Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesota Teen Challenge shares sobering, inspirational stories November 8, 2010

WHEN YOU PUT faces and stories to statistics, substance abuse in Minnesota becomes real.

On Sunday I heard the stories, saw the faces and spoke to individuals who are currently working toward recovery through Minnesota Teen Challenge, a Christian-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. The group brought its inspirational message to Trinity Lutheran Church in Faribault with songs and personal stories.

JEFF: He didn’t tell his story, but he sang a sweet, pure, heartfelt rendition of Amazing Grace. “The chains are broken,” Jeff sang with the Minnesota Teen Challenge Choir as his back-up.

MICAH: Once a church-attending youth with intentions of possibly becoming a pastor, Micah spoke of how he became caught up in alcohol after his church youth group folded and he no longer had anywhere to go, nothing to do. He stresses the importance of maintaining church youth groups.

Through his years of abuse, his girlfriend (now his fiancée) has stuck by him, turning him in when she had to with a tough love that today has led him into recovery. He plans now to enter the ministry.

Later his fiancée would tell me about the irony of their situation, how a vehicle in which they were riding was struck head-on by a drunk driver; how, when she lay in the hospital, Micah was back home drinking.

DAR: She shakes my hand before the church service begins and immediately reveals that she was a teacher with a double life as a cocaine addict. Later, she will stand before the congregation and perform a solo with the Teen Challenge Choir. “Love so amazing…the rescue for sinners…our hope is in you.”

JESSICA: She’s 29, a former heroin addict from St. Cloud with a felony record. She tells me her story as we sit side-by-side at the potluck dinner following the church service.

She’s made the news, for all the wrong reasons. She’s had a gun held to her head. For her, the possibility of death was her rock bottom. She never expected to live past 30.

Today Jessica’s doing well. She worries, though, about several roommates who lasted only one night at Teen Challenge. (Program enrollees are free to leave at any time.) She wonders why they couldn’t see the possibilities of successful recovery in her. She wishes she could have told them to “buck up,” that God has not given up on them. He never gave up on her.

Emotion edges her voice as she shares how her application for entry into the Teen Challenge program was prayed over by staff.

When a church member brings Jessica a piece of German chocolate cake, she becomes emotional again, this time over the simple act of kindness from a stranger.

DEVON: “You name it, I did it,” says Devon, 28, who grew up as a church-attending Catholic, the daughter of an abusive and alcoholic father. She was molested (not by her father), sold meth, spent time in jail, lost custody of her kids, lost everything, she says. One day she looked at herself in the mirror and promised God that she would change her life.

“I would probably be homeless or dead in the gutter if not for Teen Challenge,” Devon tells the congregation.

Later, as she sits across the dinner table from me raving about the Rice Krispie bars, Devon reveals more—how only her Catholic upbringing kept her from killing herself because she had been taught that suicide is a damning, unforgivable sin.

Devon tells me how she once asked for a sign from God, for money, after her home had been broken into while she was in jail. Her dealer, who was high, unknowingly left $1,000 in her apartment. She took that as a sign from God (How many times have you had $1,000 dropped in your lap?” she asks), using some of the money to repay her mom, pay a landlord, buy clothes and then buy more drugs.

Today she’s determined to stick with her recovery program, for the sake of her kids and because, if she left now, she would be homeless, a place she does not want to be.

She speaks with a fierce voice of determination.

JIM: He sings a solo: “You make all things new..I will follow you forward.”

JAMES: He’s returned to his hometown—Faribault—“a good town, but it’s had its down sides and its dark sides.” He’s stolen from people here, maybe even some sitting in the pews, he says. He is nervous about returning to the town where his criminal acts placed his name on the front page of the local newspaper. He shares a dream he had about a banner hung in Faribault’s Central Park that reads “From robbery to restoration.”

JERI: She’s 52, a Lutheran from Duluth, an alcohol abuser with her ninth attempt at rehab. “I never thought it would happen to me…I never thought that a cocktail would turn into a three-day binge…I never thought…”

She speaks with eloquence fitting her former profession as a counselor and an educator. It does not fit the image of a woman who confesses that she tried to kill herself in July, who ended up in a psych ward, whose addiction ended her career and her marriage.

“My heart was so far away from God,” Jeri says, quoting Isaiah 29:13.

She visited with her daughter on Saturday and heard the words, “Mom, you’ve changed.”

OF ALL THE INDIVIDUALS I watch singing in the choir, which is a mandatory part of the Teen Challenge Program, Jeri seems the most animated, swaying, lifting her hands in praise, her face expressing her inward joy.

I wish I could talk to all of these recovering addicts, hear their stories and write about them here. I wonder about the young woman who is fiddling with her hair, twirling her curls with her fingertips while she sings. Her fingernails are painted with bright red nail polish and she looks like the girl next door. I wonder about the tall young man in the back row who barely moves his lips and has all-American boy good looks. I wonder about the men with tattoos covering their arms.

Their leader, the administrator whose name I didn’t catch, tells us that we can help these recovering addicts through a volunteer mentoring program. “Sit and listen over a cup of coffee, go to a movie or go bowling,” he says.

They have all come to Minnesota Teen Challenge for sobriety, he says. They are here to overcome addiction, which he defines as “nothing more than incredible selfishness.”

“When they come in, they get God.”

IF YOU HAVE NEVER heard the Minnesota Teen Challenge Choir, check the MTC website for upcoming concerts. You will be forever changed by the inspirational messages these recovering addicts bring through word and song as they speak openly about their past and their addictions and about how God has worked change in their lives.

Their stories are powerful, sobering, inspiring, heartfelt, uplifting and hopeful.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling