By Jake Harris | Published Wednesday, January 14, 2015
This article was originally published in the Jan. 14, 2015 edition of the Wise County Messenger. Photos by Joe Duty.
On Monday and Thursday nights at the Pizza Hut off U.S. 380 in Bridgeport, a group of people meets in the restaurant’s private dining room. Most of the time they don’t even order pizza. They’re just there to talk.
The smell of pizza and tomato sauce mingles with the aroma of freshly butted cigarettes that some group members discarded at the door. It feels like a family reunion as they trickle in, with hugs and smiles everywhere.
Soon, an opening prayer leads into a discussion about renewal and forgiveness, with multiple references from the Bible. People feel free to speak or stay silent. Everyone pays attention.
It sounds like a Bible study, but it’s actually a 12-step program.
“WHATEVER YOUR DEAL IS, IT DOESN’T MATTER”
Walk in Faith Ministries Inc. is a non-profit, faith-based 12-step recovery program led by Alvin Qualls. He started the program in 2011 in an effort to give people a religious alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
The name comes from 2 Corinthians 5:7 – “For we will walk by faith and not by sight.” Qualls prefers to call Walk in Faith’s gatherings “classes” instead of “meetings” because he feels that it’s more relatable. People don’t feel threatened by the connotation of a class – classes are things you choose to attend, he said.
Meetings have a reputation for being dull, and for a lot of people who’ve gone through AA, they think of the stereotypical “Hi, my name is Joe, and I’m an alcoholic” atmosphere. Qualls wants to keep people coming back because they feel welcome.
Most people who attend Walk in Faith’s classes have to be there as a condition of their parole, but a vast majority stick around because they feel like they’ve found a community.
“I don’t care if your deal is AA, NA, overeating, obesity, gambling, whatever it is – it doesn’t matter,” Qualls said, “Our main goal is to provide Christian fellowship for people and get them out of their dependency.”
Qualls started Walk In Faith Ministries after his own runin with the law. He was convicted of manufacture or delivery of a controlled substance in October of 2007, a crime for which he went to prison.
When he was released, he started thinking about ways to help people who had been through the same experiences.
“During the whole time I was in jail, I got saved, got my ordination and I knew that this was what I wanted to do,” he said. He admits that part of his motivation was to make sure he stayed on the right track – “Some of it was to help me stay sober” – but he also enjoys seeing others succeed at sobriety. He is adamant about using “we” rather than “I” when describing Walk in Faith’s leadership.
Qualls had only one co-worker on his board of directors when he started his ministry – Lloyd Kees, a minister who visited Qualls while he served his sentence.
“I wasn’t supposed to make parole until about 2018, and he helped me change a lot,” Qualls said.
Known to all as “Brother Lloyd,” the two of them started counseling one couple in a Pizza Hut booth in early 2011. Since then, the program has grown immensely. At one point, more than 30 people were at one meeting.
“People said we wouldn’t last more than six months when we started,” Qualls said, “Now, we’re four years old.”
Qualls usually stands at the front of the room during meetings. He talks about applying Biblical principles to get clean, using the Christian-themed 12 steps, such as “I will know that my walk in faith is a process” and “Knowing that what I do and staying positive will make a difference.”
He recites Bible verses from memory. He’s shorter than average, but with his short, cropped haircut and authoritative voice, he holds the room in rapt attention. On this particular night, he’s dressed in a denim button-down shirt, jeans, cowboy boots and a bolo tie in the shape of a cross.
Kees sits at a table beside him and chimes in now and again with a Bible verse or an anecdote of his own. Tonight’s talk is about dealing with the family members – and the drinking – that go hand-in-hand with the holiday season.
“Families can be a big issue this time of year, and old friends who might have gotten you into trouble back in the day,” Qualls tells the audience. “Just because you don’t hang out with them anymore, that don’t mean they’re gone.
“And it’s tough to stay positive, you know, not everyone has good neighbors that create a positive outlook on their life. This is a festive season, so don’t let that festive season take care of you.”
Other nights, he simply talks about the leaps and bounds his ministry has made and the lives that have been impacted. He clearly believes he’s doing something monumental, even if he doesn’t outwardly show it.
MANDATORY SENTENCING, VOLUNTARY ATTENDANCE
Almost a third of all arrests in Texas in 2012 were drug or alcohol-related, according to Texas’ Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Bureau.
Gary Barnes of the Wise County Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse estimates that of everyone in Wise County arrested for drugs or alcohol, around 60 to 65 percent go on to be incarcerated.
“And then a lot that get parole end up violating it, and they’re right back where they started,” Barnes said.
There are myriad reasons why people end up at Walk In Faith Ministries. Drugs and alcohol are at the top of the list, but people with child abuse/neglect, assault and battery charges aren’t hard to find. A few are there on their own because they feel being there helps them stay clean
All say their progress would be vastly different if they had gone to another AA program.
Chelly Cloud, who has been attending Walk in Faith classes since last September, has already attended her mandated number of meetings. She has a signin sheet with a record of every one she’s been to.
“I don’t have to keep marking it down, but I like to, because it reminds me of how far I’ve come,” she said. “I’ve only missed three meetings since September.”
Cloud, who also helps update the Walk in Faith Facebook page, said she was attracted to the program’s forward-thinking mindset. It was more positive than other behavioral programs, she said.
“I got in trouble with CPS, for drugs,” she said. “They took my kids away, and I was courtordered to go to [all these] classes. I did all that, but I still felt like I needed to do something for myself.
“The first time I walked through the door, I was in tears. I didn’t know what to say or what to do, I didn’t know what people were going to think of me. But everyone here has their own story, and there’s no judgment.
“We don’t dwell in the past, and I think that’s the difference between this and other AA programs.”
Other members, like James Frank Smith, who also serves on Walk in Faith’s board of directors, have been attending classes for two years.
“Other programs, they try to tell you, once an addict, always an addict, but I’m not an addict anymore,” he said. “This program focuses on the future instead of your past. If I went to AA or NA, I’d just be going to get my paper signed.”
No matter what their sins or convictions, Qualls said he welcomes everyone. Walk In Faith is non-denominational, with the only requirement being that participants “come to know that our higher power is God” – the first step in the 12-step process.
One member who wished to remain anonymous said other AA groups they attended claimed to be religious in nature but didn’t want God mentioned frequently.
“If you start to talk more about faith over there, it’s hard because you’re talking about a higher power but ignoring God – and doing everything you used to do minus the booze,” the member said. “That didn’t work for me – my behavior didn’t change at all.”
Behavioral change is one of the biggest goals of the program, Qualls said. From the looks of it, Walk In Faith Ministries is creating a positive influence in the lives of its members.
One of those, Billie Cerda, is a former addict who fulfilled her probation long ago but comes back to Walk in Faith for the community.
“I had been to AA meetings and NA meetings, and the only thing I wanted to do after an NA meeting was to go use, and all I wanted to do after an AA meeting was to go drink,” she said.
“Now, the only thing I feel like doing after one of these meetings is praising God.”
Qualls, for his part, believes looking back is nowhere near as powerful as looking forward. “It’s easy to sit there and beat ourselves up about our past, and we don’t need to do that … There’s a lot of people who really desire to do right, and there’s a lot more obstacles than people think. We want to be an example to all people, not just addicts.”
Qualls doesn’t want to meet in Pizza Hut forever.
“Pizza Hut has been great sponsors to us and have been for a long period of time, and we’re very appreciative of that,” he said. “But it would be nice to have somewhere else to go, somewhere permanent.”
Currently, the group is trying to raise money for a grant to lease a building in Bridgeport, near Texas 114 – right next to Bridgeport Discount Liquor.
“That might not go over too well,” Qualls said with a laugh. “And if we don’t get that building, that’s fine. We’re just hoping to find a permanent place in Bridgeport so we can stay local.”
He sounds confident that Walk in Faith Ministries will continue to thrive. And until they do get a permanent building, they’ll keep congregating in that Pizza Hut off of U.S. 380.
One day at a time.