Skip to comments.Bush's Focus on Antidrug Ministry Irks Some
Posted on 02/23/2003 1:13:33 PM PST by unspun
Jonathan Cohen for The New York Times Tonja Myles preaching at a meeting of Set Free Indeed, a Christian ministry for drug abusers in Baton Rouge. "The same God who delivered me can do the same for you," said Mrs. Myles, a former addict herself.
February 23, 2003
Bush's Focus on Antidrug Ministry Irks SomeBy LAURIE GOODSTEIN
ATON ROUGE ? On a recent Friday night, cars began arriving at Healing Place, a megachurch on the outskirts of town that from the road looks more like a big-box retail store than a place of worship.
Into the sanctuary of the church trickled nearly 100 men and women, carrying Bibles, avoiding eye contact and hoping for liberation from the addictions crippling their lives. A Christian rock band belted out a set of love songs focusing on Jesus, then a woman in a crisply pressed white shirt took up a cordless microphone and began to preach a mix of scripture and self-help.
"The same God who delivered me can do the same for you," said the woman, Tonja Myles, describing her victory years ago over addictions to drugs, alcohol and abusive men. "If you're hurting tonight, we know the one who can make you whole, and that is Jesus."
These Friday night sessions were singled out by President Bush in his State of the Union address last month as an example of "recovery programs that do amazing work." In that speech, the president unveiled his proposal to spend $600 million on drug programs over the next three years to help 300,000 more addicts get treatment. Mrs. Myles, invited to Washington for the occasion by the president, beamed from the gallery of guests seated with Laura Bush, the first lady.
Many drug treatment professionals were thrilled to hear a president direct the nation's attention to a social epidemic that they say has too long been ignored and underfinanced. But some were troubled that of all the nation's treatment programs, the president seemed to hold up as a model deserving government support a program that is religiously sectarian, unlicensed, untested and not clinical in its methods.
"That Friday night event sounds like a worship service," said John Avery, director of public policy for the National Association for Addiction Professionals. "The bulk of the patients I know would need a greater level of care than that. Maybe it would help if they're two years clean and dry, but then it serves more like a spiritual support group, and why would you need government to pay for that service?"
The administration said that no one from the White House had visited Healing Place Church to observe the program before endowing it with the president's blessing. If administration officials had, they would have found an endeavor that its founders acknowledge is neither a recovery program nor a drug treatment center, but a ministry.
It was started a year ago by two volunteers, Mrs. Myles and her husband, Darren, who run a plumbing business and have no training in substance abuse treatment or counseling. They call the program Set Free Indeed, and it is among many ministries initiated by this fast-growing church, like Cruisin' for Christ for motorcycle enthusiasts, and Growing Kids God's Way, for parents.
"We're more of a support group," Mrs. Myles said in an interview here. "If people need rehabilitation, we try to refer them to somewhere."
Appreciative anecdotes from participants in a newspaper article caught the president's eye, but no one has studied the ministry's impact on those who attend.
Set Free Indeed receives no government financing. Mr. and Mrs. Myles say they contribute $300 to $400 each month toward child care for those who attend and toward dinners like chicken and pasta and coconut cream pie so participants will feel welcome and linger.
If government financing became available, said the Rev. Dino Rizzo, senior pastor of Healing Place Church, the addiction ministry would pursue it "without a doubt."
"Tonja and Darren have a heart to give people the correct help they need," Mr. Rizzo said, "which we believe, of course, begins at Christ and then includes every other tool you can get your hands on."
The money from the president's drug treatment initiative would go toward vouchers that would be given to addicts to pay for treatment at any program that states deemed effective, including religious programs.
The White House says the plan does not violate constitutional prohibitions on government support for religion because the money goes toward the addicts' vouchers, not to the programs directly. Critics call it a strategy designed to dodge laws on separation of church and state.
Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the ranking Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, said, "Again and again, this president has demonstrated that he doesn't understand the Constitution, or just doesn't care about it."
President Bush, who has long said that faith helped him overcome his own problem with alcohol, argues that his initiative will give more choice to addicts seeking help. The kind of programs that stand to benefit most are those like Teen Challenge, a national network of Christian-based residential facilities that has been excluded from government financing, said Jim Towey, director of the White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
"A lot of chronic drug users respond to interventions that aren't purely medical, that have a spiritual component," Mr. Towey said.
He said that by honoring Mrs. Myles, "the president wasn't saying, `Here is a program that deserves funding.' "
"Tonja's being in the box with the first lady was a demonstration of what a difference faith can make in an addict's life," he said.
Mrs. Myles, 39, said that when she was in her early 20's, she used cocaine and marijuana, turned to prostitution and twice attempted suicide. One desperate night she arrived at the doorstep of her grandmother, who prayed for her.
"That night, God did deliver me," Mrs. Myles said. "I never had a craving, I never slipped."
Her mother, Hattie Richard, said she was also a recovering addict, but for her faith alone was not enough. Fourteen years ago, Tonja called the sheriff to escort her unwillingly to a detoxification program, which set her on the road to sobriety, the two women said. Now Mrs. Richard works as a receptionist at O'Brien House, a residential treatment program in town.
On the recent Friday at Healing Place, when Mrs. Myles and her husband finished their sermons, the participants gathered in smaller groups and revealed their battles with all kinds of addictions, including drugs, alcohol, pornography and food.
"We're here for you," Mrs. Myles told the participants. "If you need prayer during the week, someone to encourage you, we're here for you."