Pine Log United Methodist Church's Zack Townsend proposes new transitional housing project

IN GOD’S HANDS Pastor discusses role of local churches in substance abuse battle

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The shadow of substance abuse has hung over Pine Log United Methodist Church Pastor Zack Townsend since he joined the ministry four years ago.

The first two funerals he officiated were for individuals whose deaths were drug-related. One involved an IV infection. The other was a suicide.

Both were for lifelong friends of Townsend.

“I think from a religious standpoint, a lot of people think addiction, you should be able to be delivered from it,” the 38-year-old Rydal resident said. “There is an element of truth to that, but I think sometimes being delivered from something doesn’t mean it’s once and done.”

When Townsend thinks of substance abuse, he said the biblical verse Romans 7:15 immediately springs to mind.

“I don’t really understand myself for what I want to do is right, but I don’t do it,” he reads the scripture from his smart phone. “Instead, I do what I hate.”

The deep reach of substance abuse on Bartow County, he said, is undebatable. 

“We have an incredibly high rate of overdoses and overdose deaths, and we’re on the northwest corner of Georgia’s heroin triangle, that saw a 4,000% increase in overdose deaths in 2016,” he said. “That’s a massive number.”

The grip of substance abuse, he said, runs the gamut from school children experimenting with drugs to senior citizens battling pain pill addictions. 

“There’s an epidemic, obviously,” he said.

Prior to becoming Pine Log United Methodist’s pastor, Townsend worked as an administrator for Highland Rivers Health. Among other programs, he helped launch the Reaching Our Community (ROC) Clubhouse in Atco and helped bring the Apex Project to local schools. 

“A large focus of what I was doing in my last years there was working on getting clinicians into schools, so they could meet the kids where they’re at,” he said. “It didn’t focus specifically with substance abuse or treatment, but it definitely had clients that I worked with that had that as a component of what they were struggling with.”

One of the gravest misconceptions Townsend encountered, he said, is the assumption that substance use is merely an individual choice. 

“Maybe it is at some point in our life it’s a choice that you make, but oftentimes it’s a choice that’s no different on the front end than the choice everybody makes to drink a drink, or whatever, or to experiment,” he said. “The way it manifests itself in a person, who even has a genetic predisposition or environmental factors that sort of exacerbates things, is kind of how it plays out in their lives.”

In many cases, Townsend said those seeking help with substance abuse issues are skeptical — if not leery — of faith-based support. 

And others, he said, are downright resentful. 

“A lot of people struggle with perceptions of God that maybe they have experienced in the past and have difficulty understanding how God could have mercy on them or love them,” he said, “considering the things that they’ve gone through and the measures they’ve gone through to support addiction.”

Yet Townsend said the church certainly has the ability to be a major component of community-based recovery efforts. 

“The quote that has sort of permeated the recovery communities is the opposite of addiction is not recovery, the opposite of addiction is connection,” he said. “Addiction is an isolating condition in many ways — physically, emotionally and spiritually. For someone who is seeking recovery, that spiritual piece is a critical component to learning how to live, really, to learning how to live without the use of drugs.”

Indeed, Townsend said he believe substance abuse recovery fundamentally requires a connection to others “and God, in some way.”

“When I think of the word ‘recovery,’ I think about properly redirecting the overwhelming obsessive-compulsive desire,” he said. “Over time, we learn to live with balance, but on the front end of recovery, the initial thing is properly directing that overwhelming, obsessive-compulsive desire into things that are healthy, fruitful and edifying for our lives.” 

Townsend said “a cultural shift” is necessary to address the county’s substance abuse crisis. 

“I think punitive measures are often our first go-to, and we think compliance is somehow greater than rehabilitation,” he said. “Programmatically, there are things that are already in place that seek to meet the needs of families and the people who are struggling with addiction, such as drug courts, or accountability courts.”

But Townsend said many “gaps” remain throughout Bartow, especially when it comes to services like transitional housing. 

Which is why he’s taken it upon himself to bring such resources to the community. 

“I’m in the process of registering with the State a ministry called Fourth Day,” he said. “Once these things are done, we’ll begin fundraising and looking for a location.”

The project, he said, would place an emphasis on women going through substance abuse recovery. 

“The plan is to have all of our stuff filed with the State by this spring,” he said. “There’s certainly a lengthy process for establishing a nonprofit … I’ve considered Gordon County and considered also Bartow County. Honestly, I feel it just depends on where God leads us.”

Still, he knows winning the support of the community for such a project may not be an easy undertaking. 

“Zoning is a huge deal, and a lot of people are in support of recovery, until it’s in their backyard,” he said. “One thing that I’ve seen happen with other people who sought to do the same thing in other areas is that they put the cart before the horse and they found a location, jumped in and then they always encounter static from the community around them.”

Townsend said he’s heard comments from many people who believe that building recovery housing is, in essence, “inviting addiction” to the community. 

“The reality is that it’s already here,” he said. “If we start serving people who are seeking recovery, then recovery is what’s going to come to our community, not more addiction.”

Across the board, Townsend said he’d like to see local faith groups become “more verbal” about substance abuse issues within the community. 

“I’d love to see churches get behind this movement, to sort of recreate a culture of transformation, where we believe that nobody is too broken to be saved, that nobody is beyond God’s grace,” he said. “Whether that means we independently as a congregation establish different avenues for people to get resources and recovery, or maybe the gift of a particular congregation is in giving and supporting of something that’s happening in the community, a project that’s going on or some other ministry outside of their particular faith community.”

Community Torn is a five-week series exploring the many ways substance abuse impacts Bartow, with an emphasis on the voices of those most impacted by the community's drug crisis. Using a multidisciplinary approach encompassing public policy specialists, health care providers, law enforcement officials and judicial system representatives, the series seeks to demonstrate the true toll of substance dependency throughout the county.