The Way is a Friday night fellowship at St. John’s United Methodist Church where individuals in recovery can find sanctuary during one of the toughest hours of the week.
Fridays around 6 p.m. often is a celebrated time. Happy hour is in full swing, and the 9-to-5 crowd is finding unique ways to kick-off the weekend in style.
But for those people in recovery, Friday evenings are difficult. That early evening time is when an addict is searching for whatever drug that brings the escape.
That’s why St. John’s United Methodist Church
in Midtown Memphis opens its doors every Friday at 6 p.m. for The Way, a time for food, fellowship, worship and hope, particularly for those individuals in recovery from addiction to drugs or alcohol. More than a worship service, the hour-long gathering is filled with music and is based on the beatitudes and the 12-step program.
“It’s the most inconvenient hour of the week, Fridays at 6,” said John Kilzer, an ordained minister at St. John’s who started the recovery ministry at the church in 2010. “Typically that’s when people in recovery are looking for their stuff. We picked that time intentionally to have a sanctuary in every sense of the word where people can come.”
Kilzer leads the weekly one-hour service. A meal is catered, followed by music from a rotating roster of 30 Memphis musicians. It’s a 12 step-driven service, so someone each week goes through the steps. It might be someone who is only a few weeks sober to someone who is more than 40 years in sobriety.
“We all have a God-size hole in our heart,” Kilzer said. “Everybody tries to fill it with different stuff. I tell everybody every week that we’re all in recovery.”
Kilzer is on that daily road to recovery, and it’s one that is well documented. Growing up in Jackson, Tenn., he made his way west to play basketball for the University of Memphis in 1975. By the end of his four years at the university, Kilzer says he was a full-blown alcoholic, although he didn’t realize it at the time.
He was exposed to it from his youth. He said his father and oldest brother both were alcoholics.
Kilzer also was exposed to music during his basketball days, and learned to play guitar. He pursued a master’s degree at Memphis and taught English literature there.
But then in 1987 he signed a record deal with Geffen Records, and put out a top 10 album. His song “Red Blue Jeans” was a top 10 hit, and he was a fixture as a touring act in North America and Europe.
“I was on major tours with Moody Blues and Little Feat,” he said. “That’s when the disease accelerated into warp speed.”
While touring Europe with Tragically Hip, Kilzer found his way to Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery and the gravesite of Jim Morrison.
“I had a real profound spiritual crisis in Paris in the cemetery,” he said. “I was on tour with Tragically Hip; Geffen sent me because I was torching everywhere in America. I was really about to kill myself – I knew it – with drugs and alcohol. I had that crisis and ended up opting out of the record deal. I came back to Memphis and had a series of other encounters and ended up in jail a lot more.”
It was during one of his stints in jail that he had a spiritual conversion, thanks to a crack addict who ministered to him. After five days in jail, Kilzer went home, showered and found out about Memphis Theological Seminary where he ultimately would earn a master’s of divinity in 2005.
He also entered alcoholics anonymous in July 2000 and hasn’t had a drink since.
Kilzer said he believes all of his personal experiences, along with a desire that existed locally to attempt a ministry that’s focused on people in recovery, led to The Way. And because of the church’s history of being mission-oriented, St. John’s was chosen as home to The Way in 2010.
In the early days of the ministry it started with a meeting held on Wednesday nights. After about eight months of small group work and the creation of a sub-committee for the recovery ministry it launched in October 2010.
“It was a smattering of people the first few months,” Kilzer said. “The congregation and people at St. John’s all have their hands on the rope now. I think when people are honest there isn’t anybody whose lives haven’t been impacted by alcoholism and substance abuse.”
From those first few months of 40 to 50 attendees, the service has grown to 250 to 300 attendees every Friday. There usually are about 25 newcomers each week, some of whom don’t realize they’re on what Kilzer calls a “knife walk.”
Kilzer describes his knife walk in terms of knowing he was staring at death, he just didn’t know where or how it would happen.
“From being someone who couldn’t get through a day without drinking and consigned myself to the fact that it’s kind of a time-release suicide I knew I’d die from it,” he said. “But I didn’t know how. I would say a prayer when in jail that I didn’t kill anyone.”
Kilzer knows many of the men and women who attend The Way on Fridays have their own similar experiences. But everyone who walks in the door is treated the same. And their anonymity always is respected.
Every Friday evening the doors usually open between 5:30 and 5:40. That’s when 60 to 75 homeless people file into the church. Just before 6 as the line snakes out the door people from treatment centers show up.
Music kicks off at 6, someone stands up to talk about the 12 steps and Kilzer speaks about a spiritual component after additional music. There usually are a few minutes of silent prayer, another song and then attendees bring down their papers to be signed.
It’s all concise and fits tightly in a one-hour window.
Looking back to the start of this journey, Kilzer said he had a feeling there could be success if the community’s musicians played a role. He is quick to praise the quality of music that is performed every week.
“I knew this thing would fly or fall according to the musicians,” he said. “If the musicians got their hands on the rope, whether they were in recovery or not, I knew the talent alone it could work. I didn’t suspect it would be anything like it is.”
There always are needs. The ministry’s leaders are volunteers. Monetary donations are appreciated; the musicians, for example, are professional artists who are paid for their work.
“My main concern is being able to be good shepherds to what we have,” Kilzer said. “My concern is that we can sustain, equip, nourish and educate the smaller groups that we have.”
In fact, while the Friday night service is an important part of the work of The Way, possibly just as important are the Wednesday small meetings. Kilzer said he ultimately wants to grow those meetings, starting others in additional locations throughout Midtown.
The recovery communities in larger cities might have more options, but Kilzer said Memphis has a real esprit de corps where people check on each other.