Abundant Life Recovery Housing Network Envisions Faith-Based Recovery Residences Throughout West Virginia

By Audrey Stanton-Smith

Less than two years ago, Josh Weigner never thought of turning to God, only to cocaine.

“I am now a helper, a son, a father,” he said in a new video promoting the recovery house he will soon manage. “Nineteen months ago I wasn’t any of that. I was a taker. I would rob, steal, kill to get what I needed.

“I’ve learned to turn to God now for my problems, and I want to help other people,” Wiegner says.

He is helping people. Weigner is one of three trained house managers soon to be helping others on their own recovery journeys through the Abundant Life Recovery Housing Network.

Abundant Life Recovery Housing Network is the dream of Dr. Matthew Johnson, associate pastor at Suncrest United Methodist Church in the Mon Valley District of the West Virginia Conference. It exists to help people seeking recovery find the support and develop the tools necessary to experience new life and healing, Johnson explained. The way it does that is through safe, peer-led, peer-driven living environments that allow the spiritual work of recovery to take root in the residents in transformative ways.

It already has a waiting list in Johnson’s community, and Johnson already has a desire to see it go statewide.

The idea stemmed from Johnson’s work with his church’s Celebrate Recovery program. That’s where he got to know people like Weigner.

“In my life, I had served as a church planter and seen the need for church to be more actively engaged with people who are far away from faith,” Johnson said. “In the recovery program, I got to interact with people who were skeptical, leery of church, people who have been hurt by church. And at the same time I knew that faith is a crucial part of the recovery journey. I just wasn’t sure how to make those realities mix.”

But he did, and as his relationship with those in recovery grew, he listened to what they said they needed.

“What they kept saying was, ‘We need a faith-based recovery residence,’ because the things that helped them the most were the spiritual connection and practices that we’ve learned (in the Celebrate Recovery program),” Johnson recalled. “When people come to you and say this is what we need in our community, you listen.”

And you think. And you pray. And you talk to your church and your bishop.

“The door just kept opening for this to take root,” Johnson said. 

Eventually those doors led him to former Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher, whose Fletcher Group believes faith-based recovery residences are a crucial part of recovery. The 18 houses within the Fletcher Group’s own recovery house network serve as models and its leaders as mentors to those hoping to develop their own recovery ecosystems in rural areas throughout the country. They offer training and help with learning where to find funding.

“So I started working with them to see what it would look like to open a network of recovery residences — safe, sober housing that could offer the services and skills people need, because people lack the skills necessary to live a life of sobriety,” Johnson said.

These residences would be for people who have completed rehab or detox and come to live there through drug court systems, local judges, and probation officers, for 12- to 18-month stays with programming based on individual needs.

It’s the kind of place Jodi Switzer will soon help manage.

“I want to give women a safe place to live and rebuild their lives again,” said Switzer, who participates in the church’s Celebrate Recovery Program and has recently trained to be a women’s recovery house manager.

“… The love is remarkable,” she said of faith-based residential recovery. “You’re not just putting people out on the street and saying, ‘here, go to your meetings,’ and ‘here’s your tools,’ and ‘this is what you need to do.’ We’re actually walking them through this and helping them do the things they need to do. If it’s an ID, if it’s a social security card, we’re going to walk with them and help them get these things.”

As the new nonprofit awaits legal processes and official paperwork, it plans to open its first three homes — two men’s residences and one women’s residence, each with six to seven residents — in Morgantown, then branch out across the state. The parsonage at Johnson’s Chapel UMC is already in hand, and they are seeking other properties.

“So, if there are churches that are property rich — parsonages, spaces, buildings — we want to tap into the connection of United Methodist properties,” Johnson said.

“This isn’t just a one-church thing,” Johnson added, stressing the need to rally the sources of the United Methodist church as a whole. Properties, gently-used furnishings, household items, community connections, mentors, transportation help, and prayer are welcome.

Another way people can help is by sponsoring a bed to give new residents a two-week cushion.

“For their first 14 days, we don’t want them to have to be responsible for program fees,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to make sure they can come in, learn the culture of the house, get connected to local meetings, do job training, resumé building, learn interview skills, and learn some of the spiritual principles that sustain the future of our house.”

Two weeks’ room and board will cost around $200, Johnson said.

“We don’t want people to end up owing money before they have any money,” Johnson said.

And, as he said Fletcher advised him to do, he is “dreaming an even bigger dream of what God can do.”

“In the next two years, we would really like to open a 60- to 80-bed facility, to walk people through a step-down process,” Johnson explained. “When people come out of rehab and detox, their needs for structure and support are different than they are months later. So we’d like to open a facility that offers different levels of support with structure and encouragement.”

For now, though, these initial recovery residences are geared toward helping those recently out of rehab and detox programs with their first 12 to 18 months of recovery.

“Housing is such a crucial piece of recovery. A lack of safe, affordable housing is one of the major downfalls that happens in their own, personal recovery,” Johnson said. “People need a safe place to go to, to be able to negotiate a new system. If they go back to the same places, they fall into the same kind of systemic patterns.”

And Abundant Life Recovery Housing Network will go beyond safety and sobriety.

“People need to be able to find good-paying jobs, learn skills, manage finances, take parenting classes,” Johnson said. “The skills we assume people have, they don’t always have.”

And, of course, there’s the faith-based connection. Just ask trained house manager Patrick Vaughn, who spent more than four decades in “drug use, alcoholism, prison, jails, and treatment centers.”

“My life was no life worth living,” Vaughn said. “I came into the (Celebrate Recovery) program in Dec. 2018. … I was embarrassed of who I was, what I had become. I didn’t have much hope. I was broken. Basically I was so close to death that I was knocking on death’s doorstep. God taught me one day at a time that there’s a new way to live without guilt, without shame. That there’s forgiveness and that God gives it to me, freely gives me his love, his forgiveness. 

“ … My passion and my desire is to reach down to that hurting person who doesn’t think that there’s a way, who people have told them that they’re a piece of nothing and that their lives were going to amount to nothing,” Vaughn said.

Through Abundant Life Recovery Housing, that hurting person would become part of a family connected by the spiritual tools that sustain long-term recovery, Johnson said. 

“I’m leading on listening to folks who have that experience, who can say this works or this doesn’t work,” Johnson said of Vaughn, Weigner, Switzer and others. “Their living experience is really valued. It’s part of our planning and execution for this ministry with them. … The real work of this is happening right alongside folks who are passionate about others trying to find new life, too.”

For more information about Abundant Life Recovery Housing Network or how you can help, e-mail Johnson at Matt.johnson@suncrestumc.org or visit Abundant Life Recovery Housing Network on Facebook.