Reshaping the Church

Staying sober at The Refuge

Posted June 05, 2024

by Justice Nwafor

A group shot of the Alumni Reunion and Homecoming event in September 2023. Photos by The Refuge.

Every year in the US, tens of thousands of people die from drug overdose, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The Refuge, a Christian nonprofit, is working to save some of these lives.

The Refuge is a residential, faith-based drug and alcohol recovery ministry. They work to positively transform the lives of men affected by addiction and turn them into upstanding community members.

Christ is central to the mission of The Refuge. The Ministry’s approach to addiction recovery is a mixture of Christian spirituality—the piecing together of the broken and repairing their relationship with Christ—and psychology.

The ministry has seven guiding principles: commitment to God as espoused in Matthew 22:37, relationship with others, willingness to be taught, honesty and authenticity, gratitude and thankfulness, courage and faith as shown in Hebrews 11:6 and work ethic and stewardship as expressed in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12.

How it all started

The Refuge has been around for some time. They began 25 years ago when the founder, Tom Thompson, was called by the Holy Spirit to start a ministry that allowed men to not just recover from their addictions but also find a life transformed in Jesus Christ. Tom was a businessman and a recovering alcoholic at the time.

He had a vision of The Refuge being on a farm, with enough land and away from chaos, so that men could focus on themselves and grow relationally, Matt Hunnell, Chief Development Officer at The Refuge, wrote in an email interview.

“At its core, The Refuge is a relational ministry, a relationship with Christ and others,” Hunnell wrote. The approach aimed to disrupt the convention of alcoholics or addicts ending up in isolation. Tom sought to create a space where addicts could have a real, authentic, honest and open relationship with another person while recovering. It sounded abstract at the time.

Tom eventually bought a farmhouse in Ohio’s Vinton County, so he and his wife, along with their four young children, moved to Vinton County and quickly started The Refuge. Tom’s oldest son, Wes, was 12 years old at the time and now serves as the Executive Director of The Refuge.

Tom did not have a background in running a recovery ministry. So, with the help of volunteers, churches and friends, they developed a curriculum and recovery process with lots of prayer, faith and trial and error, Hunnell wrote. “The Bible has always been and remains at the center of our curriculum.”

Years later, someone gifted The Refuge 140 acres in Lancaster, Ohio—about 40 miles southeast of Columbus, Ohio–and the Vinton County property was sold.

A shot of some alumni of The Refuge.

The recovery process

Over the years, The Refuge has proven to be a place of shelter and sobriety for those on the journey to recovery. Rehabilitation at The Refuge is usually gradual and intentional. The full recovery and reintegration process takes 13 months, which may seem like a long time, but given that some of the addicts suffer for years or even up to a decade before going to The Refuge, 13 months is a worthy investment for participants to get themselves back, Wes said in a 2019 welcome video on The Refuge’s Facebook page.

The 13 months are broken down into four phases of the program. The first 30 days, which are called the Discovery Phase, are spent on the property in Lancaster. During this phase, activities are peer and relationally-driven as well as Christ-centered. There is no outside communication at this phase. The men meet with licensed on-staff clinicians. The goal is for men to use this time to focus on themselves, Hunnell wrote.

The next phase is the Relational Phase, which lasts for 15 weeks. The goal of this phase is to strengthen the person’s support network and repair family ties. Here, men move between Columbus and Lancaster every other week and slowly enter the workforce, working with jobs provided by the Refuge and its partners. At this phase, family and friends of the men are allowed to visit one Saturday per month, and the men begin a lifestyle of volunteering and service in the community.

The third phase, Application Phase, lasts for 17 weeks. Here, the men live full-time at The Hub in Columbus, work full-time, undergo weekly counseling and engage in daily groups. Restoration of family relationships is crucial at this stage. Upon completion of a successful peer evaluation, they begin to visit home up to two weekends per month, Hunnell wrote.

The fourth and final phase lasts for 20 weeks. Continuing from the last phase, the men work full-time but move out of The Hub into duplex housing. The weekly counseling and daily groups also continue. At this phase, The Refuge makes sure that any court fines, child support or other obligations of the men are paid, or structured to be so. They also make sure the men have a driver's license, medical insurance, general educational development or anything else they need for success, Hunnell explained in the email interview.

Hunnell also explained that at this phase, men work with a coach, a Christian man who volunteers to walk alongside and disciple them. These coaches develop a five-year plan for their lives going forward.

While this transformational journey costs The Refuge resources, Hunnell said the service is “100% free to the men we serve; we do not require insurance, and no man ever receives a bill.”

Impact

After the program, The Refuge invites selected men to stay at the ministry and work as coordinators, living on the property and serving the men in the program, Hunnell wrote. The program has been so impactful that approximately 60% of The Refuge staff are alumni of its program, though the ministry requires the men to go out and work in the market before coming back as staff. The goal is for them to apply what they have learned and have the experience brought back to the ministry, according to Hunnell.

The goal is not only to help the men recover from addiction and repair their relationship with God and their families, but also to guide them vocationally. He emphasized that The Refuge ensures that every man gets a job offer from one of their partners after the program.

Some of The Refuge alumni

In 2021, Measurement Resources Company, an independent third-party evaluator, assessed the impact that The Refuge has on the men it serves and the community at large. The report it published shows that The Refuge has successfully achieved its goals of inspiring transformational change in its program graduates and has helped those graduates launch new and purposeful lives free from addiction.

According to the report, 92% of 2018, 2019 and 2020 graduates of The Refuge reported continuous full-time employment, 86% reported housing stability, 94% reported food security, 87% reported reliable transportation and 96% reported no involvement with the justice system. It also shows that societal cost savings over three years by the program was $2.6 million.

The impact of The Refuge also touches on the Body of Christ. The ministry, through its Christ-centered approach, helps people whose relationship with God was fractured get repaired.

Hunnell wrote that many men go to The Refuge with a church background but often with a broken relationship with their faith. But fortunately, they leave with a more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, he added. “A man who goes through The Refuge will know what a relationship with Christ looks like and how that works.”

The Refuge works collaboratively with churches. Approximately 80% of men who go through the program “Come to us from some connection with a church,” Hunnell said.

Thus, despite the havoc alcoholism and drug addiction wreak, there is hope. “Every day in the US, people die from drug overdoses. But, every day, people are also finding recovery if they can just find a little bit of willingness to take the first step,” Hunnell wrote. “We want to be known. We want the parent who has a 30-something-year-old son living in the basement, who has been to multiple rehabs, who has talked to multiple pastors and who has given up on a better tomorrow, to know that there is a better tomorrow.”

The Refuge can be reached via channels available here.

Justice Nwafor is a Nigerian journalist. His work has been published by several outlets, including HumAngle, Earth Journalism Network, Reuters and the BBC. In August 2023, his work was recognized as the best in the Business and Environment category at the Sanlam Awards for Excellence in Financial Journalism in South Africa.