CHICAGO-Stephen Kuta had a good mind for math, but his beer-drinking, weed-smoking ways left him expelled from two different high schools in Chicago's south suburbs. He graduated instead to cocaine and took to writing bad checks in his grandmother's name to feed his addiction. His step-father banned him from the house, but his mom, after hiding her purse, occasionally snuck him in.
Paychecks from Kuta's union carpentry job didn't last the weekend, so he began robbing drug dealers at gunpoint. Weapons violations and eight battery charges-two against police officers-sent him to the county jail around 20 times. Kuta went to state-run drug recovery centers. At one, a self-examination exercise required him to sit in front of a mirror and speak to his reflection. He punched the mirror.
A 2001 reformation lasted two years but ended when Kuta moved in with a girlfriend and reignited his crack addiction, but cocaine-induced flashbacks scared him into taking the advice of his uncle: He pointed him to drug rehabilitation and then to Harvey House School of Ministry, a 12- to 18-month men's recovery program for former drug addicts and criminals.
Kuta's story is like that of half a dozen former addicts whom WORLD interviewed at Harvey House, which has 30 on the single floor of an old building in Harvey, Ill., a town 20 miles south of downtown Chicago. Harvey House operates under the umbrella of Restoration Ministries, an organization with a $2.2 million budget and 28 programs aimed at community development, evangelism, and mentoring. For Kuta, now 35, Harvey House was a godsend from the day he arrived in April 2007: "I got saved and accepted the Lord into my life the same evening." For the first time, he said, "I started experiencing peace in my life."
John Sullivan founded Restoration Ministries in 1988 out of frustration with the results of an evangelistic Bible study he and his wife were leading at Branden House, a state-sponsored recovery program in Manteno, Ill. He estimates 12,000 Branden House residents professed Christ over the years, but many relapsed into drug use after returning to city streets. "They just didn't have enough indoctrination in Christianity," said Sullivan, who is 73 and still practices dentistry two days a week.
Sullivan's solution was Harvey House (and later, for women, Tabitha House), which he offers free of charge to willing Branden House graduates: "Let's forget about yesterday, there's nothing you can do about it. What can we do now [is to help you become] a man of God, a man who is responsible for his family, a man who is responsible in a job."
The men at Harvey House attend daily Bible studies where a rotation of pastors, theologians, and even a local judge teach about forgiveness, the commands of Jesus, and helping your brother. They also attend Spirit of God Fellowship, the nondenominational church Sullivan founded and still pastors.
"When you come into Harvey House you come in all broken and without direction in life," said Ray Banks, the executive director of Restoration Ministries and a former resident himself. When new residents minister to others, "all of a sudden you realize your problems are not as big as you thought they were." Banks' goal is to take men "from maintenance to mission" by giving them responsibility.
After 14 months at Harvey House, Kuta relishes his responsibility. "I got keys to million-dollar stuff," he said, pulling a large set out of his pocket while showing off the ministry's 150,000-square-foot warehouse packed with used tables, toys, couches, electronics, exercise bikes, shoes, books, and boxes of used clothing stacked two stories high. Restoration Ministries' two thrift stores sell donated goods in showrooms and on eBay and Amazon.com.
Harvey House residents inspect and organize donations, make local pickups and deliveries, and learn how to interact with customers. Kuta supervises maintenance and landscaping at all of the ministry's buildings-plus Sullivan's church and the private school affiliated with it. Kuta said he's learning to live under authority, but admits, "I'm not perfect. I get mad at my brothers sometimes."
Restoration Ministries recently broke ground for a new 25,000-square-foot facility that will house its offices and the Harvey House men. Besides the thrift stores, Harvey House and Tabitha House residents help run more than two dozen programs, including a food pantry, a prison outreach, seniors banquets, and block parties; for youth they provide homework help, basketball, and chess and boxing clubs.
During a recent practice Harvey House resident Nate Skoda, a former fighter with a Popeye tattoo on his arm and scar tissue on his nose, yelled orders at a group of groaning kids who were balanced on their elbows and toes. "Let's go, Major!" he said to one. "Get your butt up!" Skoda used his foot to lift one boy's knees as other students slumped toward the floor. "I didn't say stop!"
Restoration Ministries provided Skoda with the space, resources, and encouragement to start the boxing club in 2002. Since then he's coached the Harvey Boxing Club to four first-place wins at the state Silver Gloves Championships. He said the program taught him that love includes discipline. "It's helped me be a better coach, a better man."
Not every man wants tough love. Last year 61 of 102 Harvey House residents dropped out or were expelled. Executive Director Banks let some back in, like Kenny Baumgardner. On his first day back, Baumgardner, an unshaven man with a brown-blond mustache, nervously finished a dinner of sliced ham, sweet corn, and macaroni. Eight months after dropping out, he had relapsed into alcoholism and drug use. "God brought me back there," he says. "I've lost everything in my life already, so there's nothing else to do but grow up."
Kuta is already growing up. Just a few weeks after celebrating four years of sobriety he sat down to talk about the future. His high GED scores have earned him a two-year scholarship at South Suburban College, which he hopes to attend in the fall. He's also rebuilding a broken relationship with his family. Kuta said his mom professed Christ a few months ago, and he's finally able to talk to his stepfather as a friend. "They invited me to go on a fishing trip with them next Labor Day. It'll just be me, him, and the boat for a week. I'm excited. Scared."
Kuta's cell phone rang. It was his mom. "She called to thank me again," he said after hanging up, explaining he had just remodeled his parents' bathroom. "She went in and thought about me this morning. People [are] thanking me instead of cursing me."
Paramedics saved Mike Acquaviva from drug overdoses three times before he was 16. Break-ins and theft landed him in prison with a three- to five-year sentence.
After parole, Acquaviva decided to become a dealer in illicit pharmaceuticals. He coached a one-legged friend to hoodwink doctors with a story about a former jeep accident and phantom pain (the leg had been lost shooting dope). Acquaviva sold Dilaudid and other prescribed painkillers, becoming a powerful person in his neighborhood.
When Acquaviva inadvertently killed his sister with an injection of narcotics so hard-core she choked trying to expel them, he viewed himself as a murderer and descended into depression: "I believed at the time that suicide was too good for me." He slept with rats and lice under a highway bridge that became his home for the next 12 years. With a sign that read, "Homeless. Hungry. God Bless," he collected $50 to $500 a day from empathetic motorists. He used each dollar to keep himself high. Shivering one night in the Michigan cold, he prayed to God, "Can you reach a guy like me?"
On a Saturday, two auto executives in a new pickup truck handed him a Burger King breakfast sandwich, hash browns, and a coffee. Acquaviva was disappointed they hadn't included money but was surprised when they returned with breakfast the next weekend-and continued doing so for a year. The two executives eventually invited him to a restaurant, but en route signed him up at a methadone detox center. They also took him to their church, where people Acquaviva had never met gave him a reception "as if the Prodigal Son had come home." He went forward at the first altar call and made a commitment to Christ.
It took another year under the bridge before he accepted, in 2004, an invitation to Harvey House. He wore a hood, spoke to no one, and slept in his boots and the layers of clothing he'd worn in Detroit. "As I began to take my physical clothes off, spiritually [God] removed one layer at a time."
Now Acquaviva, 52, has a gentle demeanor and a gravel voice. He is the associate director of Restoration Ministries, runs its chess club, and counsels men with stories like his. In May he married a Tabitha House graduate. "I was the guy who was toothless and diseased," he says. "I sometimes feel guilty that they pay me."