News: M&Ms to Save Your Soul

Offbeat fund-raiser benefits offbeat addiction program

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Jymi Bolden

Larry Michel says his church's M&M sales — often at intersections — help addicts recover self-esteem and trust.

Traffic intersections and highway exit ramps might be unusual places for selling candy, but little is typical about the Cincinnati Restoration Church.

Dozens of people affiliated with the church sell bags of peanut M&Ms to motorists as a way to raise funds for the church — and as a way to rebuild their own lives.

Cincinnati Restoration Church had its foundation laid in 1976 in Imperial Valley, Calif., the brainchild of Fernando Rivas Sr. and his wife, who saw the need for a place where people could be delivered from their addictions.

"The only lasting answer to drug addictions is Jesus Christ," says Larry Michel, administrator for the Cincinnati Restoration Church in Brighton.

Since its inception 27 years ago, the church has planted "seed" churches in Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, St. Louis, Columbus, Cleveland, Toledo and Cincinnati.

The church has one prerequisite for people entering the program, according to Michel.

"People have to have a true willingness to change," he says. "When people are sick and tired of sick and tired, that's when they usually come."

Right above the sanctuary live the 44 men and nine women who make up the congregation, including staff and people in recovery. Rules forbid alcohol, drugs and excessive swearing.

Staff members usually must accompany residents when they leave the building.

"We believe that two is better than one," Michel says.

The area surrounding the church could be tempting for residents to fall back into old ways of living, he says. The presence of a staff member acts as a support system.

The church's recovery program consists exclusively of spiritual counseling. Instead of mental-health therapy, that means large doses of Bible reading and prayer.

"The Bible is the centerpiece of our program," Michel says. "Our counseling isn't based on personal opinion, nor secular beliefs. We make no bones about who we are. You will hear Jesus Christ 24/7."

The counselors are people who have completed the nine-month program and wish to stay with the church.

Residents can partake of various missionary duties, including the candy fund-raiser, a street ministry or the upkeep of the 17,000-square-foot church purchased in November 2002.

The fund-raising teams at Cincinnati Restoration Church are doing more than just selling M&Ms; they're in the process of rebuilding character, according to Michel.

"Most addicts become introverted, withdrawn from people," he says. "To be able to speak to people about how good God has been to them takes courage. This helps people break away from patterns."

Along with rebuilding self-esteem, the candy sales rebuild trust. Most addicts lose the trust of family and friends, Michel says. But the church trusts residents to handle the cash from candy sales. Residents feel hopeful when someone begins to believe in them again.

"Some residents have taken the money," Michel says. "Some have returned afterwards and we accept them back."

The choice of M&Ms for fund-raising is a function of retailing and packaging, Michel says. The church originally sold peanuts, bagging them for street sales. As the ministry grew, the church looked for something easier to sell.

"M&Ms were the only thing that came in a prepackaged, fund-raising unit," Michel says. "We buy our own candy. People ask us about the plain M&Ms, but they don't come in prepackaged units."

The fund-raising teams sell 40 to 50 bags per person per day, but the church imposes no quotas, Michel says.

Proceeds from the sales maintain the church and its services. Michel said the church's annual financial report for 2002 is not yet available. Efforts to obtain a copy of the 2001 report were unsuccessful.

"We are completely involved in taking care of the people," Michel says. "There are no salaries. Everyone here volunteers their services and their time."

Michel himself once battled alcoholism.

"People that have started other ministries have come through doors like this," he says.

Michel's recovery is instructive, according to Chris Giannamore, spiritual counselor with Cincinnati Restoration Church.

"He has one hell of a story," Giannamore says. "Larry and a friend came to Cincinnati from Chicago. Something didn't work out and his friend left him here stranded. Someone handed him a flyer about the church, and he's been with us ever since."

Cincinnati Restoration Church has ambitious goals.

"Feeding, clothing and housing the people here is what is important," Michel says. "Our vision is to save 1 million drug addicts."

The church has a long way to go. Since its beginning in Cincinnati five years ago, approximately 1,000 people have passed through the doors. Michel says the church is in the process of developing a follow-up system to see how many people have remained substance-free.

"The success is difficult to measure right now," he says. "We can see a change in our residents. We see upbeat people who have a positive outlook on life. Their spirits are hopeful. They see themselves in a different light."

People who resume drug or alcohol abuse are welcome to return and try again.

"We do take back those that have relapsed, absolutely," Michel says. "There's no doubt about it."

Similarly, there's no doubt, at least in Michel's mind, that God is the key to recovery from addiction.

"Finding his word will restore your life," he says. "Having lost your friends, family, everything — once you find God, those things will be restored." ©

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