By Tova Norman

What if the G-d of my understanding hates me?

That is the question an upcoming event sponsored by SOJOURN and funded by the HAMSA program of Jewish Family & Career Services will explore.

The program, billed as an interfaith discussion on how a crisis of faith can drive LGBTQ people to substance abuse, will take place Thursday, May 19, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Rush Center Annex in Atlanta.

The event will be facilitated by Rebecca Stapel-Wax, the executive director of SOJOURN: Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity; Eric Miller, the program coordinator of Helping Atlantans Manage Substance Abuse; and Rabbi Malka Packer, the director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta. It also will feature LGBTQ people in recovery.

“People are going to share their journeys in relation to recovery and their faith,” Stapel-Wax said.

But it’s a complicated topic for members of the LGBTQ community.

“Unfortunately, religion has been the largest form of oppression to people who are queer,” Stapel-Wax said, explaining that trying to deal with substance abuse through a relationship with a higher power becomes more complicated.
Miller said substance abuse is a huge issue in the LGBTQ community.

According to the Data Spotlight from the Office of Applied Studies at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “The extent of substance abuse disorders among the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) population is not well known, although a variety of research studies suggest that the rates may be 20 to 30 percent — rates which are higher than in the general population.”

For many, the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous have become synonymous with recovery from addiction. But these steps emphasize a higher power. Take the first three:

“1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.

“2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

“3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of G-d as we understood Him.”

Rabbi Packer, who has worked extensively with people in recovery and in the queer community, explained this struggle.

“When people come into recovery from addiction, so many times they have a really challenging relationship with G-d or a higher power,” she said. “Either they think that G-d doesn’t love them, or they don’t feel connected to G-d — especially in the queer community. If you’re from a religion where you’re told it’s not OK to be gay, how do you reconcile with that when you join 12-step recovery?”

That’s the issue this discussion hopes to address.

“What I think we’re trying to do is help reintroduce G-d to the people that come to this conversation,” Miller said.

Rabbi Packer said that this is just beginning of people forming that relationship.

“It’s a place for people to share what their experiences are and what strengths they have from that,” she said. “By sharing, giving strength and hope to folks who are struggling.”

She added that finding a relationship with a higher power is different for each person.

Miller said this is a great safe space to start the conversation.

“If we have conversations like this, we can help start to bridge the difference between the G-d that people are raised with or that they fear or that has rejected them into a G-d that is loving and caring,” Miller said.

“G-d wants me to be happy and connected,” he added.

Stapel-Wax said it is important to open people up to finding their own paths to recovery. “The real goal is that there are different journeys to recovery and during recovery and realizing that one’s higher power really does and can be a motivator as opposed to a barrier.”

Finding that motivation is important to recovery, Miller said. “Recovery is a spiritual process. You have to have a spiritual awaking, a moment of clarity that is going to carry you through when life happens, because life is going to happen.”

The discussion is also about bringing a community of support together.

This event is co-sponsored by other community partners that can provide further services: the Health Initiative, connecting LGBTQ patients with providers, and Positive Impact Health Centers, an organization that, among other things, supports people infected with HIV and provides substance abuse services.

“I think one of our primary purposes is to let the person struggling with alcohol and drug abuse and the family struggling with alcohol and drug abuse know that they don’t have to run away from our community,” he said. “We are here to do this together because you can’t do it alone. No one gets sober alone.”

The discussion is open to everyone interested in this issue — people in recovery or considering recovery and those who work with and support people in recovery.

It can be a great way for those who work with people in recovery to better connect with their LGBTQ clients, Stapel-Wax said.

“If they are straight and allies, it is important in understanding what the life experience of someone who is queer has been,” she said, “in terms of reconciling their gender and sexual identity and their relationship with a higher power.”

Overall, Rabbi Packer said she hopes people will gain strength and a sense of community from the discussion. “One thing that I would like would be for folks to not feel alone, to see that there is community, that there is support, and that if they have any struggles with G-d or a higher power, they can see that they are not the only ones having that experience.”

What: Interfaith discussion on substance abuse in the LGBTQ community

Where: Rush Center Annex, 1530 DeKalb Ave., Atlanta

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, May 19

Admission: Free; www.sojourngsd.org/calendar/hamsa