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Interview: Pete Portal, member, core leadership team, Tree of Life Church, Manenberg, Cape Town

28 March 2024

‘Mainstream society’s narrative of addicts as bad people adds to their shame’

During a short-term mission trip to a township in Cape Town as a student, back in 2007, I met inmates in prison and gangsters struggling with addiction. I felt prompted to return and move into a community with high levels of addiction and crime and see what happened if we started to pray.

I don’t have a background of drug use, and I reject the idea that only those in recovery from addiction to hard drugs can work with addicts. I believe, at its core, addiction isn’t as much a biological issue as an emotional or heart or trauma issue. We all have coping behaviours we have learnt, to deal with our pain.

We invite young men and women struggling with pain, trauma, and lifestyles of crime to come and live in our residential ministries. These are not rehabs but discipleship houses. As someone comes to know and trust in Jesus, we often see addiction fall away. This can obviously take a number of attempts.

Cru62 is a double-storey building that used to be a small block of flats. We bought the property and renovated it during Covid. Rudy and Fatima, Tree of Life staff members, live on the first floor with their family. There are three bedrooms for up to nine young men, and then another for three to reintegrate back into society once they’ve reached 18 months in the programme. There’s a yard where the young men can work out, and also a prayer room.

Basila, the home for four abused women and their kids, is a single-storey home that used to be a potato-business warehouse. There are a couple of bedrooms for the women and their children, and a house supervisor sleeps in, too. There’s a classroom for those wishing to further their education, as well as a prayer room.

Manenberg is a worshipping community. It’s a 60:40 split, Christian and Muslim, but a lot of this is cultural faith. We’re learning that religious knowledge devoid of personal faith can be one of the most significant hurdles for residents to overcome on the path to true faith.

We have a small woodwork social enterprise for the young men in Cru62. We use hardwood offcuts and turn them into useful household items like candle holders, chopping boards, etc.

We do church much better Monday to Saturday than on a Sunday morning.

We intentionally go to the hard places: an apartheid-built township in the most segregated city in the most economically unequal country on earth. Our faith in Jesus has to be able to speak into all of these things; otherwise it’s just pietistic and anaemic. That said, we’re also Charismatic: we value the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit, and believe that we cannot ignore these in the transforming of lives. I suppose we could be described as Charismatic activists.

Many of our local staff have come from backgrounds of poverty, abuse, or addiction. Some have come out of Islam. Each of them has overcome many obstacles to be where they are, pouring into the next generation. Those of us who have relocated to Manenberg have also flourished, as we examine our assumptions about ourselves and the world, and found a freedom in Manenberg we’d not known previously.

Drug use is very high in South Africa. Cape Town is the epicentre of South African gang life, and drugs are always a part of this. Police are under-resourced and ill-equipped to deal with the level of drug-related crime.

It might be true in the UK that decriminalising drugs might take much of the energy, attraction, and profits out of drugs, as it allegedly worked in countries like Portugal; but I don’t think it would work in Cape Town. Flat-pack solutions imported from the West that ignore local contexts seem likely to fail.

Yes, I do believe that God makes direct interventions in addiction, in answer to prayer, and I’ve seen this a number of times. I’ve also not seen this a number of times.

I wrote about the failures in How to be (Un)Successful — failure either to escape addiction, or stay clean. There’s a high failure rate in drug rehab programmes; so, on a personal level, I’ve had to learn to detach my own sense of worth or purpose from the decisions of others. If I lose hope when someone relapses, I’ll soon give up. Equally, if I take the credit for someone getting free, I’ve made their story about me.

I believe we have to stretch our timelines in walking with addicts. Relapse can be part of recovery, and can serve to bring a greater humility next time round.

I think failure is the wrong word. And it’s not about personal failure on the part of the drug-user, or the people praying for them, or God, or about the capacity of drugs to affect the brain irrevocably. Or, at the very least, we must recognise that failure need never have the final word. If someone chooses to relapse, they likely haven’t got to their rock-bottom place, or haven’t dealt with the pain they’re seeking to medicate with drugs.

Addiction is not a moral issue, and mainstream society’s narrative of addicts as bad people adds to their shame.

I fail every day at many things. I fail to be the father, or husband, or friend, or disciple I long to be. I believe God is more interested in the person I’m becoming rather than the things I achieve.

In my book, I write about true success being unsuccess. True success is being faithful to the call of Jesus on your life, come what may. Yet this can look rather unsuccessful to those caught up in our culture’s conception of success, which tends to be centred on noise, numbers, and narcissism.

I grew up in south-east London in a comfortable, middle-class home. My parents sometimes went to an Anglican church, but faith wasn’t a part of our family life. I was a chorister at Westminster Abbey between the ages of eight and 13. This put me off faith further. The faith I saw at Westminster Abbey was so irrelevant and boring for a young boy: so serious, so formal, so seemingly lacking in joy or engagement with real life.

My first experience of God happened at a church youth week, when I was 15. Simply put, I heard the gospel, I heard about Jesus Christ, I witnessed others whose lives had been transformed by faith, and I came to see it as true.

I came to faith in a very conservative Evangelical church. A few years later, I discovered the filling of the Holy Spirit. Since then, I’ve also come to value contemplative prayer and silence. I try to combine a passion for social justice with the empowering and joy of the Holy Spirit. I find prayer a struggle and a joy in equal measures.

Virtue-signalling makes me angry, as does cancel culture. And churches selling out to capitalist logic with regard to size, money, and influence.

Playing with my children, who are aged three and one, makes me happiest. And seeing people live sold-out lives for Jesus.

That God is making all things new is what gives me hope for the future.

I pray for an appetite and passion for prayer.

If I could choose any companions to be locked in a church with, I’d like to witness Martin Luther King in conversation with Adolf Hitler, or Dorothy Day in conversation with Mobutu Sese Seko.

Pete Portal was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

How to be (Un)Successful: An unlikely guide to human flourishing is published by SPCK, in partnership with 24-7 Prayer, at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69) (Books, 9 February).

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