President George W. Bush praised Saddleback Church’s Celebrate Recovery program in early March as a ministry that does what government cannot – change hearts.

“We used to drink too much,” President Bush said about the similarity between himself and Celebrate Recovery’s founding pastor, John Baker. “And our hearts changed, and then we quit. That is a tried-and-true formula. The problem is, government is not good at changing hearts. But people like John Baker [have been good at] doing that.”

President Bush’s comments on Celebrate Recovery came after a 45-minute conversation with Baker and representatives of three other faith-based recovery programs. His remarks came during a speech to the 11th White House Faith-Based and Community Initiative Conference, March 3 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

“It was a recognition I never expected,” Baker said. “The exciting part was that after our 45-minute meeting with the president we all stood and prayed together. God got the recognition. He was the true champion, not John Baker or anyone else there.”

Celebrate Recovery, Saddleback’s biblically based recovery program, started in 1991 when Baker approached senior pastor Rick Warren about the need to help thousands in the area overcome a variety of hurts, habits and hang-ups. In typical Saddleback style, Warren told Baker to “go for it.” Together, the two created a Christ-centered recovery program based on the Beatitudes of Jesus.

Since its founding, more than 7,500 people have gone through the Celebrate Recovery program at Saddleback in Lake Valley, Calif. In the past 12 years, more than 150,000 people have participated in the program from prisons, rescue missions and more than 2,500 churches.

“When I started this ministry in 1991, I was really just thinking of the people in our church who needed a safe place to recover from their addictive and compulsive behaviors,” Baker said. “Soon a few other churches tried it, and God started really working through it. It’s really been great to see what God has done through this. He is the one who should get the credit.”

Reaching the Community

Celebrate Recovery has become Saddleback’s top outreach to its community. When the program began, more than 70 percent of the people in the program were members of Saddleback. Now more than 70 percent of the people who attend Celebrate Recovery come from the local community.

“Celebrate Recovery is the church in action,” Warren said.

During the speech, President Bush also introduced Leticia*, a single mom whose drug addiction had landed her in prison and cost her custody of her child. That’s where she found Celebrate Recovery and turned her life around.

After completing the program, Leticia overcame her addiction, rebuilt her life and now has custody of her son. Celebrate Recovery, she said, has been an incredibly powerful part of her life, “knowing that it was [God’s] grace that kept me alive for such a time as this.”

The president told the crowd of approximately 1,200 church and community workers, “This is a person who was lost in prison, a drug addict, who lost her family –- and now she’s here with the ability to say those words with clarity.”

Leticia completed the program in a prison in Grants, N.M. The New Mexico prison system began testing Celebrate Recovery as a tool to help inmates in 1999. Currently, Leticia is one of 167 people who have completed the program and has been out for at least a year. Only 13 of those prisoners -– 7.8 percent of the total -- have returned to prison. Typically, Baker said, the recidivism rate in the New Mexico prison system is 78 percent.

Other prison systems -– including California’s -– have begun to experiment with implementing the program in its prisons. Recently, 135 men signed up for Celebrate Recovery at the Jamestown Prison. Unlike the program in New Mexico, the Jamestown program will be led by inmates.

Changed Lives

”The reason it works in prisons is Jesus Christ,” Baker said. “We don’t just talk about a higher power. We tell people about the one and only true Higher Power who can really help them overcome their hurt, habit or hang-up -– and that’s Jesus Christ.”

Among the many whose lives have been changed through Celebrate Recovery: