Seeing Jetson diligently and cheerfully going about his daily work at the Life Challenge Detroit campus, you would never guess that he had been imprisoned for nearly 40 years.
It wasn’t notorious Jackson prison he was in, but one far worse, sinister beyond compare. One where he was locked up, rotting away in solitary confinement, unable to escape. He was behind the cold and merciless iron bars of alcoholism, serving a miserable life (death) sentence.
To understand Jetson’s story and how it all began, you have only to travel down the street. Literally down Pierson, the very street that Life Challenge sits on today. It looked different back in 1973, when Jetson’s family moved here. Houses that are now abandoned and burned-out, marked in neon orange spray paint for demolition, were then part of a neighborhood of well-kept family homes in an average, working-class part of Detroit. The demographic shift fallout from the ‘67 riots (the so-called ‘white flight’) was just starting to be felt, but when Jetson and his family moved into their home on Pierson, they were the first African-American family to settle here. That had its own fallout, and racism–from some, not all–showed its ugly face against them.
Yet it was a relatively happy upbringing in the close-knit family that his parents nurtured. The modest four-bedroom home teemed with their ten kids, five girls and five boys, and dad worked hard to provide while mom took care of the homefront. She was also a God-fearing Christian woman, and back in New York the family had always gone to church, with Jetson gladly participating in the choir and singing groups. But now, living in Detroit with his family, he was no longer a teen, and he landed a good job at a Chrysler plant. Church wasn’t a priority for him and he focused on his job. Remarkably, even though there was a family history of alcoholism on his dad’s side, Jetson had never touched a drop of alcohol in his life. Until one day, when he was 23 years old, he took that fateful first drink.
It was a rough crowd working in that Chrysler plant, and Jetson was being worn down by the joking and even jeering about being antisocial and not drinking with the guys. Eventually, he gave in and had a beer in the parking lot. It felt pretty good, he thought, and certainly made it easier to talk with people. It was a short trip to the bar across the street, and an even shorter trip from beer to vodka. What started as being social over time spiraled downward into heavy drinking on a daily basis.
[Jetson] had been in the program almost three months when it happened. Pastor Jeff was speaking in a chapel service and asked if anyone wanted to receive the gift of salvation. Jetson raised his hand and poured out his heart in a sincere prayer of repentance. And just like that the bars were broken and Jetson experienced freedom from his prison for the first time! Freedom from sin and guilt and despair and addiction, freedom to live as he was meant to, in relationship with a loving Lord and Savior.
Jetson’s life on Pierson was a broken record of working and drinking. Once in a great while, urged by his mom, he went to church (even going while drunk). His problems–his alcoholism–didn’t go unnoticed at his job. They tried to help by getting him into a secular rehab program. He did his 45-day stint and as soon as he got out, started drinking again. Being sober for a short time never meant he was free, even for millisecond. The chokehold of addiction to alcohol was always on him and his next attempt to detox ended the same way. Eventually he lost his job. His mom pushed him to try a Sacred Heart addiction program, and then it was AA, with the same right-back-to-drinking results. A few rehabs turned into seven or eight, all futile attempts at sobriety, as the months slid into years, the years into decades.
Looking back, Jetson recognizes there were divinely-ordained moments, fruits of a mother’s prayers for her son, that show God at work in his life. Life Challenge was on Grand River then, before relocating to the center on Pierson, and would often hold rallies and concerts, reaching out to the neighborhood. It was no coincidence that Jetson wandered by one of those concerts and met Rev. Cal Bonzelaar (then-director and father of current Executive Director Jeff Bonzelaar). His mom came to him shortly after that and pleaded with him to give God a chance, telling him he needed to go Teen Challenge, as LC was then called. Jetson was sure of his answer: “I have no mind for that. I will NEVER go there!” he told her.
It was in 2011 when he reached his lowest point, 60 years old, a hopeless, broken alcoholic. He remembers lying on his face and begging God to help him. “This is not me!,” he cried. “Please, take the taste for this away!” Little did he know that help was coming in an unexpected form. Three of his sisters were plotting to get him into Life Challenge. As Jetson puts it, “My sisters came at me, and I knew they meant business.” There was no choice but to agree and soon after he found himself in the program. Never say never.
He was scared, not knowing what to expect from this place. Could it be that the hope and help he had needed for years had been just a few blocks away? To his surprise, he was shown love, kindness and respect from the start. It eased his fears, opened his heart. Deep inside he knew this time would be different. They weren’t giving him pointers on how to stop drinking, they were telling him about Jesus Christ and the freedom and forgiveness He offers.
He had been in the program almost three months when it happened. Pastor Jeff was speaking in a chapel service and asked if anyone wanted to receive the gift of salvation. Jetson raised his hand and poured out his heart in a sincere prayer of repentance. And just like that the bars were broken and Jetson experienced freedom from his prison for the first time! Freedom from sin and guilt and despair and addiction, freedom to live as he was meant to, in relationship with a loving Lord and Savior.
When asked what that freedom means to him, Jetson gave this beautiful, simple description: “My whole life I was always frowning up. God has allowed me to smile again.”
It was not always easy, making it through the year-long program there were times when it was a struggle not to give up. The alcohol had done damage to his memory over the years and he didn’t find the classes easy. But with God’s grace and a lot of help and patience from the staff, he made it through and even stayed on as an intern for 8 months. He then came on staff working in the kitchen, eventually as kitchen coordinator, and now serves as a driver in Operations. Jetson lives and works at the center and on any given day, one is sure to see him bustling around, happily serving, ever on the lookout in case anyone needs help. “I have always loved to help people and serve, ever since I was a little child,” Jetson reflects. “And I believe in doing my best for Jesus.”
Now, at 64, Jetson looks to the future with hope. God is still working on him, he admits, and he is learning every day how to trust the Lord more. His health is improving, his family elated. Now he is the one praying for them, and he knows unsaved siblings are watching his life closely. His beloved mom passed away before she could see the answer to her prayers, but Jetson is comforted knowing he will see her again one day. He aspires to get a modest little place of his own someday. But nearby, not too far. After all, he sees Life Challenge as his extended family, his brothers and sisters in Christ. And this street, this neighborhood? This is home.