Leaders from the Forsyth County religious community filled the Forsyth County Commissioner’s meeting room on Wednesday night, gathered for a singular purpose — to learn how they could better their community.
Over the last six years, the Forsyth County Drug Awareness Council has held drug summits all over the county, at schools, conference centers, and other community meetings. But until Wednesday night, the group had never approached the local religious community as a whole to involve its members and resources in the fight against drugs and addiction, according to Forsyth County Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills.
"It really takes a community, it takes everybody coming together," Mills said at the summit’s opening. "I think that it's very important that we, as a community, come together and recognize the issues that we're facing at our schools, that law enforcement is facing, that we are dealing within the drug council."
According to Mills, the purpose of the meeting, which they called their first “Religious Leaders Summit,” was to get leaders from the religious community in the same room, introduce them to the Forsyth County Drug Awareness Council and hopefully give them resources and information to take back to their congregations.
Mills told the religious leaders and other guests that the idea for the summit arose after they attended a national opioid summit and were told by multiple different experts that in order to fight the growing opioid epidemic, they would need to involve churches in the effort.
Just like they work with the Forsyth County school system, local law enforcement agencies and other community groups, churches needed a stake in that fight, she said.
"You know and I know that a problem's got to be to an epidemic level before they bring God into it," she said. "If we can get everybody on the same page, if we can educate, the more people who know, the more people who understand, and the more we're able to combat the problems that are real."
After introducing the summit’s speakers to the crowd, Mills dove into questions and answers with a panel, asking them to talk about a wide range of drug and addiction-related questions, like “What is the biggest drug-related threat today?” and “What is the root of childhood addiction in their opinion?”
The panel, which consisted of five individuals with different backgrounds relating to drugs, alcohol, addiction and the recovery process, was able to break down and answer the questions from their own area of expertise.
"I'm well churched, and I spent 11 years as an addict, from [ages] 10-21,” a pastor from the audience stood up and said to the panel. “But I'm old now, I'm facing 50 and my question is ... what are some things for us older people [to do] when kids have the 'cools?’”
The man told the panel that he was worried about breaking through the stigma of judgment when trying to engage with young people and having a conversation about drugs.
"Meet them where they are at," answered Matt Meyer, program director for the Insight Program, a substance abuse treatment program for teens and young people. "I, for one, as a youth going through what I was [going through] at the time, the adults that I connected with the most ... were people that were understanding and authentic. A defensive, getting-high teenager can almost spot someone … that's not really just being authentic."
"I would also say, utilize other young people; a 16-year-old talking to a 16-year-old is going to be a lot more powerful than a 40-year-old talking to a 16-year-old," said Victoria Ray, coordinator for the Forsyth County Drug Awareness Council. "We know that peer pressure is one of the main reasons youth use anyway. How their friends start talking about drugs heavily influences how they think about drugs."
Another audience member asked the panel what they should do if the parents of a young person in need came to them asking for advice on where to get help for drugs, alcohol and other issues.
"Sadly, in the state of Georgia there are also a lot of really unethical treatment providers out there," said interventionist Heather Hayes. "There are a lot of really unscrupulous things going on out there, and they were made illegal in Florida, Tennessee, and a lot of the bad players have come to Georgia, so you'll want to be really careful."
"I think that as far as this county goes, maybe having them start at the Forsyth County Drug Awareness Council might be a good jumping off point that they can then connect with the appropriate resources," Meyer added.
After the questions, several pastors and other clergy members stood and voiced their support for the drug council’s efforts, thanking Mills and the other speakers for involving them.
Craig Samples, pastor of Newpoint Church, said that churches have taken a back seat when it comes to some issues affecting the community.
Samples said that doing something as simple as getting involved with mentorships at local schools could make a difference in young people’s lives.
"What I'm hearing from our panel of experts tonight is that if we would be more involved out there, instead of thinking that they are going to come to us, because they aren't coming to us on Sunday morning,” he said. "This is a powerful opportunity for us as a community to step forward and do what we can.”