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How one London church is winning the war on drugs

FAITH THERAPY: The Victory Outreach church is pioneering a new approach to tackling addiction

LONDONER DAVID Elwin was desperate to beat his thirteen-year crack cocaine addiction.

Long standing drug use had seen him go in and out of prison during the late eighties and much of the nineties, damaging the relationship with his family. 

Like many people struggling with a drug habit, he saw a place in a rehabilitation scheme as a way out and a chance for a better future.

But rather than checking into a traditional rehab centre, his route to the drugs free life he enjoys today began in 2000 from a source that completely surprised him - prayer. Although he’d attended Catholic Church as a child, he’d long drifted away from any kind of religious belief system.

FAITH THERAPY

“A couple of friends of mine from the streets told me about a drug rehabilitation programme run by a church that used prayer and that it could change my life,” he recalls.  “I rejected the idea when they first told me about it. I didn’t know anything about God and to be honest I wasn’t looking for that.  But I was at rock bottom. I was waiting to get into a rehab programme at the time and there was a waiting list. I just said to myself ‘I’m on my knees here, let me just give this a try and check it out. If it doesn’t work I’ll let it go’.”

The pioneering programme was launched by London’s Victory Outreach church, which has been working with drug users in the UK since the early nineties. It runs successful rehabilitation houses in Manchester, Birmingham and east London.

Participants are enrolled in a thirteen-week programme and are placed in rehabilitation houses for the duration of the course. 

After enrolling, Elwin was given an initial assessment and then told more about the programme and the spiritual aspect of the therapy to give him the opportunity to decide if it really was something he wanted to do.

“It did take me by surprise because I didn’t understand prayer and what it was all about, I’d never been through anything like that before,” he says. “When I started on the programme, I saw men like me, men from the streets, from the same backgrounds, struggling with the same kinds of issues that I was struggling with and I could relate to them. I thought, ‘well, if these guys are praying and crying out to God to help them, that’s what I’m going to do if I really want to experience some kind of change.”  

SUPPORT

Years of addiction takes a heavy physical toll on the body so the men are referred to local doctors and make regular hospital visits. However, there is a strong emphasis on prayer and Bible studies. Participants are also taught life skills and are given support plans.

For Elwin the results were immediate.


DETERMINED: Innovative Pastor David Elwin says his focus is on changing lives and re-uniting families

“There were many times when I tried to physically stop myself taking crack cocaine. I would give myself time limits saying ‘Let’s stop this for a week’ but I could never get to that week or month. Two weeks after starting the Victory Outreach programme, I remember going to the bathroom, looking in the mirror and being totally surprised at the difference in how I looked. I looked a lot healthier. What I couldn’t do in 13 years, God dealt with in 13 weeks. But then I realised it wasn’t really the addiction that was the problem; it was all of the underlying mental and emotional issues resulting from things that had gone on in my childhood,” Elwin says. But “through prayer, through Bible study, through talking to men that were real and who shared their issues and their struggles, I felt that God was able to show me some of the reasons why I had been addicted to drugs and I’d been oblivious to some of those issues.”

The Victory Outreach approach to helping substance misusers is typical of a holistic approach to therapy known as faith-based therapy.

While some addiction therapies focus solely on physical health, others on emotions, advocates of faith based therapy argue that a person’s spirituality, regardless of which religious denomination they might belong to, can play a key role in their recovery.

Faith-based therapy is a popular choice for substance misusers in the USA. One recent nationwide survey by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC), found that 83 per cent of Americans believe that their religious faith is closely tied to their mental and emotional health. Although less well known about in the UK, support for it is growing. Groups such as the Zaccheus Project in Worksop and the Nehemiah Project in London have had success in using a faith based approach to working with people with long term addictions.

Now Elwin, who has been free from drugs for 12 years, is an ordained pastor at the recently established Victory Outreach church in west London. And he is in the process of developing plans to launch a new rehabilitation centre in the area his church serves.

DRUGS

Figures suggest that the service is much needed. A recent National Health Service (NHS) survey called Adult Psychiatric Morbidity In England, found that drugs disproportionately affect black males.

According to the report, African Caribbean men were more likely to quickly develop symptoms of drug dependence than their Asian and white counterparts. It also found that 21.8 per cent of black men used a class A, B or C drug such as cannabis or cocaine in 2007 compared to 12.4 of white males and 3.5 of south Asian males.

“Basically what we offer is another alternative to a more traditional detox programme,” Elwin explains. “There is no expectation that the people on our programme become regular churchgoers. We just want to see lives changed and families reconciled because families get hit hard when someone is addicted. And we’ve had a great success rate. Over 75 per cent of the guys who come through our programme have stopped using drugs.”

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