Dec. 21–Richard McElrath already knows what he is receiving for Christmas this year.
On Christmas Eve, he will spend six hours with his mother and his grandmother. And he will be able to show them a new version of himself. He is a man who feels as if he has died, in a way, and been resurrected.
His eyes are bright and he stands tall. The men who are some of his closest friends take the time to tap him on the shoulder and say thanks. Others give him hugs.
“I want to share with my mom and grandma the miracle of Christmas,” McElrath said. “And I want them to be proud of who I am.”
He is a man who is clean and sober for the first time in more than a decade.
It all started, he said, with smoking marijuana when he was 16. By the time he was in his 20s he had moved on to other drugs, including methamphetamine. As a result of the drug addictions, the 29-year-old has been in jail and prison 54 times.
At first, he smoked marijuana because it was “the thing to do.” Then, he was attracted to a certain kind of fast-paced lifestyle.
That was his old life, McElrath said.
An Asheville native, he is now a resident of the Haven of Rest Transformation Life Center in Belton. He has been part of the program for about four months.
“He has come in with such a great attitude,” said Curtis Pless, mission director at Haven of Rest. “He is ready to do anything that anyone asks of him.”
This is the first time in 12 years, almost half his life, that McElrath has not spent the holidays behind bars.
He stood Wednesday in front of about 80 men at the West Anderson Church of God and told his story. Most of those in the audience share a similar one. The event was the Christmas party for the men who are part of the Haven of Rest ministry.
All of the men have come to the ministry to change their lives. Some are addicted to alcohol, some to drugs and others to both. The ministry’s director, Sid Stewart, said there about 70 men who either live at the downtown Anderson shelter or at the ministry’s farm between Belton and Honea Path.
At the party, the men have a chance to relax, sing hymns together and be encouraged.
“A lot of these guys have been chained to their past,” Stewart said. “This is a chance for them to celebrate true freedom – freedom in Christ.”
The group heard from Stan Honeycutt, the former director of the Haven of Rest. He told the men that he never thought he would see so many lives changed because of the Haven of Rest. He told the men to continue in the program and not give up.
“I have seen lives changed here, and that is a glorious sight,” Honeycutt said.
Shortly after Honeycutt spoke, McElrath and fellow resident Keith Toomer told their stories and thanked the staff of the ministry who have helped turn their lives around.
Like McElrath, Toomer has struggled with addiction for years. His poison: alcohol.
The addiction threatened his relationships with his family, his wife and his young daughter.
“If Christ was in me, you sure could not tell it,” Toomer said. “But thankfully, my grandmother, she kept praying for me.”
Toomer told the group that he is looking forward to the day when he can reunite with his wife and his daughter. It may not be something he receives for Christmas this year, but he said he has found joy again.
“This will be the best Christmas I have ever had,” Toomer said.
McElrath and Toomer stood straight and sang with energy when the end of the party came and the men all joined in singing “Victory in Jesus.”
A year ago, many of these men were in prison, homeless or in the clutches of cocaine, alcohol or methamphetamines. McElrath said he was in prison. That last time, he said, he lost his job and his girlfriend. He said he finally grew tired of the lifestyle that once seemed attractive.
This holiday season, his mother and grandmother are traveling from several states away to see him.
“I have not been able to celebrate Christmas in a long time because of drugs and prison,” McElrath said. “I have learned now that when you fully surrender your life to Jesus, you are not the same man.”