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Soldiering on in unity

While many of The Salvation Army’s residential programs have closed because of COVID–19, the “Umoja” initiative at the Cambridge, Mass., Corps remains open.

Umoja, a Swahili word meaning unity, is a men’s faith–based, residential recovery and transitional program.

“Recovery is one of those things you just can’t do by yourself,” says Jack MacEachern, the program’s director. “We do it together.”

Umoja, which is located in the Salvation Army’s Wellington House, had about 22 men before COVID–19, but by early May, that number went down to 14 because some of the men tested positive and were moved.

“It’s been difficult with the social distancing,” MacEachern said. “While in the building, all the men wear masks. They’re disinfecting the common areas, like three times a day. We’re doing everything we can to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.”

MacEachern said group meetings and case management have taken place virtually.

“We’ve been doing the best we can,” he said.

The first of Umoja’s three phases involves case management and classes designed to address mind, body, and spirit. The second phase helps the men maintain employment, save income, and pay off debts. The men have more liberty in the third phase as they continue their rehab and can sometimes stay overnight with family. MacEachern said the program takes nine months to complete.

Once they complete the program, the men can be referred to a graduate residence known as Shea House, which MacEachern described as sort of a sober house.

Having gone through the program himself, MacEachern knows it, inside and out. In 2000, the courts mandated that he attend after being homeless for two years in Boston, where he was in and out of jail and methadone clinics for treatment of his addictions.

“I wasn’t a very spiritual person,” said MacEachern, who had to be persuaded by his probation officer to stay in Umoja. “I eventually started listening and paying attention in class.”

MacEachern was challenged in one class to pray for something specific and watch God answer the prayer. He half–heartedly prayed for hair gel, never imagining God would come through. A few days later, his roommate received some toiletries and asked if he wanted hair gel.

“The hairs on my arm and my neck stood up,” he said. “I couldn’t believe I prayed for something specific and He answered it. That was really when God got my attention. I felt His presence.”

It wasn’t long before MacEachern accepted Christ. He has been the Umoja director since 2005.

“Since then, God’s been amazing in my life,” he said.

During COVID–19, MacEachern has lived at the Shea House and continues to build into the men’s lives and their recovery.

“Even before this pandemic started, my message to the men was, you can’t rely on your own strength,” he said. “Our best thinking has gotten us nowhere. We generally try to get them to rely on God and understand that God has a purpose and a plan for each one of us.”

MacEachern also piggybacks off the men’s 12–step training. The first step requires that one admit he is “powerless” over his addictions.

“We say that the times we should lean on God are when we’re powerless,” MacEachern said. “The greatest power is God. God is the one who will get us through it.

“I think it’s the same message we would normally share, but because of the circumstances, all of society needs to hear it, not just the recovery community. These times of adversity are really times when our character has a chance to grow and it’s that relationship with God that gets us through it.”

by Robert Michell

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