By Stan Friedman
JAMESTOWN, NY (March 30, 2011) – A recovery group sponsored by First Covenant and Zion Covenant churches earned its one-year chip in January. Started with little advance planning, the group now attracts 40-50 people on Monday nights and several other church-sponsored meetings around town are likewise well attended.
Addicts are not the only people experiencing new life, however. Started shortly after a recovering addict visited Zion at the invitation of a member, the meetings also are transforming the once-staid congregation in ways no one had foreseen.
Zion pastor Rick Miller says a “convergence” of factors that led to the ministry’s formation actually began with a study the congregation conducted in September 2009. It helped the church confront painful realities.
“We looked at demographics and statistics, and we didn’t at all look like the community we are in economically, socially, educationally – all of that,” says Miller. “We were an island to ourselves.”
The congregation also had been on the verge of splitting due to bitter disagreements over vision and various past experiences that fostered additional disagreement, says Dave Anderson, a lifetime attender. Even before the church started cracking from the inside, it was becoming less relevant to the people around them.
“Would the community have missed us if we had closed?” asks Anderson. “I would have to say no.” Many others in the congregation repeated the sentiment.
While the results of the study were not wholly unexpected, what happened next was. “Before we were able to go to the next step of strategizing and visioning and setting goals, stuff just started to happen, doors started to open,” Miller recalls.
The church started an Alpha course in September. Two weeks later, Judd Hamilton, a 41-year-old alcoholic and drug addict, showed up. Steve Kilburn, Hamilton’s counselor during several of his stints in rehab, had suggested he visit Zion.
“I think a little bit against his better judgment, he invited me here,” Hamilton says, only half joking. “As soon as I walked through the front doors, I knew I was home.”
That feeling of being at home was bolstered when Miller remembered Hamilton’s name the following week. Hamilton also was invited to attend the Alpha course.
Unlike his first experience with the church, however, Hamilton was uncomfortable when he walked through the front doors to attend the course. Tables in the formal parlor were punctiliously set. The finer dishes were used for serving tea. “I thought this isn’t for me. Immediately I felt like I didn’t fit in.”
One of the other attendees asked Hamilton how he knew Kilburn. He considered lying, but decided to tell the truth. “Instead of pushing me out the door and feeling like I don’t belong, they said, ‘Cool’ and then I felt like I could open up about anything.”
Hamilton felt so accepted that he began inviting his friends from Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. He also brought an honesty to the course that too often is difficult for people, says Miller.
Hamilton then led an Alpha class when it was offered again. Miller laughs as he recalls, “We had to tell him to stop inviting people because there weren’t enough leaders.”
Meanwhile, Hamilton also had connected with Adam Rohler, pastor of First Covenant Church. Soon afterward, Miller, Rohler and Hamilton met to discuss the possibility of starting the recovery ministry they decided to call “Came to believe.”
Within three weeks the ministry began. Rohler says the unexpected ministry reminded him of a passage in Acts 15 during which the Council of Jerusalem discussed how to incorporate Gentile believers. Click here to hear more of his thoughts.
Although the ministry started quickly, Rohler says it had been the subject of prayer for years at First Covenant. “We’ve had people for decades in recovery. There was a longing to have more ministry. I think we’re seeing the fulfillment of decades of prayer.”
A single mother named Nilsa wrote in the Zion newsletter of the importance of the ministry and becoming involved in the congregation since her move from Buffalo to start a new life. “(God) has put so many people in my life that are willing to help, love me, and care about me.”
Most of the newcomers attend Zion because that is where Hamilton started and now serves on staff as director of urban outreach and recovery ministries. “The people here at Zion from day one just embraced the people coming in,” Hamilton says. He notes that Miller did a sermon series on the 12 steps, adding, “People don’t realize the scriptural beginnings of AA.”
During one of those services, the 300 congregants got down on their knees to do the “third-step prayer”: “God, I’m sorry about the mess I’ve made of my life. I want to turn from all of the wrong things I’ve ever done and been. Please forgive me for it all. I know you have the power to change my life. God, please take over the management of my life, my affairs, and everything about me. I surrender my will to your will. Move into my heart, through Jesus your son, the one who died for me and whom you raised from the dead. Make yourself real inside me and fill my awful emptiness. Fill me with your love and Holy Spirit and make me know your will for me. And now, Lord, help yourself to me and keep on doing it. I’m not sure I want you to, but do it anyhow. Praise your name! Amen!”
Miller says he and the congregation are amazed at the transformation in the church. “When we first began this, we saw it as an opportunity to reach out to the community but quickly realized as more and more people were coming to Zion from recovery, it was changing us,” says Miller.
The honesty of the newcomers has “raised the bar” for people in the church and enabled more opportunities for sharing in ways not generally experienced in congregations. Click here for more of Miller’s thoughts. Some of the members who are not “addicts” regularly attend the meetings. Hamilton explains, “They all have a hole in their soul, a desire to help, desire to serve, and more importantly a desire to draw closer to Christ.”
At one meeting they heard an entire sermon in just one sentence when that night’s leader said with gratitude, “My life is a privilege.”
The main meeting is held in the basement of First Covenant Church and has spread to other sites around town. Further evidence of the cooperative nature of the ministry is that Hamilton’s office is located at First Covenant.
Not that he is there much. Hamilton generally is driving around in the church van – informally nicknamed the Godmobile. He wants to be out in the community with people, and the van ministry is far different than most.
No reservations are needed. “You never know what is going to happen,” Hamilton says. He might wind up taking someone he meets to the grocery store or helping someone leave a bar. Click here to hear more.
“Judd says yes to everything,” says Miller, laughing.
The churches are now saying yes to God’s leading in starting a “safe house” for recovering addicts. It will be operated in a seven-bedroom mansion-size parsonage owned by a local Lutheran congregation, but which hasn’t been occupied for years.
They have named the new ministry First Things First. It will be a home where addicts can have an opportunity to experience God’s transforming power in their lives, Rohler says. He adds the new ministry is a “natural extension” of what already was happening through the churches.
The new house is needed because other similar houses in Jamestown are not safe, says Rohler. Drugs, alcohol, and drama are common.
Judd says he hopes the residents will live into the same identity that others ministered to by the churches have discovered, as well as the importance of being involved in a faith community.
Participants in the We Believe meetings no longer introduce themselves by naming the addiction that brought them there. “Over time we have realized we have been identifying ourselves with the problem all these years. It has changed from Judd the addict to just Judd trying to draw closer to God.”
That change is important, he adds. “If I think I can only identify with another addict, I’m in real trouble. It’s just a small part of the population. When the end all and be all is just not using – again, real trouble. Here, they have a well-rounded community.”
Editor’s note: Video footage courtesy of Dave Anderson, a member of Zion Covenant Church and local videographer.