A police officer tries to revive a man who overdosed on heroin on July 21, 2017, in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, which has become a hub for heroin addicts. The man later came to and was taken to the hospital. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

President Trump took an important step Thursday when he directed the Department of Health and Human Services to declare the opioid crisis in the United States a “public health emergency.”

Opioid substances, including commonly prescribed prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and synthetic substances such as fentanyl, claimed 59,000 lives in 2016.

Just a few weeks ago, I met some of the people most directly affected by this public health crisis. As I interacted with pastors and church elders in Texas for a rural conference, one of the themes that emerged was the severity of the opioid crisis for many rural communities.

It’s a difficult question to ask: How do we handle this crisis? Will we respond with urgency and love? How do we avoid looking the other way, believing it doesn’t affect us directly or convincing ourselves that it’s someone else’s problem?

Truthfully, what people today need most is heartfelt compassion instead of detached appeals for more punishment and police force action.

As I heard pastors speak and learned of the suffering in their communities, I wondered, How could Christians and other communities known for their compassion not see the pain and devastation caused by this crisis?

Then it hit me. Because they are not us.

Then it hit me on a deeper level. I needed to repent.

A lesson from the past

In the late 1980s, America went through an eerily similar period of drug addiction. In what was and is still referred to by many as the “crack epidemic,” our country witnessed a nearly unprecedented rise in drug addiction, violence and desperation.

As crack addiction ravaged many cities and neighborhoods, the overwhelming response from Americans was fear. The opening paragraph of Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine’s “Crack in America” paints the picture of life during this period:

In the spring of 1986, American politicians and news media began an extraordinary anti-drug frenzy that ran until 1992. Newspapers, magazines and television networks regularly carried lurid stories about a new “epidemic” or “plague” of drug use, especially of crack cocaine. They said this “epidemic” was spreading rapidly from cities to the suburbs and was destroying American society. … It is certainly true that the United States has real health and social problems that result from illegal and legal drug use. But it is certainly also true that the period from 1986 through 1992 was characterized by anti-drug extremism.

Notice two things in this description.

First, crack cocaine was perceived as a threat to American society. Second, the period was characterized by “anti-drug extremism.” Americans were consumed with disgust and fear of the drug rather than concern for the people who had become ensnared by it. Terrified by the drug’s potential destruction, Americans were bent on stomping it out; unfortunately, this morphed into stomping out those gripped by addiction or those who made their livelihoods selling drugs.

Instead of getting rid of a drug, we tried to get rid of people.

In our rush to protect our communities, our families and our values, we sought to put distance between “us” and “them.” We made groups, constructed labels, and tried to do everything we could to separate what we perceived as the “clean” from the “unclean” — in many cases, the white from the black.

The result was predictable and, as history has shown, tragic. The War on Drugs led to legislation such as the Controlled Substances Act, which established mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses. This was one of the more disastrous policies in American judicial history.

‘Lock them up’

At the height of the crack epidemic, evangelicals — myself included — were all too willing to join the chorus of voices calling for harsher criminal sentencing on drugs and shouting down those who pleaded for treatment and rehabilitation.

As I look back at my own commitment to harsher sentencing legislation, I can only confess that I was complicit in doing the wrong thing.

In the late 1980s, I lived in Buffalo in a neighborhood hit hard by crack addiction. On two separate occasions I came face to face with (what I then called) an addict during a home invasion. As a pastor of a multicultural church, I shepherded both white and black people who were addicted to crack.

I could care for them as their pastor, but when it came to public policy, my response was “lock them up,” instead of the more compassionate — and let’s face it, difficult — response of “let’s get them treatment.”

Please don’t misunderstand. The community I lived in was wrecked by this epidemic. Without a doubt, I wanted a better life and future for the people I loved in our little multicultural church at 25 Hawley Street on Buffalo’s west side.

So what I am struck by now is how my perspective has changed. Sure, I’m a few decades older and have learned some things, but it’s worth noting what crack meant to us. It meant black street crime.

Today, what the opioid epidemic means for many of us: Whites need treatment.

Yet, today there is the same amount of crime and addiction as there were three decades ago. So the primary difference between my reaction in the 1980s and now (and I would go further and say the primary difference in the reactions among a majority of Americans) has to be the difference of the color of the people involved.

I wish I could say I took the high road. But I was just as complicit as any other.

The crisis in the 1980s was the same as one today that screams one message: People who are addicted to drugs need help. That help must come from a solution-driven government, and it must come from compassion-driven churches and other faith communities.

Compassion for all

Repentance involves a change of mind and posture. I’ve changed mine. And let me say that I’m glad the nation is responding with compassion and treatment to the addicted today. I just wish we had also done so when it was happening to what many called “blacks in the cities” and not just whites in the country.

I can’t change the past, but I can repent for it and try to work toward change. That’s part of why the Billy Graham Center’s Institute for Prison Ministry just hosted a summit on mass incarceration.

Addiction is a health crisis because it affects people of all backgrounds. We can treat it as such.

But we can also take a moment and ask, “Why is it easier to see that now, compared with just a few years ago?”

Maybe you will be moved to repent along with me.

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair at Wheaton College and is the executive director of the Billy Graham Center there.