The Long Climb

Posted Mar 13, 2010 by 8 Comments

Since the start of my time with The Relief Bus, I have already had the chance to rub shoulders with several current and former drug addicts.  I’ve listened to their stories, I’ve shaken their hands, I’ve prayed for them…  And as I’ve listened to what they have to say, my whole perspective on drug addiction and recovery has begun to change.


It began with Irving.

Irving is a 53 year old man from the Bronx who is struggling to get by.  I met him as he entered The Relief Bus to talk with Steve Pastor, one of the staff of New York City Relief.  Outside the bus is a sign saying, in big bold letters, “WE CAN HELP YOU.”  Irving had come to inquire.

A sign on the side of The Relief Bus.

Irving’s story is a heartbreaking account of a man who has lost everything to his addictions. As a young adult, Irving began experimenting with drugs.  Although he had a good job as a talented handyman, the need for drugs soon overwhelmed him.

His job went first.  Then his wife of 27 years.  After battling throat cancer and consequently losing her voice, she had had enough of Irving’s addiction and lack of support.  She kicked him out of their home.

Irving telling us his story.

Homeless and alone, Irving delved deeper into his addictions.  Soon, alcohol and heroin were his only reasons for living.  He had reached rock bottom, and it was only a matter of time before overdose or violence would claim his life.

Thankfully, through the work of a local shelter, Irving was able to get help.  A drug rehab program set him up with daily doses of methadone, a legal drug that helps addicts stave off the severe symptoms of withdrawal.

Alcohol, Irving admitted, is still a problem.  “But,” he said, “I’ve been clean for three days!  And I started with 140 mg of meth… now I am down to 70…”  As he said this, Irving’s face was glowing with pride.

A Shattered Life

Watching this broken man talking excitedly about his progress, my heart ached for him.  Because of his addictions, Irving’s mind was clearly damaged.  His movements were slow.  His attention span was very short.

As he rummaged through the pockets of his vest to find a piece of paper, I got a glimpse of his driver’s license.  It was obviously several years old.  The picture on the card was one of a strong young man with piercing eyes.  A far cry from the tired and broken 53 year-old sitting in front of me.

Irving looking through his meticulously organized pockets.

In one of his pockets, Irving kept two small flashlights.  He flipped one on to show us.  “You never know when you’ll end up in a dark place” he said.  His words resonated with a deeper truth.  You see, Irving is still homeless.  He still can’t get a job.  Although he is emerging from the darkness of addiction, he must still face the long climb out of poverty.


As Irving told us his story on the bus, Steve went to work finding him a program and shelter in the area to help with his rehabilitation. At one point, we all gathered to pray for him.  Irving put his hands together in front of him and asked, “Is it OK to pray like this?”

“Yes,” I explained, “you can pray however you’d like.  Your hands just reflect the attitude of your heart.”  He kept his hands pressed together and closed his eyes.  As we laid hands on him and prayed, tears welled up in Irving’s eyes.  For the first time in a long while, Irving was being loved.

When he left, Irving was smiling and laughing, reminding us several times that he “has a good sense of humor.”  For a few minutes, at least, he was given dignity and respect, and I could tell that it affected him deeply.

Beyond Just Bad Decisions

Meeting Irving got me thinking a lot about drug addiction and its effects on people in impoverished communities like the ones we visit with The Relief Bus.  Obviously taking drugs is a personal choice, and in one sense it’s an addict’s own fault if he or she loses control.

In New York City, there are deeper, darker forces at work...

But in a place like the Bronx, it goes beyond just bad decision making.  Drugs are everywhere here.  And they touch just about everyone’s lives.

Drug kingpins and black-market narcotic rings profit from the addictions of others.  Their mission is to get people hooked as early as possible and as deeply as possible.  Steve said that a few years ago, he saw a 12 year old girl coming up to the bus with track marks down her arms (a sign of frequent drug use).

For those drug traffickers who want to control a neighborhood, there is no better drug than heroin.  It gets you hooked fast, and the first few days of withdrawal are absolutely agonizing.  Once they’ve injected heroin into the bloodstream of a community, the drug lords have control.

Something More Powerful

But even in the midst of a devastating problem like drug addiction in the Bronx, there is hope.

The other day I met a man named Matthew who was a heroin addict for 16 years, but is now celebrating his sixth month of sobriety.  When I first met him, he had just come from his rehab program to get a cup of soup from The Relief Bus.

Matthew, a man freed from his 16 year long addiction to heroin.

He talked about living day to day with the unbearable need for his next “fix”.  He marveled at the fact that he can still function properly after years of injecting toxins into his body.

At one point, I asked him, “What caused you to stop?  How did you kick your addiction?”

His answer was simple.  “Jesus.”  After sixteen years of addiction, Matthew had reached a breaking point.  As everything crumbled around him, he turned in desperation to a local Christian ministry where he finally decided to give his life over to one more powerful than his drug.

This is a story that I am starting to hear more and more around here.  Through The Relief Bus and other ministries in the city, addicts are finding freedom in the kingdom of God.  Their lives are taking on a new-found purpose and they are kicking the addictions that have enslaved them for years.

The story of Irving is far from over...

Driving back to New Jersey with the rest of The Relief Bus staff, smelling like soup and aching from hours standing in the chilly air, I fought back tears as I realized just what I have been caught up in here.

Freedom is coming to captives of addiction.  Sight is coming to the blind.  Broken outcasts are being loved.  And good news is reaching the ears of the poor.

Say what you will about the dark sins of drug addiction.  I know what I’ve seen in the Bronx.  Irving had a smile on his face.

The kingdom of God is at hand…

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Next Steps
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    • Want to come to NYC and meet folks like Irving and Matthew first-hand? Join The Relief Bus on a short term trip! Click here for more info.
    • Pray for the millions of people affected by drug use and addiction in our nation's cities. Pray that the kingdom would continue to break into dark places!
    Next Steps

About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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  1. Leah said... 


    March 13th, 2010 at 4:03 pm  

    thanks for sharing, Barry. i know i’ve heard from others (and probably thought to myself on occasion, if i’m completely honest) that it’s a drug addict’s own fault that they’re in that situation and that these are the consequences of their own actions. thank you for bringing dignity and worth and love back to their lives. thank you for reminding us that they are children of God too. and thank you for the reminder that we are all struggling with addictions to something: money, power, material possessions, approval, etc…, and that only Jesus was perfect. we need these stories to remind us of that. thanks for bringing them to us. can’t wait to hear more.

  2. Steve Buczkowski said... 


    March 13th, 2010 at 9:30 pm  

    The stops the buses make are filled with so many Irving’s, but there are also so many Matthew’s as well. The Relief Bus is making REAL differences out there. At some stops, they are saving actual lives just with the soup they provide. At others, they are simply providing safety for a few hours. You can truly feel the spirit of God present while serving. The drug dealers split, the gangs leave, and Christ’s spirit is winning.

  3. Jim M said... 


    March 14th, 2010 at 1:47 am  

    Addiction is cunning, baffling, and powerful. It’s complicated Barry. It is not a choice, it is a disease. Although drug addiction may begin with a series of “poor choices” at some point you are hijacked by your drug. You become enslaved…no longer choosing but rather held hostage by an evil that is imposable to fully understand. No one chooses to lose everything, no one chooses to die, no one chooses to forsake everything they hold dear and replace it with their drug…these are signs of the disease. You have seen some of them this week. You have also heard first hand of the healing offered by a “Higher Power”..You and I recognize this “higher power” as Christ’s healing power, love, and grace delivered through the hands, feet, voices, and soup of folks who have “been present” for Matthew, and Irving. Sometimes having faith “for them” when none existed “within them”. They are at different points along the journey that is “recovery”. With time and Gods grace and love they can live sober, and their lives can be restored…it is a life long journey taken one day at a time. The transforming power of our great God in this disease should be no surprise, it is so wonderful to witness it in the faces of the men in this story. J.

  4. Juan Galloway said... 


    March 14th, 2010 at 8:08 pm  

    These photos and this story tell the tale of so many that we meet on the streets with The Relief Bus every week. Great job.

  5. Deborah Trotter said... 


    March 14th, 2010 at 8:42 pm  

    Thank you, Irving. Please convey that message to him the next time you see him. Thank you and I love you for helping me stay sober today.
    I am 60 this week and have been clean since 1991 and sober since 1993. I say that because for the first 2 years, I just did not use. It was a hell like no other. I fought so hard. For all the wrong things. Ego, pride, denial, etc. The pain got so bad that if I had not fallen to my knees and begged the God of my childhood to save me, I can’t be sure I would still be here. I have to be reminded of this.
    Since that day, I have gone through many trials . If God favors those he gives trials to then I must be His most favored. I’m sure we’ve all thought that! Anyway, what I really wanted to say is that I have been where you have been. In sobriety I have been homeless, treated for breast cancer, unable to work, abandoned by my husband……. the list could go on and on. Different problems, same pain. The difference is that my Lord and Savior carries my pain now. I just follow His direction and He never lets me fall. Life is no picnic but He never said it would be. He did say He would be faithful and He has been.
    Please know that you are loved and cared for by this daughter of the King. You will be offered up in prayer daily.
    I am so amazed by the folks of The Relief Bus but I am incredibilily grateful for the blessing that is you, Irving. Thank you for being here to share your story. You can help so many people.
    Keep on keeping on one day at a time. I want to see how ‘our’ story ends.
    Deborah T.

  6. roger mcgeehan said... 


    March 15th, 2010 at 12:51 am  

    I got to agree with Steve Pastor, I know he does a lot to help the people who are addicted to drugs and what ever else that involves other kind of drug abuse such as alcohol. Steve is working hard help though’s who desire to get help and fight their battle with drugs and alcohol and to find a better life while they can. I can and will support him in anyway that I can in the fight against the uses of any narcotics.

  7. Austin Bonds said... 


    March 16th, 2010 at 11:24 pm  

    I saw Irving today….he face was still bright from his encounter with Steve as well as you, Barry, from last week. He had some real needs though. He had not taken off his socks since the previous week. He was in need of a fresh pair of socks. I was told we were out, but decided to have a gander. Sure enough, right on top was a pair of brand new socks. Irving had already left. I looked outside and remembered that we had Sean from Illinois Wesleyan outside who was a running back for his universities football team. I asked if he could catch him…a few minutes later Sean was back with a report of a successful delivery. Dry feet after rains like we have had was a welcomed commodity for Irving.

  8. Maeven said... 


    March 24th, 2010 at 9:55 am  

    Don’t know how I missed this one, Barry…

    But this story just reminds me of the people I work with at my internship. God used this story to soften my heart once again, a discipline that needs to be practiced by all social workers.
    I have a hard time reconciling how to treat people who struggle with addiction as I’m taught to never believe an addict, how to keep cheering these children of God on when so often it’s a dark and long battle far bigger than myself. It’s a great encouragement to keep believing that there IS life beyond addiction and poverty, and life within it.
    Praise the Lord that he doesn’t leave us where we may find ourselves.
    Thanks, Barry, for your sacrifice. This experience reminds me of the Kenosis passage in Phillipians…

    Coming down to meet people where they are at.

    What great hands and feet of Jesus you have been. Keep going.

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