A tearful reunion

by Robert Mitchell

In 2019, The Salvation Army Old Orchard Beach Camp Meetings were in full swing, but Benji Sawyer was drunk again.

He crashed his bike into a curb and took a nasty fall in the center of town, resulting in a gash on his face. He was so intoxicated, police told him that, if he got back on his bike, he would be arrested.

The Salvation Army’s Pier ministry was happening nearby where Benji frequently prayed with people and found encouragement. On that night, he pushed his bike to the nearby stage, where he met Commissioner G. Lorraine Bamford, the wife of Commissioner William A. Bamford, the territorial commander. She noticed the dried blood from Benji’s gash and tried to make conversation.

“He was just there, listening,” Commissioner Lorraine recalls. “I was here, and he was there, and I turned around and there he was. I went over and talked to him and asked him if he needed anything. I’m open to talking to whomever, and God placed him there.”

Commissioner Lorraine urged Benji to go to The Salvation Army’s church in Old Orchard Beach and the Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) in Portland, Maine, and gave him the addresses for both. A month later, Major Bryan Smith, the former corps officer in Old Orchard Beach, drove Benji to the ARC, where he spent the next six and a half months getting sober.

“I promised I would go to the ARC in Portland, Maine, and I kept my promise to that woman because she helped me have a better life now,” Benji says. “I am so full of gratitude to her for doing that for me because she didn’t have to, but her love of God and for me and the wellness of my life, she took the time to talk to me and I’ll never forget that.”

A renewed life

Benji said he learned a lot about himself at the ARC—and how to live alcohol-free after 40 years of drinking—as Majors Judi and Ron Bernardi ministered to him.

Today, Benji has been sober for three years. “It was the best time of my life to know how to become sober and live a sober life,” Benji said. “I found that I walked away from God 40 years ago and when I went to The Salvation Army church at the ARC, I found God back in my life doing what I couldn’t do. I didn’t have the energy because I was drunk all the time.

“My relationship with God now is wonderful. I talk to Him every morning, throughout the day, and I talk to Him at night. He’s done so much in my life in the last three years that I haven’t seen in the last 40.”

While at the ARC, Benji sent a note to Commissioner Lorraine to thank her for telling him about the ARC. Benji graduated from the ARC program in February 2020—right before COVID-19.

“When I was coming to the Pier before I met Commissioner Bamford, nobody ever told me about the solution to alcoholism that The Salvation Army had in Portland. She was the first one to tell me about it and I promised her I would go, and I did. I graduated and I’m proud I did because it was the best moment of my life,” he said.

Benji’s alcoholism began with an abusive stepfather who drank vodka. Benji grabbed one of his glasses and tasted alcohol at 2 years old, something his stepfather found humorous. Benji came from a family of alcoholics and taking that first taste was a harbinger of bad times to come. Benji drank for the next four decades.

“My life started going downhill right then and there,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything about it. I didn’t have the courage or the heart to ask anybody for help.”

Benji left Maine at age 15 and made a living as a carpenter and roofer in Jacksonville, Fla. His drinking continued to be a problem and he lost everything to his ex-wife, “and I lost her too,” he said.

He moved back to Maine 14 years ago but drank the first nine years he was home.

“I loved growing up here and going to school,” he said. “The people here are all just so kind. This is a place where I feel comfortable, and I have people around who love me. I come to the camp meetings here in Old Orchard Beach every year and I love it.”

During his darkest days, Benji lived in a tent through three harsh Maine winters.

“Yes, it was cold, but alcohol kept me warm,” he said. “When I woke up and didn’t have that alcohol, it was freezing. I wouldn’t suggest that to nobody. That’s not a good way of life.”

Old friends meet again

Upon his graduation from the ARC program, Benji went to a shelter in nearby Alfred, Maine, and is now living in a sober house in Saco and attends Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings three or four times a week. He also has a job washing dishes and handling maintenance at the Sea Salt Lobster Restaurant in Saco.

“Yes, I can hold a job and I am responsible now,” he said. “I have a place to live where it’s warm, and I have a bank account, which is something I never had. My life is so much better now, and I owe it all to The Salvation Army and the people in the state of Maine.

“If it wasn’t for Commissioner Bamford, I’d probably be dead by the side of the road or in the woods in a tent. I’m glad I’m not. I love the way my life is going right now. I live a better life now and I’m content and happy. The last three years have been the best three years I could imagine.”

Benji’s face may be weathered from years of alcohol abuse and rough living conditions, but he beams with the joy of the Lord when asked about his spiritual progress.

“We have discussions at meetings about how God works in our lives when we’re sober and how He loves us and wants to take care of us,” he said. “I read my Bible, starting from the beginning, and I’m going to go through it until I’ve read every page and every word in that book.”

The 2022 OOB Camp Meetings, the first since the Bamfords and Benji met in 2019, were a reunion of sorts. The Bamfords dropped in to eat dinner one night at the restaurant where he works. Benji and the Bamfords also had an emotional reunion at the Pier and prayed together.

Commissioner Lorraine said she found it interesting that her first meeting with Benji three years ago was just to the right of center stage. This year, it was just to the left.

“It was a visual to me of the before and the after,” she said. “I think he wanted to kind of revisit that 3-year-old point and come back to that same spot and show me where he had been in that journey. We had prayed with him three years ago and my husband and I prayed with him again this year. I was a little teary-eyed.”

Another promise made

She also equated the experience to 1 Corinthians 3:6, where Paul says, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.”

“We don’t even know what one prayer or conversation will do,” Commissioner Bamford said. “It was because of other people doing the watering and the nurturing that the increase came.”

She also urged Benji to start attending the Old Orchard Beach Corps and make it his church home. Benji promised to do so, and Commissioner Bamford believes he will keep his word.

“I believe him because he kept his last promise,” she said.

The reunion was also special for Commissioner Bamford because it came on her birthday, July 25.

“Benji was the best birthday present I got,” she said.

Benji said he was willing to share his story so openly because he hopes it will inspire others.

“I hope it helps someone else,” says Benji, now 59, with tears in his eyes. “I must give away what The Salvation Army gave to me. If it helps even one person, I would be so happy.”