How did you get connected to Nations Media and Roadworks Collective?
I have a good friend in Orange County who owns a couple crossfit gyms, and he came down with a group of volunteers to drill a water well, back when I was doing water wells. Him and a couple of other guys connected really well. His name is also Joel. So the two Joels got together talking about innovative models of ministry, and Joel Thompson said to Joel Parker, ‘hey you should meet up with Warren somewhere along the way and talk to him about what’s going on Bolivia.’
How long have you been in Bolivia?
It’s coming on thirteen years. As I just got back to Canada and was visiting with some Canadian friends, I had this feeling that I have been gone long enough that I’m no longer Canadian either. I definitely belong to some third culture space where I’ll never be fully Bolivian for sure but I’m definitely not Albertan in the sense that most Albertans are. So it’s twelve almost thirteen years now.
Tell me a little more about your first trip to Bolivia and what inspired you to stay.
The transition to working oversees full time was kind of a multi part experience. I went to Bible school to take a degree in theology and counseling. The standard path for guys that take kind of program in Canada would be to spend five or ten years as a youth pastor then take over as a pastor of a church. That was never the natural fit for me. And so, during the course of the program, Jackie, who’s my wife, and I were both looking to do the practicum part of our undergrad programs. The Free Church Mission of Canada opened the door for us to do an internship in Bolivia. I had done a couple of short two week high school mission trip experiences, one to Mexico, another one to Venezuela. So already there was a Latin American emphasis. So we ended up coming to Bolivia for six months, just about 15 years ago now. We spoke basically no Spanish at the time, in Alberta, I don’t know if I even heard Spanish. There’s very few Spanish speakers in the province. It was a fascinating window into the world I had grown up with. I had grown up rural Wester Canada, then spent a couple years in a big city. Still it was quite monocultural, quite affluent, very politically stable, very economically stable.
Did you first go to Santa Cruz?
Initially I spent my first six months there working part time at a church and part time at a radio project. One of the more impactful relationships was with a guy who is still involved in that radio project, who is a Quechua guy. About half of Bolivia’s population is Quechua. Many people don’t think of Bolivia at all, but if you were to tell someone to think of Bolivia, the images there would come to mind would probably be centered around that culture. The highlands of Bolivia, La Paz, the mountains, llamas, the multi-colored fabrics. So he’s part of that cultural group. Over the last couple of years, a huge group of that people have moved down to the lowlands, because it’s more fertile farmland, easier to make a living. So he had a real outreach to those people, those settlers in the lowlands. I spent a lot of time working alongside him while barely able to communicate, solving technical issues for the radio network. But he had such a compassion for those people that even without a lot of language, it was impossible not to pick up on his enthusiasm and heart for outreach to that people group. That had a huge impact on me. When we left we were in no way certain that we were going to go back and we weren’t sure what the next steps were. But I remember feeling a sense of what a privilege it would be to be able to work alongside of that guy and actually be able to get to know him without a translator in the middle doing outreach.
Did you try to learn Spanish after that?
We came back to Canada, we had about a year left to finish our degree programs and had a couple conversations about what’s next. The same organization reached out to us during that time and said, if you guys want to go out as career people, we would happily take you. They opened the door to a number of countries, and once the option was put in front of us, we thought, well we will go back to Bolivia for at least two years. It would be interesting to go back and do a two year term. Part of that initial contract was to spend a year in language school. So we left Canada, we moved just down by Brownsville in Texas, and spent eight, nine months in language school, then a month in Mexico, and another month in Cuba. We had a chance to start out with kindergarten grammar and coloring books and work our way up from there to something resembling Spanish.
What inspired you to get into the recovery sphere?
I’ll focus on the external needs first then my personal experience. There’s massive substance abuse problems all across the developing world. Bolivia has very high rates of alcoholism, very high rates of domestic violence. There’s very little of the social safety net of government support say someone from Canada thinks is the norm. A pivotal moment for me in that journey. Jackie has been on the board of a home for abused and abandoned kids in Santa Cruz since we’ve been there. That project, they don’t call it an orphanage, Bolivia doesn’t have a foster care system like the US so these homes serve a dual function. They are an orphanage for kids who have no family to look after them, but they also are temporary housing for kids who end up in Social Services until the police can investigate and abuse situation, tell a family member to apply for custody. They get a flow of kids in and out who are dealing with a variety of traumatic home situations. Part of Jackie’s role in that project was to throw birthday parties four times a year for all the kids who had birthdays in that quarter. One of those parties we hosted at our place, it was maybe thirty kids between the ages of five and eighteen, it’s a handful. So often times at these birthday parties, the community, the church, would be invited to come celebrate these kids birthdays, bring gifts, spend time with them. So I was in the pool with one little guy, and there’s a group of them and we’re throwing balls around and we’re throwing them up in the air and splash. This one little kid was just close to me all day and we were having a good time playing. So as the day went on, we were having hot dogs and chips or whatever, and I was sitting next to him. Without any forethought I said to him, tell me a little bit about yourself. And he looked over at me and without breaking a stride, he said, ‘I saw my dad kill my mom, so they took me away and put me in this home.’ I didn’t know what to do. I had never had a kid that age. I just didn’t know how to emotionally respond, or appropriately respond to a kid with that kind of a trauma. The recognition at that point already that this was just a little kid who just wanted to play and have fun, but there’s this horrible thing that’s part of this story. So I spent the rest of the day with him, ended up going back to the home with him and ended up asking the guys in leadership who administer the center, ‘what’s this kids story, how did he get here?’ And sure enough, as you suspected with a story like that, there’s a history of substance abuse in the family. So at some point the dad came home drunk, got into an argument or something with the mom and murdered her. I remember from that moment on feeling initially a hopelessness. Thinking what does the future hold for a kid with something like that in his story. Of course we need to do work to help kids in those situations, but what’s being done to intervene before these situations get to this level. That lead to a bunch of conversations and key relationships. There was a guy Andy Partington, who had worked in Bolivia pastoring churches there. He had gone back to the UK after a short stint in Bolivia to take over the administration of a drug and alcohol rehab center just outside of London. A well recognized program, a well developed program. When I went around checking out what was being done about addiction in Bolivia, because of course there are projects. By and large most of the projects fall in to one of two camps. So you had centers almost what would look almost like to the outside, like a jail, guys are taken there, sometimes against their will. Hard physical labor. Very much from this orientation of like addiction is a failure of the will, we need to whip some discipline into these guys, and the way to do this is by hard treatment. By that point I hadn’t done much research myself into addiction treatment, but it didn’t feel right and it didn’t seem to get the right results either. And of course now, I am fully convinced that the root of addiction is most people’s lives is trauma. And trying to traumatize the trauma out of somebody is not an effective tool. And on the other end you would often see projects generally sponsored by churches, often times an addict in leadership, they’ve got a real compassion for people in addiction but the projects end up running like ‘let’s do church eight hours a day, seven days a week until these guys aren’t addicts anymore.’ So you bring these guys off the street and they’re in a bible study, then they’re in a prayer meeting, then they’re in devotional time, and you’re just doing that all day every day. It’s not to downplay the spiritual component of work that needs to be done in the heart of someone who has addiction, but it is to understand that there is more to a self than just that thing. If you don’t help those people understand the root of their addictions, heal that, develop better emotional tools, to develop sometimes better vocational tools, you’re not really providing them for an opportunity for real recovery and freedom. So those centers, when they were effective, it seemed like for these guys it was the first time they ever felt loved and supported in their lives, and so that environment where they feel, ‘hey somebody cares for me,’ is quite important. But because they lack the kind of deeper understanding and a more well thought out treatment model, most of the time there was no path for reintegration for guys who were in a program like that. They could stay, but some guys just became permanent fixtures in the program. It became like a colony, and ‘I just live here.’ But for guys that say, have family on the outside, who have some trajectory towards getting back into society, it would almost, without fail, be less that two months on the outside, relapse, and that’s it. And the center didn’t have an answer for, what to do with relapse except just come back and stay here, which seemed inadequate.
What’s been your internal journey of understanding trauma and grace? What broadened your perspective from this traditional approach?
The reality is probably the unavoidable encounter with my own shortcomings and my inability to be that which I ought to be simply by my force of my will. If the model I was brought up with is correct, that should be possible. It should be that I recognize that ‘I’m a sinner, I confess this thing, xyx, and now I’m better.” It’s more self discipline, it’s more repentance, it’s more church involvement, or whatever the thing is, somehow there’s going to be a mechanism through this kind of Newtonian input output morality that’s going to get me to a place where I don’t have these edges that I can’t make sense of anymore. That just fell apart for me, and it fell apart in the lives of some of those around me that I care about. If those people can’t get there by force of will, they’re never going to get there. There must be something else going on here. I think it’s interesting you brought up the disease model, of course there is a neurological component to addiction, and yet I find it fascinating the most impactful and well recognized voices in the addiction sphere even in the secular sphere recognize some sort of spiritual component to the problem of addiction. There are questions about what it means to be a self and what we are and what we’re here for that are so intimately connected with what people in addiction are struggling with, that if you try and erase those questions you ignore the biggest parts of the dynamic that are in play right in front of you. So, for me, the necessity to receive grace myself and to dig under the surface and ask why am I this way, why does anxiety drive me, or fear drive me this way, why can’t I just will my way out of it, gave me a significantly higher degree of compassion for people in addiction. I like Russel Brand and his take on this, that someone who’s addicted to heroin in some ways it’s a gift because they have to come to terms with their addiction quite quickly or they die. There’s a force, there’s a seriousness behind their particular substance that they use that requires them to say, what is it that I’m running from that using this substance to cope that I need to heal or everything comes to an end. Whereas if your addiction is affirmation or productivity, gosh you can ride that thing until you’re eighty. And frankly lots of people in your life will celebrate that part of you even as it damages your most important relationships, even if it keeps you disconnected from real intimacy and human connection, people will applaud you because it looks like you’re winning. It required a real shift for me in compassion towards myself then in the lives of everybody around me.
At the NOVO center there’s a point in the guys recovery journey where one of the assignments is to write their own autobiography and to share with the group. It helps guys nail their own story down because we’re all really good at bending our own story depending on who the audience is. But it is rare to sit in on one of those and to feel anything other than a sense of compassion and a sense of recognition of, wow I can’t imagine you not being where you are today. Both Russel and Gabor Mate do a great job of saying addiction to a substance is often an adaptive behavior that is the lesser of two evils in the sense of this person probably would have killed themselves if they hadn’t found relief in it. Now that they are in a different place, let’s help them no longer need to use this substance. It’s not that someone was having a great day, in the middle of a great life and then took heroin once and says, I’m out of here. It’s an adaptive response to pain and trauma, recognized or not.
What do you think is the biggest marker for someone who has caught hold of recovery?
I don’t know if it’s the same for everybody, but I know you can feel it when somebody’s hit it. Certainly a component of it is being released from shame. The degree to which the shame cycle is a dominant driver of people’s need to use is always there, you can just see it. Interestingly, when you watch guys in recovery, there are key moments when things flood to the surface, a recognition of what this addiction has cost me relationally. Strained relationships with kids, partners, and you see all that stuff wash to the surface. And in those moments, the people who have found grace. And I won’t say that they have necessarily found a Christian understanding of grace, but they have found grace in some profound way and can have compassion on themselves in that moment. So they don’t have to downplay what the damage was, but they have compassion on themselves and a hope for in some cases restitution and restoration, and in some cases a new future. You can see when that grace is absent, the weight of that regret is too crushing. I have seen people in the process who have got a couple of months sober and they’re trying to muscle through the program and you can see the weight of that thing on their back, and sooner or later your knees are going to buckle because you just can’t carry that much load. There has to be some sort of internal transformation predicated on grace.
What are some examples of this in the program?
It’s really fascinating. No matter how many times you see it. Especially guys who have been on a street environment are extremely good at being hard because it’s a survival mechanism. So you’ve got to be tough, you’ve got to be able to contain your emotions, but there is a compassionate sensitive heart, often times the sensitive heart of a little boy frankly, in the center of these men. Over the course of years there are stories upon stories. One that comes to mind is the story of a guy in the program who had an estranged relationship with his daughters because of his addiction and had been absent from their lives for years. At a certain point in the program, people are allowed to reach out to family members potentially for a meetup at the center or a meetup elsewhere. And this guy was so excited for an opportunity to try and reconnect with his daughters. He let them know, this Sunday I’m going to be at this church and you can meet me there and we will have an opportunity to have coffee after the service and the guy’s just soaring at the possibility of mending this relationship. He’s looking over his shoulder waiting for them to come in the door and they just never came. In the car on the way back, he was just heartbroken. And he sat down with the director of the program, and it’s one of the moments I really respected the director of the program for taking an approach I don’t think I would have had the boldness to take. While supporting this guy and feeling his sorrow, he said, ‘it’s really only now that you understand what it is that your daughters went through, the many times they waited for you, all the places you were going to be but never showed up. That was a pivotal day in that man’s recovery because if he had had to bear the weight of that without any grace, I’m sure he would have just walked out the door. And instead, he dug in, he did the work, he found the forgiveness, recognized that healing on his end did not necessitate behavior change in other people. He could only do his work. Thankfully in his case, sometime later, he was able to reunite with his family, they were there present for him at his graduation. You’ve never seen a guy more proud to graduate from anything ever. This guy finishing his program and the sense of a new shot at life.
What are some other big awakenings you’ve experienced?
We have so many. We had a father and son in the program at the same time together. Hearing the son share about the damage and pain he endured at the hands of his father while the father’s in the room, and seeing the father able to hear that with a spirit of repentance, with a spirit of reconciliation, that stuff is the richest stuff in the world. And is frankly what we all need but is so hard to access. We had a guy who had ran away from home at the age of twelve or thirteen. And had come out from the northern part of the country and come to Santa Cruz, and had been living on the streets. He had been out of touch with his family for over a decade. They thought he was dead for sure. I don’t know if they had a funeral for him, but the understanding was he went city and died. Part way through is program, he asked the counselor he was working with if it would be ok for him to reconnect with his family, or look for his family. It’s always a risk because it could also be a huge trigger for relapse. People try and reconnect and they’re still not wanted or find they’re treated badly. But after a set of conversations on the staff team, we decided, let’s send someone with him, and try and find this guys family. So here he is uncertain of where his family home is. He knows what town it’s in, but he doesn’t know what street he’s from because a lot of time is past. So they take a full day bus ride out there and they’re wandering around the streets of this town asking around for a family by a certain name. In the end, we have a video of it actually, with the guys permission, he rounds a corner, and there’s his mom and dad sitting out on the front patio of the house and they see him walking down the street. It was, I suspect, as close to a resurrection as I will ever see. Because certainly for at least two of the three people, somebody who had been dead, was not dead anymore. I think probably for the son too, to a certain degree, the sense of feeling reconnection to a family that was long lost was something of the same sort. I tell you, that lady grabbed on to that guy, I didn’t think she could ever let him go. It was just such a profound relief to her to see her son alive. He found out that day that what he thought was his name was actually his brothers name. He had been using his brothers name for a decade, and somehow in the whole experience of life, he had literally lost himself. So he rediscovered his family and his own name at the same time.
If you could tell your clients one thing to encourage them and give them hope, what would it be?
It would sound like I’m hammering on the same theme over and over again, but that there is sufficient love and grace for them. And the amount they need isn’t any more than the rest of us need. I think all cultures, or at least, all that I’m familiar with, have a real tendency to stigmatize people in addiction, make them feel less than and somehow uniquely bad or broken, especially to the degree to which we punish people for being hurt. To genuinely communicate that their desire to be loved is the same as everyone else’s and there is love enough for them. If all of us, addicts or not, could relay that message in, I think the world would look quite different.