A pastoral message on the subject of drugs
By Bishop Michael Pfeifer, OMI
Diocese of San Angelo
The Present Situation
The recent drug busts that netted some 50 drug dealers in the rural communities of Ozona, Big Lake, Rankin and McCamey—and perhaps others—have sparked comments by many that in these communities, and others, that the drug situation has reached epidemic proportions. From all reports that have been received, there is evidence that many youth in these communities are involved in heavy alcohol or drug use and other delinquent behavior that is detrimental to the well being of all the people of these communities. In these communities, linked to the drug situation, is domestic violence. In one school, all 9th graders indicated they had experienced or knew someone who had experienced domestic violence. Recent information received from the other cities and towns of the 29 counties that make up the Diocese of San Angelo indicate that we are dealing with the tip of a huge iceberg of evil, a serious drug problem throughout West Texas.
Sadly, this is an issue that many people are not willing to address or feel helpless to take any action to help resolve. However, as responsible citizens and Christians, we are called to be more proactive and to take a community stance based on the Gospel of Christ against this evil that is having a serious detrimental effect on families and especially on our youth in West Texas. When I travel the Diocese to celebrate Confirmation, I always meet with the youth alone before Mass. As I ask them about the prevalence of drugs, usually about 75% say they know other youth who use or push drugs.
The report from the San Angelo drug statistics indicate that for the city of San Angelo from November 2005-November 2006, 58% of narcotics arrests were youth and young people, ages 14-26; 40% are ages 27-50. It is very disturbing that the 14-26 year age group covers a 12-year span—half that of the 27-50 year age group, but represents 50% more arrests than the older group. Information from the city of San Angelo also indicates that during 2005, marijuana and meth accounted for 98% of the drug seizures. During 2006, 80% of the drugs seizures were marijuana and 14% were meth, representing 94% of the drug seizures for the year.
The drug culture has infiltrated practically all cities and towns of our Diocese. Texas Ranger Brooks Long who covers several counties points out that illegal drugs are relatively easy to attain but they are very expensive because of the manufacturing process, so the more common drug that is being produced and offered is methamphetamine, commonly known as meth. The components for creating meth are readily available in most homes. Because of its low manufacturing cost, meth is becoming the preferred drug and is very addictive. Youth are also the preferred target for those who sell meth. As an example, a packet of meth sells for approximately one fourth the cost of a packet of cocaine. The Ranger points out that people using meth experience rapid radical changes in their lifestyles, often leading to hallucinations, belligerence, and violent aggression. Meth can kill in just a few years.
A report from one of our priests from the south side of Odessa points out the following facts from information acquired from the Odessa records department. From 2000 until 2005, there was an increase in the arrests for drug crimes. The police narcotics division points out there is a relation between the economy and drug usage. When the economy is doing well, people are more prone to buy drugs. The most prevalent drugs in the area are: cocaine, both power and crack; heroin and marijuana. Most of this comes from Mexico. Also, LSD seems to be making a comeback. In Midland County, there have been 1,400 arrests for drug violations for 2006. Of those arrests, the greatest offenders at 9% of the total were 19 years of age. About 30% of all arrests were young adults between 18-21 years of age. For those over 25, the number of offenders drops off. In the age range 30 to 45, the number of arrests is still substantial and fairly flat.
As regards the seriousness of the drug problem, one of our Church leaders points out that Coleman County and the city of Coleman have had a drug problem for a long time. He indicates that the manufacturing of meth is easy and extensive, and several labs have been raided in the past few years.
A Church official states that the drug situation in Mitchell County is very bad, centered mostly in and around Colorado City. He points out that meth and crystal are the two types of drugs that are distributed in and around the area. This official goes on to say that the local churches are trying to make people aware of the danger of drug abuse, but points out that sermons do not convince a drug addict to give up the use of drugs. Some time spent in jail or prison can awaken them to the realities. Students in local schools are warned of the consequences of drug abuse and the authorities are on the look out for any presence of drugs in the facility.
Church representatives from the Abilene area point out that crystal meth is more common among the Hispanic community. It is cheap, easy to obtain and purchase from outside sources. They go on to say that marijuana is still the most widely used drug. In 2005 in the city of Abilene, there were over 1,270 investigations associated with potential drug violations.
The reports from Fort Stockton area sadly point out that illegal drugs are rampant in this area. Cocaine is widely used, and most drugs are from Ojinaga Mexico.
Deacon Bob Leibrecht, who heads the criminal justice ministry for the Diocese of San Angelo, points out that in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 54% of the prison population has been charged with drug offenses. Within the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice, 25% of the population is incarcerated for drug/alcohol offenses, and another 50% say they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they committed their crime. While much, if not most, of the drugs come from Mexico, the greater Fort Worth area serves primarily as a drug distribution and shipment point for West Texas. The Houston area is another big distribution hub for our area.
According to the U.S. Department of health and Human Services, approximately 40% of adults will use an illegal drug at some time in their lives. This leads to involvement in crime, high-risk sexual behavior, accidents and injuries. High at-risk groups like teenagers and young adults are more likely than others to have problems. What drives the terrible evil of the drug business is greed and unscrupulous people who play on the dimension of peer pressure among youth, fast money making, addiction, and manipulating of the emotions of youth who are experiencing family problems. Another major factor in the horrible drug culture is the influence of gangs, particularly among youth with family or acceptance issues.
These figures are very disturbing and indicate that we, as a community need to do more to give our youth the tools they need to make responsible decisions to resist using drugs and alcohol. While much is being done in some of our communities to educate our youth about the danger of drug abuse, it is obvious that education alone is not working. Perhaps one of the primary shortcomings in our drug education program is similar to a methodological problem that we have addressed in our catechetical program in the past—namely that the focus on drug education must do more than impart information; it must strive to promote formation—a change in attitude and lifestyle of young people to empower them to make appropriate life choices. I am convinced that a formational approach like we use in our catechetical process holds the key to success in drug education efforts. Catechesis—religious education—needs to connect faith with lived experience.
Our Catholic Faith offers us Guidance and Hope
What can we do to address this critical situation? Already, some steps have been taken. I have personally attended meetings and have asked the Pastors and Pastoral Councils of the parishes of the affected communities to meet with parents, youth, school officials, law enforcement, government, church leaders, businesses, media, and other agencies to focus on how all of us as people of faith praying and working together can combat this evil, and hopefully to make our communities drug free. It was very encouraging to see large numbers of citizens from different communities at recent meetings.
Our Catholic faith and teaching offers us inspiration, guidance and direction to deal with the current drug crisis. To deal with this critical issue the Church can offer support to the family, work towards building community, refer people to agencies that can help and teach parenting skills, communication skills to adults and counseling.
In our Catholic schools, our drug prevention curriculum should include basic messages of our faith about being children of God and respecting life. Along with the curriculum, there must be a strong commitment on the part of pastors, principals, teachers, the entire parish community as well as the students themselves.
Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and have it in the fullest.” We, as Church, are called to directly address the problem of drug abuse in our society for it directly conflicts with the idea of living our life in Christ to the fullest. The Catholic Church is very clear about its position on this matter. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God” [No.2288], and that “the use of drugs inflicts very great damage on human health and life.” [No.2291] The Catechism goes on to state that “The production of and trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices. They constitute direct co-operation in evil, since they encourage people to practices gravely contrary to the moral law.” [No.2291]
The recent United States Catholic Catechism for Adults tells us that the Fifth Commandment is a commandment that promotes a culture of life, and that it forbids other sins that are harmful to our health and total human well-being such as the use of drugs or the abuse of alcohol. The words “Thou shall not kill” ring loud and clear when we see the devastation and death caused by those who prey upon others in the sale of illegal drugs.
The Challenge of Adolescent Catechesis provides us with one of the most important aspects of youth catechesis; and that is to help youth improve their life decision-making skills to empower them to make wise choices when it comes to morals and moral decisions. The document, “Renewing the Vision” tells us that we must foster the total personal growth of each person—physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. It also tells us that effective ministry promotes collaboration with leaders, agencies, and congregations in the wider community to not only share information, but to promote total formation and development. Our Catholic teaching and celebration of our faith in the Eucharist and the Sacraments of Confirmation and Reconciliation offer us the direction and grace to combat this evil of drugs. We need to open the doors to our youth to help us deal with this situation.
The local level is where we must begin to address the drug situation, and I strongly encourage each parish to develop a pastoral plan and practical steps to combat the evil of drugs. This is an issue that needs to receive much more direct attention at a parish level by our pastors and pastoral councils, all pastoral leaders, in our preaching, teaching, and in our prayer and worship.
HOW TO ADDRESS THIS SITUATION?
To address this drug epidemic, the communities involved can have a more productive effect on the lives of our young people as all elements–schools, churches, city and county government, law enforcement, businesses, media, and other agencies—work together to overcome this evil.
To change the pattern of drug use and the influence of drugs in our communities, especially in the lives of our young people, there is a need to look at this situation through the wide-angle lens of community. This is a time to break new ground in our understanding of how communities working together impact positive youth development and help to create a better world. Communities, especially faith communities, do make a difference in the lives of our youth. If our communities unite their energies and resources and renew their commitment to work together, we can overcome the drug epidemic and make the world a better place for our youth to live.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE ENTIRE COMMUNITY
To Combat the Evil of Drugs
Here are some recommendations for community leaders to work and develop together a community effort and plan to eradicate drugs. Many of these recommendations come from the recent meetings that have been held in various communities of the Diocese to address this critical issue.
— PARENTS AND FAMILIES. The place to begin to address the diabolical drug situation is in our families. Parents who are the first teachers and mentors of their children have a serious duty to lead by example—no abuse of drugs in their own lives and moderation in the use of alcohol. Parents play a major role in the development of their children and need to educate themselves about this evil and be directly involved with their children whenever the school or community is trying to educate against all types of abuse. However, to promote positive youth development at the community level, parents need to go beyond the confines of their own homes. Parents need to take responsibility for the welfare for not only their own children, but for all the youth in the community as regards overcoming the drug issue. The recent meetings with representatives of the communities where the drug arrests have occurred strongly indicate that parents have to make some hard decisions. They first must be educated themselves and commit themselves to be directly involved in eradicating drugs. They have to ask questions of their youth. They have to listen, but they also need to be aware of and discover what activities their children are involved in. They have to talk to their children. They truly need to know who their children’s friends are. Most important—parents must make time for their children—quality time. By the time the law enforcement officials become involved, it is too late; a child is already into drugs. Parents need to take a pro-active role and be responsible for the conduct and environment for their children; and this is not a responsibility that they can ignore. It is important that parents volunteer to help not only with activities in which their own children are involved, but also in which children of other families are involved. While families are important to the individuals who live in them, the influence of family care and support does not necessarily carry beyond the family borders. Each individual does better when the community as a whole is working together to become more healthy. Parents need to advocate and support youth-serving organizations and school supported extra-curricular activities with financial help and volunteer hours.
— Families need to link with other families and community leaders. When families link with other families and all areas of leadership of the community to become involved in making it a better place to raise children, we see differences, and are we able to overcome the evil of drugs. To overcome the evil of drugs, it is necessary for families and community leaders to work together to get our children involved in community activities, programs, and plans. It is most important for community leaders to become directly involved in this effort as volunteers, coaches, chaperones, and others in leadership roles bring together our youth for positive action and programs.
YOUTH. The youth themselves have much to offer to help our communities overcome the evil of drugs, and to help other youth who are caught in a dragnet of drugs. The youth need to be involved in this discussion. It is necessary that we invite youth to be in contact with other youth—with their peers, and to offer them new ways of living. Youth should be invited to help identify needs and planning as the community creates opportunities for youth to serve in the community. They need to be seen as positive and contributing members. We need to open the doors for the youth to assume more meaningful roles in decision-making for the schools and to participate in community-coordinating groups and task forces. This draws positive attention to youth as resources, not problems. Our youth can also help by asking adults to become involved in helping to work together to overcome the evil of drugs. Here there is a need for collaboration not confrontation. When a clear majority of the youth experience the involvement of the community, especially our families, churches and schools, and see the strength that the community offers, then there is new hope, and this will impact the overall community health.
— SCHOOLS play a large role in making our communities strong and in working to overcome the drug epidemic affecting so many of our communities in West Texas. When our schools work to develop good programs to help our students to become the best they can be, and to offer the knowledge, information, and specific ways on how to deal with drugs, to this extent, our communities will become healthier and more effective in carrying out the goals to combat the influence of drugs. It is encouraging to know that most of our schools have drug programs like DARE, Red Ribbon Week, Shattered Deams, and random drug testing. But, more is needed. Schools can have a major influence in overcoming the epidemic of drugs, as schools are where the majority of structured activities of youth take place.
—GOVERNMENT LEADERS. To overcome the drug situation, there is a need for government officials at all levels to develop a clear and positive youth development policy that provides a vision of what community organizations and families can do to help youth in their communities, especially to prevent the drug culture from growing. Recent meetings have stressed that county funds for some projects should be retargeted for programs of prevention and for rehabilitation services because most of those who go to rehabilitation cannot afford to go outside of their community for treatment. There is an urgency to create coordinating task forces on youth activities and to use governmental power and influence to convene and empower other groups to become involved in solutions and to encourage direct involvement of youth. Local governments must recognize how to be most effective in empowering communities to function optimally for youth and propose ways to overcome the influence of drugs in the lives of our citizens, especially our youth.
—CHURCHES AND RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS. Church involvement is one of the greatest and healthiest factors in overcoming the drug epidemic. Churches that show concern for their youth and involve them in the life of the church community, give them good religious education and formation and provide programs and activities for service by youth, can inspire and motivate many of our youth not to fall into the drug trap and destroy their lives.
Church leaders need to preach and speak out on the evil of drugs, how they demean the sacredness and dignity of each person made in the image and likeness of God and stress practical reasons why young people should not become involved in drugs. In all of this, we need more prayer for God’s guidance and healing. Our churches need to establish prayer sharing groups based on Scripture involving youth and adults to pray and work together on solutions. Churches can work together with the non-sectarian community organizations in everything from advocacy to sharing facilities, joint programming and community-wide task forces. In dealing with this critical issue, there is a need to sponsor diverse social and religious activities that would reach beyond the ecclesial, ethnic, and social borders.
— LAW ENFORCEMENT is a major factor in counteracting the terrible influence of drugs. Sheriff Shane Fenton says that one of the things that the department tries to do is build relationships with students and the wider community. They do this by visiting schools and by going to the various sports events and other activities that the schools sponsor. They also have the DARE program and they take students on jail tours to open their eyes to the result of what can happen if you use drugs. Another thing they do is to allow students to see how the drug dogs work. All of these activities enable the law enforcement to be exposed and involved with the children as much as possible and to build a rapport with them. The Sheriff points out that one of the most important things that the community can do is to be aware of things that indicate drugs are being used in an area and to give them tips to apprehend drug users and drug pushers. There is a great need to work with other religious and non-religious sectarian community organizations in everything from advocacy to sharing facilities, joint programs, counseling, and community-wide efforts.
—LOCAL BUSINESS can also help very much in overcoming the drug culture. They can give parents and other employees time to attend functions and builds communities’ strength through mentoring, coaching, leadership on committees, and a variety of other activities. Our businesses can help to develop schools/business partnerships and provide funding that begin to make both groups aware of the needs, challenges and resources of the other as we work together to overcome the drug culture. From a recent meeting, it was pointed out that there are three main things that the community needs to implement: (1) kids need to be more active after school; (2) the cities needs to be unified on working on common goals to overcome drugs; (3) the cities need some sort of rehabilitation facilities for those who have used drugs.
PROGRAMS THAT ARE COMBATTING THE DRUG SITUATION
To combat the evil of drugs, it is important that the community work together to establish more programs that can be used in our communities, especially in our schools and in our Church communities to counteract the drug problem. While the schools are using some programs to help educate students, much more needs to be done to prevent the spread of drugs, and to encourage young people with practical and moral reasons not to become involved in drugs.
One program that is being very effective in combating the drug situation is Friends for Hope in Big Lake, Texas. This program was founded by Nina Hallmark. The program is beginning its 8th year. The program was originally developed to work with domestic violence but over the years, Nina has been called on more and more to work with drugs and alcohol abuse. She said that drugs usually start with alcohol. Without exception she said that every domestic violence situation that she has ever seen involves drugs and alcohol. She indicates that you cannot fully address the drug problem for young people without addressing the alcohol problem. Nina has a number of teenagers with her who belongs to a group called STAR which is an acronym for Students Taking Action for Respect. Three years ago through the STAR kids Nina discovered that the number one problem with youth was alcohol and the number two problem was drugs. Regarding the drug problem they discovered that youth preferred coke to marijuana. However, today meth is quickly taking the place of coke. Nina points out that kids who live in domestic violence situations invariably turn to alcohol to escape their problems. She also said that they are very often victims of sexual abuse. Nina states that she works with counseling services and that she has a number of programs and a great deal of information available and will work with other communities as funding allows. Her organization works from donations and she has hopes that she will be able to find leaders in the area’s surrounding towns who could begin and organize and maintain a program similar to what she is doing. She said that it has been her experience that when you support the kids and give them the correct information, that they will normally make the right choice. After Nina spoke at a recent meeting she invited the teenagers who were with her to come up and say a few words to everyone. She said that these teens attend various workshops where they learn information that they can pass on to their peers. They study topics covering drugs, smoking, alcohol, sexual abuse, and rape. These teens then go to various places, schools and other organizations, and give presentations to other students.
Another fine program that is helping students to be informed about the evil of drugs and to overcome drug use is MASH (Movement Against Stupid Habits). This is a student-led organization at Wall High School whose mission is to reduce and eliminate underage drinking, drug abuse, and other risky behaviors among youth. This program works to educate youth in school and in the wider community of the extreme risks and dangers of drug use and consequences resulting from negative habits and poor choices.
Activities of MASH include making speeches and announcements to various church and school-affiliated organizations (such as Parent Open House Night, football games, Knights of Columbus and Catholic Daughters meetings) and inform parents of the laws and consequences of providing alcohol to minors. Those involved in this program also urge parents and community members to be better role models for their children.
Youth involved in this program proudly boast that MASH has become the largest on-campus organization. Students want to be part of this effort, which is very morally uplifting. The students involved in this program develop their own personal self-esteem and level of excellence as they learn how to abstain from making poor choices. A strong dimension of this program is the peer participation. Teenagers who often perhaps will not listen to their parents are listening to other teenagers, hearing about the evils and negative consequences of using drugs.
The Middle School at Wall also has introduced another fine program to combat drugs called H-TEAM. H-TEAM stands for “Hawk Teens Educating on Alcohol Misuse.” Hawk is the school mascot. This is a group of students committed to being alcohol, drug, and risky behavior free. The teens involved want to set a good example for their peers and have fun and enjoy life free of alcohol and drugs. The group’s purpose is to make their school and community a better and safer place to live. The young people do this through educating their peers and the community on the dangers of underage drinking and other risky behaviors.
H-TEAM began with a small grant from Johnson and Johnson which helped send students to Youth Leadership Power Camp sponsored by MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). This camp empowered the 7th graders to become leaders through the wealth of information they learned about the effects of alcohol and the resource connections given to them at the camp. H-TEAM has grown in membership each year, and currently has over l00 students in the middle school as members.
This is a time for all elements of the community, especially the efforts of the Church, to sponsor teams and other activities for youth, and to invest directly in youth service organizations and programs that have proven to be effective in preventing drug use. This is also a time to support academic, sports and work-readiness programs that motivate youth and provide developmental opportunities. This is a time for parents to assume their rightful role as first educators and role models for their children, working together to promote a culture of life and happiness for their children. Most of all, this is the time for prayer to ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to grant us forgiveness, respect for life, wisdom and courage, as we seek to build up new love and appreciation for all and work together to protect our greatest asset—our youth.