Using Your Toolbox
by Samara Smyer9/18/2023 9:00:00 AM
Justin, an A+ student from rural Pennsylvania, did not feel challenged academically in school and was growing bored of his classes. One day, during his search for something more exciting, he was offered drugs: more specifically, cocaine. It was not long until this one-time boredom reliever completely took over his life.
Enslaved to his addiction, Justin eventually ended up in an Adult & Teen Challenge (ATC) facility directed by U.S. missionary Jim Lowans. He was freed from his addiction through the grace of God over the course of a year and excelled in the program’s curriculum, enrolling in college right after graduation. He went on to double major at Vanderbilt University, graduate Summa Cum Laude, start a family and become a professor.
“There are many miraculous stories, but Justin’s really stands out,” Jim says.
Before becoming a U.S. missionary with ATC, Jim and his wife, Kathie, spent 15 years as children’s pastors in Chicago. In 1997, a pastoral friend of the Lowanses, who had recently moved to Rehrersburg, Pennsylvania, to become the director of their local Teen Challenge, called Jim and asked him to come work with him.
Jim and Kathie, knowing this was from God, moved to Pennsylvania and began pursuing U.S. Missions’ appointment, with Jim becoming fully appointed in 2002. Wanting to do more, the couple left the Rehrersburg center and bought a former nursing home. They used it to start an adolescent Teen Challenge center and ran it for seven years before moving to Neosho, Missouri, where Jim became the center’s new director.
The theme of the Adult & Teen Challenge center in Neosho is simple: Putting hope within reach. Jim acknowledges that you cannot force people to change, even if you know someone is doing something self-destructive. “I used to spend hours trying to convince addicts that they needed help; but that doesn’t work,” he sighs. “All I can do is provide a place of hope for people. They must decide if they are going to grasp onto that hope.”
“We are not in the rehabilitation business, we are in the transformation business,” Jim says. While Adult & Teen Challenge is focused on helping men, women and children affected by addiction, Jim and Kathie believe there is something more important than that. “The goal is for our students to have such a transformational experience that they then go out and reach others,” explains Kathie. “We are trying to create disciples who create disciples.”
To accomplish this, Adult & Teen Challenge of Central and Southwest Missouri requires each person who enters a center to turn their lives completely over to the program. While being in the Christian-based program is completely voluntary, they must immerse themselves in an intensely disciplined routine upon entering the program. Their weeks are filled with scholastic studies, learning life skills and Christian values, church service attendance several nights a week, work therapy and more. They are also given the opportunity to evangelize through music by joining a choir. The group travels around to churches, singing worship songs and sharing their testimonies. “A lot of the guys have never sung before, and those that have certainly didn’t sing the songs that we sing here,” Jim laughs.
Kathie also serves with Adult & Teen Challenge as the Corporate Women’s Director of Primrose Hill, an ATC center in Clark, Missouri, started by the Lowanses eight years ago. “There was nowhere for addicted women with children to go that allowed them to bring their little ones,” Kathie says. Now sitting on a plot of land just outside Columbia, Missouri, the 6,000-square-foot home serves as a place to rehabilitate and disciple women in need in the Midwest.
“The facility is a more home-like atmosphere than that in Neosho,” Kathie explains. Still, the majority of curriculum is the same as the men’s center. Part of the women’s work therapy program is a micro-enterprise called Prim Goods, a premium bath and body product manufacturer. After production, each product is signed by the woman who makes it. This provides purchasers the opportunity to pray for the woman while she is in the program. “The work ethics and business skills the women learn will help them provide for themselves and their children,” Kathie explains.
Many Christians who have not dealt with addiction personally may have a hard time understanding the “why” behind addiction, leading to a judgmental attitude surrounding substance abuse. “Too many people have the mindset of, ‘they made their choices and deserve to lie in the bed they made,’” Jim says. He explains that people experiencing addiction often did not start drugs just for fun.
A local high school asked Jim to bring a few men in to share their stories with students and their parents. A young man, around 18 years old, stepped up during the assembly. “I could be your son” he said, looking across the room. He went on say that he used to be a star football player. During a game, he suffered a major sports injury that led to an oxycodone prescription to help with the pain. He had not accepted an offer of drugs at a party, nor did he do drugs recreationally, yet he was now addicted to pain killers.
“Abusing drugs and alcohol is a personal choice, yes, but it is not that black and white,” Jim explains. “Helping, praying for and supporting addicts is what Christians should be doing, not judging.”
Jim likes to explain the process of leaving Adult & Teen Challenge of Central and Southwest Missouri through the analogy of a toolbox. He explains that every person who comes to the center is handed a shiny hypothetical toolbox. But it is empty. At graduation, the student is still holding the toolbox, but now it is full of tools — the skills they have learned. “When you go home, you’ll have to decide what you are going to do with your toolbox,” Jim tells the students. If graduates use their toolbox, the skills and resources given to them each day at ATC, they will succeed. Those who “hide their toolbox” will not.
“The analogy of the toolbox is just as true for me as it is for students. While I may not struggle with addiction, I struggle with other sins,” he says. “If we do not rely on Jesus and solely rely on our own strength, we will all fail.”
Jim knows the tragedy of watching someone fail and, in some especially difficult cases, overdose and die. Still, he says that using your tools — daily prayer, reading the Bible, communing with other believers and fully relying on Christ — is the only true way to avoid failure.
One of Jim’s graduates was serving in his community as a volunteer prison chaplain and preaching to the inmates. When he came into the jail one night, the inmates started cheering, excited to hear “the preacher preach.” However, this time, the preacher was led in wearing handcuffs. He had been caught selling drugs. “That experience helped me fully understand what it meant to utilize all the tools in my toolbox,” he told Jim. With the help of the Lord and his toolbox, the man was released and became a pastor.
Jim was given another opportunity during his time in Pennsylvania. A donor to the adolescent center approached him and told of a missionary he supported who ran an orphanage in Cambodia. Local government had asked the missionary to take in the children who were living on the streets and addicted to glue as it was bad for tourism. Not knowing how to help addicted children though afraid they would introduce the addiction to other kids, the missionary had to decline.
Knowing Jim worked with addicted children, the donor asked him to take a trip to the orphanage to help. “I wasn’t in contact with World Missions at the time, and I had only been as far as El Salvador, so this was a huge leap,” Jim says.
The trip proved fruitful and eventually led to the creation of a Teen Challenge program in Cambodia. Even though he was not sure how, Jim wanted to help more in surrounding countries. “If You open doors, I will walk through them,” he prayed sitting in a Cambodian hotel one night.
It did not take long before God answered Jim’s prayer. The Asia Pacific regional director of Global Teen Challenge retired and, in 2010, Jim was appointed Global Teen Challenge Regional Director of Asia Pacific. Now serving both overseas and in Missouri, Jim likes to say that he has been “working both sides of the pond” for over a decade.
Seth came to the Neosho center in May 2011. He began pacing immediately upon arrival, clearly not sober. “I can’t do this. I need my bus ticket. I want to go home right now,” he told the office. Upsettingly for Seth, there were no buses running at that time as an EF5 multiple-vortex tornado had struck 20 miles away, and all public transportation had ceased. Seth decided to stay until the storm passed and ended up staying for the entirety of the program, graduating a year later, and staying on to work with Jim.
After Seth had worked at the center for a time, Jim called him into his office. A pastor in Fiji was looking for someone to help open a Teen Challenge center. “Seth, do you want to go to Fiji?” Jim asked. “Hmm, I’ll have to pray about that … Yes, of course!” Seth proclaimed. For the next four years, he worked to help open a center in Fiji. Now, he helps at the women and children’s center in Columbia as “the man of the house,” on top of working extensively with Global Teen Challenge and traveling to Fiji.
THE GROWING PROBLEM
With 46.3 million people over the age of 12 in the United States battling a substance use disorder in 2021, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), the issue of addiction is only growing. Jim and Kathie believe this is due to the availability of drugs, especially with the legalization of marijuana across many states. “Eventually, people who smoke weed are going to turn to something harder” they explain.
“I cannot imagine what would happen if we didn’t have programs like Adult & Teen Challenge,” Kathie says. “When I hear the success stories and see the impact our graduates are having on the world around them … it makes every difficulty worth it.”