A Fresh Start Makes a Difference

August 28th, 2019

About fifteen years ago, I began my work with the 12-step groups that meet in many churches. I had congregants, even teens, ask me to go to meetings with them and others ask me to read the big blue book in order to better serve my congregation. I was trained in Celebrate Recovery, but recovery as ministry was just starting to be talked about in the United Methodist Conference where I was located. There wasn’t enough energy at the time to get anything significant off the ground. So my resources got put on a back shelf, and I returned to doing the typical work of a pastor in a local congregation.

I knew this was a serious issue, but it did not become personal until my own son went off to college and within two weeks was introduced to heroin. I watched as my brilliant son, a classically-trained pianist with a full-ride scholarship, became a “junkie.” When I picked him up at Thanksgiving break, I could barely recognize him as the confident young man who had entered school in the fall. Weighing next to nothing, shaking and sweating, with wild eyes and messy hair, all that was left was a shell of my once vibrant child. This began a war that my son, and our whole family, fight daily. Sometimes we feel that a truce has been reached; we settle into a temporary normal before the world turns upside down again with yet another relapse. One of the most frustrating realities of addiction is that relapse is part of the reality. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disorder.

My own family’s struggle to deal with the fallout of addiction gave me a passion to help others who were battling this disease. We could afford therapy and rehab, but so many others did not have access to the same level of support that my son did. I wondered why the church didn’t do more. I wondered why there was still so much stigma and shame attached to the disease of addiction. Why did alcoholics in recovery have to meet in a back room, afraid to be noticed by someone?     

A few years later, I walked into a gray cement “recreation room” in a rural county jail for the first time. I had learned that the jails in my area were bursting at the seams and 90% of the people in jail were there for reasons related to alcohol and drug use. When it was my turn to speak, the first thought that went through my head wasn’t "What will I say?" but "Why are they sitting on the cold cement floor and the church ladies are sitting on chairs?" So, church clothes and all, I sat on the floor and shared in their discomfort. I began to talk about hope and Jesus and a fresh start. In that moment, all I could hope to do was bring some love and light to that cold gray room.

Over the next year I worked with a group of about forty women (who had about a hundred children between them), and it dawned on me that this was a whole church full of people. I was privileged to work with a wonderful ministry partner who taught me a great deal about addiction, incarceration, and various therapeutic options. We saw many come to Christ and be baptized. We created our own worshipping community called “Hope Chapel.”

"Out of the Depths: Your Companion Through Addiction." Order here: http://bit.ly/33e0DMm

During these years, I was completing my Seminary education and I decided to approach all of my work through the lenses of addiction, incarceration and recovery (healing). I just knew that something could be done about this problem. I knew that all things are possible with God. And I knew that I was called to spend my life noticing and ministering to the forgotten people in my community, especially addicts and alcoholics. I had the passion, curiosity, and pure drive to find solutions to the challenges faced by people in active addiction. Endless obstacles await someone who is trying to change their life and take hold of recovery — financial obstacles, legal obstacles, relational obstacles — so many challenges that most of the world doesn’t even know exist. 

My most vivid memory of that season is of a young woman in her twenties who so desperately wanted to turn her life around. She studied, she worked hard, and we really believed the best for her. She had a light about her and a deep yearning in her eyes. She had hope!

When she got out of jail, she went to a local church I had recommended to get some food. Once there, she was invited to church and given some “proper clothes” to wear. I remember the tears in her eyes when she talked about the “proper clothes." What the person who gave her those clothes didn’t understand was that on that day she was dressed up. She had on a pair of plaid shorts that came to her knees, a polo shirt, and boat shoes — these were the nicest clothes she had ever owned. She was proud of how she looked; she thought she looked good enough to go to church. With tears in her eyes she said she would “never be good enough” to go to that church. In that moment I knew that somebody needed to create a church for people like this woman, a church where she would know that she belongs. 

Unfortunately, it did not happen fast enough. Two weeks from that day, this woman took her own life and left behind her two young children. I still cry when I think about her. If what we have now had existed back then, I believe she would still be here and would be a wonderful leader in our community.

Every day there are broken people who are just praying for someone to show them a way out of their circumstances. The trouble is that most people want to clean them up before they form a relationship with them and that is not how it works. It takes courage to welcome someone just as they are.

FreshSTART was born to create this space of radical welcome for all people, a space where those who have been forgotten can meet Jesus and learn how to put their lives back together, a space where they can find hope and community and practical solutions to life’s real problems. FreshSTART is a place for broken people to find healing and restoration.

Our People

Sometimes we will be in a relationship with a family for years and we are still helping them get groceries and do laundry. Frankly, you get used to the smell and eventually you stop worrying if you will have bedbugs in your car or home. You hug people even if you know they are HIV positive or have hepatitis. This is a risky ministry, but we embrace the risk for the cause: These precious messy people are PEOPLE. Many are living in situations and “homes” that most of the people reading this can’t imagine. Many of the people reading this might be surprised that even people who work full time jobs still live in these conditions because of the fallout of addiction and poverty. 

When people show up in our space, we promise them that they are welcome and safe. We also show them they are loved and that we hear them, no matter who they are or where they are from.  Who are our broken people? Most of them have suffered with addiction to drugs and alcohol, PTSD, and the fallout of serious trauma (often beginning in early childhood). They have often been victims of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Many are veterans who can’t forget what they’ve seen or done. Sometimes they are people who were sold into bondage (sex trafficking) at an early age. Some are people who have struggled for a lifetime with severe poverty, homelessness, and mental illness. Our people are black, white, and all shades in between, LGBTQ+, men, women, and children. The thing we all have in common is that we need God and we need each other, and we say that out loud. 

Our Theology of Care

We know that FreshSTART is often the only place where some of our ‘Forever Family’ can feel loved, welcomed and respected. So many of our people have been made to feel less than and even worse, have been bullied, mistreated, condemned, even beaten, simply for being who they are. Our theology of care for very broken people living in tragic circumstances includes more than a handshake and a Bible lesson. We offer one-on-one care, counseling, prayer, guidance, and peer support. Care also means that we provide meals (lots of them), food to take home, toiletries (toilet paper, deodorant, shampoo), a place to charge a phone or do laundry, transportation, help finding a job or housing, furniture, baby items, and gas cards. Care means that we are advocates who help navigate complex systems and who fight for justice. We create safe spaces to talk about the horrors of war, the trauma of childhood abuse, the pain of living in active addiction, the fallout of incarceration and criminal records, the brokenness of relationships, and the stigma of mental illness. 

FreshSTART believes that all ministry should be with, not for or to. Our leadership team offers great diversity with all kinds of backgrounds and experiences, so that when someone new comes through our doors we can help them find a leader they will have something in common with. We find the people who are passionate about helping others, growing in their faith in Jesus Christ, and ready to do the relentless, 24/7 ministry of being powerfully present in the lives of forgotten people. We work hard to find people who embrace our core values of diversity, equality, and community. FreshSTART is a judgment-free zone with no labels (other than the label/s people choose for themselves). People are just people here. No matter what our disease or our struggle, we are God’s dearly loved and precious children; we remind each other of this.

As I write this, my newest passion is a focus on drug-endangered children. In our community alone, there are hundreds of children living with a parent in active addiction. These children are vulnerable and in need of programs that will give them some hope of a way out, safe spaces, and self-esteem.  Every week we pick up children whose parent(s) is/are still in active addiction. We make sure the kids have as much healthy and loving care as we can: Christmas presents, birthday parties, summer camp, school clothes and supplies, a person to talk to, food and shampoo… When parents are incarcerated, we do everything we can to care for their children as if they were our own — because they are. We all belong to each other.   

What does it mean to be the church — to see Jesus in the face of those who are addicted, hopeless, and forgotten? The opiod crisis is a reality that the church has yet to truly face. Most of us know someone who has lost their life to the disease of addiction, and yet very few churches have deeply embraced ministry with addicts, alcoholics, and people in recovery, other than allowing a support group to use space. What if the new frontier in evangelism is Recovery Ministry? What if a fresh start could do more than save a life? It is my firm conviction that recovery ministries have massive Kingdom-building potential for the church now and in the future. I remind myself every day that a fresh start can make all the difference.

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