‘We rescue broken women’
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.— "There’s a girl. I think it was Rachel.” Pulling…
PRICEVILLE, Ala. — The motionless reflection of the trees in Project Rescue’s two ponds mirrors the quiet of the Alabama countryside.
“Everything you look at just exudes peace. But it’s not,” said Ronnie Crocker, program manager for the addiction recovery center he and his wife Jeanie established in the small community of Priceville.
“We have 17 to 20 men here, all with a lot of baggage and a lot of restlessness,” Crocker explained. “They need the rest Jesus talked about.”
Project Rescue serves men who battle alcohol and drug addiction. Many are from Churches of Christ, though that’s not a requirement. Occupying the ministry’s 19½ acres — about 15 minutes from downtown Decatur — are a house, a dormitory, three buildings with two- and three-bedroom apartments and an activities center with a dining room, offices and an area for classes. The facilities can accommodate 20 residents.
In 2019 Project Rescue accepted 48 men into its programs. During the first half of 2020, 38 men have entered.
Crocker and others who work with Project Rescue anchor recovery in a multilayered relationship with God. Breaking addiction involves coming to terms with the past and making healthy decisions in the present — facing “life on life’s terms,” in Crocker’s words. Key is a loving church community, one that offers accountability, not judgment.
“They need the rest Jesus talked about.”
To begin the recovery process, Project Rescue gives residents a tight structure for their lives. The program initially restricts personal choices, then slowly restores them, along with increased responsibility.
“You’re going to get rewarded, but each reward is a test,” Crocker said.
After 30 days, residents earn the “freedoms” of working and driving. “We’ll help them get a car,” Crocker said. If they use those opportunities responsibly, at 90 days they get a debit card loaded with $100 of their earnings.
It’s common for men to arrive at Project Rescue still suffering the physical consequences of addiction, said Kim Johnson, a nurse practitioner who volunteers at the ministry. Johnson evaluates the health of new arrivals and assesses any medications they bring, which might include prohibited narcotics or drugs frequently abused.
“The men have to be detoxed before they come to us, but sometimes there’s a little left over,” Johnson said. “They may still be very shaky … They can be very weak, malnourished.”
Crocker himself is no stranger to the perils of addiction. He knows the spiritual void that can feed it and the battles required to overcome it.
Born in New York, Crocker grew up in Florida with “a hard-working father and devoted mother,” according to a bio by his wife. But with the family “virtually unchurched,” a spiritual foundation was lacking.
A teenager during the 1960s, Crocker began drinking and experimenting with drugs ranging from pot to heroin. He cycled in and out of jail and rehab.
An incident that would eventually spin Crocker’s life in a different direction began when a hotel where he was staying called the police because he wouldn’t pay.
High on cocaine, Crocker pulled a gun, disarmed the police, and took an officer hostage. Six hours later, surrounded by a S.W.A.T. team as helicopters whirred overhead, Crocker turned himself in.
Awaiting trial, Crocker began reading the Bible. A couple of years into a 12-year sentence, Crocker was baptized. The one-time addict became an eager evangelist.
He graduated from Memphis School of Preaching and served several congregations, first in Florida, then Georgia. It was in Georgia that he launched an initial version of Project Rescue in 2007.
In 2011, the program moved to Alabama, where Crocker found generous support from a church donor and local congregations, including Beltline Church of Christ, the ministry’s main financial supporter.
Crocker sees substance addiction as rooted in deeper problems.
“It is all sin, and Jesus is the answer.”
“It is all sin, and Jesus is the answer,” he said. “These guys have … the attendant sins of drug addiction — the deceitfulness, the lying — and they’re addicted to much more than drugs and alcohol.
“The bar that God has is so low. All they have to do is ask, and the Holy Spirit’s there to help through the word of God.”
Previous church experiences can be part of the problem.
“The guys, a lot of them have a negative view of the church,” Crocker said, explaining that some residents grow up feeling they’ll never live up to the examples they’ve seen parents and other church members set.
“They don’t get it, that they’ll never be good enough,” Crocker said. “They need to get their own faith now, not their parents’ anymore.”
“When I came out of prison, there were some hands that I shook that let go a little too quick,” Crocker said. The men he serves need to experience “real Christianity,” with “church members looking at them like Jesus looks at them.”
Project Rescue resident Mike Jones is a case in point.
Born in Los Angeles, Jones, 29, moved to Huntsville as a teenager and attended several north Alabama congregations. He was “like every other kid in the youth group,” Jones said. “I was as involved as I could be. … I was raised in the church, my grandparents went to church. I was a church kid.”
His introduction to alcohol, Jones said, ironically came from a church friend. “I always tried to justify my drinking to my family, my friends with the Bible,” he explained.
While he rationalized his drinking at first, the habit eventually took its toll. “It got a little more consistent, and a little more consistent,” Jones said. “The consequences piled on fairly quickly.”
“With the way God designed the church, it’s perfect for a recovery program.”
Jones’ addiction cost him his marriage, house, and freedom. After four DUIs in three years, Jones gave up in jail on trying to justify his actions. “I literally got on my knees and prayed,” Jones said. “If he’d let me out, I’d be serious about it. So I have.”
“You’re made to do the right thing here,” Jones added. “If you want to stay here, … you’re going to get up and go to work every morning, you’re going to go to church every time the doors are open — the way you should live.”
“I’m youth minister plan B,” Crocker said, adding that he often assumes the role of a firm parent. “I’m the father of a rebellious son, and typically, the rebellious son … doesn’t want to listen to the father.”
For Crocker, the church is the ideal place for people overcoming addiction because of the ongoing support it provides.
“With the way God designed the church, it’s perfect for a recovery program,” Crocker said, explaining that non-faith-based programs lack the built-in follow-up that active church participation offers. “The ones that make it are the ones that replicate the accountability wherever they go.”
David Hargett, an elder of the Madison Church of Christ, has taught his congregation’s “A New Day” 12-step class for Project Rescue residents and Madison members since October 2018. By spending time with residents, church members have developed a new perspective on people with addictions.
“They’re able now to love these men,” Hargett said. For the Madison elder, reaching out to addicts has been a way not just to talk about faith, but to live it.
“We’ve studied the Bible week after week after week … That’s a good thing. But it’s time for us to open our doors, to help those who are struggling with sin,” he said.
Project Rescue Bible director Robert Guinn, also an outreach minister at the Decatur church, sees the program as “a second-chance ministry.”
Guinn looked to the story of the Prodigal Son to explain the program at Project Rescue.
“We make choices that put us in a situation; we can make choices to get out,” Guinn said. “For these men, I hope and pray that they take the way of escape and that they continue to make the choices.”
Guinn believes Project Rescue offers a refuge, a place for residents to reorient themselves spiritually.
“You didn’t plant this in the middle of a city,” he said. For Guinn, Project Rescue’s setting affords residents the chance to “remove themselves from whatever environments they were in before and get better tuned in to spiritual things.”
Ronnie Crocker is available to help churches launch addiction recovery ministries. Contact [email protected] or (256) 616-1522.
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