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President lauds church program at White House-sponsored event

LOS ANGELES (BP)–President George W. Bush praised Saddleback Church’s Celebrate Recovery program in early March as a ministry that does what government cannot — change hearts.

“We used to drink too much,” President Bush said about the similarity between himself and Celebrate Recovery’s founding pastor, John Baker. “And our hearts changed, and then we quit. That is a tried-and-true formula. The problem is, government is not good at changing hearts. But people like John Baker [have been good at] doing that.”

President Bush’s comments on Celebrate Recovery came after a 45-minute conversation with Baker and representatives of three other faith-based recovery programs. His remarks came during a speech to the 11th White House Faith-Based and Community Initiative Conference, March 3 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

“It was a recognition I never expected,” Baker said. “The exciting part was that after our 45-minute meeting with the president we all stood and prayed together. God got the recognition. He was the true champion, not John Baker or anyone else there.”

Celebrate Recovery, Saddleback’s biblically based recovery program, started in 1991 when Baker approached senior pastor Rick Warren about the need to help thousands in the area overcome a variety of hurts, habits and hang-ups. In typical Saddleback style, Warren told Baker to “go for it.” Together, the two created a Christ-centered recovery program based on the Beatitudes of Jesus.

Since its founding, more than 7,500 people have gone through the Celebrate Recovery program at Saddleback in Lake Valley, Calif. In the past 12 years, more than 150,000 people have participated in the program from prisons, rescue missions and more than 2,500 churches.

“When I started this ministry in 1991, I was really just thinking of the people in our church who needed a safe place to recover from their addictive and compulsive behaviors,” Baker said. “Soon a few other churches tried it, and God started really working through it. It’s really been great to see what God has done through this. He is the one who should get the credit.”

Celebrate Recovery has become Saddleback’s top outreach to its community. When the program began, more than 70 percent of the people in the program were members of Saddleback. Now more than 70 percent of the people who attend Celebrate Recovery come from the local community.

“Celebrate Recovery is the church in action,” Warren said.

During the speech, President Bush also introduced Leticia*, a single mom whose drug addiction had landed her in prison and cost her custody of her child. That’s where she found Celebrate Recovery and turned her life around.

After completing the program, Leticia overcame her addiction, rebuilt her life and now has custody of her son. Celebrate Recovery, she said, has been an incredibly powerful part of her life, “knowing that it was [God’s] grace that kept me alive for such a time as this.”

The president told the crowd of approximately 1,200 church and community workers, “This is a person who was lost in prison, a drug addict, who lost her family –- and now she’s here with the ability to say those words with clarity.”

Leticia completed the program in a prison in Grants, N.M. The New Mexico prison system began testing Celebrate Recovery as a tool to help inmates in 1999. Currently, Leticia is one of 167 people who have completed the program and has been out for at least a year. Only 13 of those prisoners -– 7.8 percent of the total — have returned to prison. Typically, Baker said, the recidivism rate in the New Mexico prison system is 78 percent.

Other prison systems -– including California’s -– have begun to experiment with implementing the program in its prisons. Recently, 135 men signed up for Celebrate Recovery at the Jamestown Prison. Unlike the program in New Mexico, the Jamestown program will be led by inmates.

”The reason it works in prisons is Jesus Christ,” Baker said. “We don’t just talk about a higher power. We tell people about the one and only true Higher Power who can really help them overcome their hurt, habit or hang-up -– and that’s Jesus Christ.”

Among the many whose lives have been changed through Celebrate Recovery:

— Tommy* had been homeless and struggling with alcoholism when he wandered into the Celebrate Recovery program at the Orange County Rescue Mission. He had tried a few Alcoholics Anonymous programs, but in his words, none of them could “fill the empty spot in my soul.” His time in the Vietnam War kept coming back into his mind and drinking seemed like the only way to drown out those memories. After several years of ignoring God’s call on his life, he walked into the Orange County Rescue Mission and started attending Celebrate Recovery. After working through the program and getting sober, he has resolved the issues of his past that have plagued him and is helping others recover from their addictions through Celebrate Recovery.

— Gary*, a Baptist pastor from Minnesota, hit rock bottom in September 1999 when he exploded in anger toward another pastor. For years he had been struggling with an anger addiction and codependency problem. Two years later he learned of the Celebrate Recovery principles at a conference at Saddleback and he started seeing God heal old wounds. Through the 12-step program, Gary began to confess the sin of how he was expressing his anger, ask forgiveness from those he hurt and keep a daily journal. Slowly, Gary began to realize that it was much better to work through his pain than to run from it. Now, Gary has successfully completed the program and is helping others through it.

* Diane*, an adult child of an alcoholic, always believed she had to please everyone and bury her emotions if she was going to thrive. Since she had to tread carefully around her father as a child, those feelings carried over into all of her relationships. A friend invited her to Celebrate Recovery at Saddleback in 2000. Four years later, Diane has recovered from her own hurts and is now a leader in Saddleback’s Celebrate Recovery program.

Celebrate Recovery will be holding special one-day seminars throughout the United States over the next few months for church leaders interested in implementing the program at their churches. Some of those locations include San Antonio, Texas; Atlanta; Binghampton, N.Y.; Anchorage; and New Orleans. The curriculum also is available in Spanish. The first-ever Spanish conference will be held in Miami.

This year’s Celebrate Recovery Summit will be held at Saddleback Aug. 18-20. Joining Baker will be Rick Warren, John Townsend, Henry Cloud and Steve Arterburn.
* The last names of the program’s participants have been removed to protect their privacy. For more information about Celebrate Recovery, visit www.celebraterecovery.com. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at https://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: JOHN BAKER.

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  • Tobin Perry