aloud. From there, the service moves into a call to worship and scripture readings, followed by Barnow’s sermon, which centers partly on the idea of overdose response as a form of resurrection. From there, the congregation is trained in the use of Naloxone, a life-saving drug used to counter the effects of opioid overdose, injections of which are then blessed and distributed free of charge to attendees. During Barnow’s first service in May 2017, she distributed 75 doses of Naloxone, and to this day she still receives messages from people impacted by the gesture.

For Barnow, overcoming skepticism of the church among the people she hopes to reach is a large part of the challenge, and she bills Naloxone Saves as a “respectful, non-judgmental service … [that] you do not need to be Christian, religious or sober to attend.”

“Some of it is building relationships on the ground before we even ask them to come into a church,” Barnow said. “Unfortunately, I think a lot of people’s experience is that if they’re invited into a church, there’s an expectation that they are to leave changed or converted in some way. [But] the structure of this service is welcoming a wider group of folks into the church in order for the church to be changed or converted.”

As an example, Barnow pointed to a service she held at another Ohio church in 2017 to mark International Overdose Awareness Day, which takes place each year on Aug. 31, during which officials expressed initial skepticism, concerned with Naloxone-related liabilities and the idea it might appear to some that the church was engaged in distributing drugs. Eventually, officials relented, and following the service, during which Barnow distributed Naloxone kits to attendees, the church invited her to come back and repeat the service.

“So they moved from hesitancy to advocacy,” Barnow said. “And there have been a couple of people in that congregation who have used the kits that were distributed through that service to save people’s lives. Once [churches] see the ways the folks in their congregations are impacted, and the power of finally having a tool with which to be able to respond, that’s really transformative for faith communities.”

The transformation mirrors one that has also taken place within Barnow, who wasn’t sure she wanted to be a minister when she started attending seminary, having grown up in churches that often pushed away the types of people she hoped to reach, including those struggling with addiction and the LGBTQ community.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work with mainstream churches because I myself had been really hurt and wounded, and I wasn’t sure that was a place where I wanted to spend my energy,” Barnow said. “It was through the process of seminary, and through the process of working on this service, that I came to understand the power of the church being returned to those who have been pushed out of it. It has absolutely changed and broadened how I think about ministry.”

Barnow also wants the service to focus attention on the overlooked communities currently being ravaged by the opioid crisis, including small towns and cities (hence the event in Portsmouth) and communities of color, which haven’t been as central in coverage of the crisis as white suburbia. Most of all, though, Barnow hopes to alter the public stigma that people struggling with addiction often face, speaking to the strength and humanity inherent in all people.

“As somebody who has lost several people to overdose, it’s really healing for me to see people who are so often disrespected and dehumanized band together and say, ‘No. We are worth something. We have inherent dignity, and we deserve to be able to live, and live well,’” Barnow said. “I find that kind of resilience overwhelmingly powerful.”

United Methodist Church for All People

7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 27

895 Parsons Ave., South Side

Naloxone Saves