Addiction & Recovery: Mennonites in Mexico & Bolivia
Two important social service centres have been established in Latin American Mennonite colonies over the past twenty years: Luz en mi Camino (Light on my Path) in Cuauhtémoc, Mexico, and Guía de Paz (Guide of Peace) in Pailón, Bolivia. Both centres pursue a similar goal: to help people suffering from addiction.
Luz en mi Camino opened in May 2003 in the village of Reinland, Manitoba Colony. Its aim was to help people who had sunk into addiction, particularly with alcohol. Leaders in the colonies saw how many adults and children who had fallen victim to addiction could not find their way out on their own. With this problem in mind, the construction of Luz en mi Camino began.
The facility has been there for just over seventeen years. During these years, hundreds of men and women have sought help in their fight against addiction. Others have been taken to the facility against their will, and have also found support.
According to its mission statement, Luz en mi Camino is a Christian centre. It works “with prevention, as well as combatting addictions.” At the centre, the staff members offer “physical, mental, and spiritual help” to their patients. Their aim is to help people so that they can be “stronger and healthier for their families and society.”
Currently, Luz en mi Camino’s facilities can house thirty-five men and twenty-five women. In 2019, 159 men participated in their three-month course. As an information leaflet from the centre states, many come thinking that God does not love them and that their life has little meaning. They are desperate. Many have lost their sense of self-worth and believe that no one loves or cares about them. For these reasons, the centre tries to make clear to the patients that all people are worthy and of equal value in the eyes of God. No one is too far lost.
To keep such an operation going one needs finances and people to help. At present, Luz en mi Camino has about thirty paid workers, only some of whom are employed full-time. There are also dozens of volunteers who help for a few hours or for one day a week. There are close to fifty couples who volunteer at the centre, according to David Peters, who serves on the management committee.
The goal is to keep the patients at the centre for three months. The first month is often very difficult, as patients struggle to overcome their addiction. Many stumble in the first few weeks, as their bodies must overcome their need for addictive substances. During this time, doctors and other health professionals attend to their medical needs. Once this initial hurdle has been overcome, the core of the addiction can be tackled more effectively. The patients must attend different classes every day. Generally, they are spread out over the whole day so as not to be too tiring. Physical activities are also planned. For example, Luz en mi Camino has a carpentry workshop where young people and men build different things with wood. They try to make this activity as meaningful as possible. Very often they build boxes or crates for the apple growers in the area. The women’s activity is sewing.
All patients are given free time when they can simply “switch off” from everything. Sometimes evening singing or testimony sessions are organized. Other times, speakers come to the centre and bring the patients encouraging messages or sermons. Fighting addiction is not easy, and some people at the centre are there for their second or third time. Many leave Luz en mi Camino full of hope and joy after three months, but then fall back into the clutches of addiction. Others, however, remain steadfast and, with the help of the centre, stay completely free of their addiction.
Over the years, the work of Luz en mi Camino expanded as the centre recognized that it was necessary to work preventively with addictions. As Peters notes, “Very often you can prevent a problem or a lot of tension by working preventively. If you can help people early enough and they accept this help, then it does not have to come to the point where a person throws away or destroys their life completely. For this reason, and with this aim, we have also set up the ‘help centre.’ There we do marriage counselling and other counselling. Through this we try to help in such situations where there might be problems in the marriage that could easily lead to very bad and sad situations. Through this help, we try to prevent people from falling into addictions.”
It is also important to work with the patients who have completed the three-month program. If they are released unattended, there is a great danger that they will fall back into their addiction. For this reason, a “rebuilding centre” has been founded, where the patients are cared for after their stay at Luz en mi Camino. Among other things, the rebuilding centre organizes conferences or camps where all those who have been at Luz en mi Camino are invited. Families, friends, relatives, and other interested people are also invited to help support former patients in their fight against addiction.
The Luz en mi Camino Committee is looking to improve its services to the community. They dream about how they can do more to help people in the colonies live better lives. According to Peters, “Sometimes we think that there is a lack of facilities where certain people could be kept for longer than just three months. There . . . they could work properly and at the same time be further strengthened in their transformation. Many would become stronger in this way and would not fall behind so easily. Many leave the centre with good intentions, but they are still too weak and cannot resist the challenges.”
Over the years, many things at Luz en mi Camino have improved, but there is more work to be done. For example, the centre is still viewed negatively or suspiciously by many colony residents. However, as Peters notes, today fewer people hold this view.
Finances are another challenge for the Luz en mi Camino Committee. The patients or their families are expected to cover about 20 percent of the expenses. Another 40 percent comes from friends, relatives, or other supporters. The remaining 40 percent is collected through fundraising or other sources, such as churches or businesses in the colonies, and donors from abroad. Peters notes it is always a challenge to find enough money.
The addictions centre in Bolivia faces many similar issues. Guía de Paz officially opened on January 13, 2013. Klas B. Rempel, one of the founding members, recalls that they had long seen the need for such a facility: “Many people in the colonies were addicted. They often had other problems they could not cope with. Some of them sought help in Santa Cruz from different health institutions. But these were all in Spanish and this often made it even harder for the sick [who speak Low German] to find help.” Others were so desperate that they travelled abroad, especially to Mexico, for treatment.
Whenever they saw this need, the question arose, why not set up such a help centre in Bolivia? Eventually, a group of people travelled to look at facilities elsewhere. With the support of interested communities, colonies, and other organizations, they bought a piece of land and started to build a facility.
The founders were motivated to help those people who are broken and sick. And they found such people everywhere, in all the colonies, in every village. The Bible verses Isaiah 61:1–2 gradually became their guiding principle. The verses say: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the wretched, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the unborn, to proclaim a year of the Lord’s favour and a day of vengeance from God, to comfort all who mourn.”
Guía de Paz has room for about twenty men and twenty women. Sometimes it is completely full, other times it is almost empty. “There have been times when we were almost empty and we thought, maybe we have helped everyone and one day this facility will be redundant. But then there comes another time when we are completely occupied,” reflects Rempel. The centre has never been completely empty.
Some patients are addicted to alcohol or drugs, others to medication. The extent of this last addiction only became known to those who run Guía de Paz once they began to encounter this type of addiction within the community. Some use all their means and contacts to obtain narcotics. These people experience severe withdrawal symptoms when they suddenly do not have pills, alcohol, or drugs at their disposal.
As is the case with such a centre, people who arrive often have to heal from more than just addiction. Sometimes it is marital or family problems, and sometimes they are searching for peace in their hearts. Some are deeply disappointed in themselves and therefore feel a lack of self-worth. Those working at Guía de Paz try to address all of these problems. This is not easy, and they do not always succeed. Sometimes patients have to be sent somewhere else in the hope that they will find the support that they need.
As with all such private institutions, funding is difficult to find. The patients are supposed to pay something when they arrive, but much of the centre’s finances come from donations. A couple of times a year, the operating committee organizes a fundraising event. As Rempel explains, “There are also communities and colonies that make a fixed contribution to Guía de Paz. A few communities have also taken on the payment of a worker, for example, which is also a huge help. So far, we have always had enough money. God has blessed us abundantly in this regard.”
As with most institutions, Guía de Paz has its share of problems, and opponents as well. According to Rempel, “In some colonies and communities in Bolivia, people are very much discouraged from seeking help from Guía de Paz. Unfortunately, lies are often used to give the institution a bad name. They tell things that are not true at all. They exaggerate and use all means to tarnish the reputation of Guía de Paz.” Rempel believes that this negative attitude is largely due to people not knowing or understanding what Guía de Paz does. “We are concerned with people, we want to help them get rid of addiction. That is the most important goal. Once people realize and understand that, then they can suddenly affirm and support the work at the centre,” says Rempel.
It is gratifying to see that many patients overcome their addiction. About 70 percent of those who complete the three-month program report that they have not relapsed even years later. About 10 percent come back for a second or third time. Some even decide to stay longer than the three months. They have overcome the addiction, but they fear that they will not be strong or steadfast enough once they are “out in the open.”
Officials at Guía de Paz hope that in the future they will be able to do even more for the people who have gone through the program. “We want to support them more in their transition, do more follow-up work,” says Rempel. For those who work at the centre “it is very important that they have people in their lives who build them up and support them, otherwise there is a greater risk that they will fall back into their old habits of life.”
This past January a home was opened near Guía de Paz where the children of patients at the centre could be accommodated. This is important in cases where both parents need help. Now children always come to Guía de Paz on Sunday to spend time with their parents. This creates many joyful moments.