“This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!’”
Luke 15:32 MSG
Pulling himself over the bridge railing, Ulises gasps hard for air. For days or weeks – he’s not sure just how long – Ulises has been living under this bridge in shabby tents pitched along the canals of the inner city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The other men in his tent community are similarly desperate, existing in a world of heavy alcohol use, violence, inhalants, and crude cocaine.
Ulises takes a step forward, then another. His head in a fog, he can barely see his way forward as he stumbles off the sidewalk and into the bustling street. Tires screech as a car tries to brake – but not in time. It crashes into Ulises, and for once, his intoxication brings some luck: he goes limp, almost as if embracing the impact that slams him to the ground.
Ulises drags himself to the nearest hospital and drops down by the door. His shoulder is clearly out of place and there seems to be more damage as well. Pleading with the workers inside, he’s unable to afford the costly surgery torepair the damage done in the crash. He knows he has hit more than the concrete roadway; he has hit rock bottom of a miserable existence. Lost to his own poor life choices, lost to the streets, and lost to drugs and alcohol, he’s become an anonymous wanderer dismissed by passersby as a useless vagrant. Perhaps this is the grace he needed, for this near-death experience has left him finally ready to seek help.
At the doors of the hospital, help comes to him in the form of Lincoln, an outreach coordinator from NOVO, a transformational community known more prosaically as a center for drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
Lincoln is from a small town on the border between Bolivia and Argentina. Since adolescence, he has had an incredibly clear sense of call to help people on the street. He was introduced to NOVO by a Youth With A Mission (YWAM) worker who knew of his dedication to reaching out and building relationships with people living in the drainage canals.
Lincoln recalls his first encounter with Ulises: “At the beginning of 2016 we went out to distribute food together with the church and found Ulises at the door of the San Juan de Dios Hospital, waiting to be treated.” His shoulder was broken, but Ulises could not afford treatment at the hospital, so Lincoln and others helped reset the shoulder. He was then taken to a [different] rehab center, where he joined a sobriety program for two months and attended church.”
Two months later, after a brief stint in another local rehab in Santa Cruz, Lincoln found Ulises drinking in a parked car. No longer sober, and no longer in a treatment program, Ulises was headed back towards disaster. Lincoln looked him in the eyes and asked bluntly, “Do you want, or not want, to change? Because if you want to change, you have to throw away your alcohol.” Reluctantly, Ulises handed over his bottle. He felt defeated, like he couldn’t do anything more and knew that complete surrender was necessary. He fumbled around in his pocket and handed a second bottle over to Lincoln. His journey had begun.
Lincoln brought Ulises to NOVO, but Ulises was convinced he was at the wrong place. Astonished to find a clean bed and hot water in the shower, he told Lincoln, “I don’t deserve so much, brother. This place is like a paradise.” He stayed on and thus began the process of rebuilding his life by dealing with his addiction, his past, and his dislocated, disjointed psyche.
Ulises was NOVO’s first resident and its first graduate. The NOVO team used to joke that Ulises had a personal pastor, cook, driver, and manager, since he was the only resident. He even had the pool all to himself.
The 16 or so men who reside at NOVO at any given time live communally. Each day they follow a full schedule that includes clinical meetings with counselors, therapists, and psychologists, as well as group sessions and church services. Once a month they travel outside Santa Cruz to Refugio, an eco-retreat geared to foreign tourists. All of the profits from Refugio and NOVO Adventures, an adventure tourism company, support the NOVO transformational community. At Refugio the men can fully unplug. Removed from distractions, they work with their hands in the gardens while drinking in the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains.
Finding Healing Through the Past
Back at their city home, group sessions are key. This is where Ulises began to chart out his life story- and there was a lot to probe. Originally from La Paz, he was raised for some years by an aunt, but then issues of abandonment and neglect helped fuel his early addiction. He started drinking and living on the streets when he was only 12 years old. At first he survived by as an attendant in a pay parking lot. Eventually, like many Bolivian men, he migrated to Santa Cruz to look for work, but was soon lost in the cacophony of the inner city and its underbelly of crime, homelessness, drugs, and alcoholism.
Years of defending himself on the streets had built a hardened façade, with Ulises buried deep beneath it, always nervously on alert, anticipating attack around every turn. Showing weakness on the streets, he learned, was an invitation for someone to scam him, attack him, or worse.
NOVO’s program helps guide men like Ulises out of trauma and addiction using both therapy and faith. It’s a holistic approach embraced by pastors experienced in counseling, such as Michael Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. In a sermon titled Miserable Comforters, Keller warns against being too spiritualized – or too reductionist – in approaching those who are suffering.
“Religious people tend to reduce everything to spiritual and moral,” says Keller. “But guess what? We’re not just spiritual beings! We’re physical beings and maybe we need a nap and a walk by the ocean.” Secular people, on the other hand, “tend to only see depression as all biochemical, so they just give you a pill,” says Keller. “But God NEVER reduces things like that. The Bible says there’s a complexity about human nature. You can’t just wade in and deal with discouragement and depression as if it all comes down to one thing.”
Nestled in the community at NOVO, it can take a while, but eventually the men who go there start to take off their armor. Therapists, the community, and the church encourage them to show their festering wounds underneath. In this environment, it is safe to cry out in pain.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus quickly rebukes his critics after healing a man, sharply imploring,“Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.”
It took Ulises some time, but as he opened up, he experienced something new: a grace that didn’t exist in his former life. NOVO was a place where he could share his pain without rejection and uncover his life without fear of condemnation all while being surrounded by the others who understood what he was saying.
As he spoke about himself, Ulises found something he’d lost: the boy – himself – whom he had left behind years before. It is said that a person stops maturing at the age they enter addiction. Returning to that younger self after years of being condemned by society and condemned by their own minds can allow a person to relearn to feel, how to trust, and then to find the road to recovery.
“We often lock people up in ready-made judgments: ‘He is a thief; she is disabled; he is schizophrenic,’” wrote Jean Vanier, a reformist theologian who founded L’Arch, a network of communities providing care for those suffering with disabilities. “Perhaps this one did steal something, perhaps that one is disabled, but they are more than this. They are people who, if loved, helped, and trusted, can in some small way recognize their faults and their brokenness and can grow in humanity, inner freedom, to do little acts of love” (Vanier, Pg. 154).
After completing the NOVO program, Ulises stayed on for another year, getting a welding job to support himself. After a year of studying industrial welding, he saved enough to buy his own welding machine with a friend, Ernesto. Ulises eventually made it to become a senior member of the NOVO community, where he lends a supportive hand to newer members of NOVO as they begin to shake off the tremors of their own broken lives. In helping them, Ulises uses his own life experience as a means to gain their trust, inviting them to share their pain instead of hiding it. In this process, his own trauma is redeemed.