St. Paul, Minn. — It's pretty easy to tell when walking into this church that you're in for something out of the ordinary. Just outside the doors to the modern brick-walled sanctuary is the smoker's deck, and it is dense with cigarette smoke.
Inside, down front, middle-aged men with pony tails and sandals play guitars. In the pews you may find a judge sitting next to a former prostitute, or a psychologist giving a hug to a former gang member.
"We have executives, we have white-collar, blue-collar and people that don't have jobs," says Karen, who works in a florist shop. It's her first steady job in decades. In keeping with the church's spirit of anonymity she gives only her first name.
"We have every racial class in our church, we have every class of religion, you see people do the sign of the cross just as much as you people who don't take communion at all," she says.
As diverse as they are, these church-goers do share one thing in common: addiction. And the pastor, Jo Camp, is one of them, and says so every Sunday at the start of each worship service.
Not long ago Pastor Jo, as he likes to be called, was the senior minister at one of the largest Methodist churches in Minnesota. His alcoholism ended all that and nearly took his life. In recovery he asked to be assigned to this little, dying church in downtown St Paul.
Four years ago it had fewer than a dozen members, all elderly. Today the church is growing with more than 200 people at Sunday services, and the church rooms are filled nightly with an assortment of meetings to help people get and stay sober, beat their compulsion to gamble, or address a sexual addiction.
My first instinct is to do something stupid, but if I wait and stay calm and listen and move here to here, I hear or see something that has been placed in front of me that keeps me sober another hour, minute or a day, and I'm very grateful.
From the pulpit and roaming the halls, Pastor Jo talks a lot about resurrection. He says addicts "understand what it's like to be brought back from the dead."
"Many of us have talked about we know what hell is like. We lived it. And so when we stand up in front of a congregation and say, 'hi, my name is Jo and I'm a recovering alcoholic,' what it says is 'I have found new life,'" he says.
Karen, the florist, has been sober almost two years now. She had gone to prison for killing a man while driving drunk, but started drinking again when she got out. Then one day she showed up crying and babbling on the steps of Central Park United Methodist.
"And there was a gentleman. He was outside washing windows and I went up and said, 'is Pastor Jo around?' and mumbled something and he grabbed me by the scruff of my coat and brought me in, brought me up to Jo, and Jo puts me on his couch in his office to pass out. He didn't call the cops, he didn't call detox, he's just one drunk taking care of another drunk," Karen says.
The man washing windows at the church died a couple of months ago from alcoholism. As Karen says, "he helped save me but he couldn't save himself."
People here are well aware of the tenuous nature of recovery. Hardly a service goes by that someone doesn't mention a severe health problem or death connected to addiction, but that is followed by what's called a story of hope.
Chris, speaking from the front of the church, talks about how he once cleaned out the family bank account to buy drugs during a family vacation in Florida. Then, he gave his truck to drug dealers to keep the crack coming, leaving his wife and children with no way to get back to Minnesota.
Today -- drug-free -- Chris says he can't explain why he's still alive except that God didn't want him to die down in Tampa. Life is much better, he says, but it's still a struggle.
"My first instinct is to do something stupid, but if I wait and stay calm and listen and move here to here, I hear or see something that has been placed in front of me that keeps me sober another hour, minute or a day, and I'm very grateful," Chris says.
The liturgy at this Methodist church combines elements of Christianity, Native American spirituality and Alcoholics Anonymous. There's lots of embracing, sharing and praying.
Congregational prayers are quite specific. People mention a son who just got busted, or a spouse who relapsed and has disappeared. They express tearful joy for new sobriety that has enabled estranged family members to reconnect.
The prayers and worship are all the more unusual because most of the people here haven't been part of a church for years, if ever.
Floyd, who's been sober 35 years, says this church works for him because it is so open. "We expose our weaknesses and our vulnerabilities and our fears without any apprehension that somebody will look down their nose at us; that's the difference in this church, I think. Every church I belonged to prior to this one I thought I had to be 'good,' and at this church all I have to be is real and honest."
As services end at Central Park United Methodist Church in St Paul, the musicians crank up the guitars. People hang back to listen, have coffee, maybe another smoke, and most of them are smiling. Pastor Jo Campe says "it's hard to be too serious when you're hopeful."