Home Lifestyle Life after Drugs: Birmingham Group Transitions Homeless, Recovering Addicts

Life after Drugs: Birmingham Group Transitions Homeless, Recovering Addicts

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Judah MinistriesBy Judah Martin

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Every weekday morning at 10 a.m., with the exception of Fridays, Aubrey Townsend stands behind a small wooden desk facing the pews of Birmingham’s Church of the Reconciler.
“Alright, it’s Reconciler intervention time,” he declares in a booming, vaguely raspy voice.
Townsend, 54, is dressed casually in a thick red sweater and jogging pants. He looks at the addicts before him. It is not always clear which of them are recovering, and which of them still listen to him through the haze of inebriation. He doesn’t ask.
He recognizes as a rule that only a scant few of the troubled people who wander into the church will be saved from their addictions. But, then, sometimes rules can be broken, so far as he’s concerned.
As he speaks, he pulls fliers and other documents from a black leather bag that’s too small to be a suitcase and too big to be a briefcase. He glances only briefly at a flyer for a safe house, a flyer for Disability Rights and Resources and a flyer for ministry recruitment, before handing them off to each member with eager endorsement.
“We know we’re children of God, and we don’t need no recognition,” he insisted to the audience. “”We know we’re worthwhile individuals. In recovery we talk about that. We talk about self-acceptance. People with self-acceptance, they’re alright within their own skin.”
Each meeting begins with around five members scattered across the pews, with a few more showing up sporadically over the course of the hour.
The members are few, but they are a faithful bunch.
Kenneth Tyrone King, a native of Jacksonville Fla., is among the members who return each day, thanks to transportation services provided by the church. King, 50, attends each meeting with a book in hand, usually one he’s carefully chosen from the wall length shelf in the church’s lobby. He takes an especially active role in each day’s discussion.
“This place is a healing place,” he said. “Being in this group, it lets me know that I’m a part of the community.”
Each month, the group members choose a topic to build off of during their discussions. Topics range from romantic relationships to, most recently, Black History Month.
“We keep it simple, but it’s really positive and it’s really spiritual,” said Ronald Silas, 53, a Birmingham native who recently joined the group.
Townsend has been a member of the Church of the Reconciler since 2007 and founded the Reconciler Intervention Group just two years ago.
In addition to overseeing each meeting, Townsend also operates the church’s transportation ministry and assists with a variety of other programs, including the Safe House program that provides housing and other services to aid recovering addicts.
His is a full time a job, and that’s the way he likes it. On Saturday mornings, the church offers breakfast to local homeless people and members of groups like Safe House, so Townsend picks up the church van on those mornings to transport members to the church.
As he stood next to a pew one Saturday waiting to drive members back, he reflected on his own past. He explained that, like the members of his group, it was through his own drug addiction that he discovered the church.
“May the 5th; that’ll be 6 years being clean,” he admitted a few days earlier, standing just a few steps away from the small desk he occupies during the week.
“I understand that that’s my testimony,” he said. “When I was homeless, that was because of my active drug use. That was top priority: drugs.”
Townsend’s story is a difficult one, and he only reveals it in fragments to his group.
He explained that, like many in his group, he grew up poor, raised by a single mother in a modest home in Pratt Heights.
“She did the best she could,” he said.
Townsend, deep in thought, didn’t seem to notice as a male vocalist practicing on a guitar in the pulpit lapsed briefly into song, moaning the lyrics “I know, I know, I know I’ve had sorrow,” before letting out a long “oh” so raspy it sounded almost like a grunt. He stopped singing in preference of a short electric guitar solo and, as Townsend began to speak again, he abruptly stopped.
“My neighborhood consisted of people pretty much like I was,” he said. “We was doing the best we could to make it. You know, we did have a lot of fun, we’d get together, play sports, play baseball, things like that.”
Still, his existence felt almost defined by his poverty. While Townsend and the neighborhood kids could find ways to entertain themselves, it troubled him to watch his mother work various domestic jobs for wealthy families in local communities like Mountain Brook, while her own family had so little.
“Some of the things I seen other children had, I didn’t have it, and I think that kind of affected me in a way,” he recalled. “I kind of had resentments with other kids because they seemed like they was blessed to have these opportunities and all these things I didn’t.”
As the years passed, his disillusionment with the restrictions of his life boiled into a hardened resentment. Education occupied an increasingly less relevant place among his priorities.
In high school, Townsend drifted away from neighborhood baseball and soon found a new means of escape.
“I was trying to fit in with the big boys,” he said, chuckling. “I didn’t wanna be no nerd. I didn’t wanna be no chump. I wanted to do what the big boys was doing-smoking reefer, smoking cigarettes, drinking wine and cutting classes. Didn’t go to school. I wanted to be a real thug.”
He laughed again, this time almost scoffing.
“I was poor, we was poor, I had a poor family and I felt like people didn’t like me,” he continued. “I didn’t like who I was as a poor Black boy. I think I was seeking more approval and I would do a lot of things to fit in.”
After graduating, Townsend soon took a job at a steel fabricating factory and moved into a home with his girlfriend. Sure, he was drinking and smoking a generous share of weed on a regular basis, but so were most of his friends. He hadn’t lost control yet.
“At that time it was more socially acceptable to smoke weed,” he said,” Now a lot of people smoke weed and drink, too, it’s not like being a crack head and a junkie. But I didn’t know that by me doing that, I was letting my guards down.”
Again, the familiar desire to fit in began to color his life. Only then, as the 1980s wore on, it was no longer wine and marijuana that the cool guys from high school were into.
“I was hanging with the wrong people,” he said. “And one day somebody said ‘try some of this,’ you know, ‘you snorted cocaine. You want to smoke some? Try it. You ain’t gonna become hooked.’ So I tried it, and I kept trying it.”
For a while, Townsend was able to hide his addiction from his employers and the people closest to him. Inevitably, the façade slowly slipped away as his dependency became more desperate.
“I was doing a lot of weird stuff to support my usage,” he recalled. “I would kind of make up for it, doing what they call robbing Peter to pay Paul. That caught up with me. Paul wasn’t getting paid after a while. My home became lacking, I wasn’t taking care of my kids.”
After losing his job, Townsend began a predictable cycle of robbing and hustling to support his addiction. From the beginning of his addiction in 1987 until his eventual recovery in 2008, Townsend was arrested more times than he can recall and nearly severed his marriage.
“Sometimes the only way you stop is you fall out or pass out or you get arrested, to stop that run, like a binge you’ll go on until you get sick, then you’ll want to stop then, you know, ‘cause you’re sick,” he reasoned. “When I’m sick I stay out there until I’m wore out or tore up and I’ll wanna go to a treatment center then because I’m tired, physically tired. Then you become mentally tired, spiritually tired.”
On several occasions he would spend months in jail, allowing his body time to detox. In 1996, Townsend was arrested for theft of property and, after spending several months in jail, he returned to find his wife had moved their four kids into a housing project.
“She was really struggling with me and I was really taking her down,” he said. “I was using and spending her money and pawning her car. Man, she stuck in there with me as much as she could, and I had to make it up to her because I had really destroyed her. She lost her nursing license because she couldn’t go to work because I had the car most of the time.”
Newly sober, Townsend felt ashamed at the plight he’d inflicted on his family and decided it was time to make a commitment to sobriety, soon joining a local support group.
His primary goal was to redeem himself to his family, and the best way he could think of was to get a job and help out. Before his incarceration, Townsend had worked on and off as a taxi driver and, after a lot of convincing, his supervisor rehired him.
“My sponsors and the people I was working with in my spiritual groups was telling me ‘you might be moving too fast; you might not need to drive cabs right now because that’s too much exposure to the streets,’” he recalled.
Against their advice, he continued working, confident in his resolve to sustain his sobriety. The months slipped by without any event, much to the surprise of his counselors. Townsend could drive all through the city, passing the seedy places he knew so well, without giving in.
Soon, a year had passed since his release. One night while driving, he picked up a young woman from a hotel across the street from the church he now works at.
“She was a nice looking lady and she told me to take her somewhere and I know that was a drug infested area,” he said. “But I’m feeling okay, you know, I said ‘I can take her and I’ll be alright.’”
As he waited for the woman to return to the cab, he reassured himself of his strength. When the attractive woman returned, his resolve quickly melted away.
“The disease jumped all over me because she was a nice looking young lady and she asked me what I do for fun,” he remembered. “I said ‘I’d sho’ll like to get with you. Me and you can have some fun together.’ And so I told her when she get hers, ‘won’t you give me one too?’”
Townsend was quiet for a moment, swallowing hard, and then he continued recounting the story.
“So, just that quick,” he said. “Just so I could be with the girl. From that point I threw away about a year’s clean time. It all went downhill from there.”
Around 2001, Townsend took a job in Nashville, Tenn., and entered a rehabilitation program but, by then, he had grown to recognize relapse as an inevitable self-fulfilling prophecy. This time it came quickly, upon receipt of his first paycheck.
Townsend, along with some friends he’d made in the city, quickly found a dealer. He didn’t know the area well, but he managed to find a secluded lot without any sign of people. They holed up in a shed on the lot and spent the next few hours smoking away their paychecks.
At midnight all of the crack was gone, and so were Townsend’s friends. Disappointed in himself, he realized he couldn’t go back to the rehabilitation center he’d been staying at since he’d missed curfew. Still, it was cold out, and he was afraid he would get sick if he stayed too much longer in the drafty shed.
It was then he eyed the house a little further away on the lot. He noted with relief that some of its windows were boarded.
“I might be able to sleep there tonight,” he remembered thinking. “Get out of this cold.”
He gathered his things and quickly made his way over to the house.
“By the time I raised the window, it must have been five police cars showed up at the same time,” he recalled. “One of the officers, when I told him what happened, he kind of believed what I was saying. He said ‘you’re stoned out of your mind, man, somebody lives in that house.’”
Townsend’s wife soon filed for separation so he decided to stay in Nashville after his release. He stayed clean for a while, but the cycle of relapse nevertheless continued on. Though the burglary incident would be his last drug related arrest, he continued to experience sporadic legal trouble.
Soon, he had new worries. In July 2006, he got a call from a family member telling him that his mother had died. Townsend decided then that it was finally time to come home. His mother’s death forced him to reckon with the rift his drug addiction had driven between him and his six siblings. He once again contemplated sobriety. After so many years of addiction, though, he was no longer idealistic about recovery.
“I didn’t know what I was gonna do,” he said. “I figured if I got off drugs, so what. I ain’t got nothing. Ain’t nobody going to hire me, you know. What? So, with my back against the wall, when all else fails, that’s when we call on the Lord. So I called on the Lord.”
Later that year, he was arrested for unpaid fines and served time in Birmingham County Jail. There, he was given a pamphlet advertising the Church of the Reconciler. The pamphlet described the church as multi-cultural and non-denominational. Townsend can’t recall much else about the pamphlet now, but he remembers having the impression that the church’s philosophy was one of non-judgment.
Until then, Townsend subscribed to the notion that church-goers were hypocrites, but he had a good feeling about the pamphlet for Church of the Reconciler and he decided to pay a visit upon his release.
“When I got [to the church] I seen a lot of people I could Identify with – drug addicts, alcoholics, the homeless community,” he said. “I knew then, struggling with my addiction, it was a calling for me, and I knew this was where my purpose was, so that when I get better I could come back and share my experience, strength and hopes.”
Things started to look up from there. Around that time, he and his wife decided to work things out, and he at last saw the semblances of a community that was within his reach.
Recovery wasn’t simple, though, and his urges agonized him until, soon, he gave in.
Something was fundamentally different about this relapse. Townsend found that he had a community of support who encouraged his recovery, and his resolve grew stronger. He found himself taking an increasingly active role in the church. Finally, he seemed to have a purpose beyond the mundane requirements of addiction.
Those first few difficult years seem a world away to Townsend now. Still standing beside the pew near the pulpit, he marveled at his new life, counting off on his fingers the positive differences he now experiences.
“I have car insurance, I have medical insurance, a car, driver’s license, a job,” he said with a smile. “And I have a beautiful wife and grandkids and God blessed me with a home. Even when I was like the black sheep of the family and they didn’t want to have anything to do with me for real, for real. For real, you know, and now my mother passed, by the grace of God, and I got the house. Now I’ve got to work hard so I’ll be able to have a pension and to pay into Social Security so I can retire someday.”
He said he doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon, though.
“I used to hear people back in the day talk about that you’re doing research when you’re out there in the active addiction, when you’re having problems and you’re suffering from drugs and you keep going back and you can’t seem to get it right, they call that research,” he said. “And today I understand, through all of those treatment centers and being locked up, through that I’ve got a story, and I can share that with people who feel hopeless.”
A few moments later Rose Prince, a member of the Safe House group, walked up to let Townsend know the group had finished up.
“Ya’ll about ready to go?” he asked as she approached. As the two walked away, Townsend said that he was anxious to get home to his family. Now that his four kids are mostly grown, ranging in age from 17 to 27, he has 10 grandchildren. That, he joked, is really his most demanding job these days

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