On the cover North Coast Journal

July 14, 2005


The Good Ground: Backyard missionaries give female addicts faith to stay clean [photo of 6 women standing in garden]

On the cover: Members of The Good Ground faith-based rehab house. Photo by Helen Sanderson
The Good Ground: Backyard missionaries give female addicts faith to stay clean


THE MAUVE, CUSHIONED PEWS WERE CRAMMED TIGHT with well-scrubbed Pentacostals as Pastor Jonathan McDonald, son of Senior Pastor John McDonald, paced the altar and stomped up and down the plush carpeted aisles of the Full Gospel Tabernacle's Cutten church.

His face red and shining, his neck muscles swelling, the lively 35-year-old preached. Into a cordless microphone, he told the story of Hagar, the mother of Ishmael and Egyptian maidservant of Sarah and Abraham. Her abusive employers cast Hagar into the wilderness.

"I want to preach to all the Hagars here who were raised in situations that were less than perfect," Jonathan said.

[church attendees standing and singing at a service]As he went on with Hagar's story from the book of Genesis, the pastor's feverishness grew, his oration, booming over amplifiers, became more southern-sounding: every sentence, then almost every word ended with an `uh' for emphasis. "And then-uh Hagar-uh went-uh through-uh"

Jennifer, a 29-year-old resident of a faith-based rehab house called The Good Ground, was on her feet along with her housemates, holding her five-year-old daughter close to her chest, rocking side to side.

The 350 or so worshippers, all on a spiritual high, absorbed every syllable. Some fanned their faces with folded sheets of paper, nodding in agreement. Others lurched from their seats and held their hands to the rafters and yelled "amens" of encouragement.

It's true that Pentecostalism is pretty different from classic WASP services. The sermon is loud, bordering on rambunctious. All of the women wear long dresses and leave their hair uncut. Sometimes, parishioners speak in tongues. Pastors heal the sick by laying on hands.

Brother Jonathan was like a point guard leading his basketball team in a championship game, and the Full Gospel Tabernacle was a stuffy gymnasium of rooting fans devouring his every move.

"God has been seeing you the whole time," Jonathan said. "You haven't been by yourself! God saw Hagar getting beaten but He said, `I've got to wait until she's all alone by the well.'"

He crouched inside of the Plexiglas podium on the pulpit, and hugging himself, he acted out Hagar's despair, stooped by a clear plastic "well" for everyone to witness.

The sermon had reached its crescendo. The congregation was on its feet, cheering and praising Jesus. Jonathan stood back up, took off his glasses and wiped sweat from his face.

"All Hagar could see was the desert," he said. "But if you can see a power greater than sin and insecurity there is a well of water for every Hagar here today!"

As things simmered back down and Brother Jonathan poured what seemed to be his reserve tank of energy into the microphone, he issued a powerful promise.

"God is going to set you free," he declared. "I don't care if it's your first day here or if you have been here for 50 years, God will give you deliverance."

Total trust

No one ever said that getting sober was easy. It takes time, patience and a hard look in the mirror. A person in Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous would tell you that recovery comes one day at a time. Someone in The Good Ground would agree, but they would add that quitting drugs also requires total trust in God.

The Good Ground, so named for the Biblical parable of the sower whose seed only took root in fertile soil, is a residential recovery house in Hydesville for women and their young children. It's affiliated with Full Gospel, a member of the United Pentecostal Churches International and a parish that takes its ministrations to recovering addicts seriously. Senior Pastor John McDonald, who came to the church 35 years ago when there were only nine people in attendance, said that, in his estimation, 60 to 70 percent of the congregation have struggled with drug and alcohol abuse.

He attributes the large numbers of former addicts to the church's outreach efforts with people on the street and in jails, but mainly, he said, substance abusers learn about the church through word-of-mouth.

"A person's testimony is probably our most positive drawing card," McDonald said. "Where these people have been involved on the street they know the different drug members and they'll come across someone who will say, `You've dropped out of the ring: what's up?'

"And they tell them, `I've found something to replace [drugs] that's better. I've been filled with the Holy Spirit now.'"

Mental captives

Earlier that morning, Carla Giovannetti climbed the stairs of the North Coast Learning Academy, a charter school* situated just a few yards behind the Full Gospel Tabernacle. It also doubles as a Sunday meeting place for The Good Ground's 12-Step group. [*Corrected from the print edition.]

Currently, there are four women living at the Good Ground house: Angela, Jennifer, Pam and Renee. Their length of sobriety falls in that order -- Angela has seven months, Jennifer and Pam four, and Renee less than a month. Carla's lectures are specially aimed at these women, but any woman with addiction problems is invited to attend if she wishes. Typically, there are eight women there.

Carla unlocked the classroom and organized the small desks into an "L" shape in front of the whiteboard. In the middle, she left one table where she set her paperback study book, The Twelve Steps: A Spiritual Journey, and a Bible with a worn leather jacket.

The 51-year-old mother of two grown children seems comfortable in front of a group and fiercely committed to the topic of recovery. As a teenager she was arrested for drug possession. At 20, Carla sobered up, or as she puts it, "I'm 31 years in the Lord."

Like AA, The Good Ground uses the 12-Step model to substance abuse recovery:

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (or drugs) that our lives had become unmanageable.

Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

But it's here in Step 2 where The Good Ground distinguishes its approach to recovery. In AA, the member decides what "Power" to rely upon for their sobriety. But at The Good Ground, God is in control, not Buddha or Allah or GOD (the Great OutDoors). Faith in Jesus Christ is essential to make this particular route to recovery navigable.

And because the faith-based path is narrower than other treatment options it doesn't work for everyone. Along with a heavy dose of Bible study, parenting classes, relapse prevention classes and daily work in the flower and vegetable gardens, there is a list of 40-some odd rules outlined in a "behavioral contract" that the women must adhere to for the entire year that they are in the program. That means no tobacco, no television, no sex, no yelling, no imposing opinions on others, no revealing outfits, no NA or AA meetings outside of the house; this last rule came into effect after a few women scored drugs from old friends at an NA meeting in Fortuna.

Carla has had some time to hone her craft of preaching. Since 1990 she has worked with a religion-based counseling group for women at the Humboldt County Jail called The Spirit of Recovery. Often, she'll refer inmates to The Good Ground upon their release. That's how many of the women wind up there, like Angela.

[Carla Giovannetti teaching, with notes written on wipe-off board in the background]Once everyone was settled into her seat, Carla [photo at left] popped the cap off of her black marker and began scribbling on the whiteboard. Across the top, in big letters she wrote, "God is Love."

The class begins with a discussion about the Fourth Step: Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself.

It's a hard Step, arguably the hardest of the twelve. Thoroughness and total honesty in those admissions is key. Writing it all down, Carla said, is vital to the recovery process. At The Good Ground, once they've put it all on paper the women then have to read their life's wrongs to themselves in the mirror.

Each Step takes a month to complete -- 12 Steps for a 12-month program. June was an especially emotional 30 days. Director Therese Spears said the mood at the Hydesville house was, at times, very somber.

"I never said honesty was easy but it is paramount to your recovery," she told the group.

Examining the wounds that drugs once numbed can be emotionally excruciating. More often than not, Carla said that among other traumatizing events, the women she works with have been sexually abused. It's typically what sparks their foray into drugs. Coming to terms with those things, she said, is the basis of recovering from drug abuse, not just fighting the actual addiction itself.

To the eight women in the class, Carla posed a question: What triggers your impulse to use drugs?

Collectively, they brainstormed: anxiety, low self-esteem, abuse, codependency, guilt, shame, loneliness, people pleasing, trying to blend in.

Using the Scriptures to help sort and manage these feelings, Carla claimed, is the key to staying clean.

To illustrate her point, she moved back to the dry erase board, and wrote Luke 4:18.

"I want you all to memorize this passage," she said.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.

"Think about that when you're in turmoil, when you're in a state of brokenness," she said. "When He says, "captives" He means emotional captives, He means mental bars, not like the bars of a jail cell. He means spiritual blindness not physical blindness. I like to think of it as recovery from denial.

"See, even the Lord is into recovery!" she said, lightening the mood. "He wants to `set at liberty them that are bruised.'"

Suzanne Jesus Christ

One of the church members who came to hear Carla was Suzanne, a 36-year-old Eureka resident who for over a decade was addicted to methamphetamines. She and her two children, who are now 17 and 9, moved from place to place with a series of boyfriends, until she was living in a trailer at the Redwood Acres parking lot in Eureka. She remembers buying water shoes for her and the kids so they could shower in the cement stalls there.

Smoothing the tablecloth of her kitchen table with her hands, Suzanne recounted the day she ran into an old acquaintance, someone she used to do drugs with. The woman, who was staying in a halfway house, had since kicked her drug habit and become religious.

"She said, "'Sister, you need to get into recovery,'" Suzanne recalled.

The next day was New Years Eve 1999. It was her last night in the trailer and the beginning of her sobriety.

"When I came to this church, they taught me one thing it's that the cycle does not have to continue," she said. "It can all stop here. My children don't have to be living with parents addicted to drugs and alcohol.

"My God, it was a revelation," she continued. "Everything about me was able to change, because it says in the Bible, `Old things pass away. Behold, all things become new.' I got that. It was just like, `I don't have to be Suzie the drug-dealing tramp.' All these things passed away when I got baptized. I came out a new creature in Christ Jesus. I had a new name. I was no longer Suzie, I was Suzanne Jesus Christ. I was able to become new. I wanted to be known as Sister Suzanne."

But even with a new name and a new sense of self, old demons returned.

In the spring semester of 2004 she was on the Dean's list at College of the Redwoods. By the spring of 2005 she was flunking out. Again the culprit was drugs, but this time more indirectly than before. Her husband, who has been in and out of the picture over the years and continues to use drugs, she said, has beaten Suzanne in meth-induced fits. She stopped going to church, partly because of the bruises and partly because she was losing faith.

"My husband was beating me and I was praying to God that he would stop, like `Oh Lord, please let my husband see what he is doing.'" she said, mimicking his behavior with a raised first. "He started saying, `Shut up. There is no God. I'm the only God you'll know. Your life is in my hands right now, I decide if you live or die.'"

This episode happened after she asked him to put up a clothesline in the back yard.

"Supposedly that was back-talking and that wasn't the thing for a Christian woman to do," she said. "He brainwashed me because we are about submission in the church. But there is a line in the Bible, `You submit to a man who is following after God's own heart.'"

During another violent encounter he allegedly gave her an ultimatum: "Either you smoke this [speed] or you get your ass beat right now."

"And it's like, you take a think: Are you going to take a hit or are you going to get beat? And you know that he is serious what would you do? What you would do is get out of the relationship, right? You would leave," she said. "But I was so caught up and I needed to put up this façade for the whole church."

Pastor John McDonald, who is now familiar with Suzanne's situation, said that his church does stress keeping the family together, but not at a physical cost.

"When it is abusive like that we tell them first of all you have to protect yourself," McDonald said. "And if that means separation on a temporary basis until they get help and get healed that is perfectly fine. You can't live in something that's abusive like that."

Once more, Suzanne has separated from her husband and recently started the recovery process over again, literally, from Step One, with The Good Ground women. Suzanne said that along with NA and AA meetings and weeknight Bible study classes, she counts on the extra attention and support she gets at those Sunday morning meetings.

[backyard of Good Ground house, with artichoke plants]Backyard missionary

Therese Spears, a practicing Pentecostal and founder of The Good Ground, jokingly calls herself a "backyard missionary" partly because she has taken on a faith-based endeavor to help people close to home, but also because she actually enjoys spending time in the backyard. Gardening is a major staple to life at The Good Ground, an integral component, she says, for the women's recovery process.

"Getting out into the garden and working the soil is a wonderful healing process," she said one recent morning at The Good Ground's Hydesville home.

Angela echoed her claim.

"I love tearing out the weeds because it's like getting rid of all the bad things from the past," she said with a laugh, miming the action with her hands. "There goes that boyfriend and that bottle and that felony"

In 1998, Spears, 55, bought the yellow 5-bedroom Victorian just down the road from her home in Hydesville on the cheap. To her, the 108-year-old house had rehab written all over it. Residents pay up to $650 per month for 24-hour supervision. (Most women can't afford the standard rate; they pay what they can, often simply signing over their welfare checks).

"When I found the house, it was already in my heart to do something like this," Spears said.

This issue of recovery hits close to home for Spears, whose daughter struggled with drug dependency and wound up in jail, pregnant. "When she got out, there was no place for her to go."

Her daughter is now in a treatment center in San Francisco. Therese has adopted her two grandchildren, 10 and 11, and they live with her at The Good Ground. But as they get older, she said, she'd like to move back to her own home with the boys so they will have a more normal living situation. Right now she is considering who will take her place.

"Angela has expressed interest," she said. "So have some other graduates. I know they'd all be great, but it's a hard job, and it's a hardcore group to deal with.

"You become like the guardian of their thoughts; you always have to be sure they're being honest. Unless they're open and honest, they carry ties to the past and that gets them in trouble."

Angela said she never wants to leave.

"I'm going to be in this house, in that same bedroom, when I'm 90 years old," the 42-year-old mother of two said.

She didn't always feel this way, though. When she first came in, battling a dependency on various pharmaceutical drugs, she was skeptical of the program, and especially wary of the church that she now attends every Sunday morning.

"I said, `These people are nuts! They're raising their hands in the air, they're disruptive,'" she recalled, relaxing in the living room at the Hydesville house one Monday morning in June. "But for some reason I kept looking forward to going back every week. Now I'm one of those nutty people and I love it."

[fence and garden, dog in background]Not everyone makes it the whole 12 months. Spears said that since the program began in 1999, about 20 women have graduated and about 10 or 12 have not. The program is too strict for some; others are put off by the relentless religious rhetoric.

"People have come to me for treatment after they've been asked to leave The Good Ground," said Helene Barney, director of Healthy Moms, a county-operated outpatient drug recovery program for women with children. "Maybe they were caught talking to a man on the telephone, or doing things that adults do, like engaging in consensual sex. Some people feel like those rules are too strict."

But, she added, Healthy Moms still refers women to The Good Ground.

"Their program is not for everybody," Barney said. "But for a woman who has little kids and no place to go, and if she's receptive to religion, The Good Ground can be a good option for her."

Some women, such as Jennifer, relapse and still decide to return to The Good Ground. Her first time through, she said, she didn't fully disclose all of the wounds from her past. Gradually, she slipped from the church, postponing her Fourth Step and opting instead to work things out on her own terms.

"Next thing you know it started with a cigarette, then I have a beer in my hand and soon enough I wanted to do a line," she recalled, visibly choked up. "But after everything I was welcomed back here, without judgment. That's why this place is so special to me."

For Therese, who has seen addicts come and go, a faith-based approach to sobriety is successful when a person follows God's word and learns to depend on it.

"When we just rely on reason and logic, we're limited in our recovery," she said. "With faith, the sky is the limit; you can do anything."




Comments? Write a letter!

North Coast Journal banner

© Copyright 2005, North Coast Journal, Inc.