A Message from IRETA’s Board Chair

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Rev. Dr. James Simms

I generally do not find it difficult to remain focused on IRETA’s core mission. Unhealthy substance use and addiction do not fall off my radar; I see their effects all around me. But on two specific occasions during the last year, I had the opportunity to connect deeply with the work we do at IRETA.

The first came during September of 2013. I presented at an IRETA training on a subject that has always been near and dear to my heart: how can faith leaders and educators identify and address unhealthy substance use in the communities that they serve? People came to the training because they saw, as I did during my forty years as pastor of St. James Baptist Church, that substance use problems are pervasive and everyone is touched. That simply doing nothing is not an option.

In my presentation, I shared with the group that there are solutions to these problems and that I’ve seen them work; in fact, I’ve been a part of them working. Here, I refer to the use of SBIRT, Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment.

Several years ago, I was involved in a SBIRT program for faith leaders in local African American communities called the Caring Congregation Network. The Caring Congregation Network gave us a plan for action for addressing drug and alcohol use in our communities. We learned to talk about addiction as a disease and not a sin. We learned to take the time to ask our parishioners about their use. And we learned how to make referral to treatment that really works, which usually requires a “warm handoff.” Sometimes that handoff was very warm: sometimes we needed to drive to parishioners’ houses, pick them up, and take them to appointments ourselves. And that’s what we did.

The Caring Congregation Network allowed me to address issues that had weighed heavily on my mind for years. Churches are very concerned with change at an individual and community level, so the use of SBIRT was absolutely a natural fit.

That conference last fall was a wonderful opportunity to connect with faith leaders from all over the Pittsburgh region, hear their concerns, and share some of what I’ve learned over the years.

Reverend James Simms describes his faith-based SBIRT program, Caring Congregation Network

Reverend James Simms describes his faith-based SBIRT program, Caring Congregation Network, at a training last September

The following January, we faced a rash of overdose deaths in our region. In the space of two weeks, 22 southwest Pennsylvanians, mostly young people, died when a batch of heroin mixed with fentanyl became available on the streets. I followed the media coverage with great sadness. Sadness because of the lives we lost to drug use, and also because of what the newspapers and TV reporters did not say: not once, in the dozens of local and national news reports on the overdose outbreak, did I hear the name of anyone who had died. The stories of the victims were overlooked entirely, de-valued.

We have a lot of work left to do. For those who struggle with addiction to get help, as a society, we need to recognize their fundamental value.

simms signature
Rev. Dr. James Simms
IRETA Board Chair


Read more about IRETA’s work this year in our newly-released FY 2014 Annual Report

For a synopsis of the conference for faith leaders with workshops led by Rev. Simms, read our blog post Community Conversations