At 23 years old, Calvin is the youngest member at New Jerusalem Now, an addiction recovery program in Philadelphia. The child of Cambodian immigrants, he doesn’t flinch as he recounts his parents’ story of standing in an “execution line” at a concentration camp. They don’t understand, he says, why he can’t overcome his drug addiction, just as they overcame their own struggle.
For the 30 or so of those recovering from addiction living at New Jerusalem, it’s just not that simple. Sister Margaret McKenna compares addiction to a desert. In her words, either “purification happens or you lose your life.” Many people in recovery don’t get it right on their first try, of course, and Sister Margaret accepts that. The good news, though, is that they have a better chance in her program. Studies have shown that programs like New Jerusalem which are founded on the concept of “addicts helping addicts” are more successful in preventing relapse than more traditional outpatient treatment.
Sister Margaret was introduced to this model for recovery after moving to North Philadelphia in 1989. She met Reverend Henry T. Wells who was running One Day at a Time, a program for those in recovery, and then decided to establish a program for repeat relapsers, a population that One Day at a Time wasn’t supporting.
Nearly 30 years later, Sister Margaret’s program, New Jerusalem, encompasses four houses, and a community garden that is spread out over a dozen vacant lots, tended to over the years by the hundreds of members who have come and gone and, in some cases, come back again. Members of New Jerusalem live in self-sufficient houses, pooling their wages and SNAP benefits, and taking on leadership roles. Don, who is a returning member and professional sous chef from Baltimore, finds joy and a sense of purpose in his role as kitchen coordinator for the entry-level men’s house, where he prepares three meals a day for residents.“It doesn’t feel like a facility, it feels like a second home,” Don shares. “A lot of people are re-discovering themselves; it’s eye-opening. It can be like looking at your own reflection in the mirror.”
Of course, there’s something else that sets New Jerusalem apart from other treatment programs- the Medical Mission Sister who founded it. New members soon learn about Sister Margaret’s passion for social justice activism. She takes the New Jerusalem residents out to marches, rallies and other political events.
Sister Margaret links political action to the overall recovery process, explaining: “It’s a very important dimension of human and spiritual life to be concerned about others and to root that in something that’s deeply interior to you.”
Indeed, a key part of recovery is helping members discover the selves they had previously masked with drugs and alcohol. At New Jerusalem, people have learned to read, have earned their GEDs, and gone on their first camping trip.
“The nature of our program is to embrace life and make it right,” Sister Margaret explains. “Getting a taste of a good, authentic life, of mutual support. We try to enhance life for others while advancing our own understanding in the process.”