EDITOR'S NOTE: The following two stories are part of a monthly Baptist Press series to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.
RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. (BP)--An atypical group of women gathered for the afternoon in an upscale neighborhood fronting Lake Dardanelle, inside the home of Vickie Henderson, an OB/GYN physician.
From a worldly perspective, the gathering could not be explained -- it would seem there was no common ground for fellowship.
But through the eyes of Christ, they had all things in common. All were sinners, saved by grace, seeking victory over life's "hurts, hang-ups and habits."
Chey, one of the women attending the gathering in Russellville, Ark., had only known demonic turmoil in her 30-plus years of life.
"I can remember drinking alcohol from the age of 4. And I basically raised myself," she said. Her story included repeated cycles of drug, alcohol and sexual addictions, criminal activities and failed attempts to break free of it all. She often sought help in churches but did not find many who would even look her direction.
"Six months ago I would never have imagined that at this moment I would be sitting in this kind of house with these people, sharing my story. That just shows God is good. He's good," Chey marveled, adding, "I don't always know how to act like a lady, and I never know what is going to come out of my mouth. I sat at the table earlier just hoping I was using the right fork!"
Everyone present laughed a knowing laugh. Over half of the women in Henderson's home that day had life stories of pain, brokenness and self-destructive behaviors similar to Chey's. They are now working on healing through a God-orchestrated amalgam of faith-based recovery ministries at First Baptist Church in Russellville, spearheaded mainly by Henderson and two other women, Nelda Alexander and Sheila Lambert.
Alexander operates Bruised Reed Ministries, a home for women yearning to break free from self-destructive behaviors of most any kind. She also directs the church's Celebrate Recovery (CR) ministry and serves as Arkansas' CR state representative. Lambert facilitates a group in CR and teaches weekly Bible studies at the Bruised Reed. Henderson teaches the Heartlifters Sunday School class, a group of very diverse women attended by Bruised Reed and CR clients, among other women.
Greg Sykes, the church's associate pastor, remarked, "The main thing we are seeing is changed lives way beyond what you would typically see in most churches. Women, many of whom are at the bottom of the barrel due to issues like collapsed marriages, physical abuse, substance addictions -- we're seeing them come in and change and grow and go out into ministry areas and become fully assimilated in the life of our church."
Noelle and Randi, who currently reside at the Bruised Reed Ministries home, are both single moms working on recovery from substance abuse. Both women agree that any one part of the ministry probably would not be enough to keep them on track with their recovery. "But having Nelda -- Nelda is great -- and Celebrate Recovery and Vickie's Bible study -- all of those support groups, including church, is like the balanced package needed for healthy recovery," Noelle said.
"We're not a lockdown facility," Alexander noted. "The women have to be motivated. They have to want to be here."
Commenting on common fears people have of ministry to recovering addicts, Alexander said, "You have to realize, it isn't about you. All Jesus did was tell people the truth and ask them to follow Him. Plus, we all have sinful issues. When we fear ministering to people with problems, we should include ourselves. This is what the church is supposed to be about -- helping people find affirmation, acceptance and healing in Jesus Christ."
Alexander recounted the story of one of the women present at the gathering at Henderson's home. "Donna had been living under a bridge in Nashville. She had a radio, and hit on a Christian rock station. Thinking she was just listening to rock music, she heard the Gospel and was saved."
Donna returned to Russellville, where she'd spent a good part of her life. One day when Donna was walking down a street, a woman recognized her and stopped to pick her up. That woman happened to be aware of Bruised Reed Ministries and took Donna there.
Donna was pregnant at the time. Alexander, who previously had determined she would not take maternity cases, laughed, "I had to take that back. I won't be saying I won't do certain things. God reminded me then that this is His ministry."
Henderson became Donna's physician and delivered her little girl, Stella.
Donna enjoys painting and hopes one day to sell her work. Henderson showed the group one of Donna's paintings of Christ hanging on the cross. She described another painting of a pair of feet walking down a dark path, with a lantern lighting the next step. The Scripture caption for the painting: "Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." That painting hangs in the Heartlifters Sunday School classroom.
"Yeah, when I'm really thankful for someone," Donna said, "that's all I can really do to show them -- paint."
Several women chimed together in encouragement, "But that's huge!"
After spending a year at Bruised Reed, Donna and Stella are now living on their own. Henderson, Alexander and others described the transformation in Donna as dramatic, both physically and spiritually. "I really wish we had a before and after picture of Donna," Henderson said. "The transformation is external as well as internal."
Commenting further about ministry to addicts, Alexander said, "I can't fix anybody. I can only tell them, 'I can help you find the truth and show you a better way. But you have to make the choices.'"
To make right choices, Alexander knows that Scripture is the key. As associate pastor Sykes noted, "The ladies that come to that house submit to some high standards. It's a total separation from your past and a total restart of your life. That's essential for what a lot of them have been through. And they develop a new relationship with the Lord."
Bruised Reed Ministries' clients must agree to spend lots of time digesting God's Word, including three weekly Bible studies, two worship services and weekly participation in the church's Friday night Celebrate Recovery program.
Lambert, who leads the weekly Bible studies at Bruised Reed, also has been part of Celebrate Recovery since it began in 2005. Having firsthand experience as the mother of an alcohol-dependent son, she facilitates the codependent women's group. Celebrate Recovery is not just for drug or alcohol addicts, Lambert noted, but for anyone struggling with any kind of bondage. Examples of other struggles include compulsive eating, gambling or pornography.
"A typical group like my group -- the co-dependent women -- has a young woman who is a meth addict and who grew up in a family of addicts," Lambert said. "Another woman lost her husband and is just grieving. Another is married to an alcoholic and going through a divorce. A few of us are there just because we want to be available."
About 30-40 men and women regularly attend CR meetings, which begin with a meal together, followed by a time of worship and teaching. They then break up into smaller groups for sharing, and each person has three to five minutes to express something about their problem and how they are reacting. Then they have dessert and converse about the things shared in the group.
"I can say that on some Friday nights, I'm the one who needs it," Lambert confessed.
Sykes believes the honesty and transparency in Lambert, Alexander and Henderson are qualities that have made them effective leaders in the recovery ministry. "Nelda is a special lady who is able to handle situations not all of us can," he said. "No matter how dark, she's not afraid of stuff and she just jumps in.
"Vickie is open and tenderhearted, but not afraid to say the difficult thing. And Sheila as well, she's willing to be honest and call a spade a spade," Sykes said. "You can't really do ministry if all you are going to give them is a shoulder to cry on. There are not any games being played."
Henderson's Heartlifters Sunday School class is a group of diverse women whose lives have become deeply intertwined -- Bruised Reed clients, Celebrate Recovery members, widows, divorcees, single women or married women whose husbands don't attend church, and a wide range of experiences. There is no "correct" appearance -- tattoos, body piercings, spiked hair styles and bright hair colors are accepted.
"They help them find apartments, get furniture, do baby showers. They put society's norms aside and just love them," said Jay Ham, the church's missions and outreach pastor. "They have reached out to moms of kids in our skateboard ministry, and a couple of women from our cowboy ministry go to the Heartlifters class. Lots of churches struggle with what you do with younger single ladies, but we have a place."
Noelle and Randi, for example, said that no matter what is being taught in the Heartlifters class, it applies directly to something they are dealing with. All the women agreed that they feel welcome into the First Baptist congregation as a whole, noting that that isn't the case in many churches.
Noelle commended Beth Perry who helped Noelle feel at ease the first time she attended the class. "I wasn't comfortable going to a Sunday School class, but I felt instantly welcomed. Beth, you were the first one to greet me, and you made me feel so welcome."
Alexander added, "That's so important because if they don't feel welcome the first time, they won't go back again."
Sykes commented on the impact the women in recovery have on others in the congregation, even before they complete their healing. "The women come to know Jesus and get authentically saved. They rub shoulders with people who don't have near the same problems. They impact others because of their transparency and openness.
"When you have that kind of brokenness," Sykes said, "God moves and great things happen. Our people are challenged spiritually to check their own hearts."
The Heartlifters class averages 25 in attendance. At Bruised Reed Ministries, meanwhile, 23 women have been helped over the last two years. Sykes estimated that 80 percent of the Bruised Reed clients are able to successfully "restart" their lives.
Randi has her nursing assistant certification and plans to complete her G.E.D. and go on to college. She sings in the church choir and with the CR praise team. Thankful for her grandmother who currently has custody of her 2-year-old son, Randi said, "When I talk to her on the phone, she tells me what a joy he is. That really helps me."
Noelle already has an associate's degree and had been employed in the health care field. She confessed that her struggles stem from worry and a need to try to control all of her circumstances. "I'm just learning to take it day by day and trust God for my future," she said.
Kimberlee, the newest resident at Bruised Reed, recently was paroled and hopes to return soon to her fiancé in Texas. She received Christ while in prison and wanted a program that would help her grow spiritually. "I desperately needed structure," Kimberlee said, "and guidance, and a loving family which I've never had" -- all necessary elements to recovery that she has found at Bruised Reed Ministries.
Alexander said it is a wonderful thing to watch the women's transformation when God begins to work in their lives. "They come in with such hard faces. Most are emaciated when they arrive. Then their faces begin to change -- they become brighter. They become the beautiful women they are," she said.
Through Bruised Reed Ministries, Celebrate Recovery, saturation in the Word and the unconditional love and support of the Heartlifters Sunday School, these women and others like them have learned, and are learning, that God's grace is enough.
(c) 2008 Baptist Press. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Kay Adkins is a writer based in Mountain View, Ark. Celebrate Recovery honors and adheres to anonymity and confidentiality. Nelda and Ron Alexander and Sheila Lambert chose to step out of anonymity for this story to encourage others who might need help or support. Developed by John Baker at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., Celebrate Recovery is a Christ-centered church-based program to help believers overcome any kind of hurt, sinful habit or hang-up. For more information, visit www.celebraterecovery.com.