HAZARD — A group of officers who enforce man's law called on a higher power Monday might to help with Eastern Kentucky's devastating drug problem.
Several Christian police officers led a prayer meeting in Hazard, seeking God's help and urging Christians in the crowd to witness to their neighbors and co-workers in an effort to turn the tide of drug abuse one soul at a time.
"I pray that the healing starts tonight," Joe Engle, deputy police chief in Hazard, said during a sermon punctuated by "amens" from the crowd.
Chris Fugate, a narcotics officer with the Kentucky State Police who helped arrange the service, said the event should not be seen as any criticism of the work he and other police do to arrest drug dealers. He said he is proud of that work and believes it has made a difference.
Rather, the event was an acknowledgment that the problem is bigger than police, prosecutors, courts, jails and treatment centers can handle, Fugate said.
"There's not a family that's not been affected by dope," Fugate said. "We can't arrest enough people" to end the problem.
While there is a role for police and courts in dealing with the issue, the officers who organized the prayer service believe the ultimate answer is a power greater than them.
"God is the one who can change our communities," Fugate said.
The prayer service, attended by about 200 people at The Hal Rogers Center in Hazard, grew from weekly prayer meetings that Fugate, Engle and James East, a major with the Hazard Police Department, began having several months ago.
The appeal for divine help against the region's crippling substance-abuse problem is an example of increasing efforts the last few years by churches and people of faith to deal with the issue.
Few churches offered recovery programs when abuse of prescription drugs began spiking a decade ago.
"We weren't involved with it at all," said Doug Abner, pastor of Community Church in Manchester. "We didn't know what to do."
That has changed significantly. As prescription-drug abuse and overdose deaths climbed toward crisis levels, churches and their members responded by setting up recovery programs, donating for faith-based recovery centers, taking part in anti-drug marches and rallies, and even getting involved in monitoring cases in the court system.
A 2004 march in Manchester was an early example.
On a rainy Sunday, more than 3,000 people from dozens of local churches marched to a city park for a prayer service that helped galvanize people to get involved.
Abner and others from Clay County have since given presentations around the country, and to groups from outside the country, on how people of faith can help tackle drug abuse and community problems.
Paul Hayes, a manager with Operation UNITE, said most of the people involved in anti-drug community coalitions with the task force are church people.
David Mathews, director of adult services for Kentucky River Community Care, which provides substance-abuse treatment and other services in eight Eastern Kentucky counties, said that while many people need treatment at licensed facilities, there is a role for spirituality in fighting drugs.
Several factors, including biological predisposition, play a role in addiction.
Another factor is spiritual emptiness. Filling that hole can help keep someone away from addiction, Mathews said, by relieving anxiety and giving people a different focus.
"Whenever you have folks who don't expose themselves to alcohol and drugs, they're less likely to become addicted," even if they have a predisposition to do so, Mathews said.
Engle, the assistant police chief in Hazard, said the officers who arranged Monday's service hope it will motivate other police, churches and Christians to join the effort.
"We hope this is just the beginning," Engle said.