Photo by Tony Luong

As a second-grader growing up in a Connecticut suburb, Susan Grant Rosen ’64 discovered God the way other children might uncover a family secret: She stumbled upon two books of illustrated Bible stories that had been tucked into a crawl space above her bedroom closet. It was there she first read the creation story told in Genesis, something her non-religious parents hadn’t discussed.

Soon after, Grant Rosen, who is white, accompanied a white friend and her mother as they drove the family’s African American live-in maid home to spend her one day off with her daughter. The injustice of the situation hit Grant Rosen straight on: Why should her friend benefit from the love of two mother figures—her mom and the housekeeper—while this little girl was deprived of her own mother six days a week?

Now that Grant Rosen had found God, she promised God she would grow up to do something about such unfairness. She then planted a garden of marigolds, parsley, and zinnias in her backyard as a reminder to keep that pledge.

Grant Rosen, 75, grew up to take on causes from economic injustice to gay and lesbian rights. Now, as a pastor in the United Church of Christ, she is on a mission to fight the opioid epidemic, a crisis that is both societal and personal.

In 2016, roughly 34,500 Americans died from opioid overdoses, accounting for more than half of the 64,000 drug-abuse fatalities that year. Two of those battling addiction are Grant Rosen’s nieces.

And while the epidemic has burst into the headlines in recent years, its roots stretch back about two decades to when certain pharmaceutical companies began promoting these synthetic pain relievers, and doctors began prescribing them in an effort to treat chronic pain, often under the false belief that these drugs were not addictive.

Though the subject has received increasing attention from both the media and government, in the faith communities in which Grant Rosen works, the problem frequently lurks in the shadows. “I’m trying to change the culture in congregations so they are better able to support people,” she says. She teaches clergy to talk openly about the crisis from the pulpit, organizes spaghetti dinners at which church leaders and lay people can talk frankly about drug-related issues, and instructs pastors and parishioners how to administer Narcan, a drug that, when used in time, can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

“She has this balance between communicating the urgency of the situation and offering a pure sense of love and empathy at the same time,” says Cherry Sullivan, coordinator of Hampshire HOPE, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit working to combat the opioid epidemic. “Sometimes it’s hard to find the calm in the storm. Susan provides that.”

Grant Rosen’s unique mix of faith, feeling, and organizational know-how can seem at once surprising and almost inevitable. The daughter of non-observant Jews she describes as ethical humanists, Grant Rosen grew up sheltered from any direct experience of drug addiction. In 1960, she enrolled at Barnard with a plan to study history and become a professor. Once on campus, Grant Rosen was bothered by the suffering and social issues that lay just beyond the College gates. Soon enough, she would encounter injustice directly. She married a Columbia graduate in her junior year and had a son, but the marriage didn’t last long. Grant Rosen realized she was a lesbian, and after her divorce, she realized something else, too: “I loved being a mom,” she says. “But no city or state in the country, if custody was challenged, would let me keep my child.”

Also, in the process of applying to PhD programs in history, she sensed that as a woman she wouldn’t be fully welcomed. After graduating from Barnard in 1964, she turned instead to a more acceptable career for women at that time—social services—and for the next couple of decades worked in agencies serving low-income people in both Boston and New York, including a drug abuse and prevention program in the Bronx and a nonprofit mental health clinic serving gay men and lesbians, which she directed.

Though she found a calling of sorts in social work, by her thirties she had yet to affiliate with any religion. Judaism might have seemed a natural choice. At Barnard, she was welcomed to Friday-night prayers and candlelighting by students in her dorm; but their talk of attending Jewish summer camps and of other Jewish cultural experiences felt foreign to her. “I wasn’t raised as a Jew,” she explains. Instead, she was drawn to Jesus’s radical commitment to social justice. “I wanted my faith to be something that matched how I felt inside,” she says.

She received her Master’s of Divinity from Boston University School of Theology in 1990 and later that decade studied the history of Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in New York. At age 60, she was ordained as a minister in the United Church of Christ.

Shortly after she moved to western Massachusetts in 2015, and still an organizer at heart, Grant Rosen attended a vigil for people who had died from opioid abuse. Hearing story after story, she couldn’t help but think of her nieces. She had been unable to affect their recovery; still, she could be a positive force for change in the wider community. So she approached the organizers and offered to help reach out to faith communities. Within months she had a job creating events to help address the epidemic pew by pew and town by town.

At one of those workshops, Rev. Mark Koyama heard Grant Rosen’s story. He was struck by the fact that her nieces’ family belonged to a faith community, but no one there spoke up about addiction or offered help. “That radicalized me,” he said. He began preaching about the opioid epidemic from his pulpit at the United Church of Jaffrey, in New Hampshire. “We name it. We take away the shame,” he said. “As a result of Susan’s work, we’re shifting so that brokenness isn’t judged.”

Because of parishioners’ shame, fear, and denial, pastors rarely hear about the problem until a congregant or their loved one has died, Grant Rosen said.

That was the case in one church she worked with, where three members had recently lost loved ones. In another group, Grant Rosen asked the twenty-nine people present if any had firsthand knowledge of someone with an opioid addiction; twenty-eight raised a hand. “This is why I’m doing this,” she says. “It’s here. It’s in our pews.”

So despite being in the midst of moving into a new house and preparing to take a new pulpit at the United Church of Winchester in New Hampshire, one recent autumn day Grant Rosen was busy organizing two separate opioid awareness events that would be attended by clergy from more than a half dozen churches in two states.

It seems that vow she made as a small girl to do her part had no expiration date. “It would be really hard for me to stop working on this,” she said. “There’s just a hell of a lot to do.” •