by Hadley Barndollar, New Hampshire Bulletin
When Pastor Junior Saint Val took to the microphone at the Wednesday evening service, he said the bright lights on stage made him feel like he was getting arrested again.
Laughs and nods came from the 200 or so attendees seated at long communal tables, interspersed with fresh cut flowers in glass jars and paper plates piled with macaroni and cheese, watermelon, and pigs in a blanket. They drank from birch beer cans and Styrofoam cups of steaming black coffee. One woman wore a shirt that read, “Wicked Sobah.”
For 45 minutes inside the First United Methodist Church in Portsmouth, Saint Val discussed being 10 years sober from drugs and alcohol and how he went from viewing God as his “accuser” to his “defender.” His cadence was melodic, his vocals windswept. People raised their arms in the air when his words hit just right.
His authenticity resonated. What he was saying was real.
This isn’t a prototypical church gathering. It’s a recovery church, believed to be the first of its kind in New Hampshire. Last week’s opening event marked the 44th location of the Recovery Church Movement, a national network of chapters “for people in recovery, by people in recovery.”
Not intended to replace Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, support groups, or treatment, the idea behind recovery churches is to create a meeting point, or bridge, between addiction and faith.
For some, God is an essential part of their recovery journey, but those conversations aren’t always welcome in certain spaces, they say. On the other hand, there are people hiding in plain sight at places of worship: those who have yet to admit they have an addiction because they fear judgment and rejection.
The Recovery Church Movement says it aims to bring all of those people – from different stations in life – together, its guiding principle being the 12 Steps of AA. It’s nondenominational, rooted in teachings from the Bible.
Jackie, an AA participant from Stratham who asked that she be identified by first name only, said she longed to talk about God in her AA meetings. Simultaneously, she felt she couldn’t broach sobriety in her church circle.
“It just hit my heart,” she said of the recovery church model. “It just meshed with what I had been looking for. I’ve been going to church my whole life and I never dared to say anything that I was an alcoholic. You don’t discuss those things. Even in nice, close Bible studies. So this is like, I can be me, I can be with others with Christ, and be with others in their addictions.”
Saint Val was visiting New Hampshire from Florida, where the Recovery Church Movement originated in 2010. There, he works as a pastor and national coach, helping others across the country set up their own recovery churches. His inaugural sermon in the Granite State kicked off what will be weekly gatherings on Wednesday nights, using space at Portsmouth’s First United Methodist Church.
He said recovery churches are “re-presenting God” – to people who have felt as though they aren’t “clean” enough or worthy to attend, or perhaps were previously harmed by the church. Saint Val said he had no relationship with God for most of his life. But he found himself at church one day for the allure of real coffee, he said with a laugh, because the treatment center he was living at served only decaf.
Faith and addiction
Churches in New Hampshire and across the nation have in many ways been forced to address substance abuse and its reverberations because of the staggering toll on communities. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis has grown worse.
In 2022, there were 486 confirmed fatal drug overdoses in New Hampshire, the highest number since 2017. And numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that “alcohol-induced” deaths – such as liver or pancreas failure, alcohol poisoning, withdrawal, or other diseases – rose by 26 percent nationally in 2020, the highest recorded rate in at least 40 years.
At the nonprofit New Hampshire Council of Churches, an addiction and recovery task force compiles resources to support and destigmatize “those living with substance use in faith communities.” Places of worship can often be where people turn to if they’re struggling, but faith leaders aren’t always equipped to handle topics such as drug abuse or mental health.
At the Recovery Church Movement, the leaders are people actively in recovery or battling addiction themselves.
The New Hampshire Council of Churches is also part of the Good Samaritan Network, which links churches to recovery ministries outside of their own networks and denominations, trains faith leaders, and connects them to “The Doorway,” the state’s hub-and-spoke model for substance use disorders.
Some churches, such as St. Andrew’s Episopal Church in Manchester and Church of the Good Shepherd in Nashua, host recovery-specific dinners or services. At First Baptist Church in Plaistow, a “gathering of souls” affected by addiction takes place once a month.
Recovery Church Movement in NH
The Recovery Church Movement, also called the Association of Recovery Churches, is a nonprofit organization based out of Jupiter, Florida. Prior to launching in New Hampshire last week, there was just one other location in New England: in Northampton, Massachusetts. Chapters have been “planted” primarily on the East Coast, though some are located in California, Arizona, Montana, Texas, Minnesota, and Missouri.
Joy Morin and Freddy Petrone were instrumental in bringing a recovery church to New Hampshire. They traveled to Florida about eight months ago to meet with Saint Val and Pastor Phil Dvorak, the founder of the Recovery Church Movement. There, they attended several services. Petrone recalled people passionately shouting from the crowd, “Come on!”
“We were on fire,” he said. “It was just incredible.”
Morin’s interest began a few years ago with a visit to see her twin sister in Florida, where she saw Saint Val give a sermon. A former New Hampshire resident who now lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Morin was drawn to his calmness and sense of hope.
A year later, during a return trip to Florida, she tracked him down at the Recovery Church Movement. She was so moved by the experience that she went home convinced the Seacoast area desperately needed a recovery church.
“A lot of times you’ve got people in recovery who are missing that spirituality, and then you may have people in church who are missing a recovery program,” Morin said. “And both of them are struggling with addiction to alcohol and drugs.”
Morin herself is not in recovery, but has many friends who are. She’d heard some of them talk over the years about how recovery meetings were “taking God out of the program,” because religion can be polarizing in conversation.
Petrone, a Portsmouth resident, wanted a place where he could openly talk about his addiction in the context of God.
“For me personally, when I bring up God, people reprimand me,” he said. “This, more so than any other program of recovery, really focuses on God.”
Petrone was 45 years old when he went blind from a rare genetic disorder. The loss of his sight, he said, ultimately saved his life: It put him on a path to sobriety from alcohol and drugs. In 2021, he started a nonprofit called “I Got Bridged,” a network of volunteers helping people in need throughout the Seacoast.
Firm that a recovery church is supplemental and not a replacement for other meetings and substance use support, Petrone hopes the weekly meal and subsequent service will become equally important to the people who need them.
The energy had already started to show itself last week, as older men laughed in groups together, children colored, people hugged and recognized faces. Some sat in solitude at the edges of the room, flashing closed-mouth smiles when they met the eyes of others.
Throughout the night, a band called Salt and Light Company played worship songs familiar to many in the crowd. One verse in particular seemed to capture the room.
“You called my name, and I ran out of that grave, out of the darkness, into your glorious day.”
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