For Latinxs in addiction treatment or recovery, outreach organizations like The West Kensington Ministry offer the peer and community support they’re looking for.

Being a Puerto Rican from Philadelphia never had an adverse effect on Hector Rodriguez’s life until he began treatment for his substance use disorder.

“I know how to speak English, but I can’t express myself,” said Hector Rodriguez, who is currently in treatment at The Wedge Recovery Center.  “It’s really tough on me that I can’t talk to my counselor in Spanish, which is better for me.”

Rodriguez started substance use treatment while serving time in prison. Since his release, he has used The Wedge’s addiction and behavioral health services. He said the program provides counseling services in Spanish, but those services are limited, which is why he was assigned a counselor who only speaks English despite his preference for a Spanish-speaking counselor.

The language barrier is just one of many obstacles that members of the Latinx community face when seeking treatment that impedes their recovery efforts and makes it difficult to progress. Other barriers like work demands, stigma within the Latinx community, and discrimination against Latinxs are common in Philadelphia. According to Rodriguez, Latinxs in need of treatment are often overlooked by outreach organizations as people who sell rather than use drugs.

“We are being blamed for everything that has been happening in the [Kensington] area,” Rodriguez said. “Many Latinos want to change, but they can’t because there are not many resources for these people.”

“Many Latinos want to change, but they can’t because there are not many resources for these people.”

— Hector Rodriguez, Person in recovery

But for Latinxs in addiction treatment or recovery, outreach organizations like The West Kensington Ministry offer the peer and community support they’re looking for.

The West Kensington Ministry, which was opened in 2008 by Reverend Adan Mairena, is located across the street from Norris Square Park at North Hancock Street and West Susquehanna Avenue. The church’s surrounding communities have a first-hand experience of what it’s like to be affected by substance use disorders and how the barriers of a cultural difference along with the stigma of drug use have made it a slow process to achieve overall recovery in the community.

According to Mairena, the Latinx population in Philadelphia sometimes feels neglected by city officials and advocacy groups. Mairena said their concerns are often not presented in the media and their reputation as a society by others is unfairly and inaccurately portrayed, which creates a distance between Latinx folks and healthy paths to a successful recovery.

To combat these stigmas, Mairena has sought and continues to develop the West Kensington Ministry as a space for those who fight every day to achieve a life of recovery from poverty, incarceration, substance use disorders, and homelessness. Many Latinxs in recovery gather there in solidarity, seeking to regain a purpose in life.

According to John*, 50, who is in recovery and has been a member of the ministry since 2015, being a part of the ministry’s community has played a key role in his ongoing recovery process, which he attributes to the church’s welcoming environment. He said anyone struggling with anything can find help at the West Kensington Ministry.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, everybody gets involved, everybody has a part to do with this congregation,” John said. “No one is singled or left out, and that’s why I love this church. I can come here and roam in this church freely. If I need to get something done, I don’t feel like I have to jump through fiery hoops, all I have to do is ask for help.”

John was invited to the ministry by a member of the church who is involved in its recovery groups and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, which are held two times each week in both open and closed formats. Open meetings welcome people without direct experience with addiction to learn from those with first-hand experiences how to help combat the addiction crisis in the neighborhood. Closed meetings are for people with direct experience.

John said he was hesitant about engaging at first, but after meeting more members, he felt welcome in what he saw as a kind of family.

“I started getting involved with the church, and I felt like I belonged here,” he said.

Since becoming part of the church, Mairena said John has changed for the better. He walks around the neighborhood giving out flyers and talking to people in the surrounding community.  

“Getting involved in the congregation and giving my part back to the community has helped me to remain in recovery.”

— John*, West Kensington Ministry member

Julio* and Ivan* have been members of the ministry throughout their recovery process. Julio has been in recovery since April 2015 and joined the church shortly after. Over time, he has learned what it is like to struggle with addiction by working with the community.

Ivan began developing creative outlets, such as music and writing, before entering treatment and has continued to pursue them throughout his recovery. Thanks to the access to the West Kensington Ministry’s music recording studio, he said he’s been able to further explore his talents, as well as begin reading his poetry aloud during services.

“We have a playwright class here on Tuesdays and taking the class let me discover many things I did not know I could do,” Ivan said. “Now I can go back and fix a few things I’ve been working on.”

Ivan said that most of the help he has seen offered to people experiencing homelessness and substance use disorder is shelter and food, but that in order to reach these individuals, people need to go beyond just those services and re-instill a sense of value and self-worth. That’s what the ministry has been for him: a place where he feels valued.

Although Mairena is not in recovery, he knows how to interact and relate to those who are, Julio said.

“A sense of belonging, having relationships and making connections are what I’ve seen personally what keeps people coming back here. Staying in a positive mindset can feel like a job sometimes, which is why is essential for them to stay constantly connected,” Mairena said. “It keeps my people happy and healthy.”

By helping their community, folks in recovery feel empowered having the opportunity to engage in something positive, said Mairena. Providing them with ways to serve the community and including them in coming up with new ideas has made church members feel valued, he added.

Julio is currently the outreach member for the ministry, a position given to him by Mairena that requires him to go out and talk to people about the church and share connections to resources. According to Mairena, since his new appointment, Julio has successfully gotten two people connected with shelter and treatment resources.

“Getting involved in the congregation and giving my part back to the community has helped me to remain in recovery,” said Julio.

*Names marked with an asterisk are those of people who requested we use their first name only due to the sensitivity of the subject matter.