New flock alters spirit of church The troubled find haven at Nazarene


Sometimes, she was so strung out on drugs and alcohol come Sunday mornings that the mother of four would pack her brood off on a church bus so she could "lay back down and be hung over."

Now, Pam, who asked to be identified by her first name only, is joining her children at the Brooklyn Church of the Nazarene, led through the doors by the youngsters when they had roles in a Christmas pageant.

She is among a growing number of drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, and poor, hungry or homeless people who are finding sanctuary at the church, once a place of worship for middle-class families from Brooklyn and surrounding areas.

The shift three years ago in the church's mission was not popular with some of the Rev. Dennis Hancock's flock, he said last week. In fact, membership dropped from about 120 members in 1990 to 50 now. But those who remain are committed to that mission, he added.

"The people who were not settled with this left," Mr. Hancock said. "The ones who are here are very supportive."

Often, the church reaches its new flock through their children, said Mr. Hancock, the pastor for five years. "It is not unusual for a child to come to church and say, 'My daddy's drunk on the living room floor this morning,' " he said.

Pam, 29, said her guilt "began eating me."

"I knew in my heart it wasn't right what I was doing," she said, holding her 3-year-old daughter, Ashley, on her lap and toying with the little girl's ponytail.

It was at the church that Pam found the help she needed to start kicking her habit. Six months ago, the church got her into a drug and alcohol recovery program. Now, she's clean, her finances are in order and her children have begun to respect her, she said.

The change in the church's mission began almost out of desperation, said Mr. Hancock, who has twice fought back from his own addictions to prescription drugs and alcohol. The church was dying "a slow death," he said. Older, longtime parishioners were dying. Their children were moving away. If the church were to survive, its doors had to be opened to others.

But the same parishioners who supported him through his recovery did not want to be around "those kinds" of people on a regular basis, he said. "People who called themselves Christian would look and say, 'I don't want myself or my family involved with them,' " said Mr. Hancock, 47, who lives three blocks away from the church with his family. "To me, that goes against the Bible."

The longtime members who stayed in the church don't deny their fears of the addicts and prostitutes. But they add that helping someone who really needs it overrides those feelings. "All they need is someone to talk to," said Mary Rogers, a Pasadena resident who has attended the church for 12 years and helps out Sundays in the church's soup kitchen.

And while the loss of some members hurt the church's ability to stock food for its soup kitchen and pantry, it also has found new friends among those it has helped. Pam, who now works as a carpenter, often comes by and volunteers.

It's her way of returning a favor, she said.

"I think about the beer every now and then, but I don't think about the drugs much."

And when she does, she said, she knows that help from the church is just a phone call away.

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