How One Church is Saving Addicts in a Drug War
A conversation with Normandy and Aileen Notes
When the Philippines started an all-out war on drugs, Normandy and Aileen Notes were among the first people their city mayor approached to start a drug rehabilitation programme. Because the Lord had walked them through their own hurts and issues, He is now using them to minister to drug addicts and other hurting people in the city.
The Notes are church planters at heart. They lead Ikthus NextGen – a church plant in Iloilo City, Philippines. We sit down with them to hear about the journey which brought them to this unique and risky adventure.
Not many people have a ministry that focuses on helping drug addicts. How did you start down this path?
Normandy: When we started Ikthus Iloilo, our sending church wanted to plant churches that would reach out to the “emerging middle class”, believing that reaching this group would then have influence over the lower income groups. But what happened when we started Ikthus was that the Holy Spirit sent us to minister to drug addicts! Our church would have people with pink-colored hair, three ear piercings, and more.
There are drug addicts in the upper income group. We groomed them to be disciple-makers to their fellow drug addicts. They were very influential and soaked up people around them. There were rumors discouraging people from going to Ikthus because we catered to “rich” people. But in reality, it was drug addicts.
Was there a catalyst that led this ministry to take off?
Aileen: While leading the church, we went through a very rocky time in our marriage. With all our personal issues coming out, we were on the brink of separating. We also underwent severely trying times with relationships within the church. With enemies on the left and the right, our senior pastor Joe Ascalon thankfully introduced us to a few healing ministries: Saddleback Church’s Celebrate Recovery, Ancient Paths, and Rapha Healing Ministries.
Normandy: We benefited greatly from these inner healing ministries. As we were helped in our crisis, we knew that our wounds could also be a source of healing to others. But there was no clear direction of what to do.
We started reaching out to people using Celebrate Recovery – it flopped and initially we saw no results. We weren’t really going anywhere.
When President Duterte came into this position, it opened the floodgates: we were one of the first people that the city mayor called to ask for help.
Then one Sunday, after the worship service, while we were packing up, someone arrived: a woman asking for help because her husband “Eric” kept failing in drug rehabilitation. He was scheduled to be released from the rehab centre again, and his wife was worried it might be temporary again and he might relapse. Out of desperation, they decided to seek help from the church.
Initially, Celebrate Recovery didn’t really take off, but now that it was ministering to a well-known family in the community, the weekly meetings attracted others.
All this happened about 8 years before President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. When President Duterte came into this position, it opened the floodgates; we were one of the first people that the city mayor called to ask for help. We helped start an outpatient drug rehabilitation program, at 6 centres with 2 meetings a day – a total of 12 meetings per day in the city. Through the Ikthus Celebrate Recovery Ministry, following the 12-Step tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, hundreds of drug addicts surrendered their lives to Jesus, were baptised, and got connected to the church.
What are the dangers involved in ministering to drug addicts?
Normandy: There is always a high risk of violence. One reason for this is that normally, the person who is ensnared in drugs is too helpless to ask for help. Most, if not all of the time, it’s the surrounding family members who express the need. The drug addicts tend to resist. A lot of the time the addicts would have firearms, with no fear of using them.
So, when intervening, we partner with the local police and drug enforcement agency. We also make sure to have the family sign a waiver that the Celebrate Recovery team will not be held liable should any harm come to the victim in the whole process.
As the person starts to detox from his lifestyle of drug dependency, Celebrate Recovery forms the backbone of rehabilitation. The Biblical foundation of the programme allows God to change them slowly but steadily. The risk is far from over though. As the person starts attending church while being “cleaned up” there is always the possibility of violence, as well as the temptation of stealing to support his habit.
We once had two former addicts who were engaged in a longstanding quarrel. They happened to meet in Ikthus and ended up in a very heated argument. The argument almost escalated violently, but thankfully one of the parties decided to leave with his wife. It was also a good thing that one of the addicts just happened to not carry a weapon with him, as he usually did.
Those are certainly not the type of issues you usually hear about in church. Are there any other significant stories that come to mind?
Aileen: Well, this actually happened before we planted a church but while attending service one Sunday, someone suddenly barged in, raised a pistol right in front of the church, and shot at one of the people in front. We were both within twenty feet of the perpetrator and the person he shot. I was in shock! That was a very traumatic experience. The gunman was a drug addict.
Normandy: I think that experience helped me become wiser in dealing with drug addicts.
Incredible experiences indeed! Would you say your work has evolved over the years? Or are you dealing with the same issues today that you were dealing with years before?
Normandy: To tell you the truth, these days, instead of having a huge influx of drug addicts in the church, it is depressed/anxious individuals with suicidal tendencies who are flocking to us. Addiction is only a matter of habits. Hurts and hangups remain undealt with; whatever the gap is, we want to fill it. Most of the time it’s Aileen ministering to depressed and anxious teenagers – up to three meetings a day.
We don’t know if there is any other church in our city that caters specifically to these people – the outcasts of society. Each local church has a different contribution to the body of Christ. It’s like a beautiful puzzle, we are all working together toward one big picture.
The struggle is that once these people feel ‘freed’ from their afflictions, they tend to stop coming for follow up. It’s unlike clinical psychiatry where they are required to pay and to finish their sessions in order to be declared well and good. In our case, once they feel relief, they stop coming back. They don’t take our advice to stay connected. After a month or two, when they relapse and spiral down again, that’s when they remember us.
The goal of a church planter is to grow the church, and to turn it over to others and start again. But we’ve found that in reality, if you minister to broken people, they don’t get healed right away. If you base your title on what you’re doing, you will be depressed too. But the solution is to rest in the Lord. He is sovereign, He decides all things from on high. He is God, I am not.
The solution is to rest in the Lord. He is sovereign, He decides all things from on high. He is God, I am not.
Aileen: The Lord reminds me, “You are not discipling them in order to grow your numbers in church; you are discipling them to draw them close to Me. Your first calling is not to grow in numbers, but your very first calling is to draw people to My heart.”
God has begun a good work in them. He is faithful to complete it. I’m just a facilitator.