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Opioid Epidemic a Familiar Face for Teen Challenge

Although the pervasiveness of the opioid epidemic is new, the symptoms and the Cure is nothing new for Teen Challenge.

From Small Town, USA, to the Whitehouse, the recognition of the abuse of — and addiction to — opioids is headline news. Each year, tens of thousands of Americans (63,632 in 2016) die due to drug overdoses, and according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 66 percent involve a prescription or illicit opioid.

Don Wilkerson, who co-founded Teen Challenge in 1958 with his brother Dave, has spent 60 years bringing the gospel message to gangs and drug addicts — showing them the way to overcome their addictions, including addiction to opioids.

The program has an incredible history.

“When we first started out, our focus was on ministry to gangs,” Wilkerson says. “But we noticed members began dropping out, which we learned was because of drug addiction, mainly heroin. We had to overcome the belief that permeated the culture of ‘once a drug addict, always a drug addict.’ Even addicts believed that lie, so they were in a hopeless situation.”

But the Wilkersons did something no one else had done — they offered men and women, ensnared in addiction, hope through a Christ-centered recovery center/home. And history has revealed that hope was well placed as no program has been more successful in helping people overcome their addictions than Teen Challenge International, USA, which is a ministry of AG U.S. Missions.

The Brooklyn Teen Challenge — the flagship and first established Teen Challenge center in the world — became the launching pad for an untold number of lives transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Today, there are more than 1,400 Teen Challenge centers in 123 countries around the world.

“Teen Challenge has impacted tens of thousands of lives since starting in 1958,” states Joseph Batluck Sr., CEO and president of Teen Challenge International, USA. “We have seen and continue to see marriages restored, families reunited, careers established, and church leaders trained.”

A powerful example of Batluck’s statement is Dr. Jerry Ireland, visiting professor at the AG Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, for academic year 2018-2019.

“Jerry graduated in 2002 from Teen Challenge, where his life was turned around by meeting Jesus and being filled with the Holy Spirit,” Batluck says. “He graduated from Central Bible College, served as a missionary in Africa, and received his Ph.D. from Regents University in 2016.”

But Wilkerson, 79, recalls how intimidated he initially was when it came to working with addicts as, nearly without exception, they wanted to know if he was ever an addict.

“Working with gangs was actually easier for me, because you don’t have to be a gang member to reach one,” Wilkerson says. “But I had never done drugs, so it was difficult to build trust — until God gave me a response. I just had to ask them, ‘Does a doctor have to have a disease in order to cure that disease?’ and that simple question broke down the barriers.”

Jimmy Jack, who founded the Long Island, New York, Teen Challenge in 1990, encountered a very different problem in launching his center. While no one cared that the Wilkerson brothers were ministering and “setting up shop” in the ghetto, Jack found himself dealing with the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) Syndrome outside of the ghetto.

His answer to objections? In addition to the grace of God being showered upon him, Jack, says consistency — just like the Wilkersons demonstrated — wins the day. In fact, with the consistent active involvement of the Long Island Teen Challenge in the community, the center has become a recognized and household name in the area.

“Anytime we host an event, our school district just asks me to provide 5,000 postcards, and every student in the district gets informed about it,” says Jack, 60.

Wilkerson agrees that consistency is key, noting that they still go back, year after year, into some of the neighborhoods they originally visited decades ago. “In the beginning, it was seed sowing,” he says, “but eventually, seed turns into a harvest.”

Although the opioid epidemic continues to be an overwhelming — and still growing — problem in the United States, Wilkerson says two significant differences stand out to him when comparing opioid addiction to any other addiction: First, the numbers abusing and/or addicted to opioids; second, the ages of those becoming addicted are increasing at either end of the age scale (younger than before and older than before).

Jack, a 1984 graduate of Teen Challenge, knows the impact of addiction — he has had 51 (that’s not a typo) family members go through Teen Challenge. He says that when he went through the program, a majority of the people were from poor and rough neighborhoods. Today, they are taking in executives, mothers, fathers, officers, firefighters — addiction has penetrated every realm and every age group of society.

The men also agree that opioid addiction causes the same problems any other addiction causes such as denial, manipulation, greed, lying, stealing, self-hatred, and rejection. The issues are the same — so is the cure. However, they’ve also recognized that instead of taking an average of five years for a person to bottom out, opioids have been known to drag people into the darkest depths of total hopelessness in about half the time.

The problem facing Teen Challenge now, however, is they are limited by buildings and beds. The program, which a 2011 Minnesota study found had a 74 percent success rate for adults and 47 percent success rate for teens, has a verifiable success rate that no government program can even approach.

In New York, Wilkerson and Jack say that they are currently expanding their facilities, which encompass centers in Long Island, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, and Rochester. But not all Teen Challenge centers have the financial capabilities of expanding.

“We are always trying to open new centers — we are currently planning six centers to be opened in the U.S. in 2018,” Batluck says, but agrees with Wilkerson and Jack: “Funding and staffing are key challenges.”

Jack, who was invited to the White House when President Donald Trump recognized the national opioid epidemic, says he gave proposals to several key leaders. His desire was to help them see the success and potential of faith-based programs.

“If the government chose to support us without any strings attached, so our faith is not compromised, we have the answer to the epidemic,” Jack states.

“There is very strong opposition to evangelicals and faith-based programs,” Wilkerson says, “but not by parents whose sons or daughters need help — the Christian message is not a barrier to them. It’s only a barrier to some in government, but not to people wanting help.”

Although from the outside, there seems to be little hope that the government would support faith-based programs that work (as opposed to the ones it currently funds with far lower success rates), Wilkerson believes that if the epidemic continues to grow unchecked, desperation could open that door.

There appears to be little hope in the epidemic being quenched through current government sources, and Jack warns that currently the legalization of marijuana is riding under the radar.

“In our program, almost every person’s journey to drug addiction began with marijuana,” Jack notes. “By legalizing marijuana, people who would have never been pulled into drug addiction, will now be on that path — the government isn’t going to do anything about it because it means revenue. Time will tell how it impacts America, but I won’t be surprised if the epidemic continues to grow.”

Teen Challenge has provided defining, life-transforming moments for tens of thousands men and women with addictions. As part of the 60th anniversary of Teen Challenge, the Brooklyn center is building the David Wilkerson Library at its 416 Clinton Avenue address.

“It’s known that after 50 or 60 years, programs can begin to depart from the founder’s original intent and focus,” Wilkerson says. “We’re establishing the library so that we can continue to share why Teen Challenge was birthed, to keep the vision alive for present and future generations of students and workers.”

Teen Challenge holds true to its founding core values and DNA, that it is the life-changing power of the gospel and the Holy Spirit that make freedom possible,” affirms Batluck.
“Jesus is the ‘treatment plan.’ We acknowledge that clinical and detox programs are helpful and often necessary, but they will never replace 2 Corinthians 5:17: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (NIV).”

Editor’s note: The song, Hello, My Name Is, written by Christian recording artist Matthew West, is about Teen Challenge graduate Jordan Jeffers. In 2013, the song topped the Billboard Christian/gospel chart for 17 weeks.

Left Photo: Don Wilkerson

Right Photo: Jimmy Jack

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.