'Seeking Freedom, Seeking Christ' - Life without Drugs and Alcohol
Freedom Seekers is a Christian ministry in Blue Eye, Missouri that helps men and women recover from lives of drug abuse, alcoholism, or both through spiritual healing and the word of Christ.
At 5:30 a.m. the alarm goes off. "No such thing as snooze," says David, 32, a Freedom Seeker evangelist, resident of the Freedom Seekers Men's House, and my brother. David is up and running earlier than most of the other residents because he is their role-model of physical fitness. He slept late this day because his brother was visiting to see what life inside Freedom Seekers is like. It's nearly a whirlwind of activity from the moment the buzzer is silenced- make the bed, brush the teeth, brew coffee, glance through the Bible, use the restroom, page through the Bible once again, a morning ritual, then out the door and down the stairs to the kitchen.
The Bible is a part of waking up every morning? At Freedom Seekers it can be. Freedom Seekers is a Christian ministry in Blue Eye, Missouri that helps people find their own spiritual healing. The ministry is open to everyone, however, the majority of the members are recovering from substance abuse- drugs, alcohol, or both. The Men's House is specifically for men seeking help in their recovery from drugs and alcohol. It is just one facet of the growing Freedom Seekers ministry.
David moved to the Freedom Seekers Men's house at the end of December, 2009 as a recovering addict of drugs and alcohol. He describes Freedom Seekers as: "a small Christian recovery center [that is] … very radical in their approach towards Christianity." Part of that radical approach to Christianity is evident in Freedom Seekers newest outreach program- Fit for the King. David, together with Ron Hutchins, the founder of Freedom Seekers, is spearheading their new Fit For the King physical fitness and healthy dieting training program beginning this year. David has been a professional fitness trainer for 5 years. His expertise as a nutritionist has been a mix of: self-education, a certified education in physical fitness , and some formal college in nutrition and dietetics.
The training program is delivered with a Christian approach- feed the body, feed the mind, feed the spirit. "They all go together because if we don’t eat proper, then we can't think proper, and then the balance is thrown off," David says, talking about the program. "We offer [Fit for the King] to anybody that wants to get involved; so they can better their health, so they can be a good instrument for Christ," David goes on to explain. He believes: "[God] designed our bodies to run off eating properly: [eating] at the proper times, [and] moderate proportions." He goes on with his observation that American society has, "detoured from that [proper eating habit] and [American's] self-defeat. We over eat, and over use, and over do." Through Fit for the King, David hopes to help people "find a balance in life so that [people] can have a good spiritual life, a good physical life, [and] a good social life." "All of that goes back to living the life God intended us to live," he finishes. The service is open to anyone who wants to be involved, not only for community members within Freedom Seekers but also the surrounding community: men and women of all ages, every Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Rex Plex in Branson, MO. How much is the training program? Free!
But even the best physically fit people can have dents in their armor- David's Achilles' heal: drugs and alcohol. That morning ritual is a dent. After a second glance through David's bible Tony, the roommate, bums a cigarette off Dave while the two of them step out onto the feeble narrow balcony to smoke. Color is just coming into the sky and the crisp sound of crunching snow is underfoot as they show off the view from their rickety second story balcony. Tony offers to pay Dave for the cigarette- 25 cents each time. And each time Dave refuses the money. "It's a ritual tradition," Tony groans out in a groggy morning voice as they laugh together through their explanation.
Their shared bedroom is sparsely decorated- two twin beds, two arm chairs with one dark wooden end table between them, and a 19 inch TV resting on a stereo cabinet. There is a portable radiant heater pushed up against the end table but it isn't used all of the time. It is carpeted and cozy without being cluttered with many personal possessions. It is, after all, a temporary living arrangement.
Tony, 35, came to the Freedom Seekers back in August of 2009 on his own. He'd just finished a 12 year prison sentence and the subsequent parole when he accepted that he was having trouble learning how to live as Tony describes: as a "sober citizen"- free from the restrictions and policies incarceration had put on him. Before his incarceration, he made it as far as the ninth grade when, according to Tony, "The principle came up [to me] and asked: 'Why are you even here?'", to which he answered, "'I dunno.' So I left." "Big mistake though," Tony added with an introspective huff as he rested in the arm chair next to his bed.
Not long after my visit to the Men's House, Tony was caught carrying K2, a legal alternative to Marijuana, and chose to leave the house. Substance abuse is strictly forbidden at Freedom Seekers; whether it's drug, alcohol, or K2 [a legal derivative]. Cigarette smoking and coffee are the only two vices tolerated by the organization.
The Men's House has a lot of guys like David and Tony- each with their own tale of hardship. That's why the house exists- to help men in difficult times through prayer and related Christian services.
Downstairs on the main floor, the kitchen is enormous. And, as more of the guys emerge from their slumber, it becomes obvious why such an enormous kitchen is useful. The place becomes a bustle of clanking bowls, utensils, coffee cups, opening and closing the refrigerator, dishwasher, cabinet, and pantry doors, and chatter. Some men talking to each other. Others are talking on mobile phones. In less than 30 minutes the room goes from the calm quiet of morning to the bustle of many people in a small space to an empty and tidy room again. Before 7 a.m. the group heads outside and down the stairs to the two vans ready to transport them to the Restoration center and onto their work day.
The Freedom Seekers Men's House was established by Ron Hutchins to house men over the age of 25 who are in what his brochure calls a "transitional stage of their life." It isn't officially listed as a half-way house for prison parolee's, but that along with men recently released from jail is the largest pool of new residents he receives.
Men recently released from prison go to Freedom Seekers when they choose not to use Missouri state's administered half-way program, generally called Honor Center's. It's an alternative and it's only in its most recent version of what Ron has been offering for a number of years.
What started as Ron and his wife opening their home to needing young adults has become the Men's house and the Youth house, its counter-part which houses men ages 17-25. In the earlier years, prior to 2006, the temporary residents were not always recently released inmates. Some were young men struggling with drugs, alcohol, or both and Ron and his wife put them up in their own home. While they stayed with Ron and his family they held prayer services most nights of the week. When the need became too great for the four walls of his own home to bear, Ron turned to the owner of the Halleluiah Inn in Lampe, who worked out a deal with Ron to house the men at a discounted rate. And when two or three guys staying in two or three rooms became 28 men renting the hotel to full capacity, Ron said to himself, "This is crazy! All I'm doing is renting these guys rooms." "That's when I rented the first Men's House- in 2007," he continued, "And within a month's time the need was so great [and] we had so much momentum going [that] we had it completely at full capacity. We [even] had people sleeping on the couches." There was also a Women's House, which housed 5 women, but that service had a short life. Ron and his wife lacked the support staff to keep the house in operation. When the Men's house proved too small to service their needs once more, Ron upgraded to what is today the Freedom Seekers Men's House and kept the smaller home as the Youth House, dividing the residents by age- 30 beds total; 18 at the men's house and 12 at the youth house. Today any man seeking help recovering from substance abuse can go to Freedom Seekers for their 90 day in-house recovery program and are allowed to stay for up to one year if they choose. As a transition service, Freedom Seekers reaches out to: "four different types of people [primarily]; people coming out of Department of Corrections, people coming out of local jails, people coming out of recovery centers: inpatient recovery patients, and we take people in off the street," according to Ron. "I don’t even market it," Ron says, "I just drop off these pamphlets at all the D.O.C's and the flood gates [open]. There's that much of a need."
Floyd Kott, 46, is a man in need and one of the oldest age residents at the Men's House currently. Floyd works with the wood crew from Freedom Seekers clearing timber for private land owners during the winder months. When he sat down to talk about Freedom Seekers, wearing his black knit beanie, flannel shirt, a few days worth of stubble on his face, and the weathered lines formed from a life spent struggling with addictions, Floyd wasn't sure of what he would say. Floyd is a recovery patient. "I tried NA. I tried AA and I'd stay sober for 6, 7, 8 months at a crack and then relapse," Floyd recounted, "That went on like that right up until January 11th when some friends came over ... and it was kind of an intervention and finally I broke down. I mean I broke down heart and soul. I said: "I can't do it. I can't do it anymore. I mean- I'm living but I'm walking dead, … ." That day Floyd admitted himself into the Larry Simmering Recovery center, LSRC, in Branson, MO for their 5 day detox program. When it was time to leave, the nurse arranged a bed for him at Freedom Seekers. In a slightly upbeat voice Floyd continued: "Here I am today; clean, sober, I have accepted God into my life- I accepted him a long time ago but I didn't really fully fathom or understand exactly what I was accepting." Despite the hardships, today Floyd looks ahead with cautious optimism. "Today I can honestly say I ain't never going back because the lord has done for me what I can't do for myself," Floyd says with noticeable enthusiasm. "It's coming to me. Not all at once, like I wished it would, but it is coming to me," he continues, "I still have many faults. But I'm working on them, slowly but surely."
How does Floyd feel about Freedom Seekers and what it is doing for him? "This place, Freedom Seekers, this place is awesome. It's phenomenal. When I first got here I thought: "Awe, here we go. Just another Drug & Alcohol program." Wrong! This place is real! It's real and I like it," Floyd says about his perception of Freedom Seekers, "Here you learn to talk properly when you're out in public. You dispose of the foul language. If you smoke, you learn not to around the public." "Some people with their eating habits still leaves much to be desired," he chuckles. And he admits, with a light heart, his eating habits are none to talk about either. "They're basically teaching you how to live. … They're showing me the ways of God in ways that I have never even thought of thinking," Floyd adds introspectively. "There's a kinship and a friendship here that's like nothing that I've ever been a part of," he says. When asked "What's after Freedom Seekers?" Floyd replied: "Right now, what I'm really looking forward to is getting out there and trying to right the wrongs that I've committed. [But] my real long term goal is to be reunited with my family." He hasn't seen his daughter since she was 2 years old. Today he's looking forward to a reunion with his daughter. She's 22.
At the Youth house, and within the Freedom Seekers core ministry, Derek Brandenburg is the youngest recovering resident- just 17 years old. Like many in the resident house's, Derek had a troubled childhood and a history with drug abuse. In his childhood, Derek ended up visiting more than one mental institution. He was arrested for stealing a car after his last release from an institution. Derek, sitting complacently in the chair with his checkered shirt and dusty black Pizza Hut ball cap, talked about coming to Freedom Seekers and what it's doing for him in a slow, calculated voice. "I guess it was a God thing," Derek begins, "[God] said: "You need to go to this meeting." So I went to the meeting." That meeting is where he met Ron Hutchins for the first time. Derek recalls from that meeting that Ron told him: "God's pointing at you right now, man. I'm going to go get you out." Derek had already had his release papers signed by the Judge but needed an address to be freed so the two of them went to see the judge and Derek was entered into the Freedom Seekers 90 day rehabilitation plan. "Now I'm here. I've been here for 93 days. The program is over at 90 days but I'm going to stay a while because I've got a probation I have to do and I don't have a job yet," explains Derek. He's hopeful about his future. He wants to get a job and plans to buy a house or an apartment. Derek is also considering going back to school for graphic design. "I've had this dream since I was like 12 years old. I wanted to have my own car shop," Derek says. With success, he'd like to earn two degree's- first in graphic design, then later in automotive mechanics. "I'd want to go back to [school] to be a mechanic so I can actually customize the vehicles, build them from scratch, and then paint them," he finishes. He earns his place at Freedom Seekers by working as a fund raiser and at times works with the wood crew. "I'm pretty much wherever I'm put. I'll do anything and everything," Derek explains with a smile. "Freedom Seekers has been a great place to me. I've helped quite a few different people come to Christ and through him they're saved," Derek says.
The house's are only one facet of the Freedom Seekers ministry. At the center of the ministry is the Freedom Seekers Restoration center, in Blue Eye, MO. In 2006 during the first 6 months at the new center, Ron and his congregation of less than 10 people began to meet at this old building in a small circle of chairs. "This was a broken down warehouse when we found it," Ron says about the Restoration center. Then the vision came- twice. "[God] showed me this vision twice. I walked out [to the parking lot] and I saw this lot completely full of people," Ron says. Soon after, the pace at Freedom Seekers began to speed up. Ron went on: "We started having a lot of people to show up. People started to begin getting baptized. So the momentum was already starting to grow." At the time, Ron was still working with Ozark Mountain Community Church and together with them decided to host a rally to promote the new Restoration center. "2 or 3 different times, God pointed this [building] out and I'm like: "What are we going to do here?", Ron says as his speech quickens with excitement, "So we started promoting this rally. I didn't really know what I was doing but I had some live rock 'n' roll, get-down bands over here and, sure enough, on that day there was a traffic jam. They had to call cops in Blue Eye [for traffic control]. We had 1,200 people on this lot. Everything I saw in this vision came to pass." Ron's congregation soon outgrew the Ozark Mountain Community Church that it had been a part of, after the rally. "There were more Freedom Seeker's than there were Church bodies," Run exclaims about the new found popularity of the ministry. Today Freedom Seekers prayer and worship services are held at the recovery center. Worship services are held Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday- Wednesday and Saturday night at 6 p.m. include a free meal, Sunday service is at 11 a.m. without a meal. Every Monday night at 8 p.m. prayer service is held and the place fills with young and old ready to pray.
Those ten folding chairs have been replaced by 45 upholstered arm chairs all arranged in rows facing the pulpit and Christian decorations- the crucifix, paintings of Jesus, and prayer plaques, reflect the Christian ideology within the center's walls. During the day the décor appears less like a place of worship and more like a VFW hall- with its high vaulted ceiling, exposed girders, and ducts painted different colors, pale fluorescent lighting, forest green Berber carpet, constant coffee, the American and P.O.W flags hung, and murals and statues of the Bald eagle; or a scene from the Animal House fraternity house- with road signs hung behind a solid wooden bar, a keyboard and drum set on stage, concert sized speakers, a wealth of random knickknack's on display, and pet lizards in a cage. But when the lights dim and the speakers are cranked- to see and hear the Christian service karaoke songs and video projected onto the large screen from the over-head projector, the worship service takes on an electrifying, almost rock concert, persona and it transforms entirely into the practice of prayer and worship that is its intention. At the end of the two hour service, men, women, and children are pleasantly exhausted, and sweating from dancing and singing prayer.
Turning back to the topic of helping recovering addicts and relating to the prayer services held at the Restoration center, Ron continued: "I knew we were on the right track because compared to the secular recovery programs that are out there- their success rate is, like, 2- 2 1/2 percent and ours is already at 50 percent. What that means is [that] 5 out of 10 men are staying clean and sober a year plus, getting their life together and moving forward." Since it's inception, Freedom Seekers has helped 500 to 600 people become clean and sober, according to Ron. Helping people get clean and sober is the main focus of the Freedom Seekers Outreach program and the Outreach program is evolving. "We are redefining what we are doing," Ron says about creating a duplicable service model with Freedom Seekers in Blue Eye, "because the need is not just in the tri-lakes area or in Missouri. The need is nationwide."
The Freedom Seekers ministry currently serves the community by offering: Department of Corrections Jail ministry in Stone and Taney County every Monday and Wednesday from 8 a.m. until noon, Drug Court every other Monday, Recovery center visits to LSRC and Turning Leaf on the 3rd Tuesday and Thursday of the month, visits to near-by nursing homes and hospitals to pray for the sick and elderly once a month, and ,together with David Sims ministry in Springfield, they deliver food to the homeless at Food Ministry on the last Saturday of the month.
~written by: CS Owsley.
CS Owsley is an American born documentary photographer and photojournalist living and working in the People's Republic of China as an educator and visual documentarian of Chinese culture. He earned his Masters in Journalism from Boston University. His website: travelersblog.toutoude.com reveals insight into everyday life of average Chinese citizens and foreigners who work on the mainland. His book: Jiujiang, Nine Rivers. is available online at Blurb.com.
During a visit to the United States in February of this year, he spent two days visiting the Freedom Seekers ministry for this story.