Donald Sims, pastor of City of Hope Church, discloses that 70% of his church members are new converts and 50% of those are recovering addicts. He affirms, “God has given us a lot of the people that nobody wants. And we take ‘em. We love ‘em. And God’s transforming them into the kind of people that everybody wants. They’re faithful. They’re loyal. They love Jesus. And I’m honored to be their pastor.”
Clay County has a 200-year history of violence and corruption, and corruption opened the door to substance abuse. Moonshine stills supplied alcohol to people living in hollows in the hills. Bootleg whiskey defied prohibition. Later, marijuana cultivation became widespread and cocaine appeared on the scene. High-grade marijuana from Eastern Kentucky supplied dealers across the U.S. Then came pain pills and others. Southeast Kentucky became known as the “Painkiller Capital” of the U.S. The latest scourge is methamphetamines.
Businesses packed up and moved elsewhere because they could not rely on their workers, 80% of whom were on drugs (as reported by Paul Hays, Deputy Director of UNITE). Many good people moved away to find jobs. Young people saw no reason to flip hamburgers when they could earn two thousand dollars a week selling drugs. And many saw dealing as the only way to support their own habit.
One recovered addict divulges she and her husband had a two-thousand-dollar-a-week habit. Drug dealing was so common and open that one bootlegger turned drug dealer had a drive-through window with more customers than Wendy’s, Hardees, Arby’s, and MacDonald’s combined, according to the FBI. He stayed in business for 30 years because he paid nine to twelve city and county officials every week.
The honest policemen were frustrated when dealers they arrested were back on the street before the paperwork was completed. In the high school, students smoked pot, with impunity, during breaks, and occasionally in classes. Christians accepted the situation as an inevitable sign of the times that they could do nothing about.
Churches worked to alleviate some of the problems of the 70% who were unemployed in their county. One church had a clothing warehouse. Another supplied furniture. Another had a food bank and a free medical clinic. The churches supported one another’s ministries to the community.
When the food bank was low on food other churches raised money and collected food for it. But most churches had nothing to do with addicts. Pastor Doug Abner of Community Church states, “We almost made little country clubs out of our churches… and we didn’t want that kind of people in our churches… [they] kept getting worse and worse and we thought we were getting better and better, but really we were getting worse and worse.”
Pastor Ken Bolin of Manchester Baptist Church adds, “We pursued people who could give a tithe… who could actually help our church. We pursued respectable people. But we weren’t pursuing the people that God really is interested in. Jesus said that the ‘well’ do not need a physician, but the sick do.”
Drug addiction spread to children of upper class, wealthy families – no longer confined to the poor and the uneducated. Almost every family in the county was affected in some way, including families in the churches. Funerals followed drug overdoses and left grieving families. They thought they were losing one addict a week to overdoses.
But Pastor Doug says they found out later that another one to two addicts died each week of such causes as car wrecks and seizures, however, people were not recording that the person was on drugs at the time.
Pastor Ken Bolin had a wake-up call. After a young lady started attending his youth group, he reached out to her mother who was addicted. Before Christmas the mother collapsed and froze to death on her way home from a drug dealer’s house. He realized churches must change if they were going to reach those in need. Pastor Doug Abner (Pentecostal) and Pastor Ken Bolin (Baptist) had been friends for years, despite their divergent theologies.
In 2000, they had worked together with some other pastors to raise the funds to bring the Power Team to Manchester. This laid the groundwork for interdenominational cooperation. Community Church members also spent several years “prayer walking” through the community and around other churches.
In late 2003, realizing how desperate the situation had become, they invited six or eight other pastors to come for breakfast and a prayer meeting on Saturday mornings. Knowing only God could help; they asked Him what they should do. Viewing the “Transformations I” video encouraged them that God could transform desperate situations when Christians prayed. Pastor Ken reported that it gave them hope, and, from that point, the prayer meetings began to grow. As more pastors and church members became desperate they joined the weekly prayer meeting to cry out to God. Another major influence was the book “Experiencing God” by Henry Blackaby, which led to much repentance.
One Saturday morning, a Methodist pastor said, “I believe we need to pray for God to expose the darkness.” A few months later the FBI did their first major drug bust, arresting 17 major drug dealers. God had begun exposing the pervasive corruption, and that eventually led to many officials going to prison – including the mayor, assistant police chief, county court clerk, city councilman, fiscal court members, the fire chief, the city manager, and the 911 director. This answer to prayer was difficult for many churches because many of these corrupt officials were church members. After one of the arrests, many friends and family members left Pastor Ken’s church – leaving the church with only half of its former members.
As Pastor Ken prayed one afternoon he said that the Lord gave him a vision to have a march against drugs and corruption, just as churches had joined together to fight racism and segregation during the Civil Rights Movement. The group prayed and received confirmation that this was what God was telling them to do.
After several months of preparation through prayer and fasting, they sent information to all 100 churches in Clay County, and ordered tee shirts for the march which said, “Taking back our county one life at a time.” Despite criticism and threats, they persevered in their plans. Judge Henria Baily-Lewis feared for Pastor Ken who was nearly assaulted one evening. The morning of the march a city official called Pastor Doug to tell him that if they marched their churches could be destroyed. Pastor Doug responded, “Listen, you probably don’t understand this. The church is not the building. The church is the people… We’ve prayed over our buildings. But if we come back and they’re burnt to the ground…the church will be stronger than it’s ever been.”
Another warned them not to have children in the march because some people were going to drive into the marchers and the children would be killed. Undeterred, Pastor Doug marched at the front with his grandchildren so they could witness the day that God changed Manchester and could be emboldened for battles they might face as adults.
The attendance at the Saturday morning prayer meetings had reached 150 the day before the march, but organizers had no idea how many people would show up for the march on Sunday afternoon, May 2, 2004. To make matters worse, it was cold and rainy that day. At least 3,500 came to march from 63 churches. As part of the march, in the park all 63 pastors knelt in the rain.
As Pastor Ken relates, “63 proud pastors set their pride aside and repented before thirty-five hundred people…we had to confess… we were responsible for our county’s condition because we stayed within the walls of our church. We stayed with our denominational programs who really did nothing in addressing the drug problem… we repented of the fortress mentality. And we covenanted together that we were going to fight together, shoulder to shoulder, side by side, to fight this drug problem.” Pastor Ken affirms, “Everything changed at that very moment, and, as Doug says, the heavens opened and good things were on its way.”
Pastor Doug emphasizes the repentance of the pastors was the key. People who had never before felt the presence of the Lord still talk about how evident it was that day.
The day after the march, the pastors divided up and went to each city and county official (including the corrupt ones). They gave each one a potted plant and asked forgiveness for being more concerned for their church and programs and building and not helping to solve the problems of the community. They asked forgiveness for grumbling and complaining instead of helping. They offered to help and to pray for the official and for their concerns. Since then officials call the pastors to ask for prayer and advice.
The changes since the march have been profound. Many drug dealers and corrupt officials are now in prison. Manchester had its first clean election ever. Previously, many Christians did not vote, because they knew that large numbers of votes had been bought and they didn’t think their one vote would make a difference. This time churches sponsored forums where the candidates spoke and answered questions. Many Christians voted, and good, honest people were elected – a surprising number of whom are Christians themselves, who are working for the good of the community. After the mayor was elected, she became a Christian and she leads a prayer meeting every Monday morning to which the pastors are also invited.
There is a new respect for the church in the community. The Sheriff finds people in trouble and brings them to one of the churches, trusting that they will help them. Churches are banding together in providing after-school programs for kids to teach them archery, soccer, or horseback riding. They also feed them a tasty meal and teach them how to stay drug free and make positive choices. Individual mentoring helps to fill a gap for youth whose parents are alcoholics or drug addicts or in prison. The churches now support a crisis pregnancy center.
The churches cooperate with Operation UNITE, a coalition of law enforcement agencies, created by Congressman Hal Rogers to fight the drug problem in Eastern Kentucky through enforcement, treatment, and education. When they do drug raids they call the pastors to be available to talk with those who have been arrested. A pastor or counselor will sit down beside each detainee who is in handcuffs, put their arm around them, tell them they know this is a very difficult time for them, and offer to pray with them or send people to talk to them in jail if they desire it.
They also offer help for their families, to care for their spouse or children. Operation UNITE provides vouchers for addicts to go through drug rehabilitation at Chad’s Hope Teen Challenge. (After Chad died of a drug overdose his father donated the land for this treatment center, and federal and state funds enabled the center to be built.) Karen Kelly, Executive Director of UNITE, explains, “We’re a government program, but we’re not ashamed of the church.” And Pastor Doug describes this unique partnership as a “dream team.” The part the church does is to pray and do the volunteer work.
Non-violent offenders have the option of Drug Court instead of incarceration. It is a program with very rigorous requirements, one of which is to have a full-time job. Businesses in Manchester hire recovering addicts to give them a second chance. Judge Henria Bailey-Lewis, who presides over a Drug Court, affirms, “even five or six years ago, you would have had a very, very hard time having somebody with pending felony charges getting a job – anywhere in our community.”
The 63 churches who marched now welcome recovering drug addicts to their churches. Where they were afraid before, they now think it’s cool to have addicts in their church. They provide Lifeline Courses (developed by Teen Challenge) to people working to overcome life-controlling problems, as well as support groups for the families of addicts. They are finding that recovering drug addicts are very high maintenance, but are well worth it.
Some churches and individual church members have low-cost apartments for the recovering addicts to rent. They help them to find a job and get on their feet financially. Pastor Ken declares that drug addicts are no longer outcast. They are in his church every Sunday and they feel like they have a place in the churches now.
One of the most radical conversions is Steve Collett – a former long-term meth addict, drug dealer, and bodyguard, who was a violent and dangerous man. After eluding capture for a year by living in the mountains, he was finally apprehended and served time. In jail a chaplain, obedient to God’s prompting, persisted in telling Steve about Jesus, even though Steve rebuffed him. The night of Steve’s release, he promised to serve God if He protected him from freezing to death in 18 degree weather in the only shelter he could find – a “Porta Potty”. Finding he was alive the next morning, he gave his life to the Lord. After some initial setbacks, the chaplain took him to Community Church, which he eventually joined.
Church members provided Steve with an apartment. For two years, John and Lida Becknell took Steve wherever he needed to go, as he did not have a driver’s license. They drove him to court, doctor appointments, church, Walmart, and the grocery store. They let him use their washing machine, and invited him for meals. They loved him and supported him in every way they could. Pastor Doug affirms, “They just did incredible things, you know, just what we ought to be doin’.” Steve’s wife, Leslie, became a Christian in jail and they were reunited after her release. Steve and Leslie now have their own home, job, and vehicles.
Steve returns to the regional detention center to preach every week. The detention center chaplain who first shared Jesus with him says that Steve now disciples him. The policeman who had arrested Steve multiple times says that now Steve has been “responsible for leading more people to Christ than any preacher in this county. He has…touched hundreds of people…he’s just an amazing guy. He knows more about the Bible than most preachers… today…he’ll do anything he can to help us. And I have great respect for him and appreciate him so much.” One of Steve’s brothers said Steve used to be a wild man, and added, “It’s like takin’ a grizzly bear and, and turnin’ it into a good preacher.”
Pastor Doug says Steve has brought a hundred people to church who have gotten saved and baptized. And he has led many prisoners to the Lord. When inmates surrender their lives to Jesus as Lord and want to be baptized the jailor transports them (in orange jumpsuit, handcuffs, and shackles) to a local church to be baptized. Pastor Doug exclaims, “We baptize prisoners ‘til I’m wore out sometimes. Just, it’s amazing.”
Other recovering addicts are active in ministry as well. Pastor Doug remarks that once drug addicts “get it” they make incredible church members. “Those folks are incredible. They come every day, ‘What can we do? Tell me somethin’ I can do in the church. I want to help people.’ And our … recovering addicts through our Lifeline program. They’re the ones that go to the jail. Well, I don’t have to do that any more. I’m there for ’em and help ’em, but they do that now.”
Many of the drug addicts have never had a parent or relative tell them they love them. Many have parents who were addicts themselves or who spent time in jail. The church members who minister to the recovering addicts fill the role of the godly parents the addicts never had. John and Lida have had several who call them momma and daddy, and some who even asked if they would adopt them.
The interdenominational prayer meetings continue every Saturday morning. There are still drug problems in Clay County, though the situation is much better. With the corrupt officials gone, many local people are no longer afraid to pass on tips to law enforcements. Drug raids continue. For many, their arrest is an occasion for an addict to become free of drugs and learn to live as a responsible citizen. The churches are playing a major role in holding services in the jails and in supporting and helping prisoners both practically and spiritually when they are released.
Pastor Ken explains that revival in Manchester fits a new paradigm. Revival did not come through one church or through one speaker. Revival came to the whole church through a social issue that affected every family in their county. And the churches no longer reject drug addicts. They welcome them and know how to help them with their struggles. Instead of looking at them as high maintenance, they look at them as prospective members of the Kingdom of God, and they reach out to them in love.
The latest Sentinel Group DVD, “An Appalachian Dawn”, documents the dramatic transformation in Manchester, Kentucky. It is available to purchase from Sentinel’s online store – www.RevivalWorks.org.