At first, it was a vague idea stemming from Ed Treat's own life. In adolescence and early adulthood, Treat had been a drug and alcohol addict, but in his darkest times, he never felt welcomed by the church. After going into recovery, he became a Lutheran pastor, and he still noticed how reticent churches were to delve into addiction.
In 2016, he went to a meeting with power players in the Minnesota recovery community: government officials, law enforcement, thought leaders in addiction and drug policy. Sen. Amy Klobuchar spoke of the opioid epidemic worsening. That year, more than 42,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses. It struck Treat how few faith leaders were there.
"How can a faith leader be effective and not understand how addiction works?" Treat wondered. "Overeating, consumer culture, drinking, everything. We send seminarians out into the world, and seminaries just don't teach it."
So Treat organized a conference in Bloomington in 2018 to educate clergy on addiction. He had no idea if anyone would come. When the hotel told him he needed to cut off registration at 200, he knew his vague idea had legs. Clergy arrived from 17 denominations and 35 states.
"The church," the 62-year-old Minnetrista man said, "is finally ready to talk about this."
Addiction has been around as long as humanity. For nearly as long, humanity has avoided talking about it. Only recently, Treat says, has that changed — and mainline Christian denominations have lagged behind. Until now.
It's not just Christian churches. Treat sees this shift across faith communities. As America's opioid crisis deepens — and the COVID-19 pandemic has led to dramatic increases in substance abuse — faith communities are bringing talk about addiction from the basement to the sanctuary.
Farhia Budul of Minneapolis founded the Niyyah Recovery Initiative, the nation's first recovery community organization focused on the East African and Muslim population. Rabbi Mark Borovitz of Los Angeles has turned his own story of addiction and recovery into Beit T'Shuvah (House of Return), a longstanding Jewish recovery center that inspired New York City's newer T'Shuvah Center.
The philosophy of recovery parallels religious redemption, that "broken people are not bad people," Treat says.
A year ago, Treat quit his job as a senior pastor at Transfiguration Lutheran Church in Bloomington, and his new ministry — the Center of Addiction and Faith — became his full-time calling. His timing is apt. In 2020, some 56,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses, according to the CDC. In 2021, that number skyrocketed to almost 76,000.
"We typically begin worship with this confession: 'We confess we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves,'" Treat said. "To me, that's a confession of addiction: 'God, I confess I hurt myself and other people, and I need your help.' That's the first step of the 12-step program."
Treat grew up north of Seattle in an unstable family and started using drugs regularly around 13. After high school, he drifted, waiting tables in Maui, Scottsdale and San Diego. Opioids were his favorite; they brought him an unparalleled feeling of well-being — until they took over his body's ability to feel good. "I basically lived the life of the prodigal son, partying my life away," he said. "It's all kind of a blur."
At 27, having traded his car for a bag of pot, and fired from his job, he took a bottle of Percoset to a ski resort near Lake Tahoe and gobbled them up. Then Treat and a friend freebased $700 worth of cocaine. In the depressing aftermath of the bender, he knew he had hit bottom. He had to start life over. His family found him a bed in a treatment center.
At first, he was resistant. Addiction wasn't the root of his problem; family was. His father was a broken man who took out his anger on his eight children, whipping Treat bloody as young as age 4. In addition, his sister died in a snowtubing accident at 12. The family never talked about it. They buried it deep.
But he stayed in treatment, figuring he had to get sober before working on those root problems. He read "The Big Book" from Alcoholics Anonymous. He watched recovery videos by the Rev. Joseph Martin, a renowned Catholic priest.
"This was my beginning of learning to live life," Treat said. "Most people use not because they are bad people but because they are medicating emotional pain. Now I'm 35 years in recovery, but I'm still resolving the unresolved pain of childhood trauma."
Early in recovery, Treat went to church. He had to get right with God. Over and over, he'd walk away disappointed, thinking those people didn't get it for him.
So he sought God in the wilderness. He and a friend boarded a boat on Lake Chelan in the North Cascades in Washington state. That boat was — coincidentally, fatefully — filled with Lutherans heading to a 12-step workshop at Holden Village retreat center, a boatload of Christians in recovery. Treat joined them. "It was like coming home, a church talking about recovery, talking about me," he said. "Two worlds I longed for."
He enrolled in Luther Seminary in St. Paul. When Treat was given his first church assignment, in Minden, Neb., he knew he had to be honest. He told a dozen church leaders about his struggles with drugs and alcohol. He worried this could torpedo his candidacy, but he had to be himself.
"One by one, each person began to divulge a struggle they had in life," Treat said. "The interview turned into a little 12-step meeting. That's the gift broken people like myself have to give to the church. When we're authentic, other people are starving for that."
He got the job.
Addiction and grace
Decades later, Treat was pastoring a church he loved in Bloomington when he felt called to do more in the addiction arena. He founded the Minnesota-based Center of Addiction and Faith out of his home. Soon it became a full-time job, with a mission to morph churches' involvement in the recovery community beyond just renting basement rooms for AA meetings.
"There's something going on in the basement that the sanctuary could benefit from," said Stephanie Shareck Werner of Ashland, Va., the organization's board chair. "That's what Ed's doing. Ed is somebody with a lot of ideas inside of his head; he needed some help creating order out of chaos, and that's what I do. We both speak the language of recovery, and we both speak the language of Christ."
One thing that points Treat's organization toward success, colleagues say, is his ability to get a project started, then encourage others to join and bring their own ideas.
"Ed's going to succeed because he's humble — theologically and practically," Werner said. "What makes Ed special is that he knows what it's like to be in pain and to lean on all that's good about faith to come back from the depths, and he wants to support others in doing the same."
Werner, who is Episcopalian and in recovery, met Treat during one of his webinars, which regularly attract hundreds of people. She was stunned: All these people speaking the same language of Christianity and recovery.
As the COVID era has helped the growth of the webinars, so, too, has the rest of Treat's work expanded.
He has started a podcast, "My Story of Addiction and Grace," where he interviews clergy in recovery. He's also working on a national registry of churches sensitive to addiction issues, such as worship services focused on addiction, a welcome statement addressing addiction, and putting clergy and laypeople through addiction awareness training.
But Treat's program is, like Alcoholics Anonymous, a program of attraction, not promotion. He's not offering a pathway. He doesn't want to push recovery on anyone. He doesn't want to push Jesus on anyone. He just wants addiction to be a bigger part of the faith discussion.
"We may not worship at the same altar, but we all go through addiction and the addiction downfall in similar ways," Werner said. "The surrender is the same, and the recovery is similar. In recovery, we benefit by knowing there is a god out there, and we're not it."
For Treat, this work has become his own salvation.
"There's this primitive brain that's self-centered and egotistic, and this higher brain calling us to higher ideals," he said. "The reptilian brain — it's the serpent that wants Adam and Eve to pursue their own interests. We all live in the tension between those two worlds. This is the thing that makes sense out of my life: 'God, this is what you've been up to all this time, preparing me for this work.'"
Free healing event
What: A free event offering support and resources to faith communities wanting to offer hope and healing to those affected by addiction. The event will also be live-streamed.
When: 9:30 a.m., Jan. 22
Where: Shepherd of the Lake Lutheran Church, 3611 North Berens Road NW., Prior Lake
Speakers: The Rev. Ed Treat will be joined by Timothy McMahan King, author of "Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us," Vicki Elliott, executive director of Mental Health Connect, and Drew Brooks, director of Faith Partners.
To register: For in-person or virtual attendance, go to sollc.org/events.