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.”