When the Oklahoma Outreach Foundation first announced the speaker for its annual banquet was Libby Cataldi, few Oklahomans knew of this professional educator who once served as head of the prestigious Calverton School in Maryland. Her leadership skills helped this college preparatory school located near the nation’s capitol to rise in reputation as one of the finest academic communities in the United States.
Cataldi became nationally recognized for her ability as both an academic expert and entrepreneur in education. Imagine her shock when she finally came to a place where, after years of illegal drug use, she was forced to admit that her son, Jeff, was really not the handsome and intelligent young man she had always hoped he would be. The truth: he was a drug addict. Her life seemed to grind to a halt as Jeff’s condition worsened to the point that after days and nights in jail, homelessness, and poverty, she admitted that she had trusted lies and was duped by “the double life” of her “chameleon son.”
Her newest book, Stay Close: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction, is an unvarnished account of a journey that began when both her sons were young. As she unfolds the saga of her life (including a recent battle with breast cancer), she openly admits that she is “a much more humble woman” after walking through addiction with Jeff. In a room full of some of Oklahoma’s most prominent government and business leaders, her admission seems to resonate well.
Many nod in agreement to statements such as “you can’t deny an addict their pain” and “at some point, boundaries come into play.” There is a genuine sense of community in the room as most in attendance have a spouse or a child who is an addict. Some in the room are in recovery themselves and are eager to talk about their journey.
“Most of us here are nothing but a bunch of drunks and misfits,” one Oklahoma City attorney said. The recovery community speaks of God—a lot. The words, “a God-thing” are not confined to the Southern Baptist subculture. Many alcoholics and addicts believe in God, but some are a bit spooked by the lack of theological depth or absence of open admission of sin by some Christians who work hard to give the outward impression that life is one grand series of uninterrupted and ever-growing successes. They know better.
“Where is the Church in all of this?” one person asked. “I seem to find more reality away from the Church than in it because when I go to church I always feel like I am being worked for money or made to think life is like a Disney film,” one person now in recovery stated. “I’m not angry, but I need help applying the teachings of the Bible. Christians seem to be the least interested in getting into my life—warts and all.”
Perhaps overstated, but there is a distinct absence of evangelicals—particularly Southern Baptists in the room. For whatever reason, the world of addiction and the pain of those caught it its wake seldom command the attention of many evangelicals—until it strikes them or someone they know.
“Addiction does not discriminate,” Cataldi states.
By the look of those in the room she is right. CEOs sit with plumbers as secretaries talk with attorneys.
Theologian Christopher J.H. Wright, well known for his modern work, The Mission of God, continues to call the Church out of the seclusion of its own subculture and into the world in his new work, The Mission of God’s People. Wright’s understanding of “mission” is rooted as a people who bear a distinct gospel message.
“But those who bear the message must themselves be transformed by it,” he writes. “It is not enough to be heard only; we must be seen as well.”
The local church stands as the outpost of God’s Kingdom in the world, and each Christian congregation lives on a very public stage. In the words of Wheaton College professor Mark Talbot, the world is “a broken stage” filled with “bad actors.” Even Christians remain “bad” in a very real sense of the word. A true Christian stands in the righteous works of Jesus alone and knows (at least those not caught in the grip of self-deception) that within them dwells no good thing (Rom. 7:18). The hypocrisy of purporting to be anything other than a sinner is the brutal honesty that the world must see for the Church to recover an authentic witness among those enslaved to sin. By God’s grace, the works of the devil are being destroyed as each recovered soul stands as a testimony to the power of the Gospel to transform a life by the person and work of Christ (I John 3:8).
Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.