Pubdate: Mon, 30 Jul 2001
Source: Detroit Free Press (MI)
Copyright: 2001 Detroit Free Press
Author: Jeffrey May
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


He Wants Heroin Addicts To Lower Risk Of AIDS 

It's not church -- far from it. But as the Rev. Richard Harris waits on
a van in southwest Detroit for drug addicts who come seeking new, clean
needles, he feels like he's doing God's work.

Harris has seen heroin addicts with flesh-exposing abscesses the size of

He has counseled recovering heroin abusers who contracted the AIDS virus
from using a contaminated syringe.

And he has watched his brother die a lingering death from longtime
heroin use.

So the 58-year-old Ecorse Baptist minister has done something rare for a
member of the clergy and started needle exchanges in metro Detroit.

Harris is the president and founder of the Resurrection of a Child's
Mind, a nonprofit child development program in Ecorse that targets
children ages 6 to 16. Lately, Harris has been getting a lot of
attention -- not all of it positive -- for his fight against AIDS and
HIV. The Ecorse City Council on Tuesday granted Harris a license to
start a needle exchange program there.

In addition to trading dirty needles for clean ones, the programs offer
food, water, soap, sanitary products, referrals to rehabilitation
centers, condoms and other safe sex information. They also treat

The goal behind needle exchanges is to lower the percentages of heroin
addicts with AIDS or HIV by encouraging the use of clean needles.

Harris said the religious community's discomfort in working with gay and
lesbian people has prevented it from bringing help and information to
the people whose actions must be changed to contain the spread of HIV
and AIDS.

"This killer can be contained, but we don't want to deal with the
lesbian and the gays," Harris said. "You can't just sweep it under the
rug, you got to deal with it!"

Harris' ideas aren't an easy sell in the religious community -- even for
a man born and raised in it.

His father, Price Harris, has been the pastor of Morelight Missionary
Baptist Church in Ecorse for 52 years. His older brothers are associate
ministers at Morelight, and he is a street minister affiliated with the
church. He said his brothers don't fully support his efforts. But Harris
is known for doing his own thing.

"I've always done things differently," Harris said. "I know God is with
me and what He told me to do for his people."

Harris said he feels that it's his job to help people. He also said he
believes that if he can meet the present needs of addicts, whether it is
with food or a syringe, he can gain their trust, thus opening the door
for future reference to rehabilitation.

But others, including the Rev. Anthony V. Price, say that it's wrong to
assist in a drug habit, no matter the higher goal. Price is the pastor
of New Greater Bethlehem Temple Community Apostolic Church in Ecorse.

"The church is a hospital where we can help people of all walks of life
...But I don't want to be an accomplice to wrong," Price said.

"Instead of introducing them to needles, he should introduce them to the
needle: The Lord Jesus Christ."

Harris's supporters think he is an example to other clergymen.

"I have no problem with the program. It will do more good than harm,"
said Brian Johnson, 42, of Detroit, who said Harris helped him overcome
his alcohol problems. "A minister should get involved more than anybody
else in the community."

Sylvia Potomski, director of nursing at the Salvation Army Harbor Light
Rehabilitation Center, called Harris a wise man.

"He's not supporting the use of drugs. He's just trying to stop the
spread of HIV," she said. "Any chance of reduction is good."

Harris said he believes that in order to gain the support of addicts, he
must go to the streets. While awaiting permission from Ecorse to begin
his program, he rode along with a needle exchange run by Latino Family
Services, a Southwest Detroit group that offers one of two needle
exchanges in Detroit.

On a recent visit Mary, 37, boarded the van for the first time to pick
up needles, sanitary items, and bandages for an abscess on her wrist.
The Detroit woman, who declined to give her last name, rubbed her hands
and arms repeatedly while glancing nervously around her.

Mary said she had a college education and three children, and that she
used to look down on addicts. But for the past three months, she has
been one herself. She said she admired the minister for leaving the
safety of the pulpit.

"I think it's great. You think if a person is not judging you, they're
going to help you," she said.

That's exactly how Harris hopes his customers will react.

"If people need help, I'll help them," he said. "That's how I get my
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