Minnesota Church Discovers New Life Through Recovery Ministry

By Lesley Crosson

(UMCom) - An alcoholic’s path to sobriety never is easy, but it’s less lonely for worshippers at a Minnesota church.

"We are a church full of people who have made mistakes," says Terry McKinley, 59, a mortgage banker and recovering alcoholic. "We come here not to celebrate our goodness but our acceptance of who we are and who we’ve been."

The Rev. Jo Campe leads a ministry at Central Park United Methodist Church in Saint Paul for those recovering from all sorts of addictions - and he is not there just to preach to the broken. He is one of them, as he makes clear the moment he takes his place before the congregation.

The Rev. Jo Campe leads a recovery ministry at Central Park United Methodist Church in Saint Paul, Minn. Photo: Jeff Jones, Minnesota Public Radio
"My name is Jo, and I’m an alcoholic," is his opening declaration at each of the two Sunday morning recovery services he leads.

Campe is in his ninth year of recovery from the addiction that cost him the pastorate at one of Minnesota’s largest United Methodist congregations and nearly killed him.

"I know what it’s like," he says. "I had a shotgun to my head, and I was a drunk driver. So, it’s not a matter of ‘Isn’t it nice that we go to church and do our prayers.’ It’s a matter of life and death. There’s a sense of sincerity, which means that our joy is not cheap joy and our grace is not cheap. We know what the bottom has been like, and we have chosen to live again."

Campe preached to 12 elderly members on his first Sunday at the church, faithfully hanging on to a congregation that was dying in a downtown community of government and industrial buildings. The congregation had kept the doors open with income from renting church space to a local hospital.

Campe arrived with no real plan for reviving the church. Several months into his tenure a fellow recovering alcoholic suggested Campe add a celebratory recovery service. Some 40 people showed up at the first one. Then more people came. Soon the recovery service was not an additional one but the regular service, embraced by the entire congregation.

The view from the pulpit is different these days.

Rev. Jo Campe greets two parishioners during a recent service at Central Park United Methodist Church. Photo: Central Park United Methodist Church
Some 250 worshippers of all ages - most, but not all, recovering from addictions like alcohol, gambling or eating - regularly attend two Sunday morning services. They’re of different races, ages, income groups and faith traditions.

"I look out into the pews and see people crossing themselves, which shows that they come from the Roman Catholic tradition. One Sunday I looked out and saw two former prostitutes worshipping with a lawyer, a judge and two policemen, all in the same row," Campe recalls. Communion is served at every service.

McKinley describes the members of the congregation as "the broken, the fallen and the sinners that Christ came to work with and to save, and we don’t have any problem admitting our brokenness."

At 18, McKinley, the son of a Methodist minister, rejected the church. He started drinking, dropped out of college and declared himself an atheist. He spent the next years coping but not healing. "I was just sick all the time and behaving badly," he says.

He started treatment in 1987 and has been sober for 17 years. For him, Central Park is "the first church where I’ve ever felt like I really belong. I can be who I am and not what I think other people want me to be."

Rev. Jo Campe serves communion during a recent service at Central Park United Methodist Church. Photo: Central Park United Methodist Church
Music is an important part of who he is. He has played and sung with choirs and bands, but he says he abandoned music when he started drinking. Now, as one of the church’s music coordinators, he works with trained musicians and anyone else who wants to express himself or herself musically.

McKinley says he discovered it’s not just about performance perfection and celebrating music on the keyboard, "it’s also about celebrating the music of who you are." So, when someone playing alongside him warbles off-key or strums a hodgepodge of notes on a battered guitar, he says "it’s a thrill for me because it really is their music."

The ministry has an especially empowering effect on people who "have felt rejected by the church in their addiction," Campe says. Now, as they put their own lives back together, they are helping others.

Church volunteers visit nursing home shut-ins. They operate a day shelter for homeless families and a Saturday feeding program that serves 1,000 meals a month. They welcome monthly speakers, hold nightly recovery meetings and relapse prevention groups, and gather at Friday night "Sober Jam" dance parties.

Lois Berns, a case manager at the nearby United Methodist-affiliated Emma Norton residence, a transition home for homeless women, sends residents to Central Park for worship, meetings and volunteer work. She calls the church "a godsend."

McKinley puts it this way: "We’re here showing off our dirty underwear, not our fancy clothes. It’s the common ground that brings us together and that’s what makes this place so special."

Lesley Crosson is a writer living in New York City.

News media contact: Matt Carlisle, Nashville, Tenn. (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org


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