“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Colossians 4:5-6
According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, each year over 70,000 drug overdose deaths occur in the Unites States. From April 2020 to April 2021 alone, that number exceeded 100,000 as the pandemic strangled freedoms and burdened the livelihoods of many. Research also shows that an estimated 65 percent of the U.S. prison population has an active substance abuse addiction (SUD). However, there is also growing evidence that when treated, many of these inmates break the cycle of recidivism that is so insidious to live fruitful lives.
For almost two decades, Pastor Michael Turner of Sea Bright UMC has been visiting East Jersey Prison in Rahway every Friday evening to teach a 12-week step program to help inmates with their addictions. For the past two of those years, he has not been able to visit due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“We have been told that we are not allowed because we are not considered essential, but we are essential to those people strangled by addiction,” said Turner.
But on a Sunday afternoon in Sea Bright, truth with love was the prevailing feeling as six bands, 15 tents, purple flags to signify the lives lost to addiction and the aroma of barbequed burgers and hot dogs filled the air at the second annual Fall Freedom Festival.
Hosted by Sea Bright UMC in collaboration with other organizations like RAFTS (Recovery Advocates for the Shore), this year’s event embraced the theme, “Uniting Resources for the Courage to Change,” giving hope to all who attended that there was indeed freedom from addiction, fear and co-dependency.
“It was such a wonderful event full of hope!” said Turner who has been leading the church for the past 10 years. “Special prayers of gratitude for Pastor Raphael Giglio from North Shore Fellowship, David Clauser from Robert Wood Johnson’s IFPR (Institute for Prevention and Recovery) Hope and Healing, Nicole Doherty from the Monmouth County STAR Program, JBJ Soul Kitchen, Pamela Capaci from Hope Sheds Light and Joan Ruffin from Sea Bright UMC for the planning and preparation for this event.
Those people responsible for making it so successful are the wonderful organizations that participated and those who came out in support of our cause.”
For the past two years, these groups have been working together to empower families to have the courage to change and have been celebrating recovery and reducing the stigma of substance abuse disorder.
In 2021, HOPE Sheds Light entered a joint venture with Recovery Advocates for the Shore (RAFTS) to expand its recovery services throughout Ocean and Monmouth counties. RAFTS Inc. is a non-profit, non-clinical, peer-based recovery community organization providing support and resources to individuals and families impacted by substance use and related disorders.
The festival all started with a conversation Turner had with Mayor Brian Kelly. That conversation turned into the first year’s event. There were 10 tents and enough enthusiasm to carry it into this year’s event, which saw about 30 different ministries, including a vaccination clinic led by VNA, a table representing 180 Turning Lives Around and the “Hope Van” from the Monmouth County Sheriff’s office. In between powerful speakers who moved the crowd, there were pumpkins, face painting and many resources for awareness, support and treatment.
Pamela Capaci, CEO of HOPE Sheds Light, said, “It was wonderful to see so many members of the community come together to support and celebrate friends and families directly impacted by substance use disorder. Through events like these, we can show the world that recovery is possible, and we can make a difference together.”
It was a time to recognize brokenness and how by working together they could be instruments of education, healing, and restoration.
But for Pastor Turner, the prevailing question for everyone he helps is what were you saved for?
It’s also a question he asked of himself over 20 years ago when he struggled with his own addiction. July 15 will mark the 21st
anniversary of his sobriety. His first inclination to be a pastor began when he was 14, but life events shrouded that pursuit until he discovered his calling and the reason he was saved.
It is with this courage, candor and compassion that Turner continues to help others find the light toward their own recovery by erasing any stigma and discovering their own purpose no matter where he meets them.
More information can be found on Sea Bright UMC’s FB page.