Thursday, September 4, 2008

St. Paul 'recovery church' gives new spin to happy hour

St. Paul 'recovery church' gives new spin to happy hour

Open the doors of Central Park United Methodist Church in St. Paul, Minn., on a Sunday morning and you will hear the singing of hymns, the murmur of voices in responsive readings, the quiet hush of meditative prayer. You might see an offering plate being passed or communion being served by Rev. Jo Campe, the church's ordained minister.

But this is no ordinary church, and "Pastor Jo," as he prefers to be called, is no ordinary preacher, as is soon evident by his now-familiar greeting, "Hi, I'm Jo, and I'm an alcoholic." Central Park is known as "Recovery Church," an inclusive spiritual community that welcomes all those in need of "mending their brokenness." Although many churches have occasional recovery services, Pastor Jo said only about six in the country have recovery as their core mission.

"Our congregation is very diverse," said Pastor Jo. "One Sunday, I looked out and saw a former prostitute who had brought two ‘active' prostitutes to church with her. They sat next to a policeman, a judge, a schoolteacher, an unemployed construction worker, and a single mom--all in one pew. Now that's diversity."

While Pastor Jo might know the various professions of his parishioners, he said that most don't know--or care--whether or not their fellow worshippers are employed or what status they hold in the community. Although officially a Methodist church, religious backgrounds don't matter either.

"I would say about 90 percent of the congregation were 'unchurched' when they first came here," he said. "Recovery is the draw. Some enter our doors filled with trepidation, thinking they will be judged or shunned. They leave saying, 'This feels like family.' There are many ways to come to God, and those who come here are free to believe as they chose. But they all believe in recovery."

As Pastor Jo likes to say, "You don't have to be a drunk to come here, but it helps."

His parishioners probably don't care about his impressive biography either--his experience as a speech and English teacher and high school coach, his master's in divinity, his doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary. Addiction is the great leveler, and Pastor Jo, like most others in recovery, struggles just as they do to keep his addiction in check, one day at a time. He has been sober for almost 10 years.

He had been a senior minister at one of the largest Methodist churches in Minnesota, but lost that position and almost his life to alcoholism. About five years ago, he asked to be assigned to Central Park United Methodist, a once-vibrant church that had shrunk to a handful of members. He preached his first Sunday sermon to 11 people, but in the weeks that followed some of his friends in recovery began attending. "Eventually one gentleman suggested having a recovery service, which we did once a month. Fifty people came at first, then 100. Six months later, we held one every Sunday until that got too big. Then we just got out of God's way."

Today, Central Park Recovery Church holds "Recovery of Hope" worship services each Sunday morning at 9:00 and 11:00, with a "Happy Hour" worship service each Saturday at 5:00 p.m. followed by soup and sandwiches, meetings, speakers, and events related to recovery. All are welcome, and Twelve Step philosophy is threaded through the services.

About 1,200 people come through the church every week now. You can always find a Twelve Step meeting at the church, and the congregation continues to get more involved in community efforts, such as training sponsors, providing aftercare services, and hosting conferences and speakers. Hazelden offers presenters once every other month, and the Hazelden Connection bookstore in St. Paul helps bring well-known authors such as Melody Beattie and Earnie Larsen to the church as guest speakers.

Church volunteers even introduced Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon to the little Caribbean Island of St. Lucia, and they continue to go there with recovery literature and supplies to do their "mission" work. "There was no AA on the island, so we started with a big 'round up.' Over 100 people came. Now there are two AA meetings and an Al-Anon group.

"Every day I wake up and think 'I can't wait to see what today will bring.' It's an interesting ride. I get paid to do what I should be doing anyway--going to meetings, talking about recovery, and doing service. The bottom line is we say 'yes' to things people want to try, because who's to say that's not what God wants to happen?"

For more information, visit or contact Rev. Jo Campe at 651-291-1371.

--Published July 24, 2006


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