Going Upstream

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” – Desmond Tutu

Warren McCaig grew up in Bentley, a town with fewer than 1,000 residents in Alberta, Canada. The youngest of three children, he was reared in traditional evangelical Christianity, in a rural environment he describes as “monocultural, affluent, very politically stable, very economically stable.” His father, a mechanic and his mother, a nurse, instilled a strong work ethic in their children – something McCaig says he now appreciates though he “didn’t always enjoy the process.” As a teenager, he worked at summer camp where he learned about building a sense of community. Free time was spent exploring his small corner of the world by motorcycle. All of these experiences – appreciation of work, joy in creating a community with a sense of purpose and exploring the world from the seat of a motorcycle, would serve McCaig well when he found his life’s mission years later in Bolivia.

For the past 13 years, McCaig, has pursued that mission in a liminal space somewhere between two cultures. A resident of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, he is clearly no longer just Canadian, but to look at him, he’s just as clearly not Bolivian. And in a sense, his mission also lives in a liminal space, connecting a Western-oriented adventure tourism business with the urban rehabilitation residence where McCaig and his partners help to rebuild local lives.

The Birth of NOVO

NOVO Adventures is a tourism company that McCaig and his partners created to draw foreign visitors to Bolivia. It caters to serious bikers, who careen on NOVO’s motorcycles, with guided tours across salt flats and around mountainous trails. The adventure also includes some quiet time to recharge at Refugio, an eco-lodge also owned by the NOVO leaders.

McCaig also runs a rehab mission under the same name. Novo in Latin means to renew, revive, or refresh, an appropriate moto for the organization. It’s a holistic, faith-based recovery community created to care for Bolivian men lost in addiction. Profits from NOVO Adventures help finance NOVO Communities; NOVO Communities residents help maintain the eco-lodge and use it as an occasional respite from the city. The tourists at NOVO Adventures learn about the mission of NOVO Communities, meet its residents, and sometimes become financial supporters of NOVO’s rehab project after they return home.

None of this happened overnight, of course. The journey to Bolivia began years before, back in Canada, back in that comfortable environment where a young Warren McCaig entered a bible college to study counseling and theology. 

Bible college shapes students to become pastors. Counseling majors like McCaig might spend five to ten years moving up the ranks from being a youth pastor before taking charge of their own church. McCaig didn’t feel like that was the right fit for him, though. His experiences at Bible college showed him possibilities beyond the church traditions he’d been raised with. 

Some of McCaig’s college mentors showed him a theology and an experience of grace and empathy that helped him see the culture he’d grown up in in a new light. He described his upbringing as a “fundamentalist and legalistic understanding of faith.” It had been a comfortable culture, but not one that paid heed to the messiness and vulnerability in so much of the world; grace for the broken seemed like a foreign concept.

These ideas were on McCaig’s mind as he worked through his counseling practicum. They remained when he and his wife, Jackie, signed up for a real-life opportunity that would put them face-to-face with a very different culture: a six-month stint in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where McCaig would join the Evangelical Free Church of Canada Mission.

In Bolivia, McCaig’s work took him to a radio station where he was tasked with helping solve technical, computer, and networking issues. The work put him in touch with migrant workers – including a Quechua migrant from the mountains of Bolivia, who introduced McCaig to a very different world from any he’d seen before: a world of struggle, pain, and inequality. 

McCaig spoke little Spanish at the time (“I don’t think I had ever heard Spanish in Alberta,” he says), but even without the language, he could feel the Quechua migrant’s powerful connection in the communities where they worked together.

“It was impossible not to pick up on his enthusiasm and heart for outreach,” says McCaig. “That had a huge impact on me. I remember thinking what a privilege it would be to be able to work alongside that guy and get to know him without a translator.”

The Road Back to Bolivia

When their mission assignment ended, Jackie and Warren returned to Canada. But soon,  the EFCCM invited them to come back. This time they went better prepared: For nine months they took Spanish language immersion classes in Texas, Mexico, and Cuba. When they returned to Santa Cruz, a home for abused and neglected children invited Jackie to join its board of directors – a position that opened them to new life-changing experiences.

Bolivia has no foster care system, so such homes often become permanent shelters for children removed from abusive situations.“Part of Jackie’s role in that project was to throw birthday parties for all the kids,” says McCaig. At one party, he befriended a young boy, spending a carefree afternoon swimming and playing ball with him. Eventually McCaig asked the boy about himself. 

            “He looked over at me, and without breaking a stride said, ‘I saw my dad kill my mom, so they took me away and put me in this home,’” says McCaig. 

Later, he learned the family had a history of substance abuse. “At some point the dad came home drunk, got into an argument about something with the mom, and murdered her,” he says. The story left McCaig feeling hopeless. 

            “I just didn’t know how to emotionally, or even appropriately respond, to a kid with that kind of trauma,” he says.  “We need to help kids in this situation, but what needs to be done before they get into these types of situations?” 

As he tells this story, McCaig recalls the words of South African cleric Desmond Tutu: “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” Tutu’s words gave McCaig an answer to his question “what needs to be done?” He looked “upstream,” at rehab programs that could help  adults and potentially spare children the kind of trauma experienced by the young boy he’d met.

As he researched rehab in Bolivia though, what McCaig found was not promising. Existing projects fell into one of two camps:  One model, a longtime classic in addiction treatment, pushes men into lockdown facilities, forcing on them a stringent regimen of work and moral reform. Instead of healing, these programs often create more layers of trauma.

Other projects were led by pastors who were usually in recovery themselves, using their churches to pull men into a litany of church services, prayer groups, and religious commitments. McCaig describes the approach like this: “Let’s do church eight hours a day, every day, until these guys aren’t addicts anymore.”

Recovery is Multi-faceted

McCaig believes a spiritual component should be only one element for recovery. “If you don’t help those people understand the root of their addiction and develop better emotional and vocational tools, you’re not providing them with real opportunity for recovery and freedom,” he says.

McCaig’s research eventually led him to Andy Partington, a British cleric who had served as pastor at a church in Bolivia. Partington worked with Yeldall Manor, a drug and alcohol rehab center outside of London that blends a faith-based approach with quality clinical care. It’s a combination that made sense to McCaig. “What I see as the real cause of addiction now is trauma, and trying to traumatize the traumatized just doesn’t work.”

In August 2015, McCaig, Partington, and a third partner, Anglican priest Myron Penner, opened the first NOVO community at Quinta Totaices, a spacious residence with gardens that offered a serene respite inside the city of Santa Cruz. NOVO takes a holistic approach to caring for the broken and lost, marrying faith-based recovery with well-informed clinical treatment that addresses the trauma behind addiction. 

The funding approach is also holistic, using NOVO Adventures, the tourism business, to help support the rehab program.More financial ventures are planned to generate additional revenues –  “a coffee plantation is in the works,” says McCaig ,and as their recovery progresses, residents can be employed at a company started by NOVO that does residential and commercial paint jobs.

The integration of business and mission isn’t just about money. Once a month McCaig and his team bring the men enrolled in NOVO rehab to Refugio where they work in the gardens, build the trails, and unplug from the cacophony of the city. McCaig believes this is a crucial part of what he calls “immersion therapy. “There is a profound spiritual connection in nature that cannot be emulated in a concrete building,” he says.

The NOVO rehab center has space in its first stage program for 16 men (legal restrictions in Bolivia require that all must be over age 18). During this stage residents participate in group therapy, vocational training, and one-on-one therapy with a psychologist. Free time, as well as responsibility for cleaning, food preparation, and other chores, are built into the schedule. According to McCaig, the center has had over 100 residents since its founding five years ago; 20 percent have finished this first stage. 

Those who stay for the second stage do vocational training and get support from NOVO as they reintegrate into their former communities. For those who cannot return due to unhealthy or unsafe environments, local churches play a key role in providing a new communities. Graduates who move out of NOVO still maintain contact with staff; all ex-residents are welcome to return for meals, as long as they are sober. This policy helps connect newcomers with men who have rebuilt new lives in recovery.

Redemption and Reconciliation

NOVO has many stories of breakthroughs made by the men who have come to the community to recover and rebuild. Redeemed lives and family reconciliation are common themes, and McCaig recalls one story in particular:

            “We had a guy who had run away from home at the age of 12 or 13. He had come out from the northern part of the country and had come to Santa Cruz living on the streets,” he says. For at least a decade, the man had been out of touch with his family in the north. They believed he had gone to the city and died there.”

            “Part way through the [NOVO] program, he asked the psychologist who was working with him if it would be okay for him to look for his family,” says McCaig. Family reunions can be risky for those in recovery, because they may trigger a relapse. Eventually the NOVO staff agreed to send someone with the man to find his family. With the client’s consent, NOVO filmed the encounter.

            When they arrived at his town though, the man couldn’t remember what street his family lived on. “They were wandering around the streets of this town, asking for a family by a certain name,” says McCaig. “In the end, he rounds a corner and there’s his mom and dad sitting 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 would ever see,” says McCaig, who describes the moving reunion caught on video. “I tell you, that lady grabbed on to that guy and I didn’t think she would ever let him go.”

Stories of family reconnections and other moments of profound redemption are the fuel that keeps McCaig going in his mission. After years of work in the field, he understands that he is “no better than” his clients. Anyone who endured the trauma and lived in the same environments as NOVO’s clients, likely would have ended up in the same place. 

“I feel a deep calling to build communities that are transformational, because I want one,” says McCaig. “And because I’ve been privileged to cross paths with enough people who have suffered from the lack of one… I can’t conceive of doing anything else.”

A Journey of Healing

That understanding has forced him to accept his own shortcomings and has taught him to lead from a place of weakness, knowing his greatest failures can be his greatest gifts in teaching others to open up, trust, and be vulnerable. “My own personal journey during those years demonstrated to me my own brokenness and how it was affecting my life and relationships. I began to see how unaddressed pain and trauma of many life experiences was causing me to act in ways I was not proud of,” he says. Facing those ideas helped him develop more passion and curiosity about others. “In the long run, putting energy into anything other than helping people find healing, wholeness, and hope in a context of community just doesn’t grab me.”

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus asks his chief critics, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” When asked, “What is the speck in the eye of our community?” McCaig has an immediate answer, one with a deep message for those who live in comfort and keep a distance from the suffering and trauma of others.

            “We are all participants in the system that puts people in this position,” he says.  “We lack the sense of social connection, meaning, and belonging we all long for. And yet we put so much effort, and I would say, even more so inside of our faith community than outside, to putting forward a face that says, ‘I’m doing great.’”

            “Wearing that “I’m doing great” mask makes one unable to deal with others who “don’t play that game,” he says. “We need to rush them out of here and dehumanize them as soon as we can, because if we keep them around, it could expose all of us.”

Instead of hiding our shortcomings or only promoting our strengths, McCaig believes we should embrace the idea that “all of us need the same sense of love, support, community, connection, and belonging that people in recovery need. We would be way better off if we spent a big chunk of our time figuring out how to build that, [rather] than trying to deny that we need it.”

“My passion,” explains McCaig, “is to create communities where people can really heal and belong.”