This is absolutely, hands down, the most common thing people ever say to me about my job as a pastor of a recovery church.
Most common question: “What in the world compelled you to THIS?” I get it. Recovery is hard.
The easy response to both the statement and question is to tell the truth: my DNA led me here. I didn’t come to this via an academic route or a passion for social justice; I crashed into recovery the way most do – through the door of desperation. I know what it is like to live in a family suffering from substance use disorder.
I carry the residual effects SUD wreaks on the family system, the rigid roles, and chronic stress. I know what it is like to have someone you love kill themselves slowly abusing drugs and alcohol. I have been that person on the phone begging for resources and finding nothing accessible for me and mine.
Another acceptable answer: I identify my faith experience through a Christian lens and as such I think it is what Jesus would have me do. The Jesus of my understanding is always pointing to the most marginalized least-of-these kind of people in a community and saying to his peeps: go love THEM.
Substance Use Disorder and its siblings (trauma, depression, anxiety and other co-occurring mental health disorders) is arguably the greatest scourge of our day. I think Jesus would say all these suffering souls are his tribe – and that makes them mine too. These are the obvious answers, and they are mostly true.
But the big T Truth, if you have the time to listen, is rooted in a traumatic cataclysmic choice made one afternoon in early June by boys who were too young, too male and too appropriately and adolescently impulsive to do much different than they did. The day began with no hint of how it would end.
June was showing off in RVA, making it easy to believe that we were living our glory days in the best place on earth to raise a family. Our daughter had softball practice and I was moving everyone toward the mini-van with more calm than usual. Life was good; homework assignments, spelling tests, and ballet recitals were almost all in our rearview mirror. Summer lay enticingly close and the promise of languid days at the pool and all-you-can-drink 50 cent ice teas at our local swim club were calling my name.
I almost didn’t answer the phone; these were the halcyon days when the only phone whose tyranny we had to escape was the one that hung from a wall in the kitchen (referred to today as “the land line”). I thought better of ignoring it and answered the call.
The news was beyond comprehension
An eighth grade friend of my daughter’s had been accidentally shot and killed. The boys had been handling a gun that was left accessible for their curious hands to reach. This is the bottom line, but as you can imagine the tale is really quite long and horrific.
Our families have melded since that day so long ago (more than twenty years now). Our other five children between us have grown up. Some have married. Two have children of their own. All have been effected in various ways, many of which we will never fully understand.
I can tell you how it changed me
I stopped returning my grocery cart like a good girl. I would go to the store, buy my groceries, load them in my cart, throw the bags in the back of my sports gear laden mini-van and leave that damn cart right in the middle of the parking lot.
I realized that what I thought should comfort me did not. My spiritual practices felt hollow. My capacity to comfort and be comforted felt inadequate at best. I grieved, poorly. I did not know how to support my daughter in her grief (she was very close to this young man) and I certainly did not find any of the clichés thrust upon us in loss to be much comfort.
In response to this crushing disappointment in my own religious traditions, I vowed to stop doing things I did not understand in the name of God and saying things I did not mean and denying feelings that I feared might be unchristian. And all of this, it turns out, cracked my heart wide open and allowed for a spiritual awakening – eventually.
But first we just suffered
What did help, it turns out, were the gifts found in working a recovery program. Years spent educating myself about codependency and addiction (as it was called in those days) because of my family of origin issues began to inform my faith experience. This shift, subtle in some ways, revolutionized the way I understood and dealt with trauma, grief, loss and depression.
Today, with the usual hindsight bias that time and aging provide, I understand my past and how it has given my present purpose and meaning.
The only thing I understood in 1999 when we started this grand epic adventure of creating a bridge to faith and recovery for folks who needed support and comfort as a result of their trauma, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and more was that someone needed to do something different. We needed a space in our community that allowed for people to show up hurting and not be told to feel better fast.
We needed an all-out commitment to finding resources in RVA to help those who were marginalized and desperate for help. It just made sense to us to center our lives around an effort to support both the spirituality and recovery of people who may be bereft of comfort in a more traditional church setting.
Almost twenty years in and we have morphed from a recovery ministry program into a full-on recovery church. We have our own building; we have a small staff; we have strategic partners; we host tough conversations about subjects that really matter. We don’t mess around with anything that isn’t central to providing resources for families that need help navigating recovery.
Long gone are those days when we rented Bon Air Elementary School and held meetings at Bon Air Baptist Church. We’ve given up our trailer of supplies we hauled out and set up and took down twice each weekend. Today we are hunkered down in our own building. We have access to meeting space 24/7 and even a small galley kitchen to help us as we host potluck dinners. We share our space with pretty much anyone who wants to host a meeting. We seek to be an oasis of support and safety where people get what they need without obligation, cost or judgment.
I’m not sure that working in the field of recovery would have been part of my life if we hadn’t tragically lost someone we loved to a traumatic event. Maybe I could have gone my whole life coasting on the hope that if I behaved well and politely returned my grocery cart God would keep me safe. Instead, what I have learned is that at our most unsafe, the God of my understanding will not leave me nor forsake me. Which means, I think, that I must do the same for others.
Is recovery hard?
Yes and no. We lose a lot. But I am convinced that untreated, unsupported substance use disorder is so very much harder. The ultimate answer to the question of “Why” is really answered with the “WHOs…” we have a community filled with other people’s children, spouses, parents, even grandparents who need to find their way back to hope.
The only way I know to do that is to prop the door open and keep the lights on. That we can do; that is not hard.
Teresa’s blog, Daily Devotional. Her bio below.