Beyond the Wall
SA Cares for the Addicted
The Salvation Army has always treated drug addiction as a public health issue, long before the Surgeon General’s 2016 report declared it a “chronic neurological disorder.”* For decades, the Army has reached out to people in the worst possible conditions to provide them with practical and spiritual help. This ongoing work has served as a successful alternative to mass incarceration.
Such was the case nine years ago in Puerto Rico when Salvationists literally scaled a seven–foot wall to minister to men and women living in the shadows of a residential community. The bright, warm sunlight belied the place where we would ultimately find ourselves—a dark rustic den where addicts, afflicted by what is known today as a “substance use disorder,” injected heroin into their veins.
After riding in an SUV for several minutes in an area near the town of Arecibo, our party of four left the vehicle and walked along a dusty street. After passing what appeared to be a public housing unit, we entered a large yard. The uneven ground required that we watch our step. We also lowered our heads to avoid the lines of clothes hanging out to dry in the warm breeze. As we approached the wall, we gently scattered some horses to clear our way. One neighed softly. The cinderblock wall’s graffiti–laden surface looked intimidating. As the embedded journalist with my “boots on the ground,” I wondered, What now?
“They’re on the other side,” said then Captain Ricardo F. Portal, corps officer in Arecibo. Police Sergeant Cruz (in plain clothes), Captain Juan Mercado, (then) Divisional Commander Captain Ricardo Fernandez, Captain Portal, and I took turns scaling the wall until we were all on the other side.
We now stood in an alley where men and some women knelt. They hardly noticed us while injecting themselves with drugs. Captain Portal turned and said, “This is my ministry.”
Cruz said, “Every week we go—we bring food, we pray, and we counsel them. We have a lot of work, but we also have The Salvation Army.” He untucked a box of hypodermic needles from under his arm. “We are trying to rescue people who are using the drugs.” Part of that rescue, he believed, included suppressing the spread of HIV/AIDS by distributing clean needles.
From athlete to addict
Portal spoke to Thomas (not his real name) who returned a look of recognition. As Cruz (while wearing surgical gloves) distributed the needles and carefully placed the used ones in a red container marked “Medical Waste,” Thomas shared his story.
“I started when I was a teenager,” he began. “I was really an athletic guy. I was representing Puerto Rico in four sports. I played soccer, making records in the minor leagues that, to this day, no one has beaten. I also excelled in baseball and in swimming. I held golden gloves in boxing at 115 lbs.; I fought 32 bouts and lost only one.
“I impacted the lives of many young people who saw me as a leader. But as a mature young adult, I didn’t have the same ability to communicate as did other people. I started going around with people who encouraged me to go to parties where they used drugs. I met a girl who was a drug user and the only way I could be with her was to use drugs too.”
Thomas said that was the beginning of his fall.
During his 20 years of addiction, he married another woman, became the father of three kids, and the grandfather of two more. “I met The Salvation Army a few months ago,” he said. “They offered to help pay my power and food bills. They come every week and they are sharing with us.”
The officers laid hands on Thomas and prayed that God would deliver him from addiction—but most of all, that Thomas would come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
by Warren L. Maye
* Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, 2016, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
by Javier Miranda
To understand the real dangers of a relapse, you need to first understand how addiction affects your life. Imagine addiction as jumping from the top of a building. As you are in freefall, you are succumbing to your addiction. You ask God to save you, and miraculously, He does. He catches you in the middle of your fall, and you now are in recovery.
If you relapse and start using again, you’re not jumping off from the top of that building again. You continue your fall from where you left off, moving just as fast, and just as close to hitting the ground, or maybe even lower. You have much less time to be saved before you hit the ground.
No one in recovery just wakes up one morning and thinks, It’s back to using for me. Relapse is a gradual thing. The very last step in a relapse is going back to using. Before that, there are other things that happen, sometimes without the addict in recovery even realizing it. It could be a frustration while driving, or some unwelcome news.
For an addict, recovery never ends. He or she needs to stay vigilant, and aware of every move they make, so that the addiction does not return. I know people who have been clean for decades but who still feel they are on borrowed time. They fear the addiction will catch up with them again, and they’ll relapse.
For many years, I was in that freefall. Today, I have been clean for seven years. Every morning when I wake up, I pray to God, and tell Him, “I alone cannot do this, Lord. Guide my every step.” If I return to that freefall, I know I do not have much time before I hit the ground.
—Javier Miranda is a lawyer for The Salvation Army ARC in San Juan, Puerto Rico.