Some context for WordPress readers: This story posted today on Weelunk.com. The state in which I live has the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in America.
Nora Edinger January 23, 2019
Editor’s note: In a continuing series about how valley residents express their spirituality, Weelunk hit the road with a trio of New Martinsville residents who consider the opioid epidemic a soul battle worthy of an unusual form of prayer. A four-wheeled form
The opioid crisis looks different through the windshield of a church van than it does on the TV news. There’s a totally familiar house in view, for instance.
“She’s in jail right now, thankfully,” Amy Witschey comments of the home’s resident. She slows the van, praying for hope and change in the woman’s life, before heading through the intersection.
Witschey and two other occupants of a van owned by the First Church of God in New Martinsville are driving the streets of the Wetzel County community of about 5,000 on a recent Wednesday morning. The house and the woman’s story are well known to them. The trio and a handful of other city Christians from various churches have prayed for her before and are saddened that a relapse into full-blown opioid addiction has led to imprisonment.
But they’re not without hope. Witschey prays again, a soft-but-firm petition for not only the woman but for all city residents imprisoned for drug offenses. “May (they) see it’s not just punishment to hate, but something positive.”
Driven to Action
They’re also not pointing fingers or gossiping about neighbors’ misfortunes. Donnie Virden, a member of The Refuge church and another occupant of the van, says the group’s weekly two-hour prayer drive through town is about love.
“I hate sin. I absolutely abhor sin,” Virden says, his eyebrows briefly shaping into a scowl just below the edge of his knit cap. “(But) God says we don’t hate nobody.”
That “nobody” particularly includes city residents addicted to opioids, methamphetamine and other substances. This focus came along after the Church of God, of which Witschey is a member, watched a movie about a Kentucky community where churches have banded together to fight addiction on a spiritual level.
The local group was so inspired, they went outside their church building, held hands and prayed about New Martinsville’s own drug problem. Witschey has a photo on her phone of that May 2015 event.
“Now what? Now what do we do?” she says was the obvious follow-up question. A monthly prayer gathering that would move from church to church was part of the answer. As was taking prayer right out onto the streets where the drug use is happening.
Addiction isn’t the only thing the group (from left, Donnie Virden, Amy Witschey, Sharon Stewart) prays about. As they roll through town, they ask for divine help for schools, churches, community leaders and even for a wave of beautification to hit the community.
“Let’s just get in the van and drive around,” Sharon Stewart remembers of that starting point. The third van occupant, she is also a member of the Church of God.
Finding a Focus
But, where? Even though the Wetzel County seat is small enough to traverse in minutes, the group needed a plan. Witschey’s background as an editor of newspapers in Wetzel and Tyler counties came into play. She knew the legal system, the key community leaders. And, she and others in the group were aware of hot spots ranging from houses with known illegal drug activity to medical offices where legal opioids are prescribed.
The group’s first actual visit was “drug court,” a rehabilitation/probation center for those who are in the criminal system for drug charges but are not imprisoned. “We would just pull up, and we’d stand outside and pray for them,” Witschey says, smiling at the memory.
“Then, they started to come out (to meet us),” Stewart adds.
With time, people at that location have become less receptive to outdoor prayer. “They probably call us the crazy church people,” Witschey laughed. “We still go, still pray, but from inside the van. … We pray for their souls, but we also pray for their circumstances.”
And they pray that way all over town. They pray for surefootedness for men working on the icy roof of a nursing home, for a high school administrator they happen to see walking across the school parking lot, for police working inside their station, for other churches to be full and spiritually effective.
They drive by the homes of community leaders, which are sometimes clustered on a single block, and pray for wisdom, discernment and skill. They even pray for a spirit of neighborliness, charity and tidiness to sweep the city.
“Guide us always,” Virden prays as they roll along. “Guide us so that this will not be a bust, but a boon.”
Has it Worked?
A tiny card in a window proclaims a New Martinsville bar the prayer team was happy to see closed remains that way. The group considers the sustained closure one of several answers to prayers they’ve been making for the city’s deliverance from addiction, particularly opioid addiction, since 2015.
Virden smiles at this question. He says there is a long list of what they consider answered prayers. Homeless people have gotten help, including a newly arrived family whose pre-schooler was spotted wearing shorts in the cold December weather. One woman that the group prayed for just celebrated two months of sobriety. A bar the group considered notorious remains shuttered after an abrupt closure. A yard that was full of junk has been cleaned up — for the most part. A car that was being used to transport drugs into the city broke down.
“Prayer works,” Stewart says. “He doesn’t always answer in the way that we think he should.”
“Or as quick,” Virden chimes in, noting a lack of sea change can be discouraging at times.
Witschey says the human desire for the tangible is one reason they’ve stuck to a 15-passenger van with plenty of church lettering on the side even though the three regulars could fit in an ordinary car.
“It’s a visual presence. It doesn’t matter the name on the side of the van,” Witschey says. “It’s a witness to the community that they see us. They want to see God.”
Another reason for generally praying on wheels is recall, Virden notes. “We can see. It would be hard for me to sit in a church and visualize (the entire town).”
Visualization has brought a greater awareness of need, as well. They know the ribbons dangling on a fence outside the county Convention and Visitors Bureau recently held gloves and hats intended for the homeless. They know one of those homeless people has recently been sleeping inside a slide at the playground they’ve just prayed will remain a safe place for children.
Driving the streets of New Martinsville while praying for their city, prayer team members have become increasingly aware of deep need. Outside the Wetzel County Convention and Visitors Bureau, ribbons dangle from a fence where cold-weather gear such as gloves and hats are left for homeless individuals.
All three van occupants volunteer in other capacities, as a result. Virden works in prison ministry. Stewart helps with a recovery program. Witschey does music ministry. Their churches distribute clothes, food and toiletries.
Plus, the van means they can occasionally function as New Martinsville’s only “Uber.” “We have seen people we knew didn’t have a car. ‘Do you need a ride?’ Sometimes we’ve done that,” Witschey says with another joyful laugh.
Those concrete forms of aid aside, she believes the focus will always remain on prayer. Quoting Mandisa, a contemporary Christian singer, she says, “Prayer isn’t the only thing we can do, it’s the best thing we can do.”
So, they drive on, Witschey murmuring another petition as they roll. “May your presence be felt in this place.”