February 2, 2010

February 2, 2010 | Commentary on War On Drugs

Lessons From a Former Addict's Victory

He invited drug addicts into his home.

So reads the obituary of Pastor Freddie Garcia, one of the great lights that left us in 2009 after nearly 40 years of ministry showing others the way.

In the 1960s, Garcia was a heroin addict living on the street. He'd tried intervention after therapeutic intervention without overcoming his habit. What finally and permanently transformed his life was encountering a ministry that challenged him.

"A man who has come back from the precipice can best warn others," President George H.W. Bush said in 1990 as he presented Pastor Freddie with an "Achievement Against All Odds Award."

And warn others he did.

In 1970, Pastor Freddie and his wife, Ninfa, opened a ministry to addicts in San Antonio, Texas. Victory Fellowship began in their home and then spread over the years, as they equipped former addicts who founded 70 other ministry sites in the southwest United States and Latin America.

Unlike other approaches, Pastor Freddie's traced the problem of addiction to spiritual roots. "I never ask them if they're here to change. I just take them in because I know what God's going to do," he explained to the San Antonio Express-News.

Despite a track record of transformed lives, Victory Fellowship has occasionally gotten tangled in regulatory red tape. In the 1990s, the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse tried to make the ministry comply with licensing requirements for drug rehabilitation facilities. Doing so would have changed the whole nature of the successful program. After an outcry that reached national media, the pressure subsided.

Social entrepreneurship like Freddie Garcia's is exactly what we need to stem the tide of social breakdown in America, whether it's equipping welfare recipients to live independently, reconnecting children with their fathers, or helping prisoners re-enter society.

Government policy should clear - rather than clutter - the path of people-driven initiatives like this.

Stopping social breakdown means restoring personal responsibility, through efforts that help break the cycle of addiction and dependence like Victory Fellowship. It also means developing a deeper sense of mutual responsibility. Not through the impersonal handouts of government redistribution, but through individual relationships that mentor and empower people to take control of their own lives.

Reciprocity is essential in such relationships, says Bob Woodson, founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which helped support Pastor Freddie's ministry and hundreds more like it over the years. Everyone has something to give back, he says, and the best kinds of help allow them to do that. That's why family, neighborhoods and religious congregations can provide a wealth of resources to tackle social breakdown. They're two-way streets.

That's also why we're more likely to find solutions that restore individuals, families and neighborhoods to full flourishing around the corner in our community - rather than in distant Washington - as civil society scholar William Schambra observed in a recent lecture at the American Enterprise Institute.

Woodson and Schambra will tell you that there are many other Freddie Garcias, "laboring quietly but effectively in every American community, just waiting to be discovered." These small-budget, no-frills groups seek to free those trapped in addiction, self-destructive behavior, gang violence or poverty.

Such "street saints" - as author Barbara Elliott calls them - seldom boast highly polished administrative operations. You won't see them in TV ads. They're investing just about everything they've got in the most valuable human resource to overcome dysfunction and social breakdown: relationships. And their single-mindedness pays off in lives transformed.

Jennifer A. Marshall is Director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Jennifer A. Marshall Vice President for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, and the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow

Related Issues: War On Drugs

First Appeared in Raleigh News & Observer