After staying home virtually all of 2020, in the Spring of this year I started traveling again. In May I ventured an international trip, accepting an invitation to speak at a Europe Teen Challenge conference in Portugal. At the airline gate, twenty minutes before departure, I learned that my COVID-19 antigen test, required for travel, was valid for my connection through Germany but not for entering Portugal. United Airlines pulled my suitcase off the plane, issued me a hotel voucher for the night, and pointed me to a testing site in the terminal, where I paid an exorbitant price for the correct test.
I rose early the next day, after a fitful night’s sleep, and returned to the airport. This time I didn’t even make it to the gate. “Portugal doesn’t yet allow American visitors,” said the supervisor at the check-in counter. “You must have an invitation from the Portuguese government. No exceptions.” I pled my case, arguing that no one had mentioned this restriction the previous day—to no avail. “The rules are clear,” she insisted. “I can’t allow you on the plane without an official letter.”
In truth, I was sorely tempted to wash my hands of the bureaucratic hassles and head home. I quickly phoned my hosts in Portugal and explained the situation. “We have just over an hour to find a solution,” I told them. “I’m getting nowhere with the agents here at the airport.”
Thus began a flurry of transcontinental phone calls. I was scheduled to speak nine times over five days, and they had no backup plan if I couldn’t make it. It was nighttime in Portugal, and government offices had closed. But my hosts managed to reach someone at the Portuguese Embassy in Washington, DC. A ranking officer “just happened” to pick up the phone as he was leaving the office after work.
“If you can get the letter to me in the next ten minutes, I’ll sign it on embassy stationery,” he said. As the plane began boarding, the letter from the embassy arrived via email and I showed it on my laptop to the United supervisor, who finally let me dash through security and board the waiting jet.
Welcome to the new world of pandemic travel! In Portugal, the conference planners proclaimed a “miracle”—and, given how governments normally operate, they may be right.
I had lost my planned rest day, and so just two hours after landing I stood before Teen Challenge staff from 36 countries, most of them connected by Zoom. After 32 hours without sleep, I have no idea what I said that first evening.
When I had landed at the Lisbon airport, I met my hosts, Tom and Terry Bremer, who oversee the work of Teen Challenge in Europe. They helped me stay awake by regaling me with stories at a local Starbucks. They had, after all, lived in Europe during 1980s and 1990s, a tumultuous period that saw the Berlin Wall fall and the Soviet Union implode. One morning Tom awoke to the sounds of celebration and dancing in the streets of Prague, Czechoslovakia. Overnight, the Velvet Revolution had succeeded, toppling the Communist government and opening the borders with West Germany and Austria. Two years later the Bremers were living in Yugoslavia when a civil war broke out that would eventually split the nation into seven separate countries.
I learned that Teen Challenge traces its origin to David Wilkerson of The Cross and the Switchblade fame. When he saw the devastating impact of drug addiction, Wilkerson founded a treatment center in a rough area of Brooklyn, New York. Since then, the Teen Challenge model—a rigorous residential program of a year or more with close supervision and a heavy dose of religion—has spread to 1400 centers in 129 nations. A skeptical psychiatrist who studied the program remarked, “It seems to me you’re just using Jesus as a crutch.” A resident shot back, “Then give me two of them.”
Early on, Teen Challenge was alleging remarkable results, which attracted government scrutiny. In a seven-year study, researchers found that in a field where most recovery programs report a “cure” rate of less than 10 percent, Teen Challenge ranked highest with an 87 percent cure rate among those who completed their program. The report listed various reasons for their success, such as accountability groups, strict discipline, and practical training in job skills and money management. In conclusion, though, the report named the biggest variable as “the Jesus factor.”
The drugs of choice change over time, but the problem of addiction stubbornly persists. In 2019 the National Safety Council announced that for the first time in U.S. history, a person is more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than from a motor vehicle crash. Currently, Teen Challenge claims a cure rate of 70 percent, a claim supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Throughout the conference I heard firsthand stories that gave faces to the statistics. For example, Pedro, my Portuguese interpreter, had himself graduated from the program and overcome heroin addiction. Like Pedro, many graduates sign on as staff members or volunteers with Teen Challenge.
I was surprised to hear that Belarus—a totalitarian state recently in the news for forcing a plane to land so police could arrest a dissident journalist—has one of the largest and most successful centers. Tom told me that Teen Challenge had flourished under Communist regimes, mainly because of its success rate in working with addicts. “In the Slavic areas in Yugoslavia, they used the same language in speaking about drug addicts as in speaking about dogs. No one else was having any success with addicts, so why not give the Christians a chance.”
I had seen a similar pattern in prison ministries: strict Muslim countries where evangelism is prohibited will often allow Christians to work freely among prisoners. Prisoners and addicts are considered, to borrow the apostle Paul’s phrase, “the scum of the earth.” Yet, as Paul reminded members of the church in Corinth, “Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of ‘the brightest and the best’ among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these ‘nobodies’ to expose the hollow pretensions of the ‘somebodies’? (1 Corinthians 1, The Message)
On my flight home to the U. S., I thought back to the hassles at the Denver airport, when I was tempted to cancel the trip. My five jam-packed days had none of the glamor of a vacation trip to Europe. I spent my time trying to bring some encouragement to Teen Challenge staff members, either in person or on Zoom. Many of them, like Pedro, had been rescued from addiction and now help others in the same predicament. Most of these had spent time in prison and had lived among the homeless, begging on the streets. Now they work out of the spotlight for modest pay, in a tough, demanding field.
As a journalist, my greatest privilege has been to find such “trophies of grace” and in some small way shine the spotlight on them. I began the trip irritated by the inconveniences of international travel. I returned grateful for the opportunity to observe up close the heroic work done by faithful Christians who serve what many consider the refuse of society. “Miracles” come in many forms, whether a last-minute letter from an embassy or the slow, tedious work in transforming an addict into one of God’s servants.
Subscribe to Philip Yancey’s blog here:
Have you read The New Yorker magazine 11/4/21. this week about the Teen Challenge program? It’s like the fundamentalist Christian church you describe in your recent book only a lot more abusive. I am surprised to see you support Teen Challenge and find others who do too without awareness of these reports. Having worked at as a chaplain at a Christian drug and alcohol rehab in Parker CO I have experience with the spiritual 12 step program and how much good it can do. So I was dismayed to read about Teen Challenge. Enjoyed your memoir.
You have no idea how much I can relate to this situation! I recently went to Uganda (June 2021) and was inundated with delays, ultra expensive last minute Covid tests, and spiritual challenges that made me grateful for the success of simple tasks. I returned home exhausted, challenged and minus the top of a finger (story for later?)! Thanks for the forward Celeste. Here’s to those who travel bull doggedly!
Philip, I just want to say a simple yet heartfelt “thank you. ” While there are times when I’m at peace, anger grips me on so many other occasions. Just projecting myself into your situation at the airport instantly filled me with anxiety and extreme frustration. I fear I would’ve handled it much differently … unbecoming a Christian. I am greatly encouraged by your testimony of yielding to the Holy Spirit to remain calm and resourceful, and navigate your way through the seemingly insurmountable obstacle before you. Again, thank you.
You’re very kind. I’ve done enough international traveling to get accustomed to surprises. The Serenity Prayer helps at such times!
Pleasant to see the word ” Trophies of Grace” those who are neglected and rejected by the world in the sight of the Almighty. What amazing God!
I have just finished at teen challenge programme in the U.K. it is a truly remarkable place with the Holy Spirit profoundly at work among the residents. I 4-5 of your books during my time at teen challenge and continue to still do so and they really helped open my mind and understanding of Gods presence as well as introducing me to many other great authors. Thank you. Gareth
Wow, this post is so encouraging at so many levels, not least because I’m myself stranded in Frankfurt, pregnant, with my husband and three little ones.
I’m so encouraged by hearing the work of this kind of ministries. Thank you for sharing and for your work, Philip!
God’s Grace is amazing, Philip you are amazing, I am amazed at the adventures God puts you through!
You are in our thoughts and prayers!
Wow…as always Philip you are amazing! Thanks for that story and for opening my eyes to see the powerful impact of Jesus in the lives of those whom the society scorns. Truly like He says, “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto Me”. May God keep blessing you sir.
It is a joy reading every work of yours. May the good Lord bless you and shine His face on you. Hope to also fine fulfilment in something to do for the good Lord.
Thank you Philip for making the effort and supporting this amazing effort to make great difference one person at a time.
Very impressed that you got through this. I’m not convinced that I would have made it. My strength is Level 5 panic!!
God bless you,
You see each person through a lens of compassion and grace. Thank you for telling this story! With greetings from charlottesville.
Glad to see that the strong and mighty hand of God which parted the Red sea for His people Israel, opened a way for you to do His will.
When God is with us nothing can stop us. All glory be unto Him who is worthy of all praise !
God is at work. He gives beauty to ashes. He transforms ‘ the scum of the earth ‘ into ‘ glorious works of splendor. It’s amazing. Heaven will have many surprises !
An encouraging piece, indeed. Thanks for sharing these “trophies of grace.” A new-to-me term and I’m now a fan.
I love your last sentence, Philip:
“Miracles” come in many forms, whether a last-minute letter from an embassy or the slow, tedious work in transforming an addict into one of God’s servants.
We are too easily dazzled by the shiny, the new or the immediate, and fail to value the mundane, the grind or the persistence.
Thank you for shining a light on this Trophy of Grace.
I must say, you have a pretty good attitude about the wrench that almost got thrown into your trip to Europe! Glad things worked out for you. We’re thankful to have just bought our first house. Like your trip, that’s a miracle in today’s world! 🙏 I’ll be looking out for your new memoirs when they hit the shelves. God bless.
Such encouragement to those you visited and to those of us who hear about it! God is so gracious in the way He uses you, Philip. Glad you did not give up even when it all seemed impossible!
Yes, our “ministries” are mostly aimed at the “Unlovable” like lepers of the past and current…
Appreciate your sharing here in Australia, where we are truly cut of from the world, because of the Covid.
Cheers & blessings
MAN OF THE STREETS (Chicago, 1962)
Hear this man of the restless streets,
the swarming black lives damned,
in a sullen seething frightened city.
Hear him/her in the neon gloom
And endless alleys easily forgotten.
No equal justice sought or found
in callous courts of empathy-less clay.
Sullen liberal judges, burned-out,
by dead or slowly dying hope.
Hear the lonely black man forgotten
Sadly seeking one last soothing fix
Homeless, almost hopeless in the streets.
Love your writing, love the Bremers, and love the work that TC has done around the world! Blessings to you all.
Your grace shines through by not giving up the airport. I would have been frustrated and angry and just left – and be sullen for the next 5 days. (Which shows I have a lot of grace growth left to do!)
So glad I started my day reading your blog. It is encouraging to hear of one more of God’s miracles. Blessings to you, Philip
Thank you for your continuing service. Your story of perseverance at the airport encouraged me. It would have been so easy to “wash my hands” but what a blessing you gave and received.
Your testimony re: your recent trip to Portugal warms my heart, Philip, and thrills my soul! Keep doing God’s will!
Always blessed to see how God uses you and prepares the way!
I often loosely quote what you said in What’s So Amazing About Grace? about how there are some groups of people, who meet in basements of churches, where they dispense grace freely, while drinking a lot of coffee and smoking cigarettes (What’s So Amazing about Grace?). You gave credence to recovery programs, and I, being a member of such a program, value your estimation of what we do here in the USA to bring addicts back into relationship with God through these 12-Step programs! Thank you!
What a fantastic reminder of God’s hand at work. I am reminded often that He brings “beauty from ashes” and this is a perfect example. Thank you for following His lead and for your ministry Phillip!
Thank you for, once again, highlighting the power of God’s forever timely and unfailing grace.
And for most encouraging blog.
Blessings to you Philip Yancy
My son was an active addict for 40 years. He has been clean and sober through Teen Challenge, Brockton, MA for 5 years. He has traveled with them to Italy and Malta.
So blessed you were able to minister to them! Thank you!
We are so thankful that you came and also spoke at the RefletIR Conference at our church “A Casa da Cidade”!
We were delighted to finally meet you in person in Lisbon (of all places) in the middle of a pandemic (of all times), since we had lived in the USA for 32 years and have been appreciating your books for just a long time!
Que Deus continue te abençoando para que continues sendo uma benção!
“Your friends” (as you called us), from Brasil, Texas and now Portugal
Martha e Maurício Breternitz
Dear Philip Yancey
It’s amazing how GOD prepared this trip for you. I can imagine the comfort and support of Grace you left with those who are serving GOD anonymously in over a hundred countries, rescuing young people with “acts of grace”, imitating the Master of Nazareth.
Here in Brazil, we continue to serve in the same way, grateful for the refreshment of your unforgettable visit in 2005, accompanied by your blessed wife Janet.
May GOD continue to use your gifts to serve Him.
I praise Him for your life and example.
With love in Christ Jesus,
When asked who I would invite to dinner, Philip Yancey’s name appears at the top of the list! He is always direct, understandable, thought-provoking, and fair in his assessments.
All praise to our God of miracles! And grateful for your godly service too!
It is so encouraging to hear how God is changing lives and healing so many through this ministry. What a miracle that it worked out for Philip to be be there. I will pray for this ministry.
Thank you for highlighting this amazing program. I’m involved in the Celebrate Recovery ministry in California. Many of our group have come from Teen Challenge to continue their road to recovery. I’m not sure the word “cure” relates to the freedom from obsession from our drug of choice, but The Jesus Factor you mentioned certainly is the catalyst for that healing. I have personally witnessed hundreds of miracles happen through a Christ-centered recovery program like Teen Challenge and Celebrate Recovery.
I would encourage pastors who have a heart for those trapped in addiction of any kind (anger, depression, mental illness, eating disorders, sexual addiction as well as drugs and alcohol to check out the Celebrate Recovery Summit on-line or in person coming July 21-23. Info at http://www.celebrate recovery.com.
He is forever faithful!
Philip, thanks for sharing your experience with Teen Challenge. One of my cousins in Minneapolis just retired after working for Teen Challenge for many years. Warm regards to you and Janet from Chicago!
Thank you, Phillip. What a great testimony to perseverance.