In the Grays Ferry neighborhood of South Philadelphia, religion is a big part of some people’s recovery.
When Father Douglas McKay delivers his weekly mass in Grays Ferry, he’s often reminded of his childhood.
The third floor of the St. Raphael’s Chapel on 30th Street near Dickinson, where McKay hosts Calix recovery meetings, is the same floor where he attended seventh and eighth grade. McKay can remember learning about John F. Kennedy’s death just down the hall from his recovery meetings, in his seventh grade classroom. Now, it’s a game room featuring a fake road sign that reads “JESUS: Toll Free Bridge.”
McKay is the founder of Our House Ministries, a support organization that focuses on Catholicism to assist people in their recovery from addiction since 1997. Every Tuesday, Mckay holds a 6 p.m. mass followed by a Calix Society meeting, an organization that focuses on the importance of Catholicism in a person’s recovery.
“It was a dark place at the time,” said McKay, who was ordained in 1982.
About a decade ago, community residents set out to rehabilitate the building. It took more than two years and during that time, McKay learned about the Calix Society, which has the slogan, “We substitute the cup that sanctifies for the cup that stupefies.” Calix is Latin for chalice.
Prior to his exposure to Calix, he would host a similar spiritual meeting before Alcoholics Anonymous sessions.
After the rehabilitation of the school, all of the recovery meetings were moved to the third floor.
McKay said Calix is not a substitute for AA, and it’s still important to follow the 12 steps. Many Calix members also attend AA meetings regularly. Calix forges a Catholic identity within the 12-step process.
“In an AA meeting, you can’t talk about your Catholic faith, the Blessed Mother, the blessed sacraments, always you talk about your higher power,” he said. “Here is where we can talk freely about our Catholic faith.”
Kathy Diering, 63, likes to refer to Grays Ferry as “Grace Ferry.”
“When you get in there and you see faces and people, you see the grace and the fabric of Grays Ferry and it’s so beautiful through our ups and downs,” said Diering, who has been in recovery for 18 years. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Diering was dual-diagnosed in the early 1990s with depression and an addiction to alcohol and diet pills.
When she confided in McKay about her addiction, his advice stuck with her.
“He had a basketball in his hand,” Diering said. “He dropped the ball and it bounced and he said, ‘Bounce back up.’ When he said that, there was no guilt or condemnation.”
Diering said religion has helped her cope with her substance use disorder and loss. Her two daughters, Donna and Kim, died of a suicide and an overdose.
“Because I have these tools of my faith and helping other people, it really helped me become not so [destructive] anymore and start dealing with life on life’s terms,” said Diering, who serves as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion during McKay’s masses.
Mary Harper works as a program analyst for the Faith and Spiritual Affairs division of the city’s Department of Behavioral Health & Intellectual disAbility Services. This division works to get faith and spirituality into people’s treatment plans by training organizations.
She said her office subscribes to the idea that faith can play a big role in recovery.
“Faith is a protective factor,” Harper said. “It provides hope, and that’s really important in the recovery process, that you have hope that you can get out of that.”
McKay said Grays Ferry is a suffering community. He’s seen hundreds of overdoses in his life in the neighborhood. His brother passed away in a crack house at 30 years old.
“I always have seen what the priest meant to the people, the viewings and how the priest would come and bring great continuation of families,” McKay said.
He said when he listens to people tell their stories of sobriety, they all have a “God story.”
“You can’t beat drugs without grace,” McKay said. “There’s a devil and he has his tools, drugs and alcohol … that darkens the soul and spirit and brings us down. That’s where faith comes in.”
Brian McLaughlin, 29, has been in recovery since September 2016. He has also lived in Grays Ferry his whole life. He said it took him finding his faith again to enter recovery.
He added that he feels more comfortable attending meetings where he can openly discuss his religion.
“At AA, if you even say church or God, they call you a holy roller,” said McLaughlin, who is McKay’s nephew. McLaughlin’s father was one of the advocates who helped rehabilitate the school.
Every day, he wears a medal representing both Matt Talbot — a patron saint that Calix members use as a model for recovery — and the Virgin Mary around his neck. Last month, after years of struggling to find employment due to his addiction, he got a job as an assistant in a post office.
“This program, it’s more free will,” he added. “You don’t think you can do this without your faith. If you look back at the 12 steps, God plays a role in nearly every one of them.”