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Bishop says drug battle part of spiritual crisis

Published Oct. 16, 2005

Bishop Felton E. May stirs uneasily in his chair when asked how it feels to be known as the "drug czar" of U.S. churches. "I detest that term," said the United Methodist bishop. "I'm a catalytic servant - and I take my servant role seriously."

Bishop May, as far as he and many others knows, is the first high-ranking religious leader to be assigned full time to what is known by many as the war on drugs. The United Methodist Church has moved him to the nation's capital to help local congregations develop anti-drug strategies.

The bishop discourages any suggestion that he is a kind of religious counterpart to the federal government's drug czar, William Bennett. And, Bishop May said, he doesn't think the metaphor of a "drug war" adequately describes the task of churches.

"What we're dealing with is a spiritual crisis. Our society is in the throes of moral deterioration, and the drug and alcohol crisis is only one manifestation of that deterioration," he said in an interview here. "It's like talking about a war on sin."

If Bishop May were a czar of any kind, you wouldn't know it from his surroundings. He works out of a drab office, once used to store journals and church manuals, in the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill. His desk is a conference table, holding various studies on the drug crisis scattered about and photographs of his wife, Phyllis, and their two children.

But from his office, the bishop has a prime view of the Supreme Court and the U.S. Capitol - symbols of what he sees as a government that, for all its talk of a war on drugs, has hardly begun to fight.

"It's been a war of words, with very little action," said Bishop May, who left his duties in Harrisburg, Pa., in early January. "If drug abuse is a national crisis, and indeed it is a national crisis, then the nation should be called to a mobilization of resources."

The scores of drug addicts looking in vain for treatment facilities is one sign of the government's lack of resolve, according to bishop. "I think treatment is the order of the day," he said. The nation, he added, has neglected to take a serious look at some of the root causes of the drug crisis.

"We sit by and allow things to happen that devalue the human spirit - homelessness, joblessness, child poverty and a resurgence of white racism," said Bishop May, the first black bishop of Harrisburg, a jurisdiction that extends from central Pennsylvania to the southern tier of New York State. "We have a responsibility to secure the basic rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence."

Since beginning what is expected to be a one-year assignment, Bishop May has worked closely with pastors in Southeast Washington and neighboring Prince Georges County, Md., one of the region's worst drug areas. He is coordinating a "demonstration" project involving 14 congregations and is being assisted by Steve Drachler, who has taken a leave of absence from his job as Harrisburg bureau chief of the Morning Call newspaper of Allentown, Pa. In this effort, called "The Bishops' Initiative," the United Methodist Council of Bishops has provided initial financing of $100,000 to expand programs already under way in the churches. The programs include rehabilitation of addicts, housing for abused women and abandoned children, medical services, distribution of food and clothing, religious education, youth groups and after-school tutoring.

The work has given Bishop May a first-hand view of the city known as America's drug capital, governed by a mayor recently arrested for possession of cocaine.

"I grieve for Mayor (Marion) Barry," said Bishop May. "His tragedy only holds out to me the fact that we live in an addictive society. Some people fill the void in their lives with drugs. Others crave for money, power, food or sex."

Bishop May, who speaks in measured tones and chooses his words carefully, leaves no doubt about his attitude toward those who trumpet legalization of drugs as the best solution.

"I think that legalization would eliminate the lower economic class from the face of the Earth," he said. "If drugs were made readily available, those persons who are socially and economically deprived would have drugs readily available and would use them to cope with their station in life."

As far as churches are concerned, Bishop May believes the solution is, in a sense, right under their noses. "The church has to be the church, and everything else will fall into place," he said, explaining that churches need to be caring, nurturing and supportive environments for troubled people.

"If the church can become an environment where people could confess their addiction, without fear of ridicule or being ostracized, then that would be something - it would be a miracle."