CHESTER, Pa. - Two rows of brick-façade buildings bake in the sunlight on either side of dusty Sproul Street here. Inside one of the buildings, an unlocked door leads down a shiny linoleum hallway to a chapel-turned-classroom where a class made up of 33 freshly showered men meets in red velvet church pews and folding chairs. In their midst, a tall, slightly balding, middle-aged pastor offers encouraging jabs of Scripture and psychological insights in spirited torrents of street lingo. Sunlight pours through the stained glass and multicolored banners festoon the walls with "Hallelujah," "He Lives," and "Our Refuge."
The CityTeam Ministries Drug and Alcohol Recovery Discipleship program begins with a meeting like this every day. Along with specialized education, job training, and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Bible studies are a core component of the nine- to 30-month program, which accepts any drug-addicted homeless man who is willing to commit to change.
"Why do some of us pick up [using drugs] again after we've been sober?" Pastor John Swenson of the Bethlehem United Methodist Church asks. "Maybe we're afraid of success," someone tosses out. With a rise of his voice and a stomp of his foot, Pastor John interjects, "Some father may have said, 'Damn it, you'll never amount to nothin'.'" A skinny guy in green-ink tattoos, jeans, and a white T-shirt stares at him with childlike simplicity and huskily agrees under his breath: "Yeah."
One man who went through CityTeam's program, Charles Lee Knuckles, amounted to nothing in society's eyes. After 32 years as a drug addict and alcoholic, he was toothless, unkempt, and 80 pounds underweight. Working menial jobs to feed his addictions, one day Knuckles staggered through a group of kids hanging out on a street corner. "They were staring at me and laughing at me as I walked through . . . I was a zero, a nothing." Then one of them shot him in the back of the head.
Knuckles woke up in the hospital, but before the bullet could be removed from his head, he pulled the IV from his arm, fished the bag of crack from his bloody discarded clothes, and staggered out of the hospital to his apartment. "I knew I was a zero," Knuckles repeated, "and I tried to take my life." The previous tenant of Knuckles' room had killed himself by hanging, and Knuckles himself was ready to place his neck in the noose.
Instead of dying, though, Knuckles mysteriously found himself in the lobby of CityTeam; to this day he still does not know how he got there. So desperate and disheveled was his appearance that the receptionist begged him to come back when he had collected himself, but the staff welcomed him. "Richard [Williams, the executive director] and the others embraced me," Knuckles said, pressing his hand to his eyes to stifle tears. "After that, I would have done anything for them," Knuckles said.
So, he volunteered to clean the bathroom used by the hundreds of homeless people who passed through CityTeam each week. "I cleaned every inch of that place-behind the toilet, around the bowl," he said, "and got things out of there that you wouldn't even mention. And there, on my hands and knees in that filth, it hit me: I realized that God was doing the same thing to me that I was doing to that bathroom. He was cleaning me from the inside out." Knuckles prayed to Jesus on that bathroom floor.
Tony Clark, another former program participant now employed by CityTeam, says he used to set his mind and energy to buying and using drugs, and even when he changed he still initially depended on "that feeling of the warm fuzzies" to come closer to God. Now, though, he is able to be consistent: "I might feel alone or have a rough day, but it's now by faith that I know that God is always there." Clark now is studying in the Bible how David, a man after God's own heart, nevertheless fell away-but then repented.
Some current participants consider themselves "newly sober" and still aren't sure they will be able to make it through to recovery. One enrollee-call him Buzz-has been at CityTeam for a month and says he's learning who God is: He has often thought of God as an angry and far-off Deity whose moral perfection merely confirms his worthlessness, but he believes that God is cleaning him up from the inside.
Another participant, "Woody," is a late-middle-aged college drop-out who taught himself drafting. He entered the program after a lifetime of severe alcohol abuse: Blackouts and loss of blood circulation compelled him to seek help. Since he has often been in rehabilitation programs, he still considers himself-after 13 months at CityTeam-"newly sober." Locked in a daily struggle of craving drink to make his problems disappear, Woody says he'd "like to be normal: I'm not normal. Normal is being able to have one drink and then to walk away." He receives encouragement and counseling from other program participants and plans to work as an addictions counselor in the future.
Many Christian organizations offer such encouragement and counseling, but CityTeam also makes it concrete by offering men like Buzz and Woody the opportunity to gain better living arrangements, on higher floors, as they progress in the program. On the first floor homeless men discard their dirty clothes in a small lobby, then get clean in group showers before settling down for the night on bunk beds in a large room monitored by staff in an adjacent lounge with camera surveillance and a large viewing window. All homeless men are welcome to stay for up to five nights, after which they are given the choice of enrolling in the program. If they do not, CityTeam has them leave, with the option of returning later.
Those who enroll move to the second floor, where there are slightly nicer bathrooms and showers and a large room with bunk beds arranged into quadrant-like structures that allow for semi-enclosed "rooms" with desks and bureaus. After remaining in the program for about three months and making good progress, program members move to the third floor, where they walk carpeted halls, lounge in a TV room, study the Bible in a slick conference room, and live three to four in a suite.
CityTeam also recognizes that those who grow spiritually will often have the desire to make up for missed education. It has a Compass Academy that features self-paced, computer-interactive courses that allow adults to develop basic skills, work toward a GED, or apply for college entrance.
CityTeam in Chester, like many other groups, depends heavily on volunteers to serve as counselors, but it is unusual in that it was planted by compassionate Christians from a city on the other side of the country. CityTeam began in San Jose and had great success there; six other cities across the nation now have local CityTeams. That may be the future of poverty-fighting ministries, with groups that succeed in one city striving to do the same elsewhere.