The Other Six and a Half Days

By Fr John Bartke

Using Church Facilities for Community Programs

On virtually any evening of the week, you can drive by St. Michael’s Orthodox Church in Van Nuys, California, and see the parking lot filled and the lights in the Hall burning. These are the indications that something is going on. And what is going on is that people are being helped. Who are these people, and how are they being helped? The answer to that question is a story in itself; a story that is repeated in every city, town and village; a story of bringing lives back from destruction.

You see, each person who walks in the door of St. Michael’s Parish Hall, who enters into the Sunday School room on these evenings, is an alcoholic or addict. And what they are receiving is support, shared experience, knowledge, and most of all—help.

First, we would like to indicate that in no way, shape, or form can St. Michael’s automatically be seen as an unusual parish. The parish is 17 years old, having converted a Methodist facility to our present facility at the inception. We are located in Los Angeles and carry many “big-city” traits, while at the same time we serve the San Fernando Valley area which carries with it an almost suburban feeling. The Church has about 120 families on the books, can park only 60 cars (with no on-street parking), has 6 Sunday School classrooms and a hall with a very low ceiling. Most of the facility was built over 25 years ago and is incredibly average. So the facilities that we have do not offer any advantages that are unavailable to other Orthodox churches. However, whether Orthodox churches choose to hose meetings like this is another question.

Shall we open the church to outside groups?

To answer this question for our parish, we must begin about a year ago when the parish learned that the community-at-large was desperately in need of space for various Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. At the same time, there seemed to be an awareness growth within our parish of the needs of our own people, as well as others in this area. Yet, up to this time, what had we been offering? Unfortunately, precious little.

So, we began to ask ourselves those hard questions: how many members in our surrounding community were alcoholics or drug abusers? And further, how many of our own members were seriously affected by these addictions? How many of our members were adversely affecting the lives of those in the community?

As we began to wrestle with these questions, another question had to be answered: Are we as a parish willing to rent our facilities to outside parties? organizations? activities? In previous years both the parish council and the parish had rejected such motions, countering that our facilities were for the exclusive use of our own members, even if that meant they would stand vacant and unused six and a half days each week.

So, the issue came before the Parish Council as two issues: would we rent? If yes, to whom and what would be the return and control? By March 1985 most of these questions had been resolved. There was still reluctance to rent the facilities, especially to AA or NA groups that a few perceived as a threat to both our own property and the neighborhood. Nonetheless, the various motions did pass, and in May the first group was invited in.

Our First Group Meeting

The first meeting was an NA (Narcotics Anonymous) “candle-light” gathering, where people shared their experiences of life on drugs and through recovery. In some ways, it looked like a rather “tough” group of 40 individuals. Yet they came, they shared, they helped each other; and even the ash-trays were washed with their own paper towels before they left.

This initial NA meeting proved so successful that today (February 1986), just eight months after we made our initial decision, 8 individual weekly meetings are held attracting 400 individuals. Not every alcoholic or addict is “tough,” or a loser. In fact, many who attend are doctors and lawyers, pharmacists and teachers, blue collar workers and housewives, parents and teenagers, the neighbor and yes, even the Orthodox Christian. Each has a common thread, each wants to live, each wants to be sober, and each wants to love and are.

The mechanics for setting up these meetings are very simple. The first invitation was made with a single phone call to the World Service Office of Narcotics Anonymous, listed (as are other such groups) in the Yellow and White pages telephone books. Once the arrangements for the meeting and the date were determined, we assigned one dependable, strong, committed and compassionate individual from the parish to oversee the various meetings. He was there to learn, to offer our aid, and to let them know the basic ground rules of operation. As we went along, we learned that many of our beginning presuppositions were inaccurate, while other guidelines needed to be added. That one dedicated individual has proved to be the key for us. With him, these meetings have flowed smoothly. Without him, I doubt that we could do much.

Reaching Out

In a very real way, everything that we are doing here is wrapped up in our Christian life. First, we are reaching out to our own people. Though so many often ignore the issue, Orthodox Christians can be and are affected by the same addictions as everyone else in society. At the first meeting that I was able to attend, I saw three of our own people participating. So we reach out to our own people and to others, reaching out to them where they are, in a way that was not previously possible. We are also reaching out to other churches and their communities. So often we find it easy to take care of an individual with a broken leg. Why should we not then also reach out to those with broken lives or spirits or minds?

There is also a certain spiritual mission that is being provided through all of this. In sitting through a few of these meetings, one can easily be shocked by the language used. Yet, as time goes by, one sees this diminishing; one begins to see the “higher power” they speak of develop into God, then into Christ. We have a simple cross in our Hall where participants of these meetings gather to pray, often on their knees.

St. Michael’s is trying to do something. In fact, anything is better than doing nothing. And lives are being changed. People are being brought from the brink. They have “skinned their knees” they have hit bottom; and now we must aid them as we can, to regain life.

Doing Something Requires Simple Set-Up

In this article we have tried to give you an idea of what our fairly average Orthodox church is doing in the hope that such a program will reoccur in Orthodox churches throughout the country. There are many such groups that desperately need space to meet; besides AA and NA there is also Gamblers Anonymous, Over-Eaters Anonymous, Shoppers Anonymous to name a few.

To offer such an opportunity you really need to do just three things:

  1. Make the decision to do it.
  2. Make the call.
  3. Appoint a responsible member to oversee the use of the facilities.

The rest of the program, speakers, organization and people will be supplied by the particular organization.

Take a look at your community; then, together with your priest and your parish council, see if you can open the doors of your church to help at least one of these groups.

For more information, we invite you to write to the OCA Task Force on Alcoholic/Chemical Dependency, P.O. Box 960, Pearl River, NY 10965.