Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks often of his religion—but he tailors it to fit his politics, and it focuses on works over faith
PONTIAC, Mich.—Wendy Vellucci has spent most of her 47 years addicted to drugs. She started on pot and alcohol at 13 and moved on to cocaine in her 20s and heroin in her 40s. When her troubled marriage ended in divorce, her two daughters—sick of her addictions—moved out of the house. Vellucci’s frequent bookings for drug use, drunk driving, and theft embarrassed and disgusted her mom, a sheriff’s deputy.
Vellucci spent nine months last year running from a drug-related arrest warrant before turning herself in to police in November: “All my friends were gone. It seemed the only place I was welcome was jail. … Every day I wanted to kill myself.” In jail, another inmate handed her a brochure for Grace Centers of Hope, a homeless shelter and addiction recovery organization in Pontiac, Mich., 15 miles north of Detroit.
That night in her cell, Vellucci got on her knees and prayed for the first time in her life.
When Vellucci received early release in March, Grace Centers of Hope had a bed waiting. There, a Christian counselor helped her process hurts from an abusive childhood, and she began reading the Bible and attending church. Today Vellucci, with a pixie haircut and a tattoo cross on her wrist, tells her story through tears: “Finally my daughters told me they were proud of me, and I haven’t heard that in 25 years. … And it’s only by the grace of God.”
Founded as the Pontiac Rescue Mission in 1942, Grace Centers of Hope takes hard cases like Vellucci’s. To enter the program, a man or woman must be both homeless and addicted, or a domestic violence victim. “We take people from homelessness to homeownership,” said Kent W. Clark, the executive director since 1989. To protect its freedom to teach how God is the solution to guilt and addiction, Grace shuns government funding: “We believe in the big ‘G,’ but it’s not the government handing out checks.”
Grace runs a 30-day emergency shelter, a one-year rehabilitation program, and a two-year aftercare program. It also sells houses to program graduates in a financially troubled city where a third of residents are poor. Above all, it emphasizes that change comes from the inside out as sinners find forgiveness through Christ.
A deeply troubled person’s introduction to Grace begins downtown at its three-story shelter and rehab dorm, inside the former Pontiac post office. The organization houses up to 159 men and women in its shelter dorms and rehab program at its headquarters and a transitional house, and plans to expand capacity with a $5.7 million women and children’s shelter, converted from an old church building currently serving as the rehab education and career center. It runs an off-site day care for residents who arrive with children.
Residents must attend church and submit to random drug tests. They retain other liberties: Pop music plays in the women’s dorm, where handmade quilts cover bunk beds. Movies play in the men’s rec room, where pool and pingpong serve as diversions. In pink and turquoise bedrooms reserved for women with children, residents redecorate and hang their own photos on the walls. Many residents carry around cigarettes in their pockets (but only smoke outside).
Next door to the shelter is an old, vaulted, brick-and-stone church that became a seedy nightclub and then a church once again, Grace Gospel Fellowship. The church partners with Grace Centers of Hope, and residents are required to attend services. During a recent Wednesday evening service a guest speaker strode the aisle explaining theological terms like “sola Scriptura” and “neo-orthodoxy.”
Clark has a second job as the pastor. He says addicts need a heart change if they really want to kick habits. Some, like Crystal Lerminez, don’t change quickly: She is on her 25th rehab attempt. Just 26 years old, she’s tried multiple local addiction programs to cure a heroin habit that started at 13 as a way mentally to escape physical and sexual abuse: “I was just accepting the fact that I was going to die with a needle in my arm.”
Angry at life, she came to Grace Centers of Hope last year and spent five months arguing and refusing to read her Bible. She left the program early, in November, but returned a month later as she realized drugs were a poor substitute for her motherly Grace caseworker, who sent daily Facebook messages reminding her, “I love you.” Today Lerminez cries when telling how God’s “amazing grace” has taken away her desire for drugs. Grace staff, residents, and their children—including two who run up to hug her—are like a new family: “I never had unconditional love in my life.”
Of every 100 men and 100 women who stay at the emergency shelter, 12 men and 90 women enter the one-year rehabilitation program. They take computer classes, get help earning a GED diploma, and in almost every case graduate with a paying job. Former addicts need not believe in God to attend, but they have to work: Some help with kitchen duty or sort through heaps of donated shirts at one of Grace’s four affiliated thrift stores.
For example, resident Chuck Lozier, 28, with a Grim Reaper tattoo on one arm, used to pop pills gained through fraudulent prescriptions, but now makes thrift store deliveries. During the past six months at Grace, he said, he’s learned a get-to-it work ethic: I watched him muscle a box spring up a flight of metal stairs. He says he’s also improved his relationship with God, his mom, and his two kids, 7 and 3.
Of men and women who stick with rehab at least four months, 87 of 100 finish the yearlong program and graduate sober. Most graduates go on to aftercare, living in nearby Grace housing for $350 per month—that’s possible because the mission and the church have purchased or been given over 50 houses in a blighted Pontiac neighborhood. Renewing and remodeling houses that had hosted dogfights or housed prostitutes has made a difference for those in aftercare: Some rent them and others become eligible to buy them for about $172 per month over 10 years. Grace’s work has helped to refurbish neighborhoods: “They’ve turned Pontiac around,” said a neighbor, Gail Jarvis.
The volunteer coordinator at Grace, Miranda Glascock, has her own Grace house. She went through the rehab program after she became homeless at 16 and began using heroin. “I didn’t think I’d live to see my 20s.” Now she’s 25 and married to James, 37, a Grace maintenance worker who showed up at Grace in the late 1990s harboring anger and hurt from an abusive father.
“I was a wild bull that couldn’t be broke,” James Glascock said, but at Grace, “something touched my heart.” Now he and his wife are debt-free homeowners. They bought a house through Grace Gospel Fellowship for $10,000—a discounted price since James is doing the remodeling work himself. When they had only $4,000 or so left on the debt last December, an unknown benefactor paid it off. “I walked in shock for a week after that,” James said.
The Glascocks have two children under 3, and James said he’s determined to be the caring dad his father wasn’t: “They’ll never have to go sleep in that dorm, God willing.”
2014 revenue: $6,821,316
2014 expenses: $6,239,699
Net assets at the end of 2014: $3,246,272
Executive director’s salary and benefits: $111,524 from Grace Centers of Hope, plus $64,400 from church.
Staff: 77 full-time employees, 20 part-time
2015 budget: $6,000,000
Listen to Paul Butler’s report on Grace Centers of Hope on The World and Everything in It.
Read profiles of other finalists and runners-up for the Hope Award for Effective Compassion.