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The Power of Religion Helps Some Addicts Stay Sober

  • Melanie Peeples

In the world of drug and alcohol rehabilitation, there's a saying that goes: "Getting sober is easy. Staying sober is the hard part." But Americans have many 12-step programs to turn to for help. Research shows involvement in such a recovery program can be one of the most effective tools in staying clean. These programs take a variety of approaches to rehabilitation. Some are strictly focused on behavior modification. Others, like Alcoholics Anonymous, call upon a "higher power" without proselytizing to help their members recover. But there are those who need something more specifically religious. Some of those folks end up in the basement of the historic 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

On Tuesday nights, about 60 men and women sit in folding chairs listening to Norman Askew as he warms up, talking about transforming himself from a drug dealer who spent 14 years in prison into the leader of a drug and alcohol recovery support group.

"Don't nobody want to continue to fall in the traps that they cannot control," he tells them. "That is not human nature. Nobody wants to be locked up, so transformation takes place. I won't continue to use drugs. I won't continue to be locked into something I can't control." He offers a kind of tough love that tempers firebrand theology with tender compassion. Mr. Askew calls the program an empowerment class and teaches members to transform themselves by turning to God. "People are thirsty for God," he says. "They've been through every program in the city and they all end up here and that's what they're looking for."

He doesn't criticize the self-affirming support programs offered by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, but says the folks who come here need more than just a nod to religion. "If you can't talk about God, can't talk about Christ in these programs, then people have nothing to believe in. When a man doesn't have a belief system, he can't function because we're created to have a belief system, we have to have a belief system to function, and I give 'em that here, through the power of God."

Researchers say religious tenets -- the teachings of unconditional love and forgiveness -- give recovering addicts hope. A recent study shows addicts with higher levels of religious faith and spirituality tend to feel more optimistic about life and be less susceptible to stress, which may help contribute to their recovery process. But Norman Askew knows for many of his group -- some of whom are living in shelters and halfway houses -- there's more to healing than just prayer and spirituality. So his program works with what he calls "the totality of man." "We don't just deal with the intellectual side … We deal with the families. We bring 'em to church, we go pick 'em up and we get 'em started. We find 'em jobs, we find 'em homes, we try to reach into a man and give 'em what he needs."

Mr. Askew works as a case manager with the local university's Treatment Alternatives to Street Crimes Program. That's where he met many of the people in this room, such as Laneera. The 30-year-old woman was a heroin addict for three years. Her drug use eventually got her in trouble with the law and she spent 3 months in jail. She would've been there longer if the Treatment Alternatives program hadn't found a drug treatment center for her. Heroin, with its physical as well as emotional addictions, isn't easy to quit. Laneera spent 7 and a half months at the treatment center in Tennessee, and has been out for just a couple weeks. "I'm back with my family," she says proudly, "and I'm still coming here to continue learning what I need to learn so I can stay on the right track so I won't fall back into what I was into."

Laneera is flourishing. Now that's she's overcome her addiction to heroin, she plans to go back to school and eventually, get a good job. She says Mr. Askew's recovery program helps her stay focused, especially on days that are hard to get through. "Just helping you learn how to stay off drugs and learn how to pray and turn to God when you have problems, cause he'll help you through it all."

Laneera is once again active in her church. And that, say proponents, is another benefit of spiritual recovery programs. Being part of a church community helps addicts build a support network and stay busy with church socials, Sunday School, and choir practice. Researchers don't say that just praying about addiction is enough to escape it, but studies do suggest that those who practice that belief are more likely to have a successful recovery.

[Sound of joyful choir and instrumental music from an African American church service]