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Philly police lean on Kensington “chaplain squad” and “Christian facilities” to move people toward addiction treatment

In some cases, people are connected to long-term recovery programs at Christian facilities that don’t provide evidence-based care, including required unpaid labor or “work therapy.”

Kevin Bernard (left), the security director at The Rock Ministries, greets Michael Cram (center), staff inspector and Kevin John M. Standorf Jr., the first deputy commissioner of field operations, outside of The Rock Ministries before a community meeting on April 29, 2024. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

The Philadelphia Police Department has asked a Kensington church to expand its “chaplain squad” to connect people to addiction treatment, which in some cases means entering long-term recovery programs at Christian facilities that don’t provide evidence-based care, including required unpaid labor or “work therapy.”

Rock Ministries on Kensington Avenue has a crew of 200 volunteer chaplains, who the church dispatches to the streets “just about every day,” according to founder and pastor Buddy Osborn. The organization then directs people to a range of offsite addiction treatment partners, including a 16-acre farm in Rehrersburg, Pennsylvania, called “God’s Mountain.” 

“We have them in Maine, we have them in Florida, we have them in Lancaster,” said Osborn. “We have a lot of Christian facilities – that's where I like them to go because it's the word of God that they're hearing.” 

The Philadelphia Police Department gathers at The Rock Ministries for a community listening session on April 29, 2024. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

Deputy Police Commissioner Pedro Rosario told residents at an April 18 Port Richmond Neighborhood Association meeting that the police department has “relied a lot on” Rock Ministries for connecting with people living with addiction and placing them in treatment. 

Rosario said he asked Rock Ministries – which does street outreach independent of the city –   to increase their chaplaincy effort as a faith-based partner – to help direct unhoused individuals to services. He said Rock Ministries already has a large footprint in the neighborhood, “the mechanisms in place,” and “associations with third-party providers.” 

“We've counted on them a lot to assist us with a lot of that outreach, and I'm utilizing them right now,” he said. “In the last couple weeks, they've been ramping up.”  

As Mayor Cherelle Parker’s administration moves to clear unhoused people using drugs out of Kensington, the church is actively recruiting more chaplains. Parker’s five-phase plan starts with a "warning" phase, described as a "final opportunity" to take advantage of services before arrests. The city is also scheduled to clear the homeless encampments on the 3000 and 3100 blocks of Kensington Avenue on Wednesday. Parker is hosting a budget town hall meeting at Rock Ministries on Tuesday night, and the PPD held a community listening session there last week.  

Deputy Police Commissioner Pedro Rosario (left) and Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel listen during a community meeting at The Rock Ministries on April 29, 2024. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

Rock Ministries does not provide inpatient or outpatient treatment but refers people to various Christian and secular providers. Among those partners is Pennsylvania Adult and Teen Challenge (PAATC). On PAATC’s website, they describe their presence in Kensington as “street evangelism and outreach.” 

According to Kurt August, the director of the city’s Office of Criminal Justice, PAATC’s representatives also attend a “Tuesday outreach huddle” where city agencies and community-based providers share information about drug and alcohol treatment, housing, and social services. 

In an email to Kensington Voice, a city spokesperson said the city is aware that Rock Ministries “applies a faith-based approach to its outreach efforts and connects individuals who are interested in recovering from active substance abuse to resources for treatment, which can be accessed at the individual's discretion.” They said the city partners with a diversity of organizations to meet each individual’s needs. 

“The city does not have a contract with Rock Ministries and therefore does not regulate the organization's programming or partnerships,” wrote the spokesperson. 

But medical professionals say Christian facilities often don’t use evidence-based addiction treatment practices, which can have harmful results, including overdose deaths. 

“We wouldn't support places that required people to participate in Bible study to get cancer treatment or treatment for their heart disease,” said Dr. Maggie Lowenstein, an addiction medicine physician at the University of Pennsylvania. “So addiction is already in this kind of unique place where that's somehow considered to be more acceptable.” 

And while individuals seeking treatment have the option to choose or decline Christian services, legal experts say it’s the city’s responsibility to vet the organizations that the church is directing people to and ensure people using drugs are making fully informed decisions. 

“In terms of best practice, the city should ensure it refers people to organizations that are evidence-based and provide sufficient information about the programs,” said Sara Rose, Deputy Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania. 

People bow their heads in prayer during a ministry visit with Pastor Buddy Osborne at The Rock Ministries on April 26, 2024. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

“Spiritual paramedics” 

According to the Rock Ministries chaplaincy application form, the city asked the church to help improve the conditions in Kensington. The form asks whether interested parties attend church and where and describes its chaplains as “spiritual paramedics.” 

“For several months, the Rock will be dispatching Chaplains to the streets to (1) offer practical help in the form of social services and drug/alcohol treatment, (2) communicate information on behalf of the city to the street population, and (3) share the love of Jesus,” the form says. 

Osborn said chaplains “don’t really steer anybody” into a religious program. Instead, he said they assess people and find out which facilities have beds open to take them. 

“It’s not about religion, it’s about crisis… people dying in the streets,” he said. 

Still, for long-term treatment, Osborn said, “I would recommend faith-based all the time, every day of my life, because it’s Christ who transforms the heart and changes that person.” 

Pastor Buddy Osborn poses for a portrait in The Rock Ministries boxing gym. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

Joe, who has been unhoused in Kensington since November, was leaving Rock Ministries’ “Chaplain Center” last Monday. He said he was referred to Rock Ministries by Prevention Point, a nearby resource center for people who use drugs. Prevention Point confirmed that staff refer clients to Rock Ministries for resources.

According to Joe, someone at Rock Ministries was trying to find 30-day treatment beds for him and his girlfriend. He knows that Rock Ministries is a Christian organization, but said the conversation he had was not about religion and was just focused on finding treatment. He says he isn’t interested in participating in religious activities during recovery.

“People should be able to choose if they want to,” said Joe, who isn’t interested in participating in religious activities during his recovery. “It should be a choice.” 

Rock Ministries sends about an average of about 50 people from Kensington into drug treatment every month, Osborn said. Some people are connected to secular facilities like Beacon Pointe, Eagleville Hospital, Kensington Hospital, and Kirkbride. Those placements are sometimes coordinated by the city’s Alternative Response Unit program. 

But Rock Ministries is also a gateway to long-term Christian recovery programs, including PAATC in Rehrersburg and Chadwick, Pennsylvania, U-Turn for Christ in Lebanon, Pennsylvania and America’s Keswick in Whiting, New Jersey. PAATC gets about 20 people from the Rock each month, according to a PAATC representative. 

Ramon Crespo, the community liaison at The Rock Ministries, stands outside the Chaplain Center where people can seek services on April 26, 2024. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

According to Rosario, the police use Rock Ministries as an outreach resource in addition to the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) and Office of Homeless Services (OHS), which also connect people to third-party treatment providers. 

He said police will direct people to Rock Ministries during “non-traditional” hours such as late nights and weekends. They also occasionally host city services on Saturdays, where police direct people to access city agencies. 

“I'm utilizing every asset I can to really engage as many people as I can,” he said. “Some people don't respond to the traditional, clinical outreach, some people respond to something that's a little more unconventional, such as faith-based.”

The city is trying to maintain a “diverse network of community-based providers” that can meet people’s needs in real time, such as Impact Services and New Kensington Community Development Corporation, according to August. He said the city works with Rock Ministries because of its investment in the community and the centrality of its location. 

To assist with outreach and placement, the city also partners with Merakey Services, which is secular and has four brick-and-mortar outpatient facilities across Philadelphia. Merakey helps place people in treatment in partnership with the PPD’s Behavioral Health Unit and Police-Assisted Diversion (PAD) program. The PAD program connects people to Merakey until midnight, and then again starting at 8 a.m. PAD doesn’t operate on weekends.

The city is “certainly not doing some sort of coordinated sales pitch with faith-based institutions to coerce people into forms of care that may not be in their best interest,” said August, adding that he’d be happy to investigate whether a faith-based institution is the only available service on nights and weekends and, if so, how to provide more options.  

“There’s an array of service offerings that people can choose to take,” he said. “And if they opt into some form of faith-based treatment that may not be backed by the research … the city is not in a position to intervene and force people into more traditional treatment pathways.”

A group prayer is held before a community listening session with the Philadelphia Police Department at The Rock Ministries on April 29, 2024. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

“You can't evangelize to a corpse”

Religious practices are a part of daily life at the long-term treatment and recovery facilities that Rock Ministries partners with, according to church and treatment center staff. In some instances, the long-term treatment facilities believe the primary path to addiction recovery is strengthening a person’s relationship with God.

PAATC, where Rock Ministries sends most of its referrals, is part of a national organization called Adult and Teen Challenge USA, which the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) describe as fundamentalist Christian. 

In 2003, the ACLU pushed back against the federal government for funding faith-based drug treatment centers, alleging that Adult and Teen Challenge “preaches conversion to fundamentalist Christianity as a treatment for drug addiction.” AU has received complaints about ATC for over two decades, according to Alex Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director. 

“From what we understand, they don't provide any real medically based drug treatment,” he said about ATC facilities across the country but not necessarily in Pennsylvania. “They try to treat people’s substance abuse issues by converting them to their fundamentalist version of Christianity.” 

Shawn Ryan, a representative for PAATC, said the national organization provides “support, training and guidance” to the state organization, but said that PAATC’s clinical programs operate independently from the national group. 

PAATC staffs two desks in a Rock Ministries office across from the church, where Christian rock music sometimes plays from a speaker. By speaking with PAATC staff, people looking for drug treatment can get connected to one of their 30-day detox or longer-term care programs. Kirkbride Center, a secular detox facility, also staffs a desk there, Osborn said.  

In PAATC’s 30-day detox program, Christian activities are optional, Ryan said. From there, participants can choose to enter a 90-day program “where now we incorporate chapel into their daily routine.”

“If they decide that they want to stay longer and they're interested in learning more about our faith, they can go to the next step,” Ryan said, noting that medication-assisted treatment is available at the 90-day Christian facility.

Those who go through PAATC’s detox but don’t want to study the Christian faith during their longer-term treatment program can get a referral for a recovery house outside of the PAATC network. PAATC’s goal, Ryan said, is to keep people in recovery. 

"Yes, we want to evangelize to them, but you can't evangelize to a corpse,” he said.

Decisions about whether someone should receive inpatient or outpatient care, 30-day detox or long-term recovery services, or another type of care are typically made according to American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) guidelines, according to Lowenstein, of Penn.

“Someone who's placing people into treatment is going to use those guidelines,” she said. “It's sort of a sorting mechanism to make sure people meet the bar for rehab treatment or inpatient treatment.”

Ryan said both PAATC staffers stationed at Rock Ministries are trained on the ASAM guidelines. 

Multiple Rock Ministries staff members, including “core chaplains” and “addiction aftercare” pastor Joe Wardle, also help people make decisions about treatment. When asked about what training staff get on the ASAM guidelines, Wardle said he hadn’t heard of them.

“I've been helping people get to detox for 20 years – it's just a matter of doing it,” Wardle said. “I don't know that you need to be credentialed to love your neighbor as yourself and help them.”

Pastor Buddy Osborne opens the blinds in the weight room at The Rock Ministries on April 26, 2024. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

“Work therapy” 

Neither U-Turn for Christ or America’s Keswick allow residents to take medications like buprenorphine and methadone, considered the gold standard for the treatment of opioid use disorder. Both organizations believe addiction can be healed through building a relationship with God, according to leadership staff. 

“We don't necessarily believe the drugs and the alcohol are the source of the problem,” said Keith Maxcy, the men’s facility director and pastor of U-Turn for Christ. “That's a byproduct of an unhealthy relationship with God or the absence of a relationship with God.”

According to Maxcy, U-Turn for Christ receives about one or two men from Kensington a month from Rock Ministries. He said they’ve had a relationship with Rock Ministries for the last 10 years. America’s Keswick, a non-profit Christian addiction recovery center, has received five people referred by Rock since January, according to staff. 

America’s Keswick describes its men’s facility, The Colony of Mercy, as a “spiritual hospital” where addiction is cured through “spiritual transformation.”

“Our main avenue of addiction recovery is that really what the person is after is a relationship with God,” said Jim Lang, the director of Keswick’s men’s addiction recovery program.

Keswick’s addiction treatment program includes “spiritual help” through counseling, Bible study, and worship services, as well as what they call “work therapy.” Lang said that men are assigned to work six hours a day without pay in the kitchen, as housekeepers, or as maintenance. Keswick also operates a Christian retreat center and advertises on its website to “let the team at America’s Keswick help you make your next group retreat a huge success!” 

U-Turn for Christ also mandates “work therapy.” According to Maxcy, men are required to clean churches, work in food pantries and soup kitchens, mow grass for over a dozen families and older adults, shovel snow, and sometimes work in a nearby church’s warehouse where they lift heavy boxes of food donations. Maxcy said the work helps the men realize they can get jobs after the program.                            

“For them to get up every day and do something they feel good about, is very therapeutic and it’s also biblical,” he said. 

2020 Reveal investigation found free labor is common in addiction treatment centers. Reveal reported that across the country, over 60 Adult and Teen Challenge (ATC) locations require work without pay. PAATC uses “work therapy,” including cleaning, cooking, and manufacturing, according to its website. Reveal reported that the practice was scrutinized by the U.S. Department of Labor, but the agency “never succeeded in ending” it. For instance, the agency found that the Salvation Army violated the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1990 by paying participants 50 cents an hour for working at the organization’s thrift stores. 

Lowenstein, the addiction medicine physician, said she’s heard work therapy is common in residential treatment, but isn’t aware of research either in support of or against it.

“It’s certainly not a required part of effective treatment or part of what we consider evidence-based care,” she said.

Rose, of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said there is nothing illegal about facilities requiring free labor as long as the participants voluntarily opt into the program. But she said the city should be transparent about what the programs their partners offer entail. She also said the city should ensure that the organizations it partners with refer people to places using evidence-based approaches. 

“That's the most important thing that the city should be doing, regardless of whether they're faith-based or not,” she said.  

Chalk writing adorns the sidewalk outside of The Rock Ministries on April 26, 2024. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

“People who are LGBTQ are particularly vulnerable” 

Legal experts and advocates also caution that faith-based addiction In addition to the potential for treatment practices not based in evidence, faith-based addiction treatment centers may present a barrier for people who identify as LGBTQ, according to legal experts and advocates.

Luchenitser, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said often these kinds of drug treatment programs teach participants that the Bible disapproves of LGBTQ relationships and marriages and that people should only be heterosexual or cisgender. 

“So certainly people who are LGBTQ are particularly vulnerable to serious psychological and emotional and long-term harm from participating in programs like these, because these programs attack the very fundamental identities of LGBTQ people,” Luchenitser said. 

Di Hargrove, an LGBTQ-identified community activist and a former ACLU community ambassador in Philadelphia, said it is concerning if the city is partnering with facilities that require participants to engage in Christian practices. 

“I don’t think that’s appropriate, I don’t think it’s fair,” they said, noting that LGBTQ people may be uncomfortable in religious environments. “Because there are some that have had bad coming out experiences being religious, and then religion traumatized them.”

Osborn said the church is open to people of all gender identities and sexualities. 

“Whether it’s somebody who is LGBTQ or someone who robbed a bank or someone who has an addiction, if a person comes into the Rock, we treat them the same,” he said. “We’ve had men come in in dresses. As long as they’re open to the gospel, that’s all I ask.”

Lang said Keswick is open to everyone. 

“They just need to be open to the Christian faith. And they need to be respectful … we do have a set of beliefs here, but you don't have to believe the things that we believe,” he said. 

But Luchenitser said generally, programs are often misleading. 

“They say, ‘we're open to everybody, but you have to be willing to agree to productively participate in our program,’ or some kind of language like that,” Luchenitser said, adding that they often entail prayer and worship services, religious counseling, and anti-LGBTQ teachings.

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