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New Life Center

Faith-based finalists | "Don't mess with my boys"

Issue: "The audacity of real change," Aug. 23, 2008

FRANKLIN, Va.-It's the most cut-to-the-chase explanation of fighting addiction you're ever likely to hear. "I drive a Toyota. If my Toyota's busted, I don't take it to a Ford dealer, right? I take it to Toyota," Fred Winans explained one morning on the hour-long drive between his home and the New Life Center in Franklin, Va. "Well, God made me. If I'm busted, I need to go to God to get fixed. That's what I do here with these men. I just take them back to God."

New Life is a men's rehabilitation institute operating under the Norfolk-based Union Mission Ministry. Started in 1892 as a Christian orphanage and homeless shelter, the mission now includes a home for the elderly, two thrift stores, a homeless shelter, and a summer camp for kids. Winans, retired from the Navy's special forces, joined the staff in 2001 to start a long-term program for addicted men.

"Fred's men" live in a long brick ranch house slung low across a horizon of cornfields and forests. The 11 men at New Life joke about the rehab center's secluded setting: With the nearest bus stop 10 miles away, running away requires a serious commitment. John Mackall, an electrician from New York who has lived at the center for six months, said most people feel disoriented when they first get to New Life: "The nice thing about being out here, for one thing, is feeling relaxed. It's not in the hustle and bustle of the city. There's no traffic. It's very quiet, very peaceful."

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For Doug Coffield, who tends a few rows of corn behind the house, the seclusion has a spiritual relevance: "In Psalm 31, it says 'You set my foot in spacious places,'" he said slowly, pressing his own foot against the ground. "This is our spacious place, and God put us here." A country boy with a lazy drawl, Coffield drove trucks for over 30 years and did drugs for about the same. "Six months ago, I was putting needles in my arm. I wasted 53 years. If [God] can use some of the rest of these years, well, they're His."

Now, Fred Winans screens applicants carefully and he runs prospective curricula by John Gray, the director of Union Mission's homeless shelter downtown. "Nothing comes through that door that isn't good for my men," he said. "I'm like an old mother hen. You don't mess with my boys." They don't just read and forget: Once a week in the early morning, they meet to work through the exercises and keep tabs on each other.

Winans' approach focuses exclusively on his men's spiritual development, in a way different from the Alcoholics Anonymous approach. Electrician John Mackall said, "With the AA type thing, a lot of it was on yourself, as far as the ability to stay away from drugs and alcohol. The AA meeting was just a patch, it wasn't strong, wasn't effective for me." Mackall likes the New Life focus on Christ: "What we learn here is going to be a lifelong recovery, instead of just a patch. This is a permanent fix, it's the real thing."

Every Sunday morning, the men squeeze into the white New Life 15-passenger van to attend Antioch church in Franklin. That pastor also visits on Tuesdays to teach two hours of lessons. Occasionally a resident teaches a class: Truck driver Doug Coffield is leading a book study on relationship with Christ called "Changed Into His Image." Some classes focus on individual books of the Bible, while others employ authors like Max Lucado, Rick Warren, and addiction psychologist Terrence Gorski. Class topics range from "Relapse Prevention Training" to "Christ in His Deity."

In the mornings and afternoons when there are no classes, the men work to help keep up the Union Mission properties. Winans orchestrates class activities and work trips with a strict schedule that hearkens back to his Navy days, blocked out in 24-hour military time. Mackall said he appreciates the schedule, which gets residents up at 0630 every morning: "A lot of us, myself included, needed some authority and discipline, some structure. Fred's able to provide that, and in a Christian way."

New Life voices

The average length of stay at New Life is 6-12 months, but some men stay longer. "I like the longevity of the program," said J.D. Comer, a former foreman who is 6-foot-4 with a shaved head, long goatee, and tattooed biceps. "I didn't get into this situation overnight, you know. Thirty days isn't going to cut it. It may take me the rest of my life, but through God I've found a new approach, a new way of handling it."

Comer said his previous attempts to quit drugs never succeeded, but at New Life he can sense a difference: a relationship with Christ that replaces his addiction. Other rehab programs left him feeling empty. "If you don't have something to replace your addiction, it's like a void. You have to fill that void with something, and it's got to be real."

Jay Mensch, a butcher in his early 40s, lost his left ring finger in an accident with a meat grinder and lost his wife, three kids, and weeks-old granddaughter Jaylynn through alcoholism: "I was drinking constantly. From the time I'd get up, it'd be the first thing I thought about, and the last thing I thought about before I went to bed." Now, Mensch has become a mentor to one of the younger men at New Life, helping him through scriptures and giving homework guidance.

Mark Vinvirn, a 2004 graduate, sold his home in the city to relocate nearer to the New Life center. The ministry saved his life and his marriage-but he says it's not for everyone. "I've seen people come here for two days and say, 'There's too much God in this place,' and they left. They couldn't handle it." And that, Fred Winans said, is exactly how he wants it.

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