Drying Out With Jesus

By Jeff Winkler 06/03/12

How different are evangelical Christian drug-and-alcohol rehabs from their secular cousins? The Fix investigates.

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"The times when you have seen only one set of footprints, is when I carried your
drunk ass."
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Twelve-Step skeptics scoff at what they view as the unscientific, faith-based approach to substance-abuse treatment, as seen in Alcoholics Anonymous and mainstream rehabs across the country. Evangelical Christian rehab—a growing force in the treatment industry—doubles down on this by doing away with vague notions of a “higher power,” and explicitly prescribing belief in and reliance upon Jesus Christ as the only true road to recovery.

You can see this dynamic in action at Big Creek Ranch Retreat, an evangelical addiction treatment center nestled in the Ozark Mountains near Harriet, Arkansas. “God uses this one,” says Big Creek proprietor Rodney Love, confidently.

Even with his cheerful, singsong Southern cadence, the declaration almost sounds as if Love is vying for bragging rights—as if God himself had a two-bag-a-day habit and came here to clean up.

According to a 2008 report from the National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services (N-SSATS), God actually uses about 527 faith-based rehabs. As for Big Creek Ranch, it looks less like a place to get clean and sober and more like Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen’s summer cottage. The inside is all exposed frames, with walls of stone and timber. Perched in the forefront of the panoramic view is a plaque emblazoned with a Bible verse, from 1 Kings chapter 19: “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” While Love expounds on all the good the retreat does for those seeking relief—from various addictions, depression and more—the all-glass wall of the lodge looks out onto high, green hills rubbing gently against the cloudy sky. Somewhere below, the Buffalo River meanders through the valley.

Many evangelical rehabs recognize the “disease model” of addiction, and some utilize the 12 Steps. But their treatment plans offer a more holy approach.

“Here’s what we do here,” grins the ruddy-faced Love, as he goes Old Testament with his analogy. “I describe it as a boil on our skin. You gotta get down in there and lance that boil out. Get rid of that stuff and start the healing process, and that’s what we do here. We don’t want to treat the symptoms, we want to treat the root.”

The root, of course, is faith—an assessment with which AA is more or less in agreement; in the “Big Book” (AA’s Bible, if you will), alcoholism is described as “an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer.” But Love does not grant, as AA does, that faith in a self-defined higher power will suffice; rather, Love believes that only faith in capital-G God and in Jesus Christ, your personal lord and savior—and de facto sponsor, for that matter—will save you.

Like many other Christian drug and alcohol treatment centers, Big Creek Ranch—which usually hosts about six people for two weeks at a stretch, sometimes longer—is non-denominational, concerned only with bringing people to a recovery that sits firm on the rock of Jesus, rather than any specific Christian sect. Many of these rehabs recognize the “disease model” of addiction, and some utilize the secular 12 Steps, or a version thereof. But their treatment plans tend to offer a more holistic—or, rather, holy—approach.

“I call this holy ground. It’s indescribable what God does here,” says Love, unabashedly. 

During this reporter’s visit, Love enthusiastically invited me to watch a group session that was taking place in the lodge’s main living room. Sitting in wood rocking chairs, the group of kids seemed to range in age from about 16 to 18. A couple of the girls looked exactly like my younger, atheist/agnostic sibling did when she, too, went through group therapy.

The only difference is that these teens don’t seem to be grasping for some tangible idea of a higher power, because “The Word” is already understood to be a central part of their recovery—and in that sense, Love and his treatment program are not alone.

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Jeff Winkler is a Nashville-based writer, video anchor, and documentary producer. He is the winner of the Carter Journalism Institute's Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award and you can find him on Twitter.