North St. Louis church aims to create roadmap for addiction treatment after member’s overdose death

Examining the fentanyl crisis in St. Louis through interviews with former addicts, families and those pushing for change.
Published: Aug. 4, 2022 at 9:13 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 25, 2022 at 3:32 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ST. LOUIS (KMOV) - A black polo shirt lays folded on a chair in the front row inside Jubilee Community Church. The chair will never be occupied by anything other than the modest, folded fabric tucked neatly on the seat. It’s a reminder of what the church has lost, and what those who walk through its doors hope never happens again.

The shirt belongs to Ryan Carver, a former church member. Carver would show up to Jubilee as soon as the doors opened to clean the church, dedicated to improving the place that improved him. Then one night before leaving the church, Carver thanked Pastor Bryan Moore for helping him through a battle with drug addiction. He expressed gratitude for all the things the church had done for him. What Moore didn’t realize was that Carver was saying his final goodbye.

Carver went home on May 31, 2020, and died of a drug overdose.

“Ryan died on our watch,” Moore said as he pointed to Ryan’s chair, “and this seat right here is a constant remembrance that we needed more. A constant remembrance of our own ignorance.”

Moore said Carver’s death was a turning point for the church. The community needed fundamental change.

“Addiction is a heavy weight,” Moore said. “It buckles the knees. And what we didn’t understand was when [Carver] was getting weak.”

Carver was one of thousands to die of a drug overdose as the crisis spiraled out of control in the region.

What makes his death different is that it sparked real change.

“This is north St. Louis,” Moore said. “This place has been suffering from a thing called benign neglect…What it simply means is if something goes wrong, I just let it. So we in north St. Louis, that’s what we suffer from. It’s a poster child for benign neglect.”

Moore’s low voice fills the serene, blue-walled sanctuary of the church. He paces as he talks, commanding the room with each syllable. He calls the church a hospital and says the sanctuary acts as the emergency room. Many who walk through its doors are in desperate need of treatment.

The church partnered with the Assisted Recovery Centers of America (ARCA) at the beginning of 2021 to change its approach to addiction. ARCA hosted a pop-up clinic at the church a few days a week before adding a permanent one inside the church in October of 2021.

St. Louis City has the highest drug overdose mortality rate in Missouri.
St. Louis City has the highest drug overdose mortality rate in Missouri.(KMOV staff)

Dr. Percy Menzies founded ARCA in 2001. He believes the church and ARCA’s partnership is essential to reversing the course of overdose deaths.

“There was no hope, especially within the Black community,” Menzies said. “We call it a treatment desert. I said ‘I want to bring an oasis within the desert.’”

Black men died of opioid overdoses in Missouri at a rate triple that of any other demographic in 2020, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

“This addiction seems to be stronger than love,” Moore said, “seems to be stronger than fear, seems to be stronger than anything that I’ve seen.”

Malcolm Johnson, Corey Stevenson and Max Wellworthen are three former addicts from St. Louis involved with ARCA. Johnson and Stevenson are Black, and Wellworthen is white. Johnson was shot several times and started on prescription painkillers in his early 20s. Stevenson and Wellworthen fell into addiction in their mid-teens. Wellworthen grew up in a broken home. Stevenson’s cousins introduced him to hard drugs when he was 15.

The synthetic opioid fentanyl is the main driver in the uptick of overdose deaths in the region. St. Louis City Medical Examiner data shows nearly 1,300 people died of an overdose involving fentanyl within city limits from 2018 through 2021. That makes up 80 percent of the city’s more than 1,600 documented overdose deaths in that time period.

“When you start your addiction, that’s where your age stops,” Wellworthen said. “I started about 14 years old. I have a lot of learning to do and catching up on life.”

He said every day of his life was the same for years. He woke up, figured out how to get high, and that was the routine for years.

Come 11 a.m. Sunday, sounds of praise fill the sanctuary inside Jubilee Community Church. Wellworthen, acting as the doorman, is the first person churchgoers see on a sunny February day when they walk into the church at 4231 North Grand Boulevard.

Jubilee Community Church sits on North Grand in St. Louis City. It provides help to one of the...
Jubilee Community Church sits on North Grand in St. Louis City. It provides help to one of the most fentanyl-impacted areas in the St. Louis region.(KMOV)

Inside, people are dancing and clapping their hands to the rhythm of the music. Shouts of “hallelujah” and “amen” resonate throughout the building during the opening song. The music and shouting are loud enough that one could hear it from the ARCA clinic in the back of the church where Wellworthen gets medicated treatment for his addiction.

“Once you get addicted to a drug,” Wellworthen said, “it is so hard to get out of. You’re not only dealing with the feeling of the drug now. Eventually, you’re gonna have to deal with the sickness.”

Johnson, now in his 50s, also gets treatment from ARCA. His addiction started in the 1990s.

“My addiction basically started from pain pills,” Johnson said. “First time I got shot, I got shot with a .357 Hollow Point. I got shot in the back and it blew my stomach open. The bullet hit my pancreas, my small intestine and I lost a kidney. I had two surgeries and they said I’d be in pain for the rest of my life. I’m taking pain pills prescribed by the doctor. That’s basically how it started, and then once the pill epidemic started, I couldn’t get no more prescriptions so I had to look elsewhere, so I started buying pills off the street.”

Malcolm Johnson shows a bullet wound on his forearm. His injuries from being shot led to a...
Malcolm Johnson shows a bullet wound on his forearm. His injuries from being shot led to a long battle with prescription painkillers, and then fentanyl.(KMOV)

Johnson was selling drugs to make money in the early 1990s after moving from Baltimore to St. Louis. He was against it at first, he said, but that was before he realized how easy it was to make money that way. Then, his profession turned dangerous when a partner got greedy.

“I had to make a run and while I was gone, he tried to steal one of my partner’s cars,” Johnson said. “So basically, it was up to me to handle it but I wasn’t gonna do nothing to him, I was just gonna talk to him.”

Johnson didn’t hurt the man, he said, but told him he could if he wanted to.

“And he really got scared the next day and he shot me,” Johnson said. “And when he pulled up on me, I wasn’t paying him no mind, I was just ignoring him. Even when he pulled out the gun, I had my hand like this and I just looked at him like ‘what you gonna do, shoot me?’ And he shot the s*** outta me.”

The man shot Johnson seven times, and Johnson spent three months in the hospital. He said doctors told him the only reason he survived is because it was at such close range. The hollow point bullets did not have enough time to expand and cause catastrophic damage to Johnson’s organs. He has endured chronic pain since then.

“Some days I can’t even move or get out of bed,” he said. “I just have to lay there till the pain goes away.”

Johnson can’t fully extend his right arm after so many gunshot wounds. He flashes a tattoo on his right forearm that says “Baden,” showing his pride for the North City neighborhood he lives in.

Doctors started to give fewer opioid prescriptions after it became well-known many of them were overprescribing opioids with the assistance and pressure from pharmaceutical companies. Johnson was in pain and couldn’t find a doctor who would give him the medication he needed so he turned to the streets, where dealers sold prescription pills.

Malcolm Johnson shows one of several tattoos he has.
Malcolm Johnson shows one of several tattoos he has. (KMOV)

Stevenson remembered Jubilee Community Church used to be a clothing store in the 80s and 90s. His mom took him there shopping as a kid.

It’s the same building he sits down in decades later to explain how drug addiction overtook his life.

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just watching.”

He wears a bright red flatbill Cardinals hat, a plain white t-shirt and khaki pants. A large cross hangs on the wall behind the couch he sits on in the lobby of the church.

Stevenson looked up to his cousins growing up because he didn’t have any brothers or sisters. They were older than him and he followed in their footsteps. When he was 15, Stevenson said, his cousins gave him heroin.

“Every day from that day, it was constantly just doing it. Because one thing about the drug, when you are doing the drug every day, your body is getting immune so you gotta have it,” he said. “So that fourth day when I didn’t have it, your body kicks in and is starting to get a cold. And that drug is a cure for that cold.”

Stevenson’s addiction got worse as he got older. His friends were in addiction too, and most of them never made it out.

“They’re dead, locked up or out here just hopeless,” Stevenson said.

The hopelessness in North City neighborhoods has been exacerbated by fentanyl. It is often laced into other drugs, is 50 times stronger than heroin and forces users into more severe dependence and withdrawals.

Johnson bought prescription pills from street dealers for years to treat his pain. Around 2014 he and a friend bought a bottle of what they thought were Percocets. They noticed something was off about the pills.

“With real pills, you cannot take a pill and crush it with your finger like that,” Johnson said. “And [my friend] did it, crushed it like that. And he was like ‘we been got.’”

Fentanyl was laced into the Percocet pills. They came in what appeared to be a legitimate bottle with “Percocet” labeled on it. After that, Johnson could no longer trust that fentanyl wasn’t present in the medication he was buying.

Dealers are selling fentanyl everywhere now, Johnson said. He saw just how common it became on street corners before getting sober. He’s been clean for seven months.

“I ain’t never been scared of nothing but this fentanyl stuff, it scared me,” he said.

Wellworthen, now 27, never took fentanyl but is well aware of the damage it has caused. He started selling it to others as a way to provide for his own addiction.

“I used to think ‘oh, I’m not a fentanyl addict. I’m better than that,’” Wellworthen said. “Yet I’m selling it to provide for my other addiction where I get just as sick as they do.”

His life has taken a turn for the better after getting out of addiction. It’ll never be easy, though.

“I’m always gonna be in a battle with addiction,” he said. “It’s just how you handle it. Me helping all these guys out helps me stay sober.”

Max Wellworthen is a former addict who helps with religious and recovery services at Jubilee...
Max Wellworthen is a former addict who helps with religious and recovery services at Jubilee Community Church and the ARCA clinic.(KMOV)

Wellworthen and Stevenson are now managers at sober houses run through ARCA, where they guide others who are trying to get clean. Stevenson said he loves helping those who are in the same position he was once in.

He knows how tough it is to take the first step to seek help. He was homeless, sleeping next to abandoned buildings and wondering how much longer he could sustain his lifestyle when he decided one day to take that step.

“First thing I did, I went to see my mom,” he said. “I left. I had money in my pocket. I took the money out of my pocket, threw it because I knew I was going to get high if I kept it...It was like 46 bucks. I threw the money and I realized I need a few bucks to catch the bus. So I went back, picked a few bucks up off the ground.”

He went to where his mom worked to tell her he was going to get help. She told him she supported him as long as he was serious about getting clean. He left for SLU Hospital but didn’t get there on his own. He was on Chouteau Avenue when his body gave out, sick from not having fentanyl.

“I was so sick to the point that I couldn’t make it to where I was going, so I had to call [my mom] to come and get me cause now my body was used to having drugs in my system,” he said.

Stevenson fought through the withdrawals after getting admitted to the hospital. He knew drugs would temporarily make him feel better, but the pain would start all over shortly after using. He detoxed for 10 days without medication.

“I didn’t do none of the means to cope [with] it,” he said. “Nothing. I went cold turkey.”

Stevenson spent 22 years in addiction. He’s been sober since October of 2020.

Wellworthen had to change almost all his habits to realize he had the potential to make something of himself.

“Until I eventually hit my rock-I don’t even know if you’d call it a rock bottom,” he said. “You just get tired of it. You get tired of doing the same thing over and over and over again. To where it’s either I was gonna die in addiction or am I gonna change it and start living the life that I should be living.”

He got sober through the ARCA program and still gets a monthly shot of Vivitrol, a medication used to block opioid cravings and create a drug-free zone in the brain. He said he’ll continue to take it as long as it’s necessary.

Johnson works doing property maintenance and odd jobs to stay busy after getting sober. It’s starkly different than the hustling he used to do to get by.

“It’s safer,” Johnson said. “Is it better? It’s safer. I ain’t gotta worry about somebody trying to rob me, kill me.”

Menzies, the ARCA founder, and the leaders at Jubilee Community Church have an evident passion for reversing the course of the overdose epidemic in St. Louis. They have Stevenson, Wellworthen and Johnson as examples to show this is a treatable illness and that there is hope.

After Carver’s death, Moore reflected on what he left behind. His family is without him. Church songs ring through the building every Sunday morning without him in the crowd. His presence must instead be felt through a symbolic black polo laid out on an empty chair. His legacy can be found in others who are getting a second chance because of him.

“When the history of this problem is written, this church will be the center of the story,” Menzies said.

Click here for a list of resources about fentanyl and the overdose epidemic, as well as harm reduction, education and getting help for addiction.