Ministry banking on God to get people off drugs
When 34-year-old Rockford resident Tonna Phillips was introduced to heroin in 1997, it was an easy way to pay the bills.
Phillips, who had a young son, was going to school at Blackhawk Technical College. She started selling drugs when she saw how much money her boyfriend was making. The money was coming pretty quickly, recalls Phillips, and things went well for years, until that is, she started "dippin' and dabbin,'" her slang for using drugs.
Instead of getting help, Phillips threw herself headlong into selling, trying to make up for the money she was losing. But soon it got to the point where she was using more than she was selling. She started neglecting her three children, shoplifting and eventually ended up in jail.
When Phillips' stint in jail - 61 days - was over, she decided to seek treatment before her addiction forced her back into crime. But the treatment Phillips first received, although helpful, wasn't reaching her on a deeper level. That's when she was referred to the Master Builder Ministries recovery home for women in Freeport.
"They tell you in the meetings and treatment facilities that you have a higher power, but I didn't understand what I was going through with that higher power," said Phillips who has been sober for three months. "When I got accepted here they told me it was a spiritual program seeking God's help in recovery."
Phillips isn't alone. Since it opened a year ago, the Master Builder Ministries home has helped more than 10 women with its spiritually focused approach to recovery - women like Donna, a 41-year-old Rockford native, who asked that her last name be withheld.
Donna has spent most of her adult life addicted to crack-cocaine. Introduced to the drug in prison, she has spent 26 years of her life in and out of prison for burglary, armed robbery and forgery, trying to support her habit. Sober for just under two weeks, she said Tuesday that she hopes Master Builder and God will be the things that finally help her to turn her life around.
At any given time, there are five to eight women in the recovery home. Some are from Rockford. Some are from Freeport. There is a 30-day trial period, and most women stay in the house for anywhere from six months to a year. Like other programs, the women take substance abuse classes, engage in the 12 steps of recovery and attend meetings. But unlike other programs, the women spend a great deal of their time in devotion - learning about their relationship with God.
The Importance of Hope
Sitting in the living room of the Master Builder Ministries home, Executive Director Michael Sowell and Outreach Director Jeff Peterson, both ordained ministers, said it's that extra ingredient, coupled with ministering from ordained staff and local church-going mentors, that makes all the difference.
"If you try to change somebody's behavior without changing who they are on the inside, it's not going to work very well because you are relying on willpower, which, by the way, is very weak at best, " Peterson said. "But if you change a person on the inside, that will naturally affect their behavior."
It's a concept the men say works on all sorts of people, from the believer to the non-believer. In fact, Sowell says most of the people they deal with in the program are non-believers.
"They are a captive audience and are in a position to take a look at what got them in the mess they're in," Peterson said. "When we come into the jails, we give them hope, which a lot of them don't have."
Although Sowell and Peterson say they have been mocked by young criminals when attempting to minister, they can eventually reach even the most hardened souls.
"It's not really up to me. It's not up to my words. It's about the spirit of God moving in them," Peterson said. That's something both Peterson and Sowell can attest to. Both men were heavily involved in drugs and crime before turning their lives around through religion.
Sowell said the ministry is in the process of setting up a home like the one on Benton Avenue for the men they work with at the Winnebago County and Stephenson County jails, many who have a tough time finding a place to go when they get released from prison.
They also understand that in addition to teaching those young men about accepting God, they must also teach them how to change their thinking patterns.
"Most of the guys I deal with understand they are trapped in a downward spiral. We want to give them success principles. I mean if you grew up in the 'hood like I did, you are trained to think like the 'hood," Sowell said.
Contact Cara Spoto at email@example.com.