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.
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