BY JENNY MUSCAT
Addicts taking drugs in the street. Brothels and rough sleepers. Not the first image of the Holy Land that springs to mind. Yet this is the situation Church Mission Society local partner Alexei Nemchenko is working to address as he puts his call into action with Aviv Ministry, serving addicts in Beer Sheva and Tel Aviv.
Philip Bingham, mission personnel manager at CMS, described what he saw on a recent visit to Tel Aviv: “As we walked along the street from the Tel Aviv central bus station, Dov [Bikas, founder of Aviv Ministry] gestured to a row of low metal doors. ‘All brothels,’ he said. On the street where his group runs a drop-in for addicts, ‘More brothels. They are waiting for customers so they can pay for their next fix.’ Looking through a door I saw a sofa with a couple of women sitting on it and behind it three wooden cubicles. On a couple of street corners, people were openly preparing their next fix.”
The Israel Anti Drug Authority notes that since the 1980s drug addiction in Israel “has evolved from a marginal concern to a central problem,” with approximately 300,000 drug users in the country (http://www.antidrugs.org.il/english/pages/1315.aspx), of whom around 25,000 would be classed as addicts whose lives are focused on finding their next fix.
See potential, not problems
Dov, Alexei and their colleagues look beyond the circumstances of these addicts to see the potential they have to live out their own call in God’s mission.
Alexei has a Jewish background and grew up in Ukraine, where he had a successful career as a sailor. He came to Israel with his family in 1999, working as a sailor in Haifa. He settled into life in Israel, establishing a good career and enjoying a comfortable family life. However, this was disrupted as tragedy struck. Alexei explains, “Everything began to crumble with the death of my mother…. And a year later my wife left me. It was after these two events that I suddenly realised how tired I was of life. It was not just a depression, it was a disaster…. I started abusing alcohol as an anaesthetic and sedative.”
Alexei lost his job and struggled to find the strength to go on. In desperation he cried out to God: “I told myself that only God could save me, if he existed. And I prayed to him, not really believing in what I was doing…. The most surprising thing for me was that God actually responded to my prayer. From that moment on everything went differently.”
Alexei went to a rehab centre and turned to Jesus. He explains, “There was no miraculous instant healing. Outwardly my situation continued to be complicated, but deep inside I felt the power that led me through life. Following this power, I completely restored my life. God gave me everything that I had lost, and even more…. But this time I achieved all that not by myself. I know that God did it all.”
Find the power
This restoration led Alexei to want to serve God and see others who had been trapped by addiction meet the transforming power of Christ. He says, “I want them to find him and his freedom, so that he would change their lives as he has changed mine.”
Alexei is now manager of the Aviv Ministry rehab house in Beer Sheva, where up to 10 men live as they go through a Christian rehab programme. The focus is on the power of Jesus to transform, and discipleship is a core element of life – Alexei walks alongside the men in the centre, discipling them and providing spiritual support.
Aviv Ministry was founded by Dov Bikas in 2005, and combines practical assistance for addicts and prostitutes with sharing the message of Christ’s love. Alongside the house, the ministry runs the Aviv Center in Tel Aviv. Here, those on the streets can find help with basic needs such as food, clothing and hygiene – the centre sees hundreds of addicts every month. Their main purpose is “to help people get fully restored, return to normal life and to their families, become a blessing to others and bring good fruit.” Most of those who volunteer at the Aviv Center are ex-addicts who want to help those like them find salvation and restoration.
Alexei and Dov know from experience that only Jesus can completely transform lives. As such, they take seriously the importance of engaging with God through his Word: “We pay much attention to the quality of the teaching of God’s Word in our rehab. At present we hold Bible studies every evening with the help of the most mature and responsible brothers from our church as Bible teachers. Many of them are former addicts themselves.”
Life at the rehab involves much more than just Bible study: “In addition to the Bible studies, the rehabilitants attend our church, Desert Flowers, and serve there (preparing the hall for the Sabbath meeting, managing the sound equipment and slides, etc.), go to share the gospel and feed the street people in Tel Aviv.”
Men arrive at the rehab at the very beginning of their journey out of addiction, and the hope is that they are equipped to find employment and live independently.
Although some don’t complete the programme (and slip back into their old lifestyle), many can testify to seeing their lives turned around. In late 2017 many of the centre’s residents were preparing for independent life. Earlier this year, one mature resident was able to move out into a social apartment from the local municipality with the help of Aviv.
Journeys to freedom
Another resident, Roman, became a believer in Jesus in 2006. Everything went well as he started following Jesus, but as time went on he became disillusioned by what he saw, as some fellow believers turned out not to be genuine. After moving away and cutting links with those believers, he drifted away from faith and became dependent on alcohol. He explained, “This could not last forever and finally I turned for help to the rehabilitation centre in Beer Sheva.”
Roman spent more than two years there, and says, “I am very grateful both to our direct supervisors and to all the others who care for people like me. Thinking back over everything that has happened to me I have no doubts that the Lord God led me this way with the purpose of bringing me back to himself!”
Today Roman is studying at Israel Bible College.
Michael is a professional musician and worked in theatres and bars for many years. In this context he gradually became an alcoholic. After arriving in Israel 16 years ago, his situation got worse and worse until he became homeless.
Then he found out about Christian rehab programmes from a former drinking companion and went to a Christian rehab. He became a believer in Jesus, but when he left the rehab and tried to live alone, he returned to alcohol.
He has been living in the rehab at Beer Sheva for two years now. He keeps away from alcohol and takes care of the whole rehab as housekeeper. He also cooks meals for the residents, as well as regularly going to serve at the Aviv Center. He wants to serve God with his musical talents.
Invite them in
As the residents move through the programme, the number of people in the rehab can vary – at times they have been so full as to need extra beds. Yet when there are empty spaces, Alexei explains, “We visit places where drug addicts and alcoholics hang out, talk to them and invite them to our rehab. Please pray that these people respond to the call and make decisions to change their lives, get rid of the addiction and find God.”
In the longer term, Alexei and his colleagues have a vision to open a halfway house for people to move into as they complete the rehab programme and prepare for the transition to independent life. This would also allow them to accommodate more residents and reach more addicts with the transforming love of Christ.
The Call in Action: PRAY
- Pray for the outreach work of Aviv, that more people will encounter Jesus and be restored.
- Pray for the dream of a halfway house, that this will become a reality.
- Pray for those who have recently completed the rehab programme and are starting a new chapter in their lives.