A bank-robbing preacher leads a flock of addicts and hookers straight out of Detroit's gutters
Published: January 26, 2011
"I liked getting high," she says. "People accepted me. I wasn't part of my family because I didn't get along with my family. But now I was part of something."
By 16, she was pole dancing in Detroit strip clubs, strung out on heroin, and within a couple years she went from turning tricks in VIP rooms to doing so in cars.
Her life as a street prostitute was one harrowing night after another.
"Every day something horrific was happening to me," she says. "I was either getting thrown out of moving cars or waking up with people's hands on my throat, and I had a heroin addiction and I couldn't stop. I mean, you should see the scars on my body. I'm not lying to you. I've had some horrific stuff happen to me."
The women here — five right now — watch out for each other, keep each other's spirits up when things look bleak and the street outside begins appearing appealing again. They travel in twos when they walk the neighborhood, and eat group dinners, and help out at the church together.
"I got a new way of life," Benn says. "I'm productive here and I'm of use here. I've got a place here."
But there are relapses here too.
Last spring she violated the rules against dating someone at a nearby halfway house for men, and, forced to leave, wound up back on the streets, living in an abandoned building.
"The first night I went there, I just cried, because I knew what was going to happen," Benn says. She fell right back into drugs and prostitution. "I didn't have nowhere to go. I didn't have no resources. I didn't have a dime in my pocket."
Jeremiah Upshur, the pastor's son, came looking for her and asked her to come back. Now she works for the church and tries to figure out how to build a new life. She has no money, can't even get past a minimum-wage job interview because of the long gap in her work history, and has few skills other than the ones she picked up on the streets. It makes it tough to stay hopeful, challenging to remain on the path she's trying to follow.
"It's hard," Benn says, dragging on a cigarette. "It's really hard."
It all comes down to a single moment, they say. A line between their old life and their new one. And they all say it like they still half can't believe it actually happened.
It happened to Simon too. He tells his story as he wanders the aisles at Joseph's Storehouse, the church's resale shop in Warren that he runs. This is where the church gets what little money it has — selling cheap things one or two at a time.
Simon's one of Peacemakers' biggest proponents because he's one of its biggest successes.
He'd already spent half a life on heroin, a habit he began at 15, when he first came here.
"I must've did $400, $500 worth of heroin every day, 'cause that was my daily do," he says. "My lottery habit was a hundred and something a day, the cocaine I used to give out for free was hundreds a day. I literally had tons of weed. I was hooked up with these Cubans and Colombians in Florida. And I was the dope man, so I had some of the finest women God put breath in. I was out of my mind. It was just a big party continuously."
He got conned into coming to Peacemakers by a concerned sister who'd heard this place seems to work when everything else fails.
Simon walked in, thinking he'd bail after a minute, but he found a remarkable scene that had him transfixed.
"First time I went down there, I just felt something," he says. "Jeremiah, the pastor's son, was standing in the middle of the kitchen with all these dope fiends and prostitutes just standing in a circle around him. And I knew these people 'cause I used to be down on Chene."
Simon started attending services, but kept showing up wasted. He had to take $100 worth of heroin just to get into the door without being sick. He was listening to the spiritual messages but not the sobriety ones.
"I always heard you get saved and the ground's gonna shake and lightning bolts, and I didn't feel nothing. I shook his hand, went out in the car and got high," he says, laughing.
One day, much to Simon's discomfort, Upshur called him to the floor in the middle of the service. Simon had three bottles of methadone in his pocket. He was able to get them even while he was on heroin because the lady who ran the clinic would, for $5, give addicts a cup of her teenage daughter's urine so they could pass the drug test and get their fix. That was her hustle on the side. She kept them addicted for $5 here and there.
The pastor asked Simon if he wanted to finally be free of drugs. Simon nervously said yes, pulled out the bottles and set them on the pulpit in an act of renouncement. The addicts in the audience started drooling over them.
"You know the crowd on Chene," he says. "I heard, 'Don't do it, John! I'll buy it!' People were serious. These are drug addicts in the crowd. Each bottle could be $50 or more on the street. There's people literally hollering like it's an auction. They want my drugs."
Like so many others here, from the pastor on down, he insists the spirit entered into him that day and his addiction vanished right then and there. No withdrawals, no cravings. That was 12 years ago.
"I went to meetings, NA, AA, methadone clinics, whatever they have. Nothing worked for me," he says. Now he's a minister here trying to do the same for others who come in. "God set me free that day. Everything stopped that day."
Jada Fields sits alone in a pew on a Sunday morning, staring forward without an expression. And tears are streaming down her face.
She was a crack-smoking prostitute working Chene down the street from the church, waiting for johns to pick her up one day, and Upshur called her over. She told him flat-out what she was doing. He offered her money to instead come inside. "I've been here ever since," Fields says. She has nine children, seven grandchildren. She's 39.
That was eight years ago, eight years of relapses, of going back to the streets and then being welcomed back to Peacemakers. This time she's lasted a year here.
Behind her, a man stands there alone, and he too is crying to himself. Across the room, moments later, a man has his face buried in his hands, in tears or in shame.
This happens early in their newfound sobriety, some here will say, when the remorse of a wasted life sinks in. There's joy in starting over, but there's deep sadness too over all the time that's been lost forever. Sometimes the realization is overwhelming
But now a song interrupts their sorrow as the service begins. Once again the song is gospel, so raw it has no music backing it at all, only a quick beat driven by foot stomps and a tambourine, and carried by the raspy voice of its impassioned singer.
Everyone rises and starts clapping along. Some dance or jump up and down in place. An elderly man shadowboxes the air for lack of another way to express his emotions. A few people come to the front and start dancing in tandem, like they're doing the Hustle. The party's on.
As each song fades away, Upshur says a few things into a microphone. They're not so much religious exhortations, more like a pep talk. "Now we know we all come out of different backgrounds, all kinds of craziness, we all got a story to tell," he tells them. They shout in agreement. His manner is gentle, his tone is soothing. No yelling, no fiery eyes. "But we're gonna help one another cross that finish line, whatever it takes. We're draggin' one another through them pearly gates!"
Though the Gospels will be read aloud toward the end, though there's no doubt this is a religious gathering, the services here are more like a celebration of everyone's escape from their own hell, whether they've done it yet or are still trying. It's a sing- and dance-along that, more than anything, is meant to cheer up people who've had little to smile about.
"Let's have a knock-down, drag-out for Jesus!" Upshur shouts excitedly as everyone starts dancing to another song. "Let it all hang out!"
Every week, the service stops midway through for a hug break, of all things. But it's actually more striking than corny. Few who come here have families, most have few real friends. So prostitutes turn to hug alcoholics with tremors, and the mentally ill embrace the homeless. Five minutes of everyone melting into each other's arms.
Kaczmarek thinks back to something he saw recently at one of the services. "One fellow got up and said he was thankful because, for the first time in his memory, he feels that he has a family, that he is loved, that he is able to love others who will receive it. From my perspective, that was the best moment of the evening to hear something like that."
These troubled people, holding onto each other in this little room in the ghetto, have created their own, safe protected world here, where they can have friends who won't pull drugs out of their pocket or have liquor on their breath. They're convinced something miraculous can happen to them here, even if it takes a bank-robbing preacher and a flock of addicts and hookers to help them do it.
"It all works somehow," Kaczmarek says, smiling. "Isn't that amazing?"
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