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Sobriety with Sanctification

Tony Marciano talks about the life-saving work of the Charlotte Rescue Mission

Warren Cole Smith

In 1938, A group of Charlotte, N.C.,  businessmen that included William Graham, the father of world famous evangelist Billy Graham, founded Charlotte Rescue Mission.

Today, the mission runs a 120-day residential program for men and women struggling with addiction. The Christ-centered ministry accepts no funding from the government or the United Way. I talked recently with Tony Marciano, who just celebrated 20 years as the mission’s executive director.

What is the work of the Charlotte Rescue Mission?

At Charlotte Rescue Mission we work with people who are struggling with addiction. If you could use one word to explain what we do, it’s transformation.

We seek to transform the lives of men and women who have come through the doors of Charlotte Rescue Mission. Their life has unraveled due to an addiction to drugs and alcohol. We work from the inside out. We don’t work from the outside in. We’re not looking at the symptoms of what causes them to self-destruct. We want to know why they’re doing it.

At the root of an addict is what we call a shame-based identity. Guilt is, “I’ve done something wrong.” Shame says, “I am wrong. I’m defective. If you knew me, you wouldn’t like me. If God knew me, God wouldn’t like me.” Unless they deal with that shame-based identity, that person will continue to self-destruct over and over and over again.

Why the gospel?  Why do you think the gospel is central to that work?

Because it’s the power of God’s unconditional love that is found in Jesus Christ that really can crack through that shame-based identity.

How do you measure success?

We look at two doctrines of the church. One of them is found in Romans 1-5, the great doctrine of justification. It’s that point where somebody comes to faith in Jesus Christ and is declared right with God by the legal act of justification. It’s said, “It’s imputed to us.” But there’s another verse in 1 Thessalonians 4:3, that says, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” Justification addressed what we did. We robbed a convenience store. We held somebody up. We stole something to stay in active addiction.

But sanctification doesn’t ask the “what” question. Sanctification asks the “why” question. Why is $50 cash in your pocket a trigger for relapse? Why will you walk out of the door of the rescue mission before you finish the program and hook up with the sickest person in the city so you can relapse 30 minutes later? If I can’t help you address the why, I can’t keep you clean and sober, and that’s the hard part because it’s like an onion. You have to peel back the layers over and over again, until you really find that. There is a sense of wounded-ness, brokenness in that person’s life.

Is sexual abuse often an integral part of the substance abuse and the other kinds of pathologies that people here experience?

Sexual abuse is a huge part of it. I think it’s like 95 percent of our women have a history of sexual abuse. Forty percent of our men report it. We think it’s more like 60 percent or higher. It rips the soul of somebody. One of the things I like to say to them as we’re dealing with this issue, and I’ll say it very fast to the Bible study, “Can God forgive you for a sin that I commit?” They go, “Well, yes.” I go, “Let me slow it down. Can God forgive you for a sin that I commit?” They scratch their head and go, “I better say yes. This is a Christian organization. They’re going to throw me out.” I’ll slow it down and I’ll say, “Can God forgive you for a sin that was done against you when you were 5, 8, and 12?”

The room goes strangely silent. I said, “You’ve been asking God for 10, 20, 30 years to forgive you for a sin that was done against you by someone else, and it’s about time you stopped carrying their sin in the backpack of your life. Reach over your shoulder, take it out, hand it back to them, living or dead, and say, ‘This is between you and God.’”

I’ve watched people light up like, “I can do that?” I go, “Yes.” You watch the sense of freedom come over the people that we serve and they go, “Ah,” because they feel like it was their fault, they did something wrong, and this is why it happened.

Where do they go after they graduate?

There’s a couple of options. Some will go home, which we often don’t encourage. Some will stay at our halfway house here on our campuses, either Rebound or Dove’s Nest. Some will go to other programs that we have partnerships with in the community. We encourage that because it really takes a year of sobriety to just begin to get a foundation of long-term sobriety.

Given that reality, how many end up relapsing?

About 30 percent of our graduates relapse. Seventy-one percent of our graduates are still clean and sober about six months later. There’s a Rotary Magazine report out about two years ago that said that only 14 percent of the people [in addiction treatment] about a year later are still clean and sober. We’re running at 71 percent.

Where does your funding come from?

Primarily it’s individuals, people like you and me. Seventy-one percent of our funding comes from individuals, some of whom will never know anybody that’s here, a client at the rescue mission, but have a heart for people who are less fortunate. They generously give, and they sacrifice so that the program can be provided free-of-charge. Drug treatment services are expensive. They go from $500 to $1,500 a day. When you’re looking at a 30-day program you can be looking at $30,000.

I had one parent who said to me, “I have spent $300,000 trying to get my son or daughter clean and sober.” Another parent said, “I spent $80,000.” I just got off the phone earlier today with somebody who said, “Oh, yeah. I can’t even begin to tell you the thousands of dollars I’ve spent on my child.” When I’ve said to people, when a parent drops off their child and they look at me and say, “How much is this going to cost?” and I go, “It’s free,” they’re speechless. They don’t even know what to say, because they’re ready to remortgage their house to get their kids the help that they really need. …

We don’t rely on the government or the United Way, [but we] do partner [with others].  Do we operate in isolation? No. We should never do that. We’re part of the fabric of this community. Have I gone before county boards and advocated for other agencies to get government funding? You know it. Have I been on a United Way allocation committee? Yes.

I’m a part of the community, and sometimes as Christians we want to isolate, and retreat, and just do our own little thing on our own little island in the South Pacific, thinking that is what God would have us to do. But He’s invited us to infiltrate the culture, not attack it. Be a part of homeless service network meetings in our community. Every now and then I’ll stand up and raise a question. The whole room goes silent, because they don’t know what to do with it. That’s where we have a chance to be salt and light to a lost and dying world.

There’s an opioid addiction crisis in this country that moved into the middle class and even the upper class. Are y’all seeing a change in your clientele as a result of that?

We are. We’re seeing a younger generation, and we’re seeing more heroin and less crack-cocaine. It’s very difficult. We have seen synthetic marijuana, which is scary. We had somebody on it, and none of our drug testing equipment even measures it because they keep changing the formulas. We can’t even come up with drug testing kits that manage it. Synthetic marijuana’s extremely dangerous, because it can rewire your brain permanently, for life. Fortunately, the person that did use it, it was such a short amount of time. I know he’s doing well and he’s clean and sober, but it’s scary what’s out there. People think, “I can do this. It’s fine,” and it’s not. It’s going to affect their lives.

What you see around you, is it getting better? Are we as a Christian community learning how to deal with these issues?

Maybe the hard part for me has become I’m understanding this thing called addiction a whole lot better than I did 20 years ago when I came, and I see how destructive it is. Yes, I am helping people, but I also know that we live in a sin-filled society where the Bible cautions in Exodus 20 that the sins of the father are repeated generation to generation. It’s not like there’s a genetic curse. It’s that if my great-grandfather disrespects my great-grandmother, my grandfather will see it as normal. My grandfather will disrespect my grandmother. My father will see it as normal. My father will disrespect my mom, and I will have seen it as normal.

The promise of why I get up every day and report to the Charlotte Rescue Mission is found in Exodus 20:6, the next verse that nobody ever reads. My paraphrase of it is, “to those who love me, my mercies on the thousands.” See, us Christians, we just want to come down to the rescue mission, get people to bow their heads, close their eyes, pray their prayer. We go home. We high-five each other in the church van and say, “We did God’s work.”

You did a part of it, but there’s a whole lot bigger vision that God has for that person. It’s not just Romans 1-5, where they come to faith in Christ. It’s taking them through sanctification. Then let’s go beyond that. If the promise of Exodus 20 is to those who love me, my mercies on the thousands, imagine if somebody in Charlotte Rescue Mission stops playing games with God and gets really right with God, to the point that he lets God into every nook and cranny of his life, to the point that the blood is into every cell in his vein. The blood I’m talking about is the blood of Christ. To the point that the motivation for doing self-destructive things is really finally being addressed, that his kids grow up without the dysfunction, and his kids grow up, and get married, and have grandchildren.

Maybe 30 years from now there’s a big party for him, and they talk about a day at the rescue mission where great-great-grandma or great-great-grandpa so-and-so at the Charlotte Rescue Mission stopped playing games at God, got serious with God, and with tears coming down their face they say, “Regardless of whatever happened with all our aunts, and uncles, and our cousins, and nephews, and nieces, our branch of the family broke the generational cycle because of a decision that so-and-so made at Charlotte Rescue Mission.”

That’s what keeps me going all the time. When I say that challenge in Bible study, you can hear the fluorescent lights because they didn’t come here for that. They just wanted to figure out how to stop drinking. I go, “I’m glad. Some of you have found Christ, and I’m excited, but there’s a bigger vision that God has for your life. If you will let Him be God in your life, truly, it’ll be incredible what He wants to do.”

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Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

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