Left Justified: Why RUM handed out syringes

There was a mini epidemic of HIV, AIDS, and hepatitis C among intravenous (IV) drug users and street sex providers, according to local medical reports. Rockford Urban Ministries stepped forward to umbrella an emergency harm reduction program, now known as Total Health Awareness Team (THAT), into existence. The move had the blessing of then-Mayor Charles Box, the majority of the health and drug rehab community as well as the City Council. This was more than nine years ago.

The program was controversial: hand out clean syringes to “dirty drug users.” Rockford Urban Ministries (for which I work) was involved in the initial planning because of its concern for the addict. Many of RUM’s member churches support Narcotics Anonymous and AA meetings. RUM (as it’s affectionately known) opposed (and still opposes) gambling and other addictions being offered for profit. RUM also moved into the former pornographic bookstore on Seventh Street after helping Zion Development shut it down. The building is in the midst of one of Rockford’s more infamous “red light districts.”

Jesus calls us to help our neighbor in need. Few people wanted to help the “druggies and the prostitutes,” RUM’s new neighbors. But getting IV drug users to sign up for a health program for clean syringes saved lives and stemmed the tide of a mini epidemic. Everyone from the mayor to the health community to the rehab counselors, thought so.

Unfortunately, no one wanted to organize and shepherd this program into existence. First, any medical facility that received federal funding would have been in jeopardy. Second, the program was so controversial that most of the nonprofit organizations thought they would lose public support if they dared usher in a “needle exchange.”

So the Rockford Urban Ministries’ Council, made up of lay members of 20 mainly United Methodist congregations, stood up and volunteered to “umbrella” the organization into existence.

Then-Director David Kellogg began signing up IV drug users who were more than happy to get health information that could save their lives. Now under the tutelage of JBryan Latham, the Total Health Awareness Team (THAT, as it’s become known) has expanded its services and helps many people stay healthy. As an added benefit, they counseled many people into recovery programs.

THAT was at 614 Seventh St., which is now condemned by the city. Rockford Urban Ministries’ building was sold out from underneath us, and we must move as well. The plan was to establish a storefront at another empty building at 201 Seventh St. and sell arts and crafts mission items from around the world. To bring a store to Seventh Street (that’s a gamble) and put it front and center. It would not only support RUM’s program but would also educate people about fair trade for people working in the poorest conditions.

The plan is now sitting on the desk of the Mayor. We pray that he will grant us permission to build two accessible bathrooms and tear down an old mezzanine at 201 Seventh St. and let us move in. There is no legal reason to stop us. There is every moral reason to help us. We pray for a chance to save lives and do business in a just manner. Why not try?

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

From the Nov. 2-8, 2005, issue

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