With less than 1% of heroin addicts in the UK offered rehabilitation, is there a gap in provision which could be filled by the Church? Heather Tomlinson travelled to Birmingham to profile the pioneering work of Betel of Britain, a Christian therapeutic community where people are finding healing from addiction through faith in Jesus
'When I was 13 I was prostituting myself to pay for drugs,’ says Ruth*, who is now 21. ‘When I was 16 all I did was sell drugs and smoke crack. I hated myself, that’s why I took drugs, to make myself feel different. I hated the way I looked and I hated my life.’
There is hardly a better example of the desperate state of the drug problem in the UK than the stories of the young recovering addicts at Betel of Britain, a Christian therapeutic community that helps people to find healing from addiction through faith in Jesus. The stories I heard brought tears to my eyes. One young woman had been through 46 foster families as a child, others had been abused and neglected or taught a life of drugs and crime by their parents. Whether victims of mistreatment or just of the permissive culture in which we live, they then became prisoners of addiction and the violent and dangerous lifestyle that it brings.
But Ruth now bears no trace of her painful background. She smiles broadly and hugs her young son, with whom she has been reconciled and hopes to be able to look after full-time once again.
‘Now I feel joy,’ she says. ‘I can allow myself to feel happy. I have a life, a future and a hope. I have completely been turned inside out – I couldn’t communicate with anybody before. Now I can connect.’ In fact, few people in the Betel community show signs of their backgrounds. ‘So where are the addicts?’ is a common question from new visitors at their church in Birmingham. In reality nearly everyone in the church and their residential homes are recovering addicts – their drugs of choice usually heroin, crack and /or alcohol. But on entering the Betel church service I was met with a crowd of healthy people, many of whom have found a deep and profound faith. Only the tattoos, the high proportion of men and a few sad and preoccupied faces would betray the fact that their church is different to the norm.
Back in the houses where the recovering community lives, there is an atmosphere of peace and a tangible sense of God’s presence. The place might be full of people whose history is aggressive and painful but there is no sign of that here. The place looks like a Christian youth hostel, with scriptures on the walls, green playing fields and rows of bunk beds with football team flags all over them. There is an air of friendship and positivity, despite the fact that people are living in close quarters with little space of their own. The food is fresh and tasty and the residents are keen to tell me about their history. But they tend to credit their turnaround to God rather than Betel itself. ‘There’s only one reason why I’ve changed,’ says Ruth. ‘And that’s God, that’s Jesus.’
There is an incredible contrast between this calm, contented and disciplined environment and the despair and chaos of their former lives. Kim, who is now married to another recovering addict and has been with Betel for seven years, tells a story that represents many of the women of Betel. Kim began life with alcoholic parents, having periods in care and feeling rejected and unloved. She started taking solvents and alcohol at the age of 13, progressing to heroin at the age of 19. ‘I went through 11 years of heroin addiction,’ she says. ‘I did anything to fund my habit – prostitution, I worked in brothels, and I was constantly in and out of prison. When I had my second child, I was so desperate to get my next fix that I left hospital the next day. There were so many dangerous situations. I got beaten up and thrown out on motorways, and locked in houses for days on end. I felt like I was crying out for help but no one was hearing me. It’s not been a bed of roses [in recovery]. But I know I couldn’t go back to that life. I know I have been set free. I still have my struggles and insecurities but there is no going back.’
Betel is different from many rehabilitation centres as it does not seek to do ‘professional’ rehab with psychologists, psychiatrists and other staff members. Its approach is to introduce people to a family environment with Christian teaching, and to engage them in work that then funds their rehabilitation. Betel is run by the recovering addicts themselves and a few missionaries, who do not take payment for their work, but are supported from a home church in the same way as missionaries to the developing world would be. The approach is to build a church and a Christ-centred community, using ministerial skills like scripture and prayer to address people’s issues rather than a clinical approach. There is prayer and worship every morning and regular Bible study. ‘We are missionaries, not rehab specialists,’ says Mary-Alice Martin, one half of the American couple who began the Betel of Britain community. ‘We believe the gospel is the answer to brokenness, as well as building family and community and modelling Christian values.’
For that reason, the couple live adjacent to the house where the recovering addicts live, and share their lives with them. ‘My job is not rehabilitating, it is re-parenting people. You do that by modelling Christ and modelling family,’ says Kent Martin, the other half of the couple. ‘It is wonderful to be the first parents and family environment for some of these guys. That is our heart, to create family and re-parent people.’
Despite the reliance on the gospel the directors state that the process of healing is much more than ‘praying the prayer’ and seeking instant healing from all difficulties. ‘There is much more than just making a commitment to Christ,’ says Mary-Alice. ‘It goes a lot deeper than that.
‘It’s really about learning to become a disciple, yielding your life to the Lord. We deal with the mindset of an addict, “give me a quick fix that will make me feel better... pray over me and make it all go away”. It can’t all be like that. It takes commitment and planning and work with Christ, to become like him.’
One of the ways in which this is learned is through the intensity of close-knit communal living, with strict boundaries and consequences if rules are broken. The closeness puts the attitudes and behaviours of the residents under a microscope, and some see this as one of the main methods for healing. ‘It brings up what you need to work on in your character,’ said one woman. It certainly seems to have had an effect; the house where I stayed one weekend alongside 19 other women was incredibly harmonious, although I’m told that new arrivals can temporarily disrupt the peace.
In many ways Betel is stricter than a lot of rehabilitation centres; no drugs are allowed, including prescription drugs, if they have a psychoactive effect. No one is allowed to smoke or drink alcohol. When an addict arrives at Betel, they are expected to be ready to stop taking drugs. After a period of detoxing the rehabilitation programme begins. They are accompanied everywhere and must follow strict rules within the houses where they live, with consequences of extra housework if they do not follow them. They have to work full-time during the week. But there is a warmth and love in the environment that balances the regime. ‘When I came here I found what I’d been looking for all my life,’ says Julie*.
The work that Betel asks people to take part in, aside from teaching new skills and helping people to learn how to live in a routine, also partly funds the addicts’ own recovery – the rest comes from church donations. Betel has two businesses that operate to fund 85% of the running costs of the community – gardening and furniture restoration and sales. New members of the community will work in the businesses or on other jobs required round the buildings. ‘We get them off benefits, introduce them to Christ and help them to become producers, not consumers,’ says Mary-Alice. ‘Many are so young [when they start taking drugs], they have never worked a day in their life. Most have not been through schooling. That is part of the joy, seeing people discovering their abilities and skills.’
The men and women who come to Betel have often tried other types of rehab before. ‘When people come here, it tends to be their last resort, they have tried prison, day centres, methadone, doing it themselves...they are very desperate by the time they get to us,’ says Mary-Alice. But Betel’s discipline and routine, and work ethic, is so different to the life that addicts are used to, that it can take a lot of adjusting for new guests. About half leave in the first two weeks. However, a quarter to a half of those return. And at least 15% stay for one year or longer. In total Betel has seen more than 5,000 people come through its doors seeking freedom from addiction in the 15 years it has been in the UK. Betel advises that people should stay for 18 months at least, but many stay and want to continue to serve the Betel community. Some recovering addicts become missionaries and go to set up other centres.
Betel began in Spain in the 1980s (Betel is the Spanish word for the Bethel of the Bible, which means ‘house of God’). It was set up in the UK 15 years ago by Kent and Mary-Alice. When they had decided to become missionaries they had thought they would work in ‘the South American jungle somewhere’, in the Third World. To their surprise they felt called to Europe and then to Birmingham. ‘We didn’t want to come to first world Britain,’ says Kent. ‘We wanted to go to the poor elsewhere. Birmingham became my ‘Nineveh’. But when we came here, we saw why missionaries are needed here. God knew the problem.’
The problem is indeed alarming. In the East Midlands the average age that an addict first takes heroin is 13. There are currently 330,000 people addicted to heroin or crack in England alone, according to the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse. Betel has grown fast in its 15 years in the UK, with centres in Birmingham, Nottingham, Derby, Watford and now Manchester. Betel International operates in 19 countries, the fastest growing of which are Russia and India, where there are significant addiction problems. They see the British drug problem as comparable. ‘It is because of huge family breakdown, and so much abuse in this nation,’ says Mary-Alice. ‘I’m still amazed by the stories people tell me about their lives. It is absolutely heartbreaking, and it just seems to get worse and worse. There is a total breakdown in terms of morality.’
And as well as the devastation that addiction brings to the lives of the addicts and those around them, there is a massive social cost. On average a heroin addict commits 432 crimes a year. Most are on benefits as well as billions spent on healthcare, the courts system and policing.
The previous government’s response to the heroin problem has been primarily to prescribe methadone. Only 1% are offered residential rehabilitation. But Betel strongly believes in advocating abstinence in drug and alcohol treatment rather than tolerating continued substance use. ‘The government has become so fatalistic, they don’t believe you can challenge people any more,’ says Kent. ‘They think that all we can do is bail out as fast as we can. A number of our people have been told [by doctors] that they are going to be on drugs for rest of their life. People see no other answer than methadone. Medication has been thrown at the pain in people’s lives. But when we bring them out of their drug stupor, we have people who are intelligent and capable. Yet they are told they are going to be life-long drug addicts.’
Betel is wanting to work more closely with other Christian groups that promote abstinence, as well as the thousands of Christian ministries to the homeless in the UK to become more effective in tackling the problem.
However Kent is cautious about some churches’ attitudes and approaches to people with addictions, as he feels that providing too much financial or material support can often help to keep people in addictions rather than helping them to break free. ‘If you are not careful, you are creating a survival network rather than allowing desperation and a culture of repentance,’ says Kent. ‘The Church needs to balance its ministry between the need for mercy, and the need for promoting responsibility. I have seen one addict suck a church dry, because they are giving them this and that.’
In fact addicts can use Christians’ charity to fund their habit. ‘I got to know a woman, we used to call her the “God squad”,’ says Paul, who was previously a heroin and crack addict. ‘I took a £20 bribe to get a bath, and another bribe to accept the Lord with my mouth and go to church. I even did an Alpha course. But I was in and out of the church service injecting heroin. She thought giving me money was helping me. She gave me £1,000, I bought a van, bought drugs, sold the van. I moved into a man’s house in the church. He had money stashed all over, I took myself a few hundred pounds off him. When he sussed, I burgled his house.’
God started to work on Paul, and he began to have a conscience about some of the things he was doing. It was a Christian ministry that challenged him and led to him going to Betel and getting clean. ‘I went to a drop-in at a church, to see if anyone had any drugs,’ he says. ‘I met a woman called Rachel. She said, “Have you had enough yet? Because there is more to life than this. God wants to make something of your life.”’ He used the phone and called Betel nine years ago. ‘I had considered myself a Christian because of the words I had spoken, but I soon realised I wasn’t,’ he said. Despite a relapse several years ago, he is currently clean and married to Kim, with a young child. Examples like Paul’s mean that Betel often advises churches to be more challenging to people in addiction, and not condone sinful behaviour, at the same time as being loving and supportive. ‘It is about being there for people in their crisis and desperation, but not alleviating every symptom or suffering that is a consequence of the addiction,’ says Mary-Alice.
Maybe that sums up Betel. It is a place of love, acceptance and mercy, but it has strict boundaries and rules that challenge. The people seek God’s power to change. In that way, perhaps it is a taste of his kingdom on earth.
*Some names have been changed
Betel is open to anyone who is willing to follow the community rules and wants to be free from all mind-altering drugs. Anyone can call their nearest Betel centre (call 01564 822 356 to find it) on a weekday to be interviewed, and may be admitted within several days. Betel is running training days for Christians who work with people in addiction. See betel.co.uk for more information.
Other Christian drug and alcohol projects in the UK
There are a number of Christian projects that help people to address their addictions, using different approaches, these include:
Well known due to its early days being chronicled in the book and film The Cross and the Switchblade, Teen Challenge is where Nicky Cruz first found faith and broke out of his gangland lifestyle. Teen Challenge now has six centres across the UK. Like Betel, the programme is abstinence-based, so it promotes total abstinence from alcohol and drugs, and residents live there for 12- 18 months. They take part in work and studies based on biblical principles, and have 1-2-1 counselling. They mainly take people who are 18-35 years old. It is funded through charitable donations. 01269 844168
A residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation programme for men near Reading. It is also abstinence-based, although they will allow people to continue to take some medication for mental health issues. They use Christian teaching and other therapeutic programmes as well as taking part in work around the house they stay in to help residents break free from their addictions. There is a detox programme and a resettlement programme to help people integrate back into community. Usually people are funded through their local drug and alcohol services. 0118 940 4413
OO is similar to Alcoholics Anonymous and similar groups, as it uses a ‘12 step’ model of treatment and is based on attending regular group meetings and working a spiritual program. The difference is that it only promotes a Christian approach rather than the more liberal approach of most 12 step groups. Attendance is free and the groups are run by people who are recovering addicts themselves. There are few meetings in the UK but the programme can be done in conjunction with the other more numerous 12 step groups. www.overcomersoutreach.org.uk