New Jersey church honors lives lost to drug addiction with posters and Stations of the Cross

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Apr 3, 2023

Posters from the Black Poster Project fill the pews at St. John’s, Boonton, New Jersey, during an April 1 event to remember some of the lives lost to drug overdoses since the project began in 2016. Photo: Sharon Hausman

[Episcopal News Service] St. John’s Episcopal Church in Boonton, New Jersey, on the afternoon of April 1 used its space to highlight the impact of drug overdoses in an event billed as “Addiction and Recovery: A Journey of Remembrance, Awareness and Hope.”

At the center of the event were about 70 posters placed in pews around the church that featured the faces and stories of people who died from overdoses since 2016. Each poster is 20 inches wide by 36 inches tall, and on its black background is a large photo of the person who died, along with the name, the dates of birth and death and a story, message or remembrance about the deceased provided by family.

They all were created by the Black Poster Project, which has memorialized more than 600 deaths since it was started in 2016 by Dee Gillen following the overdose death of her son, Scott . The posters’ purpose, according to the project website, is not to take away the pain of loss but to help loved ones “carry it differently.” The project displays posters at a variety of venues in New York and New Jersey..

A crown of thorns that will be part of the church’s Stations of the Cross on Good Friday was crafted by parishioner Bud Knudsen. The death of Knudsen’s nephew, Scott, prompted the creation of the Black Poster Project. Photo: Sharon Hausman

For St. John’s, the posters and the story behind their origin have a personal connection – a parishioner, Bud Knudsen, is Scott’s uncle and Dee Gillen’s brother. The Rev. Sharon Hausman, the church’s priest-in-residence, said that when she first saw the posters, they reminded her of the AIDS Quilt, as they drew attention to each individual life lost. Seeing those faces helps people “make that personal and emotional connection” to the disease of addiction, Hausman told Episcopal News Service. “The posters help us look into the eyes of individual souls lost to this ongoing health crisis.”

She said that after seeing the posters, she was so touched by their power that she asked if 15 of them could remain at the church for another two weeks. They formed the basis of a modified Stations of the Cross and were placed alongside complementary art pieces created by local artists. One of the pieces is a metal crown of thorns that was created by Knudsen, who is a blacksmith, to accompany the station that marks Jesus’ crucifixion. Hausman said these stations not only provided those attending with a spiritual reflection on deaths from drug overdoses, but they also will be used on Good Friday as part of the parish’s Holy Week observance.

The number of American lives lost to drug overdoses was more than 106,000 in 2021, according to information from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Deaths from synthetic opioids, especially fentanyl, have increased dramatically since 2015. In 2018, the 79th General Convention of The Episcopal Church called on all parishes and diocese to respond to the opioid epidemic with “training, pastoral care, advocacy, and liturgy” and to partner with first responders and others in the medical community to host trainings on how to administer naloxone (the generic form of Narcan, which is an opioid overdose antidote) in the event of an overdose.

Morris County’s Hope One van, which offers critical support for those struggling with addiction, was at the church event on April 1 to provide training in how to administer Narcan, as well as other resources.

Hausman said she hopes the event not only provided those who attended with resources about addiction and recovery but also raised awareness for them about a crisis “many of us might prefer to ignore,” she said, by putting a human face on the problem of addiction and the deaths that can result.

Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and the former director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas.