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iTHIRST Initiative trains Spiritual Companions to accompany people in addiction, recovery


Participants in the first session of training for the iThirst Initiative for the Archdiocese of Boston in 2019. Courtesy photo

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BRAINTREE -- New Jersey parishioner Keaton Douglas saw a need to enable people in the Church to accompany those struggling with addiction and their families. That initial idea has grown into the iTHIRST Initiative, which is now being implemented in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Douglas developed the idea for the iTHIRST Initiative while volunteering for the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, a community of Catholic men religious who serve the poor and abandoned. The order has had various kinds of addiction recovery initiatives throughout its history, but realized a new approach was required.

Douglas said she found it most important to understand that addiction is a spiritual disease, and that people who suffer from it are "trying to assuage a pain or a deep longing."

"I asked myself and my team, if it's a deep spiritual disease, then who better to provide a spiritual remedy, in concert with the clinical stuff, than the Church?" Douglas said in a Feb. 18 interview.

She wants the Church to "work in concert with" those who work in clinical settings, "because the spiritual dimension of wellness is huge, and the Church has a definite role to play."

iTHIRST has three areas of focus: education and prevention; support for people who are incarcerated or in treatment facilities; and aftercare and community building for people in recovery and their families.

To teach people in the Church how to better serve in these areas, Douglas developed the iTHIRST Spiritual Companionship training program, a 48-hour course with a curriculum peer-reviewed and academically certified by Seton Hall University. Spiritual Companions are trained and certified to provide ongoing education, support, and aftercare, rooted in Catholic spirituality, to people with addictions and their loved ones.

"iTHIRST Spiritual Companions practice what Pope Francis asks all of us to do as disciples: to live out the 'art of accompaniment' by learning how to listen to and dialogue with the vulnerable and marginalized and to be actively present to show God's mercy and love to those who have not felt as though they have been heard or seen," Doreen Rearden of the Archdiocese of Boston's Office of Risk Management said.

This approach sounded promising to the archdiocese's Opioid Task Force, which was formed by Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley in 2016. They heard about iTHIRST while looking for a way to train parish volunteers to assist those suffering from addictions, in order to supplement the work of the Archdiocesan Addiction Recovery Pastoral Support Services.

"We have recovery coaches, and we have a lot of people that are doing work with addiction (and) substance use disorder, but there's not a lot to deal with the spiritual aspects of the disease. And ultimately the disease starts as a spiritual disease because we're trying to replace that connection that we have with God," Deacon Jim Greer, a co-chair of the task force, said in a Feb. 18 interview.

Mother Olga Yaqob, the founder and mother servant o f the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth, met with Deacon Greer and his co-chair Joe McEnness as they were considering the program. She spoke from her experience working with people who have addictions and their families, recognizing the "deep connection" between body, mind, and spirit as well as the importance of adding a spiritual component to complement treatment.

In 2018, the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth hosted the iTHIRST Spiritual Companionship pilot program at their convent in Quincy. The weekend-long training included an overview of addiction, examining the science of it as well as the social and spiritual impact of it, and covered the spirituality of the 12-step process and the history of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The Daughters have seen firsthand how people in recovery and their families benefit from the support of a community. Mother Olga explained that when someone is struggling with an addiction, often their family -- parents, a spouse, children -- will give up on them. This impacts their spiritual wellbeing since many feel that they "receive God's love and care through people around us."

"When they are isolated in their addiction and away from family and loved ones and friends, naturally they feel they are also isolated from God," she said.

Knowing this, the Daughters have found different ways to provide people in recovery with spiritual support and a sense of community. They have organized Masses and holiday meals at treatment facilities. They have held recovery Bible studies and conducted RCIA for some participants. Mother Olga is holding marriage preparation for a couple in recovery and has seen how their reconciliation with God and the Church helped to heal their families.

"It brought reconciliation to the family, too, when they see their sons and daughters being involved in their faith and involved in their community," Mother Olga said.

She has also worked with parents who lost their children to overdoses. Sometimes these bereaved parents feel too embarrassed to hold a funeral for their child because of the stigma of addiction.

"It's really important for the people of the Church to start working on this as a community, because you will be amazed in every parish how many people have a son, a daughter, a niece, a nephew, who has been lost to addiction," Mother Olga said.

She said that religious education programs should raise awareness and "start to talk about the subject pastorally through the lens of faith."

Like many organizations and programs, the iTHIRST Initiative is offering its training virtually, which makes it available for any diocese, parish, or individual interested. Seton Hall University is offering the iTHIRST Spiritual Companionship program for 4.8 continuing education units.

The archdiocese held a virtual iTHIRST course from October through December 2020. Parish nurse Beth Budny took the class with three others from her collaborative, the Catholic Parishes of Medfield and Norfolk, which includes St. Edward the Confessor and St. Jude Churches.

"It was invigorating. It made you want to go out and start doing stuff right away," Budny said.

The participants role-played different scenarios and engaged in small group discussions. They also examined their own lives and covered all 12 steps in order to learn how to empathize with people going through AA.

Cardinal O'Malley joined them during one session in November, and said he was ''thrilled to see the wonderful work that you are doing."

"The scourge of addiction is one of the greatest challenges we face in the Church and in society, and we are very proud of our priests who are involved within the archdiocese. I'm very excited to hear about your movement and work and thank you for all that you are doing," the cardinal told them.

Since being certified in January, the participants have continued to meet remotely each month. Additionally, Budny and the other participants from her collaborative have met weekly to make plans for programs in their community.

Their collaborative already had an active AA group and has offered its church as a meeting place. Now, they have started to include special intentions in the Prayers of the Faithful and asked the rosary group to offer rosaries for the same intentions. The parish bulletin will feature a weekly column, and they have planned a Mass of Recovery to take place in April. Budny said she looks forward to working with their faith-formation program to incorporate age-appropriate prevention material for the students. They also hope to hold special events for Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31 and Recovery Awareness Month in September.

"It was an invaluable program. I'm excited about it. I'm hoping to keep that energy high, and I'm hoping to recruit other volunteers because I think this is really going to take off the ground," Budny said.

Although the pandemic was "a blessing as far as getting everything online," Douglas expressed concern about its impact on addiction-related programs and the people they are meant to serve. The forced isolation necessitated by the pandemic has cut off typical avenues of community support, and the stress of so much uncertainty and hardship has caused many people to turn to drugs and alcohol to cope.

"COVID has seen enormous increases, not only in overdoses but in people relapsing and people turning to drugs and alcohol for the first time," Douglas said.

To make matters worse, a great deal of funding allocated to programs for addiction recovery and mental health has been diverted to coronavirus-related needs, leaving fewer and more limited resources for treating what Douglas called "the original epidemic."

"We need to reach out to the margins, to our brothers and sisters who are suffering and to their families, to provide spiritual consolation and recovery resource information. The Church needs to have a greater voice, an amplified voice, in great societal maladies. And this is what we're trying to do," Douglas said.

More information about iTHIRST is available at ithirstinitiative.org. Information about the RCAB Opioid Task Force and the Archdiocesan Addiction Recovery Pastoral Support Services can be found at masscatholicotf.org and aarpss.org, respectively.

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