By Dave Ongie
Back in the summer of 2016, Thomas Cook felt called to gather 1,000 area churches together on the campus of ETSU.
So he teamed up with other young adults – some of them still students at ETSU, others recently graduated from the institution – and started planning a massive event to be held on campus. Cook, a recent graduate, initially envisioned a one-off event that would bring different religious denominations together in order to worship.
Cook knew he wanted to have a service element to the event, and he began looking at a handful of non-profit organizations to partner with. As he struggled to narrow down the options of where to put the resources generated by the event, he got a piece of advice that changed the course of his mission.
“I was looking at like 10 different non-profits to partner with to help them out around the area, and then somebody said ‘Find the biggest issue in Johnson City,’ ” Cook recalled. “I was like, what kind of an issue would Johnson City have?”
The answer to that question was the opioid epidemic, which has rapidly become a public health crisis not only in the Tri-Cities, but in the rest of the country as well. When Cook delved into the statistics, he quickly saw a problem that will require all hands on deck if it is to be solved. In Tennessee, there are more opioid prescriptions than there are people, and the state now ranks second in the nation for prescription use.
And just like that, the event that became known as Adoration had found the service element Cook had been searching for.
“The death rate from overdoses is like 9/11 happening every three weeks,” Cook said. “It’s really startling how it’s really gripping the country right now.”
Starting this past April, Cook and his team made the opioid crisis a centerpiece of Adoration. As government officials, law enforcement and the medical community mobilize in an effort to combat the problem, Cook believes churches are also called to lend a helping hand.
“We’ve got a problem, and we’ve got to do something about it,” he said.
On Oct. 1, the first Adoration event was held inside the MiniDome on the campus of ETSU. There were over 2,000 people in attendance representing 260 churches from around our area. In addition to worshiping together, those in attendance listened as speakers described the toll opioids are taking on people in our area and around the country.
Dr. Stephen Loyd, the Director of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, told the crowd of his personal battle with opioid addiction, as did Dr. Monty Burks, Director of Faith Based Initiatives for the agency. Dr. Andi Clements, a psychology professor at ETSU, spoke about babies born dependent on prescription drugs.
What was supposed to be a one-time event is now moving forward with a task that is simple, but hardly easy.
“We’re just trying to mobilize churches to work together and restore our area from prescription drug abuse,” Cook said.
Cook and his team has created an initiative called Restore Appalachia that is taking dead aim at the opioid epidemic. A grassroots group of young adults is busy planning for next year, armed with plenty of knowledge gained through trial and error while putting together the inaugural Adoration event.
“We’ve learned a lot to say the least,” Cook said. “But we’ve got a lot of people who support us now. Now we’ve got a lot of credible pastors, community leaders – the President of ETSU supporting us.
“Every year our goal is going to be 1,000 churches until we get it. The day we do, whether it’s next year or the year after, that’s going to be special.”