My Story Starts Here
by Robert Mitchell
After suffering many years in the throes of addiction, this survivor is now where he belongs.
Michael Vandenburgh likes to say he “belongs” at the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) in Providence, R.I.
Someone recently challenged Michael and said he probably has just grown comfortable at The Salvation Army facility. But he was having none of it.
“No,” Michael said. “I love being at The Salvation Army. I’m where I belong—among God’s people where all of us put our trust in Christ and grow.”
Long before coming to the ARC in 2019, Michael belonged to the streets. He grew up in Westport, Mass., where he experimented at age 14 with alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, and pills.
“As soon as I picked them up, they consumed my life,” said Michael, who also later battled the demons of crack cocaine and heroin.
He went to jail in Massachusetts “quite a few times,” often for breaking and entering to support his drug habit. He estimated that he’s spent just under four years behind bars.
“I’d run out of money, but I needed it to continue using drugs,” he explained.
His last stint was nine months in a Rhode Island jail after being set up by a drug dealer, who asked him to go for a ride to Newport, R.I. The dealer had asked Michael to pass off some drugs. When police raided the car, he was implicated.
A new start
While in jail, Michael remembers telling God, “I just can’t stop doing what I’m doing. I dug myself a hole I can’t get out of it. I need your help.”
Homeless and with nowhere to turn upon his release from jail on Sept. 1, 2019, Michael went directly to the Providence ARC. He was 50 years old.
“I didn’t know about The Salvation Army,” he said. “I didn’t know about the ARC program. I was OK to go there because I knew God was there, and I didn’t want to go to a secular program.
“When I left jail, I came straight here. When I crossed the threshold at The Salvation Army, after a couple of days, I could feel His spirit. It was like my spirit woke up inside of me. My story starts here. I felt like the Holy Spirit spoke to me. Something in me came alive.”
Michael said he felt God telling him, “The Salvation Army is my personal provision for you during this season of your life.” While he had accepted Christ in his 20s and studied the Bible, today Michael says, “I didn’t understand grace.”
“I think when God brought me here, He led me into a place of grace where I started to seek Him,” he says. “I knew God and sought Him through the Word that was already in my heart. I found myself talking to Him in the morning; just giving myself to Him, and it seems like He led me through this program.
“His Holy Spirit led me to the cross to receive grace. That’s what happened to me here. I’m now learning to do it continually. His grace and His mercies are new every day. I think I’ve grown to understand what His grace is and that He died on the cross for my sins. Now, I can move forward.”
Seeing God in the details
Michael graduated from the ARC program on March 15, 2020, and was officially hired as an ARC driver the next day. He signed his name next to the date 3/16.
“When I signed my paperwork, it was like the Holy Spirit grabbed my head and focused my eyes on the date. Then John 3:16 came to mind,” Michael said of the Bible’s most famous verse. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Michael later worked as a resident assistant with the ARC but was about to leave, when a full–time maintenance job opened that was a perfect fit for him.
“It was a beautiful thing,” Michael says. “Taking the maintenance position allowed me to live right here on the campus. I like it because I’m part of the ministry. The new guys come in and I talk to them, I laugh with them, I cry with them, and I pray with them.”
Major Brian Thomas, the administrator of the Providence ARC, said Michael has become a “zealous disciple of Jesus Christ.”
“During his off hours, he goes to the darkest corners of Providence to share his faith, invite people to the program, and show compassion to the least and the lost,” Thomas said.
Michael said God has planted several seeds in his life, including going into the community to pass out “tickets” to the ARC program. That also has involved picking people up out of the gutter and getting them into detox, a place he has been himself.
“In doing that, God has shown me His pursuit of lost lives,” Michael says. “There are people out there He’s pursuing and who He’s revealed Himself to. People need to know God is there, even though they can’t see Him. They need to know that He loves them and wants an intimate relationship with them.
“I desire for people to feel the love and grace I feel in my life. I want to give away what was given to me—love and grace from the living God who moved into my heart. I want somebody else to experience that.”
Planting eternal seeds
Michael said his main message as he greets people on the street is, “Don’t give up on God. He hasn’t given up on you. He’s going to pursue you to the ends of the earth. He loves you and He’s trying to reveal Himself to you.”
Back at the ARC, Michael has a sign on his office door that urges the program participants to “Sign up to get RICH.” The offer has nothing to do with money but is an acronym for what he calls “Recovering In Christ’s Hands (RICH).” Anyone can sign up to spend an hour with Michael and discuss the recovery journey and what God is doing to transform their lives. He calls this idea another seed planted by God.
“Sometimes, I get involved in conversations and I pray with people,” he said.
Michael said he also goes for a walk with the men. They discuss Christ and what He might be doing in their lives. Michael has been where many of them are, and he wants to help them find deliverance in Jesus Christ.
“The guys have a heavy curriculum here, between the work therapy and the classes that they have,” Michael said. “It’s not like I’m doing a Bible study with them. We just talk. It’s one of those things where we let it be known that Christ is present in our lives and is working among us.
“Sometimes our talks lead to the Word of God or a conversation about where we’ve been and where we want to go. A lot of dynamics happen. It’s just a beautiful thing. Sometimes it leads to tears or to laughing. I just never know.”
Finishing a good work
Michael, who is now 52 and lives on the ARC campus, said his construction of an “Ark for Jesus” is a long–term seed that is coming to fruition. It’s a 26–foot cabin truck that will open into a 16×16–ft., ministry platform. The truck will include a small living space complete with a sink, shower, toilet, bed, desk, bookcase, refrigerator, shelving, air–conditioning, and heat.
“We’ll go out and sing some worship songs, and invite people to come to know Jesus. I believe He’s going to show up, heal people, build His Kingdom, and call them to Himself,” Michael says. “That’s the vision I have.”
Michael calls the truck his own portable Automotive Reconciliation Center (ARC of sorts). He started building it in October 2020 and expects it to take a year and–a–half to two years to complete.
“This is a work of prayer,” he said. “This truck is going to take a while. It’s still a work in progress. I’m praying for things to manifest. I’ve got to be faithful in doing a little bit every day.
“By lifting Jesus up, I find healing in my life. That’s what He’s calling me to do with this truck.”
When Michael reflects on his early years as a Christian, his precipitous fall into drugs, and his spiritual comeback at The Salvation Army, he always quotes Philippians 1:6, which says, “… he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
“I’m aware that He started a work in me years ago, but I slipped away and just did what I wanted to do. But He stepped in with His grace to start me over again,” Michael says.
Alive in Christ
“I believe He’s teaching me what faithfulness is all about as a servant in His Kingdom, and what He has placed in my heart.”
A tattoo on Michael’s arm is a quote from John 11:25. “I am the resurrection and the life.”
“My whole life has just been a struggle to avoid what I know has been destroying me. Throughout the years, I’ve been drawn closer in my relationship with the Lord. He’s got me to this place where I belong—at The Salvation Army. I have a fire in me and I think it’s the fire of the Holy Spirit.”