Memphis-Area Churches Employ Self-Help Methods For More Than Just Beating Addiction
By Brown Burnett
October 22, 2011
Jimmy Naramorn holds up his hands in praise during a hymn at Jacob's Well, a recovery ministry hosted by Highland Heights United Methodist Church.
Rev. Jamey Lee, himself a recovering addict, leads the Jacob's Well recovery ministry at Highland Heights United Methodist Church. The program employs the Twelve Steps first espoused by Alcoholics Anonymous.
On a warm October evening, more than 100 hungry souls are filling Jacob's Well, a recovery ministry that meets in the basement of Highland Heights United Methodist Church.
Many are down on their luck, facing various forms of addiction, homelessness, hopelessness. As they eat, a gospel band plays from the small stage, and lyrics of hope and recovery are projected onto a screen.
"We're all broken," says Rev. Jamey Lee, the ministry's 33-year-old founder, a recovering addict himself. "What are you afraid of? There is good news here. Your fear doesn't have to determine your future."
The crowd issues several "amens."
"In rehab," Lee says, "we all have to face our fears."
This isn't rehab. It's church.
Lee's year-old ministry is one of several Christian ministries in the Memphis area that employ the Twelve Steps of Recovery, first put forth by Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939. AA's Twelve Steps are used by more than 150 recovery groups worldwide, helping people who suffer from addictions that include narcotics, gambling, smoking, food and sex.
In recent years, however, churches have started using the Twelve Steps as a spiritual discipline, as well as a form of evangelism.
"Many people in recovery have been hurt by the 'church' over the years," said Dr. Scott Morris, founder of the Church Health Center and associate minister at St. John's United Methodist Church, which hosts another year-old recovery ministry called The Way, led by Rev. John Kilzer.
"The 'church' has not been a very affirming, accepting place for people in recovery. We should be open to all people in recovery, and if that doesn't work for you, that's fine. You need to be on another path to recovery."
The roots of AA, which still describes itself as "a fellowship," can be traced to the Oxford Group, a Protestant religious movement that practiced a formula of self-improvement by performing self-inventory, admitting wrongs, making amends, using prayer and meditation, and carrying the message to others.
AA's program of recovery, known as the Twelve Steps, includes references to "a Power greater than ourselves" and "God as we understood Him," but the organization is open to all believers and nonbelievers alike.
Ward Ewing, a retired Episcopal priest now living in the Knoxville area, serves as a nonalcoholic trustee for Alcoholics Anonymous.
"I'm not an addict or an alcoholic, but the Twelve Steps became my spiritual program many years ago," he said after a recent AA Service meeting in Memphis. "They allowed me to live through some really tough times in my ministry and gave me a way of operating I don't think I could have gotten any other way."
But Ewing says churches need to be careful about connecting the gospel and the Twelve Steps too closely.
"When you do that, you're going to turn some people off," he said. "Some say, 'We like the Twelve Steps, but you're going to have to believe the way we believe.' I think they're damaging their ability to reach out to the alcoholic or to other addictions."
Some church-based recovery programs are more intentionally evangelical. Celebrate Recovery, pioneered by California megachurch pastor Rick Warren, uses a Christ-centered Eight Principles instead of AA's more spiritually generic Twelve Steps.
"AA and NA talk about 'a Higher Power of your understanding,' but the Higher Power within (Celebrate Recovery) is Jesus Christ," said Kelley Hendrix, who leads the four-year-old weekly CR service and meeting at Highpoint Church in East Memphis. More than a dozen Memphis-area churches are using CR.
"We don't have a problem with AA," said Hendrix, who says he has been clean and sober for seven years. "We believe that AA is a tool God uses to get people sober so they can actually make a decision on who they believe God to be."
Lee, who grew up in Louisiana, said he had addiction issues of his own before having a "strong conversion" at age 19. He went into recovery, got clean and sober, then studied to be a minister.
A few years ago, he participated in a Bible study at Christ United Methodist Church, where he was on staff. The study leader kept talking about the Twelve Steps. That's when Lee started thinking about starting a recovery ministry that employs the Twelve Steps.
"The Twelve Steps are laid out in such an all-encompassing way," Lee said. "They're themes and principles that have been in the Christian tradition for thousands of years. We're trying to help people get back on their feet ... and we believe the Twelve Steps point the way, no matter what the addiction or problem you might have in your life."
Lee opened Jacob's Well (a name drawn from John 4:6) one year ago. The ministry reaches out to the poor, the homeless living on the streets, many of whom suffer from alcoholism and drug addiction. It's standard procedure for members of Jacob's Well to seek out people living in parks or under bridges, give them food and shelter, and work with them to get control of their lives.
"We work with about 50 men at a time who are at a turning point in their lives, some just out of prison or in treatment, and they need positive role models as well as connection to resources and mentors," Lee said.
"For example, there was a guy who'd been living in an abandoned house, and he would come here every Saturday. Some would say, 'He's drunk; why do you let him in?' We got him into detox, and he's in a rehab program now and doing well, and we see that happen several times a year."
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