You Want to Engage

Earlier this spring, the annual “Serve Visalia” event took place, where “churches join together on a Sunday morning to worship God through serving our city.” Before making the trek to St. John’s River, we huddled together on the side of the road with our group of volunteers from various Visalia churches. We prayed for the homeless men and women we would meet. “Remember,” I said, “you are meeting someone’s mother or father — someone’s brother or sister, a daughter, a son.”

In 2008, award-winning writer, David Sheff, released his memoir — Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey through his Son’s Addiction. A successful writer, Sheff beautifully (and tragically) captures how addiction and it’s destructive lifestyle affects not only the addict, but those around them. He accomplishes this by vulnerably telling the story of his son, Nic, and his severe drug and alcohol addiction. Every relapse is a debilitating blow to their hope for their beautiful boy: 

“I am in a silent war against an enemy as pernicious and omnipresent as evil. Evil? I don’t believe in evil any more that I believe in God. But at the same time I know this; only Satan himself could have designed a

disease that has self-deception as a symptom, so that its victims deny they are afflicted, and will not seek treatment, and will vilify those on the outside who see what’s happening.”

There are so many parents like David and children like Nic — right here in our own community — and throughout the country. “Overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50,” reveals a recent article in Relevant Magazine. “In 1999, fewer than 17,000 Americans died from a drug overdose.” Last  year? Over 66,000. For context, that’s about double the total number of car accident deaths in 2016.

Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a Christian and co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative in Massachusetts, believes “because addiction reaches so deeply into communities…churches must also play a major role.” What role? Outreach. “You’re engaging the community in ways that sitting in church once a week can’t possibly do.”

Even as an atheist, Sheff experienced a very primal need for salvation — both for himself and his son:

“Perhaps I cannot pray because I never have, I do now know how, and I cannot conceive of a god to pray to. Here I am with Nic using again and I know there is nothing I can do and I cannot believe that we are here again and that the next telephone call could be the one I have feared for the past half-dozen years, and I am praying. Please God heal Nic. Please God heal Nic. Please God heal Nic. It’s my plea to whatever higher power there is, the one they — they in the endless rehabs, the endless meetings — the one they promise is out there listening. I repeat it inside my head sometimes even without knowing I am saying it: Please God heal Nic.”

It’s a similar silent prayer our Serve Visalia group makes while we introduce ourselves to the homeless on the river — many live in tents, some under rudimentary shelters. I recognize some, others I know by name and reputation for remaining “service resistant” — men and women who know they qualify for resources and refuse to accept them. 

For those in that camp, we are apparently in the echo of change agents like Kolodny and Sheff: “If you’re financially or in some way contributing to that person being allowed to live that lifestyle,” Kolodny says, “you need to stop…You make sure you constantly communicate how much you love them; how much you’re praying for them; how much you want to see them succeed.” Sheff agrees: “I would not in any way help someone using drugs to do anything other than return to rehab. I would not pay their rent, would not bail them out of jail unless they went directly into rehab…would not pay their debts, and would never give them money.”

While addiction recovery is a radical rollercoaster, “recovery is about progress,” Sheff writes, “not perfection…to live with addiction involves living with uncertainty.”

For those of us who don’t “live with addiction” the way Sheff does, remember, those who are living with it are someone’s loved one — and you may be (and probably want to be ) the very catalyst towards health and wholeness they desperately need.


Ryan Stillwater

Ryan is a longtime Visalian — a graduate of Redwood High School and Fresno Pacific University with a bachelors degree in Christian Ministries. Intrigued by the partnership between the Visalia Rescue Mission and the City of Visalia, Ryan began putting his vision on paper as VRM's Oval Venue Coordinator in August 2013, and has sparked the interest of many throughout the community. Ryan and his wife Amy (a Mt. Whitney High School graduate) have been married for seven years and have three amazing kids — ages 6, 4, and 4.