When Reconciliation Ministries wanted to buy some run-down apartment buildings in a crime-ridden area on Beatty Downs Road in Saint Andrews, the police told members of the group that they really should reconsider. Ashley Miller, Reconciliation Ministries’ executive director, says, “Lots of people advised against it, but we really just felt like that was where God was calling us. The first apartment we bought had actually been affected by the flood of 2015, so it was dilapidated. It was a mess. We say it’s been awesome because not only has God allowed us to have the opportunity to transform lives but also to transform that community as well.”
Initially a weekly program similar to Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous, Reconciliation Ministries’ early iteration quickly expanded to include residential services for clients struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, starting with a men’s residential program in 2017. “It was hard because we would meet on Thursday nights, and people would come in, and you could just see the desperation and hopelessness,” Ashley says. “We had a meal that evening, but then we would have to say, ‘Okay, good luck staying clean this week — come back in another week.’ Most of the people we were working with just needed a much more intensive program.”
Columbia First Church of the Nazarene lends a hallway of offices to the ministry, plus a gymnasium with a kitchen, where three meals a day are prepared for the ministry’s clients. “They also allow us to use that space for our morning prayer, worship, and chapel, and then our learning center, which is from 10 a.m. to noon every day.”
The learning center offers an individually tailored curriculum consisting of five contracts, which take 15 months to complete. Topics include being made in the image of God, spiritual growth, salvation, family relationships, and servant leadership. Within each contract, students memorize scripture and learn how to develop specific character traits, like truthfulness.
Ashley says the neighborhood where Reconciliation Ministries is located, on part of the campus of First Church of the Nazarene and in the surrounding area near Saint Andrews Road and I-26, suffers from the “broken window effect.” Coined in 1982 by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, the broken window effect is based on the idea that a broken window not promptly repaired sends a signal that no one cares. This leads to the temptation to break other windows and further cause the property to disintegrate. The renovations that the group has made to its apartment buildings are an object lesson for the improvements that it wants its clients, or students, to make for themselves.
“We tell everyone drugs and alcohol are a symptom, but the root of the issue, for us, is not having a relationship with the Lord,” Ashley says. “Every single person has character defects. We all develop bad traits, sometimes at an early age, whether they might be manipulation or cheating or lying or whatever else it is.” Some of Reconciliation Ministries’ students have lived through trauma that many people cannot begin to imagine, says Ashley, and their broken backgrounds form their addictions.
If a client needs to detox before starting Reconciliation Ministries’ program, he might spend a few days at LRADAC (formerly known as the Lexington/Richland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council), before attempting to begin the recovery process. Safety is paramount, and the staff of Reconciliation Ministries is not medically equipped to treat someone who experiences side effects during detox.
In addition to the main Beatty Downs campus near First Church of the Nazarene, the group has more remote lodging on the Rooted campus at a campground in Batesburg-Leesville, where men who have been in the program for six months or less complete the first two of their five contracts before returning to Beatty Downs.
“Here in Columbia are a lot more temptations and distractions, and this is a place to separate them,” Ashley says. “They can have a chance, just to clear their mind. A lot of people come to us out of chaos.” The Rooted dormitory can house 16 men in bunk beds, and the Beatty Downs apartments can accommodate 12 men and nine women in separate apartment facilities.
Afternoons on both campuses are spent in what is called ministry work time. “That’s when you put what you’re learning into action,” Ashley says. “People can sit in a classroom all day and look like they’re being changed, but until you see them out mowing a lawn or doing a project or something, that’s when the rubber meets the road, so to speak. We’re really able to work side by side with the students and be able to see true change and transformation within their lives — everything we do is about discipleship. The most important thing for us is teaching people about the Gospel, but in everything else we do, we want to train someone to train someone else. We want to work ourselves out of a job.”
For example, meals are prepared by a kitchen crew, in which more experienced cooks teach newer workers basic skills. “They cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and we also have two snacks a day as well. They’re responsible for coming up with the menu. They have a budget that they have to stick to. They go shop for the food, prepare the food, clean up, and all of that. So, it’s a really tremendous opportunity to teach those skills,” Ashley says.
One former student turned staff member, Brian Poirier, previously sold coffee in Puerto Rico to support Christian missions before a relapse brought him to Reconciliation Ministries. After he graduated, he brought his wife, Karla, to live in Columbia, and the couple also suggested that they could bring the coffee business too. At first, they sold coffee to local churches to raise money for the program. Then, when the pandemic put a damper on many churches’ ability to serve coffee, the group purchased a coffee trailer, which is normally parked at 1165 Saint Andrews Road but is beginning to make forays into events, such as the Elgin area’s Vintage Market Days. Ashley’s younger sister, who has barista experience, helped Karla and Brian develop a menu and a training plan for aspiring baristas. Later this year, the group plans to open a thrift store on Saint Andrews Road as well.
One job-training opportunity that students particularly enjoy is going to Clemson University to clean the football stadium during and after home games. As part of a contract with Can Do Enterprises, a janitorial service based in Tennessee, Reconciliation Ministries not only earns money toward its programming, but students also develop job skills, work ethic, and responsibility. Ashley says, “We get a chance to see what they’ve been learning throughout the week in action. Clemson also has temptations, so it’s a chance for them to learn self-control and discipline while still having accountability.” Of course, all of the students are now Clemson fans.
Counseling is also part of the treatment plan, and Reconciliation Ministries has developed partnerships with Palmetto Counseling Associates and Bridge of Hope Counseling Center to help with that aspect of recovery. Recently, a donor pledged $10,000 in matching funds toward this cause.
Most of the time medical treatment facilities, not faith-based treatment centers, are eligible to receive government funding. Reconciliation Ministries has stood firm on its commitment to teach a faith-based curriculum, so funding is always needed. “The more funds we’re able to raise, the more buildings we’re able to purchase in Beatty Downs and the more beds we’re able to open on our Rooted campus. So this year we’ve launched student sponsorship opportunities, in which people can sponsor students for a week, a month, or a year,” Ashley says.
Sponsoring one student costs about $350 per week, as many people arrive on campus with only the clothes on their back. In-kind donations, ranging from personal hygiene supplies to vehicles, are also appreciated.
One 2020 graduate of the program, Robert, accepted a job with Chapin Furniture — the company’s owners, Keith and Jennifer Grimaud, consistently support Reconciliation Ministries — and a donated car provided much-needed transportation to his new job. Once unemployed and homeless, Robert now works full time at Chapin Furniture, cares for his two children on the weekends, and helps teach other ministry students.
Graduates of the program can rent apartments in Beatty Downs while they transition back into the community at large. In early spring, Beatty Downs held a socially distanced block party, evidence that the neighborhood is improving as the ministry expands.
“It’s been really neat to see that little bit of the community transformed because we were able to renovate one building. And now we have seven down there, and they look great,” Ashley says. “We keep our property up. Others have noticed that and want to do the same. They don’t want to be the one that has the bad-looking apartment building. We believe one day we’ll be able to own all 25 buildings down there.”
Reconciliation Ministries strives to be a place where people feel comfortable sending loved ones who struggle with addictions. “There’s discipline involved,” Ashley concedes, “but we do that out of love, and we care for each and every person who comes through our doors.”