As dusk settles around him, the Rev. Mike Clark ’70 clicks on the desk lamp in his ground floor office of the massive, century-old, stone church building. The fluorescent glow can be seen to the end of the parking lot and down the darkening streets. A beacon of hope, so to speak, to those approaching the basement stairs to attend a 12-step meeting. As the Recovery Outreach Worker of Belmont-Watertown United Methodist Church in Watertown, Mass., Clark offers pastoral counseling and spiritual direction to recovering addicts.
Each week, two dozen, 12-step meetings take place in the church basement focusing on such addictions as alcohol, gambling, sex and narcotics. “That’s 1,000 people keeping one another alive every week of the year,” says Clark, who earned his master in divinity from Lancaster Theological Seminary in 1975.
“Their meetings are not my meetings, but they know my office is their office.
They can feel free to come in and talk with me, and know that I’ll never interfere with the lifesaving work that’s going on in the basement,” he says.
“Everything that’s happened has come out of a consistent presence in the building. It began very small, just by sitting there and being there, waiting to see if anyone would come in and say ‘hi.’
“What’s important about this is that no one advised us to do this. It isn’t like someone in the hierarchy of the church said, ‘Go there and start this kind of work.’ It just emerged and evolved. It was organic and gradual. Fifteen years on, it’s become a possible model for other churches to utilize.”
Upstairs Downstairs—Bridging the Gap
Clark is interested in bringing together the congregation that gathers on Sundays in the sanctuary with those that meet during the week in the basement. Years ago it was more difficult, he admits; a sort-of never-shall-the-twain-meet way of thinking. But today, he describes it as “both floors trying to see if they can learn from one another. To trust each other, when they never imagined being in the same room together.”
Clark has established several programs that bring the upstairs/downstairs crowds together on the same floor. One successful initiative is the 11th Step Café—a group consisting of half recovering addicts and half church members. Together, they share meals, read, discuss issues and pray for each other every two weeks throughout the year—staying true to the guiding words of the 11th step of the 12-step program, which states: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”
After just a few meetings, it became clear that “folks who were active addicts never imagined they’d be sitting down with church people who were not only understanding but also wanting to be part of their lives. And the people from the church side never imagined they could be as honest as they were finding themselves to be,” enthuses Clark. “The 11th Step Café is now in its fourth year of bringing people together who, frankly, never imagined being in the same room.”
“What I’ve learned from my friends here is that while The Steps help them to stop using and ultimately to stay alive, the program also helps them to see what life is for—what life is about.
I’ve seen it work for thousands of people in my church basement over these years. But many people don’t make it. There are over 2,000 overdose deaths, annually, in Massachusetts. The battle of addiction is hard, but on the days that people are consistent at being at meetings and relying on a higher power and relying on each other, it can be miraculous,” says Clark, emphasizing his point with the story of a woman who struggled for two decades with alcoholism.
She eventually found Clark and his guidance one evening by the light in his window. With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Clark’s monthly counseling sessions, she is 10 years sober. “Every morning now, I wake up, do my morning readings, make a cup of tea and sit by my window and listen to the birds sing,” she says. “For many years, I ‘came to’ in the morning, now I ‘wake up.’ I think that only if you had the life I once had can you really understand the difference between ‘coming to’ and ‘waking up. How grateful I am for the life I live now.”
A Family Affair
The chaplain and director of Albright’s Multifaith Center is none other than the Rev. Paul Clark ’73, Mike’s brother. Beyond nurturing and supporting the spiritual life on campus, Chaplain Clark ministers to people in recovery, too. The Caron Foundation, an organization that provides lifesaving addiction and behavioral healthcare treatment, honored him with an “Unsung Hero” award for his work in establishing an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter on campus and for “his support and educational efforts with students.”
For on-campus services call the Gable Health and Counseling
Center at 610-921-7532 or go to https://www.albright.edu/about-albright/buildings-facilities/gable-center/
Running on Gratitude
First she was grateful to get her derriere off the sofa and her feet moving with the guidance of the Couch to 5K running plan. Within six months she completed a 5K race. Within 13 months, BK Ayarslan McDonough ’94 crossed the finish line of the Gobi March in China—part of the international Four Deserts Race series. In doing so, she raised more than $12,000 for Caron Treatment Centers, bringing awareness to substance abuse disorders.
Gobi March is a grueling, week-long, 155 mile footrace, over mountain passes and sand dunes, with temperatures as vast and varied as the terrain traversed. After seven days of sweat, blisters, heat exhaustion and no showers or running water, McDonough says she was most thankful for a hug from her daughters and husband.
“I was overjoyed to see my family. That’s what got me through the toughest parts of the race—through the heat of the desert. I was surprised that my kids hugged me because at that point we [runners] were all pretty ripe. It was wonderful to share that moment with them and to go back to the hotel for a shower and a bed,” she says with a laugh.
McDonough’s transformative journey began at the funeral for a friend where she began questioning herself and her daily routine (family, job, exercise—or not). Realizing fear was holding her back from making changes in her life, McDonough pushed fear aside and took action. “I didn’t want to reach the end of my life with regrets, wishing I took more risks or without trying my best at something,” she says.
With her new found mantra “gratitude is an action verb,” McDonough saw the Gobi March as an opportunity to act on what’s most meaningful: family, community, health, doing work that is purposeful.
McDonough works at Caron’s Pennsylvania site as a government affairs specialist. “I’m equally as proud of raising that money as I am of running,” she says.
After completing the 14th run of the Gobi March in June, McDonough says she realizes that fear can no longer hold her back. “There are so many adventures to be had. So many paths to take. There’s nothing extraordinary about me but I ran a 155-mile race. We are capable of so much more than we believe.
“I’m going to Carpe Diem the heck out of this life.”
– Nancy McCann