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Stepping into stability

NEXT STEP MINISTRIES: Southwest Hope Awards winner uses discipleship to help men coming out of rehab or prison transition back into society


Todd Louden (center) listens to members of the Next Step program share at a Bible Study. Nick Layman/Genesis

Stepping into stability

THE SANDIA MOUNTAINS rise to the north of Albuquerque, N.M., a dark shade of blue against the sunset sky. Sitting in the Chihuahuan Desert, the city is flanked by the Manzano Mountains to the east, with lava cliffs lying to the south and west. After Spanish colonists settled the area in 1706, the territory’s governor named La Villa de Alburquerque after a Spanish duke of the same name. Older neighborhoods in Albuquerque still mimic the Spanish-style adobe.

In 2021, Albuquerque broke a grim record—the city’s homicides jumped to 116, representing more than half of New Mexico’s annual homicide count. Seizures of the powerful drug fentanyl have climbed along with crime rates. An estimated 5,000 to 8,000 of the city’s 550,000 residents are homeless.

Doug Chandler, 70, served for several years in a Christian life transformation program for the homeless in Albuquerque. About 3 out of 4 homeless people typically struggle with addiction, mental illness, or physical disabilities. Chandler found that clients flourished in a controlled environment. But he saw about half of the graduates returning to old patterns shortly after leaving the program. That’s typical: Research suggests some 85 percent of men and women who receive treatment for addiction relapse within a year. For so long, every minute of their day has been scheduled for them, and they often aren’t equipped to transition from rehab or prison back into a world of freedom and decision-­making without supervision.

“It was really depressing. You’d celebrate this completion of this program and what appeared to be a life change. And then they would fail,” says Chandler.

He realized that most of these men—some who were former prison inmates—had trouble finding housing and employment and weren’t plugged into a local church. They didn’t have healthy relationships or an ongoing relationship with God. The discipleship had ended.

The missing piece? Chandler came to believe he needed to start a program that equipped men for success as they transitioned back into society. So he and his wife purchased a small apartment complex and founded Next Step Ministries. The mission is simple: employment, housing, and discipleship. The program offers a taste of freedom to men coming out of prison or a structured rehabilitation program. As men jump back into society, consistent friendship and Christian accountability are key.

A man in a Next Step Bible study.

A man in a Next Step Bible study. Nick Layman/Genesis

RICHARD ESCOBAR, 39, knows what addiction is like. He started smoking marijuana when he was 14. Marijuana led to cocaine and cocaine to methamphetamine. Escobar committed a violent crime at age 17 and received a 13-year sentence: eight years in prison and five on probation and parole. Prison culture became his identity. He picked up a heroin addiction in prison and transitioned back to meth on probation: “Emotionally, physically, morally, spiritually, I was just totally lost.”

He soon found himself back in the county jail for stabbing someone. That’s when he cried out to God for salvation. He spent another seven years in prison, but this time he got involved with a church. In 2016, he was up for parole. He met with a caseworker to make a parole plan. But all his first-pick parole program options fell through.

Scanning the list of approved programs, he noticed Next Step and gave Doug Chandler a call. Chandler picked up and asked a simple question: “Are you open to being in a Christian environment?” Escobar had no job experience and had never shouldered real responsibility. “I really had nothing to contribute to society,” he says, “except for the fact that I was a new creation in Christ.” One application and a couple of interviews later, Escobar arrived at Next Step’s small apartment complex in Albuquerque.

The ministry’s light-brown apartment building is unassuming, sitting across from a grassy park and a bus stop (most of the men don’t have vehicles). The scene is set against the rolling brown mountains and the noise of blaring traffic from a nearby thoroughfare.

Terra cotta–colored stairs lead to the second-floor apartments, where four homey, two-bedroom apartments house up to eight men. There is no curfew or on-site supervision. Director Todd Loudon meets with each of the men once a week and goes over goals. Next Step has built relationships with local businesses and takes the men to meet potential employers or to employment agencies, helps them fill out paperwork, and helps them get to interviews and training. Residents work a full-time job and pay discounted rent: $425 a month.

On Tuesday evenings, the men discuss a chapter of the Bible verse by verse. On Thursdays, they meet for study on Biblical manhood and what it means to take responsibility. Each man meets with an accountability partner—a mature man from a local church—once a week, either talking by phone or perhaps meeting for breakfast or coffee.

Escobar appreciated the balance of freedom and accountability. Instead of crowding into a halfway house lined with bunk beds, he had his own room and only shared a kitchen with one other resident. “I can’t even tell you what that did for me,” he said. “Next Step really gave me a great environment to make that transition from prison to life [outside].”

Weekly involvement in a local church is required. David Rosales, 49, graduated Next Step two years ago after completing two prison sentences for selling drugs. Before he came to the program, he said, he was scared to get close to anyone. Whenever he felt like a relationship was becoming too intimate, he responded with anger and disrespect.

Volunteering as a greeter at Legacy Church forced him to open up. On his first day, he hesitantly opened the door. But he soon greeted churchgoers enthusiastically with “Hey! How are you doing? Good morning!”

Living with a community of men who wanted to follow Christ broke down his walls even further. Rosales still meets with his accountability partner today. “God gave me these outlets to be able to talk to people,” he said. “He gave me people that care enough to listen.”

Men at the Bible study.

Men at the Bible study. Nick Layman/Genesis

JEFF LESLEY is a Next Step accountability partner. Lesley started drinking as a teenager and says he was an alcoholic till he turned 40. “There were times I was so broken because I had fallen again,” he said. But he felt the Holy Spirit encouraging him and reminding him that Christ hadn’t died in vain.

Now, he can relate to other men struggling to break free from addiction. It takes time—at least 12 months at an addiction rehabilitation program like Steelbridge (the Christian ministry where Chandler used to work) and another year at Next Step—and a lot of support. Getting the men to hold down a job isn’t the only objective.

“We aren’t interested in guys just being sober. … Success is based on growing and maturity with Christ,” said Lesley.

When he mentors a new resident, he uses the first conversation to build a friendship. Then they talk about relational and financial goals and use Scripture to address personal struggles. Some guys take initiative and stay engaged. Others need more encouragement.

Consistency and vulnerability are important. “You have to be really humble, and make sure that you meet people at a level where they don’t brand you and think they can’t relate to you because you are older, sober, and doing well,” he said. Lesley’s modest blue jeans, gray sweater, and white beard don’t hurt.

Lesley and his wife plan fun activities for the men. Last year, they hosted a cook-off on the patio outside the apartments. Lesley enjoys mountain biking and has taken men along. His last mentee just left the program—stable, sober, and about to get married. He still lives in the area, and the two remain good friends. “Community is such a big part of it. My focus is supporting this program to create community, to create the culture of being a disciple of Christ,” he said.

Even though the small apartment complex limits the program to eight residents at a time, Chandler views that as a blessing. “We don’t want to lose who we are and what we’re all about—it’s discipleship,” he said.

Finding enough men in the community willing to serve as accountability partners is challenging. Some men are intimidated because they haven’t had much exposure to this population. Others say they have the desire, but don’t have time to meet with a resident once a week for what could be a year or more.

“You can get guys to come over and do maintenance or give some money on occasion … but to get a guy to sign up to meet with another man on an ongoing long-term basis is really hard,” said Chandler.

Todd Louden

Todd Louden Nick Layman/Genesis

NOT ALL THE RESIDENTS at Next Step stick to the rules or embrace discipleship. Residents aren’t required to be Christians, but if someone doesn’t want to participate in Bible study or mentoring, the leaders tell him: If you don’t want to be discipled, this isn’t the place for you. They’ve asked a handful of men to leave.

On a recent day, Joseph Perez worked in a white T-shirt tucked into paint-splattered pants. Perez is helping turn 38 apartments into condominiums by opening up the living space and updating doors and fixtures. With arms and hands covered in plaster dust, he displayed the shower tile he had just laid. He’s been at Next Step for about a year. Last year, he failed a urine drug test.

When that happens, director Loudon holds the men accountable. If they lie about it, they have to leave. But if they are willing to change, he gives them another chance. He doesn’t send anyone away unless they have a place to go. After 30 days, a guy can come back if he’s willing to change.

Loudon himself once sold meth and went to prison four times. At age 39, alone in his cell in the Albuquerque county jail, he asked God for forgiveness.

“My heart goes out to anyone who’s struggling with addiction, especially the guys coming out of prison. I’ve walked through it. I’ve had the door slammed in my face even when I was doing all the right things,” said Loudon.

Perez was willing to change, so Loudon worked with him. Perez plans on staying at Next Step for two more years. “He’s come a long way in the last year,” Loudon said. “It’s nothing great that we’re doing; it’s what God does with us.”

There was nothing outside of Jesus Christ and Him crucified that could help me. It had to be the power of the gospel.

NEXT STEP CHALLENGED Escobar to take control of his finances. He met his wife during his time at Next Step while she was going through the Steelbridge program. They married in September 2018. The wedding guests were “a cast of characters”: guys he was in prison with, people from his small group Bible Study, his family. He sang the Proclaimers song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” to his wife right before the reception. The couple continued to follow a budget and ultimately bought a house.

At Next Step, he began working in construction. Now he has his own handyman business. Doug Chandler remains a good friend, and Escobar still calls him for advice. Escobar now leads a men’s Bible study at Steelbridge on authentic manhood. He shares his enthusiasm for Christ and love of budgeting.

“There was nothing outside of Jesus Christ and Him crucified that could help me. It had to be the power of the gospel,” he said. “The programs that stick to that are what give me and other men a chance.”

Moneybox

2020 revenue: $84,394
2020 expenses:
$65,871
President’s salary:
$27,000
Website:
nextstepnm.com

—Read about WORLD’s other 2022 Hope Awards winners in this issue.


Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty-fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband Ben.

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