‘The love is here’
In Brooklyn, a church without much money gives addicts a rare welcome mat
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In our coverage of the drug crisis over the last few years, we’ve asked ourselves regularly: Where are churches? Why are there so few Christian resources for a crisis that is killing 72,000 Americans a year? Kristen Gunn, a woman I interviewed last year who had become dependent on benzodiazepines, told me her church was “the hardest place to talk about any of this.”
In Brooklyn, we found a church where churchgoers feel comfortable talking about their addictions. Recovery House of Worship (RHOW) has few resources, but it is seeding church plants across the country focused on bringing the gospel to addicts. With a congregation of about 200 in Brooklyn, it now has plants in the Bronx, Staten Island, Pennsylvania, and California. Another is in the works in London.
“America is just now waking up to the opioid crisis that we’ve known about for the last 30 years in poor neighborhoods,” said Edwin Colon, a native Brooklynite and the senior pastor of RHOW. If Colon has a conversation long enough with anyone these days, regardless of economic status, he finds some connection to addiction—an uncle with a drinking problem, a mom taking pills, or an ex-boyfriend whose recreational drug habit went off the deep end. That’s why he feels an urgency in planting churches like RHOW.
Once called the Baptist Temple, the historic church changed its name to Recovery to adapt to the neighborhood’s needs and as Colon and his childhood friend Raymond Ramos moved in to pastor. The Baptist Temple had a history of reaching out to the unpopular, from offering Sunday school space to Chinese immigrants in the 1920s to purchasing and freeing slaves in the 1800s.
Today the church’s annual budget is small—$300,000—and its congregation is mostly the outcasts of a gentrified neighborhood. Colon does outside fundraising for his $39,900 salary, teaches at Redeemer City to City, and sublets his apartment for extra cash.
But RHOW shows what churches can accomplish purely through relationships and discipleship, without much of an official recovery program. The church hosts daily 12-step meetings in its building as well as breakfasts throughout the week, both of which create an open door for addicts. With a critical mass of recovering addicts in the congregation (even at 27 years clean, Colon describes himself as “in recovery”), the church has strong mentors for addicts trying to leave substances behind.
One rainy morning at the Brooklyn church, Colon was sitting in his office telling me his life story. He started smoking and drinking at age 11 after his dad left his family, moved to marijuana by 12, and then to coke by 13. He dropped out of school after sixth grade. At 17, his mother overdosed in front of him, and he cursed God. That same year he and his best friend Ramos went into a 12-step program together. Colon had just started reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and wanted to become a Buddhist when …
“Let’s see what broke,” he said, stepping out to the hallway outside his office, where a piece of plaster had fallen from the heavy rain. The church is in an old building that burned in 2010 and has only been patched back together since. The renovation of the historic building would cost millions, so the church staff works with “bubble gum and duct tape” to keep the building running, said Colon.
Permanent marker covers sections of the walls with instructions for how to open a door or a warning not to touch something. Downstairs in the basement, which is more recently renovated and hosts the worship space, a half-dozen men in drug recovery are sleeping in dorm rooms. And church volunteers are cleaning up a community breakfast in the kitchen.
In a church of mostly addicts, many stories end in heartbreak. Chris Hook, a former opioid addict who is now Colon’s assistant, recalled a young man whom he met at a 12-step meeting a few years ago and who started coming to the church. The man eventually asked to be baptized, but he couldn’t stop drinking. He ended up in jail, and Hook went to his hearings, but the young man eventually drank himself to death. Even with support from RHOW, his mom, and counselors, all working together, “We weren’t able to serve him in the way he needed,” Hook said.
But there are miracles in bunches. Evelyn Ruiz, once an addict, manages the church finances. Pedro Rodriguez was a heroin addict until one of the pastors pulled him off the street; he is now 14 years clean. He serves as one of the volunteer pastors and works as a chef for his day job.
“In a lot of churches, you find one or two of those and you’re like, ‘Oh, this testimony is so powerful,’” said Colon. “We trip over them.”
Colon said churches tend to encounter addicts and try to solve their issues “programmatically.” But programs, while useful, don’t last forever. That’s why he thinks it’s essential for churches to incorporate addiction recovery into the regular work of the church. He meets regularly with recovering addicts in the church, and they memorize Scripture together.
Another key ingredient of RHOW is sending addicts to 12-step meetings, which provide a daily infrastructure and give a space where they can be outward-focused in sharing what saved them as well. Many found the church through Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
One of those, Evelyn Ruiz, was picking up a ginger tea on her way to a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting as we talked. Twenty-two years ago her husband died, leaving her with three children and a spiraling addiction. She lost her children to the state before eventually going through detox and rehab to win her kids back.
Now she’s been clean for “19 years, 6 months, and 7 days,” she says, and is a longtime member of RHOW. Her bookkeeping background helps her manage the church finances.
“NA showed me a lot of principles that translate to when you’re serving in church,” she said. “I didn’t come totally on empty. I came on a foundation of being of service to others. That’s just my experience.”
It’s an experience repeated over and over by members of the church, whom the pastors sought out, pulled off the street, and began mentoring as they started detox, rehab, and 12-step meetings. The RHOW mentality of moving those in recovery quickly to positions of service means that the person serving you breakfast or memorizing Scripture with you or leading worship has likely gone through recovery himself or herself.
The meals are the welcome mat for the addicted to begin to hear about the gospel. George Negron, a retired police officer who runs the breakfasts at the church throughout the week, knows the name of every person who walks through the door. He runs around serving dishes, nodding to the kitchen for an extra plate, emptying the trash, listening to stories.
One regular at the breakfast reports to Negron that another regular in his 80s is losing his apartment because the rent is going up. One of the cooks in the kitchen had already been bringing food to the elderly man in question; he promised to check on his rent situation when he visited later. Some RHOW church planters from California appeared at the breakfast table too; they were staying in the church basement for a visit.
Off to the side, the Bronx-born Michael Ortiz was finishing a glass of orange juice. He had just completed his night shift as a doorman and was preparing for his day job in custodial maintenance. He found both jobs via the church, where he’s been coming for the last six years. Before, he had served time for dealing drugs, and said he should have been murdered by now. But here he is, even if he’s been on a roller coaster of addiction, recovery, and relapse. Now he’s been living in the church for eight months and has a “running buddy” at the church so they can hold each other accountable. Whenever he relapsed, the pastors “were always calling me.”
“It takes a lot of time. … God’s grace and mercy is amazing,” said Ortiz. “Regular rehab—it’s just groups. But here, the love is here.”
A few evenings later Hook and Colon showed up to a Christian residential recovery center in Brooklyn that RHOW has recently started partnering with, called Anchor House. Colon teaches the men and women in the program, and some have started coming to RHOW services on Sundays.
Facing a room full of black, white, and Latino men and women, Colon began by briefly narrating his own struggle with addiction. Then he celebrated because this day was special. When the Colons adopted their youngest son of five children, he had been born 13 weeks early, so small he could fit in a hand, and addicted to crack and heroin. No one knew if he’d have brain damage, but today the healthy 5-year-old had his first day of school. Everyone clapped.
Then Colon quickly jumped into the evening’s study, reading 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
He asked the room for another word for temptation, to make sure everyone understood each part. Trial. Desire. Addiction. “Craving,” said another. “Great word,” said Colon. Another word for overtaken? Seized, captured. Another word for common? Universal, familiar, general.
Then he asked: “Are you unique when you get tempted? Does it ever occur to you, that no one else understands you? … The Bible is saying, none of these things happen to you alone. They are common. You are precious, but you’re not unique.”
Then Colon went on with the passage: “He will provide a way out.” A woman raised her hand: “Can you talk about when you don’t see a way out?” The questions began to come thick and fast. Another man brought up that prayers to God often go unanswered for a long time: “It’s not instant like oatmeal.”
Colon shifted to teaching about the “creation-fall-redemption-consummation” framework of the Bible’s narrative. Apply that narrative to your life, and where are you right now? he asked. Lost, said one woman. Between fall and redemption, said another man. Feeling out of control, said another. More and more people began to crowd into the room.
Colon said his dad’s abandonment of his family was his “fall,” and how he started using. He talked about abuse he experienced. Someone else mentioned a parental breakup. In broken moments, Colon said, “You run to your Savior [Jesus] or you run to your savior. … Maybe your savior is control.”
Others piped in about what can push them to use. “Anger.” “Isolation.” “A desire for significance.” Colon insisted that the men and women had to name those root causes in order to address substance abuse. He promised to continue the conversation at next month’s meeting. At the end of the night, a woman shouted from the back, “What time is your service?”
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