“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Those are the words to the Serenity Prayer, which served as the closing words of the fourth annual Tribute to Courage and Recovery memorial service, held Tuesday night at the Jackie Dole Sherrill Community Center on Front Street in downtown Hattiesburg.
It was also, very clearly, the theme of the evening.
In an open letter announcing the event, organizer James Moore said that when the first of these events was held four years ago, he made sure to include both people who had lost loved ones to addiction and “those who were in the process of reclaiming their lives from this disease.”
Moore and his wife, Jan Moore, lost their 24-year-old son Jeffrey to an accidental drug overdose in April 2015. Recently, Jan Moore began working as an addiction counselor, in addition to her work at Hattiesburg’s Trinity Episcopal Church.
During a meal one evening, shortly after Jeffrey’s death, “I commented that had he died from any other disease, there would be ample opportunities each year to remember his life, through events like Relay for Life or any of the other disease awareness walks we do,” James Moore said.
“But because Jeff died an addict, there was no public event where our family could come and honor his life. … Nor was there any public event where we as a community could come together and offer our support for those actively seeking recovery. We decided to create such an event.”
This year, the memorial and support service moved from the Hattiesburg Cultural Center on Main Street to the community center on Front Street “to accommodate the larger crowd,” Moore said. Heritage United Methodist Church provided for the rental of the community center.
It’s a good thing they changed the location: Approximately 200 people showed up for this year’s event.
Dr. David Echevarria, a psychology professor and specialist in neuroscience at the University of Southern Mississippi, spoke briefly about the science of addiction, explaining why people who are addicted to a variety of substances or behaviors sometimes “choose the drugs over their loved ones.”
One part of the solution, Echevarria said, is to “smash the stigma” that people “choose their addiction.”
Addiction, whether it’s to legal or illegal drugs, to alcohol, to food, or to a wide variety of other substances or behaviors, “is a disease that people struggle with, daily,” he added. “If you take one thing away tonight, let it be the realization that addiction is a disease.”
While the overall actuality of this event was somber, it was also hopeful.
Sgt. Chris Bush of the Columbia Police Department was recognized for his use of Narcan to save the life of a resident of his city. In September, Bush was proclaimed “officer of the month” of the Columbia PD for saving a life by administering Narcan.
Narcan is a medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
According to Moore, who introduced Bush, the Seminary Police Department was the first P.D. in Mississippi to begin providing Narcan to its officers, about two years ago. The man who made the decision for his officers in Seminary to carry Narcan, Michael Kelly, is now chief of police in Columbia. Kelly was also recognized in the ceremony.
The annual Tribute to Courage and Recovery “serves a dual purpose,” Moore said, “by including those currently in treatment, to demonstrate our community’s support for them in their journey.”
It’s also important, he said, “for those in recovery to see just how valuable their lives are – and how much they would be missed were they gone.”
This event, or service, or whatever you want to call it, “is to memorialize the courage of those who fought but succumbed [to addiction] while also honoring the recovery of those still fighting the fight,” Moore said.
Dozens of people lit candles in memory of friends or family members who have died due to addiction.
Toward the end, Moore quoted Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy: “It has been said, ‘Time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.”
That’s the first part of the Serenity Prayer, the “accept the things I cannot change” part.
But the “courage to change the things I can” part was embodied in the Tribute to Courage and Recovery memorial service.
Other contributors to the service included: Shelley Vekasy, on solo saxophone as a prelude; bagpiper Matthew Beall; Dr. Wes Johnson, a criminal justice professor at the University of Southern Mississippi; Cheryl Laster of Someone’s Child; Casey Collier of the USM dance department; local musician Phillip Blackwell; the USM Sax Chamber Orchestra, directed by Jeffrey Humphrey; and David Sellers, an associate pastor at Parkway Heights United Methodist Church and leader of weekly meetings at The Open Door Community, Parkway Heights' addiction recovery ministry.
Other groups represented included Clearview Recovery Center in Moselle; Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services; and USM’s Collegiate Recovery Community.