A Decade of Change in Gospel Rescue Missions

bakersAn interview with Michael Liimatta

The local church is not the only arena in which recovery has made some progress in the last decade. There have been a number of remarkable changes, for example, in the rescue mission environment that are worth noting. To learn about these developments we interviewed Michael Liimatta, the Director of Education for the International Union of Gospel Missions, an association of 270 inner city missions that help the homeless and other needy people.

STEPS:  My recollection is that ten years ago you were working as the director of a treatment program. Is that right?

Michael:  That’s right. I was the director of New Creation Center, a licensed substance abuse treatment center in Michigan. We served mostly homeless men or those released from prison and jail. We also worked with a lot of people who were coming out of very expensive treatment centers but who had no more insurance to pay for treatment. We had a twenty-bed facility and a six month waiting list. There were times when people would be calling for help and we’d put them on the list but by the time there was a bed available they would be dead. That actually happened.

Back then, we didn’t know of any Christians anywhere who had ever considered having a program that took the Bible seriously and included AA principles as well.

When we first started up the program we got some good input from AA-based treatment programs and from Hazelden. But, back then, we didn’t know of any Christians anywhere who had ever considered having a program that took the Bible seriously and included AA principles as well. It wasn’t until 1985 when Dr. Spickard’s book Dying for a Drink came out that I realized there were other people who understood this recovery stuff. As soon as I saw his book I called him right away because I was amazed that there were other Christians who really believed in the twelve steps. I never knew anyone like that existed! Back then it was really exciting just to find one other person.

STEPS:  It seems like a pretty common theme when you talk to Christians in recovery about the late eighties or early nineties that we were all really isolated. Even those of us who were starting to work in this area didn’t know the other people who were headed down the same path. Did it feel that way even when you took your current position as Director of Education at the International Union of Gospel Missions?

Michael:  There were a few rescue missions who had adopted the twelve steps as part of their programming, some as long as 20 or 30 years ago. But out of the 250 IUGM member rescue missions at that time, there might have been only 4 or 5 that understood the importance of having a Twelve Step component in their program. It was very rare.

STEPS:  Most people who read STEPS probably don’t know how much that has changed in the last decade in the rescue mission movement.

Michael:  Exactly. It has changed a lot. If you go to rescue missions now, probably you’d find most of those with long-term residential programs would be Twelve Step oriented. That’s a huge change. In 1990, I started doing workshops for rescue missions on how to develop a recovery component for their ministry. In 1993 we published A Guide to Effective Rescue Mission Recovery Programs. This “how to” manual with 12 audio tapes and a 250 page manual has sold over a thousand copies since then. So, this is definitely the way things are going. “Soup, Soap and Salvation” used to be the battle cry of the rescue mission movement. Actually, just last year I noticed that “recovery program” has become the normal term used by rescue missions for their long-term life-change programs. Part of this is surely God’s providence.

The common thread among all homeless people is “disaffiliation.” There are two parts to this: 1) they are cut off from meaningful human relationships and 2) they are cut off from any system of support. So, what it amounts to is that people need what I call the three reconnections of recovery: with self, with God and with others. There is a part of the Christian recovery process in which people are actually “reconnecting with the human race.” That is the only way you can ever get out of being homeless. Recovery principles are exactly what homeless people need.

STEPS:  I’m guessing that the process of introducing recovery principles to the rescue mission movement has not always been easy. Is that accurate?

Michael:  At the beginning I was pretty much considered by some to be a promoter of godless psychology. There were big rumors and complaints about me promoting this philosophy that some people thought was so contrary to the traditions of the rescue mission movement. Steve Burger, the director of the IUGM, has always been the kind of guy who has thought “outside of the box.” So even hiring me for this job was reaching for someone outside of the traditional rescue mission world. It has taken time. But, for example, we just had our Central Regional Conference and there were about 80 workers present. There were four different workshops being offered at the same time and 50 of the 80 people came to my workshop. Three years ago when I was down in our Southern District, there were over 200 people there and everybody came to my workshop and none went to the others. The second day of the conference they told all the other presenters to stay home. That was very embarrassing! But it clearly suggests that people were looking for some principles that would really make a difference in the lives of the homeless people they were working with. Another big change is that ten years ago there were no materials to use. If you wanted to do anything with the Twelve Steps and the Bible you had to come up with it yourself. In the 80′s we wrote lots of materials for use in our program but then in the early 90′s the Christian publishing houses went through a kind of Christian recovery fad. They published many titles about Christian recovery. The sad part of that is that so many of those titles were not all that different. The long term problem, of course, is that Christian publishing has to follow the market. And the market for Christian books is the white middle-class female. So a lot of the stuff that came out was not all that helpful for us. Now, we’re finding more suitable materials. Now that the publishing fad has passed, I think we’ll see that the truly useful things are what’s going to be left. Just because a publishing fad has passed, doesn’t mean that there are any fewer wounded people out there. The need hasn’t changed.

STEPS:  That’s surely another one of the things that hasn’t changed in the last decade. There are no fewer people needing Christian recovery. The need hasn’t changed at all. Let me ask you about Alcoholics Victorious. That part of your ministry, like Overcomers Outreach, Alcoholics for Christ and several other ministries, is focused on the local church.

Michael:  Yes, Alcoholics Victorious began in 1948 so it’s the oldest, still functioning, fellowship of Christian recovery groups. It started in a rescue mission of the Chicago Christian Industrial League. The director, William Seath, is a past president of the IUGM and he knew some of the founders of AA. The original name he came up with for the organization was the “Thirteenth Step.” But, for a variety of reasons, it ended up as Alcoholics Victorious. The groups meet in a variety of settings; churches, in prisons, in Salvation Army centers and in rescue missions. After functioning as an independent organization for many years, the IUGM took over administration of AV in 1997. I talk a lot with rescue mission workers about what makes a therapeutic environment. What is it that enables a long-term program to function as a healing community? People experience family for the first time and they have a safe environment where they can begin to explore issues and share, and reconnect with their feelings and use the fourth and fifth and eight and ninth steps to make those important reconnections. Part of the problem, of course, is that most of our rescue mission workers come from the church. The problem is that the church has tended to be so cognitive. The church is mostly set up for cognitive learning. So one of the challenges which recovery presents to the church is to find a way to be more than just cognitive. There is an experiential dimension that has to be there if there is to be any change. One of the interesting things that we had to learn early on is that the Steps are really steps —they are things you do. It’s not like a creed or some kind of philosophy statement. They are actions you take.

STEPS:  Do you think that the emergence of recovery ministries in local churches has made it easier for rescue missions to connect with the local church? Is there a new kind of common ground because you have recovery ministries in both settings?

Michael:  Well, we’re working on that. We see Alcoholics Victorious as a kind of bridge to the local church. Often the people who are attracted to rescue mission work are those who have experienced healing in recovery groups or treatment programs themselves. One of our biggest challenges continues to be finding resources for formerly homeless people who have been through one of our programs. They have been discipled, have experienced a healing environment and now are ready to move on. Where do we send them? What we teach is that there are two important communities that every program graduate needs to connect with. The church community. And the recovery community. They need both of these if they are going to keep their recovery going. Like all of us, even after a one year residential program there’s still a lot of work to do. So the connection with the recovery community is vital. But where can these people go in the Christian community to find accountability, encouragement, and positive input?

STEPS:  Working on our own recovery issues does have a kind of dramatic leveling effect. It doesn’t really matter if you started your recovery at the Betty Ford Center or at the Salvation Army. You still need the same stuff. We’re in this together, whether we are up-and-out or down-and-out.

Michael:  Exactly. Who can relate more to the homeless addict that the person who is sitting in the church in recovery themselves. And maybe this is the new comprehension of God’s grace that we have come to in recovery —that there but for the grace of God go I. If my addiction had not been arrested when it was, or if I hadn’t had certain people in my life that helped me at key moments, I would have become homeless too.

STEPS:  Any instincts about what lies ahead?

Michael:  You know, I think that so much of it depends on the leadership of our churches. One of the areas that I’m not sure we’ve made much progress in is seminaries. The people who are training to be pastors and Christian leaders. I think that’s where we need to focus some energy. If the church is ever going to embrace the message of recovery, that has to happen in it’s halls of learning. I think if we are able to see more of that happening we’ll see a growing acceptance of recovery. Pastors are more and more being taught to refer to professional counselors rather than to do counseling themselves. But the issue then becomes “who can afford it?” The last time I took advantage of professional counseling myself, it was $100 an hour and not covered by my insurance. That’s the biggest challenge. The people who need recovery the most find most professional services are beyond their financial reach. I think it is time for the church to devote some creativity to finding a solution to this problem.

STEPS:  One of the main strengths of recovery strategies as compared to therapeutic strategies is that they are very cost effective. Any time you want to work outside of the middle class, economics becomes a big issue. And, of course, this becomes an even bigger issue when you start looking around the world. Expensive models, even if they have real advantages, are not going to work in most of the world.

Michael:  That’s right. Recovery is oriented to building a support base —a therapeutic community of some kind. That’s how it’s going to have to happen. This is one place where we can learn from AA. More people have sobered up through AA than all treatment centers ever. If you look at people who have sustained their sobriety long-term, the key has been participation in AA and other support groups that have sprung from it. I think professional treatment centers have in some ways detracted from that focus. In the early years especially, AA had a very high success rate because it was people who had experienced healing themselves who were bringing the message to those who still suffered. It is that healing community concept that is so important.

From Steps magazine, Fall 2000, journal of the National Association for Christian Recovery

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