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Diverted from Destruction

Mike Gilmartin leads Teen Challenge of the Dakotas after alcohol and drugs nearly ruined him.
New Jersey native Mike G. Gilmartin grew up in a family where consuming alcohol occurred on a regular occasion. He carried the habit into his marriage with Denise soon after he graduated from high school.

But far worse than alcohol, Mike developed a taste for crack cocaine and methamphetamines that nearly cost him his life. A couple of thugs jumped the 6-foot, 3-inch Gilmartin and beat him in a brutal Camden neighborhood he frequented to buy drugs. If not for a concerned citizen who wielded a baseball bat and yelled as he saw the ruffians attempt to pry cash from Gilmartin’s clenched fist, he might have been stabbed to death.

Gilmartin worked as a carpenter and entered into a construction company business partnership with Denise’s brother Mark, who became his best friend. Others observed that Mike and Mark had a special bond, not unlike David and Jonathan in the Bible.

But deep-seated issues of self-doubt and a sense of unworthiness led Mike to turn to drugs more frequently.

“My insecurities hindered my life and contributed to my binge-use pattern, with crack having the most and worst devastating effects,” says Gilmartin, now 59. “I didn’t understand the demonic and spiritual issues. The enemy of my soul pounced on me whenever he saw the best opportunities.”

Gilmartin realized he needed to find help for his excessive drug use. He went to a couple of 28-day nonsectarian recovery programs, but they didn’t provide lasting relief. Neither did sporadic attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

“The strong euphoric high of the crack called me away from my frustrations and trapped me into the cycle of self-loathing and extreme guilt and shame,” Gilmartin remembers.

His nominal faith also proved to be insufficient.

“Eventually I learned I had a stronghold, and a little bit of religion wasn’t going to cure that,” Gilmartin says. “I hated myself. I was deeply ashamed.”

Gilmartin didn’t use meth or crack every day, or even every week. But he says insecurities fueled abuse binges.

Ultimately, Mark dropped his brother-in-law and business partner off at a nearby detoxification unit at which time Gilmartin decided to enter a 90-day rehabilitation program in Trenton operated by the Salvation Army. That became the last time the two friends ever saw each other.

During Gilmartin’s stay at the program, Mark traveled to Washington, D.C., to visit his father, Joe Quinn, who had bone cancer. Outside a downtown restaurant, Mark got into a confrontation with a drunken 18-year-old. The teenager grabbed a two-by-four board from debris at a nearby construction site and struck Mark in the back of the head. Mark, 26, lingered in a hospital for five days before dying. During that painful period, Denise and Mike turned their lives over to the Lord.

Mike still had questions. One Wednesday night, he saw a building with a cross on the exterior and he wandered inside. Medford Assembly of God happened to be holding a Bible study at the time.

After the gathering, Gilmartin asked pastor Ken R. Fornicola about the fate of his brother-in-law. Fornicola talked at length with Gilmartin and prayed with him. Gilmartin began attending services and his faith began to blossom.

In 1989, Fornicola convinced Gilmartin to enroll in the Philadelphia Adult & Teen Challenge — otherwise he would die young.

“I loved Teen Challenge,” Gilmartin says. “Grown men who loved God nurtured me.”

At Teen Challenge, Gilmartin understood his struggles had a spiritual undercurrent.

“Once I met Jesus, I realized the real problem was not the drugs,” Gilmartin says. “It’s the sin — the rebellion, anger, bitterness, hurt, jealousy, lack of identity.”

Not that he didn’t have relapses.

“He was always remorseful and I knew he loved God,” Denise recalls. “God convinced me to hang in there. I didn’t enable Mike. We both had a belief that maybe each time would be the last time.” The last time came in 1991.

Denise credits Fornicola with offering tremendous support that helped her cling to hope for her roller-coaster marriage. Fornicola says he just extended grace that once had been offered to him.

“My past is not as checkered as Mike’s, but it was a mess,” says Fornicola, 63. “The pastor of the church where I got saved didn’t give up on me.”

A couple of years out of the program, Gilmartin yearned to return to Adult & Teen Challenge as a staff member.

“I had a hunger to serve the Lord, not just build homes for rich people in New Jersey suburbs,” Gilmartin says. “I had no formal training, but I had a lot of passion for the Lord.”

Initially, he spent two of years on staff at Adult & Teen Challenge Mid America in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Adult & Teen Challenge is a ministry of Assemblies of God U.S. Missions.

For the past quarter century, Gilmartin has been executive director of Teen Challenge of the Dakotas, based in Brookings, South Dakota. The first 10 months of the 16-month program involves intense discipleship, with the final six months being a re-entry program that operates from a halfway house environment. This thriving work study program connects students with local manufacturers, who are eager to hire them.

By God’s grace, Gilmartin says, Denise — who is business administrator at the center — has stayed with him. The couple now have nine grandchildren.

Fornicola also remains good friends with the Gilmartins.

“The Lord radically changed Mike and gave him a desire to serve,” says Fornicola, now an endorsed chaplain with the Assemblies of God, working for the Hospice of Central Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. “Teen Challenge became the vehicle God placed Mike in, and he has been willing to stay where God put him. Mike laid his abilities, skills, and talents at the disposal of God. To her great credit, Denise went right along with him, supported him, and stuck with him.”

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.