Hope from addiction

Hope from addiction

As 20-year-old Matthias “Matty” Ponce-de-Leon laid tied to a bed in a Mexican sanatorium screaming at the ceiling, you would have a hard time seeing him as a future pastor and founder of a ministry helping those struggling with addictions all across North Carolina.

By that time, Ponce-de-Leon had dropped out of college and seemingly wasted a music scholarship at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University. He was also a full-blown crack and heroin addict.

Yet amid the most hopeless six-month period of his life, Ponce-de-Leon heard words that would stick with him and eventually bear fruit years later. 

“Years ago, I struggled with marijuana but managed to quit with God’s help and the church’s support,” said Ponce-de-Leon’s uncle when he visited the young man at the sanatorium. “There will come a day when you’ll find your solution, and you’ll see the world anew, with the wonder of a child’s eyes.”

But in that sanitorium, Ponce-de-Leon couldn’t see it. The hope his uncle described seemed like a million miles away.

Yet it’s that distant hope that today propels Blessed Hope Ministries, the ministry Ponce-de-Leon started to train North Carolina churches to help addicts like him.

Photo courtesy of Matty Ponce-de-Leon. Matty Ponce-de-Leon says addiction ministry can be messy, but it involves stepping into the fallen world to shine the light of Christ.

Nearly a decade after that conversation in Mexico, while residing at a halfway house in western North Carolina – the 16th addiction recovery institution Ponce-de-Leon had attended since the age of 18 – God got a hold of him powerfully. In the back bedroom of this little farmhouse, the young man didn’t have a preacher to share the gospel with him. He didn’t have a tract where he could read the ABC’s of salvation.

But Ponce-de-Leon had the gospel seeds his uncle had planted years earlier and the many, many seeds planted by friends and strangers alike in the decade since. For years, God had put people in his path who would say to him: “I know you’re struggling. I know you’re searching. Let me tell you about my Jesus.”

And they’d share the gospel story of a Savior who died on the cross for everyone’s sins – even an addict on his 16th second chance – and then rose three days later to prove His victory over death. 

“When I was in that back bedroom of that halfway house, all by myself, their message that they delivered, pierced my heart,” Ponce-de-Leon said. “I cried out to Jesus, and that began a journey and a rejoicing that I am still not over. It’s the desperate need of His help every single day that keeps me grounded, recognizing that everything I am and everything I have is because of Him.” 

When Ponce-de-Leon was at the halfway house, he started attending Friendship Baptist Church, a small country church in Elkin, N.C.

“They loved me and my family back to life. Over time, several couples and individuals, along with a wonderful pastor, took us under their wings,” said Ponce-de-Leon, who now serves as the pastor of Friendship Baptist. “They discipled us, teaching us how to be a Christian husband, wife and family with patience and love, never demanding that we sanctify at a certain pace.”

Almost immediately, Ponce-de-Leon felt God was calling him into preaching and pastoral ministry. Slowly, with the support of his wife, he began preaching at nearby churches and completed an undergraduate and three graduate degrees at Liberty University. His doctoral thesis was titled “An Integrated Approach to Developing Pastoral Efficacy for Addiction Crisis Ministry.” While at Friendship, Ponce-de-Leon was ordained in the gospel ministry and went on to pastor local congregations.

Photo courtesy of Matty Ponce-de-Leon. In addition to pastoring Friendship Baptist Church in Elkin, Matty Ponce-de-Leon holds trainings and consultations to give pastors and churches the tools they need to minister effectively to those struggling with addiction.

Throughout that time, Ponce-de-Leon was open about his recovery journey. He earned a reputation as the “addiction guy” among local pastors. When other churches needed help to engage someone struggling with an addiction, they’d reach out to him. 

Two questions frequently came his way from fellow pastors. “What do I do?” and “Where do I send people?”

About five years ago, Ponce-de-Leon started Blessed Hope Ministries to help churches answer these questions more effectively. Today, he holds trainings and consultations throughout the state designed to give pastors and churches the tools they need to minister effectively to those struggling with addiction.

“Ultimately, by positioning ourselves at the beginning of someone’s recovery journey and offering meaningful help, we increase our chances to walk alongside them, deepening our discipleship opportunities,” Ponce-de-Leon said. “This conviction motivated me to start Blessed Hope Ministries, focusing on the church being an integral part of the recovery process, rather than directing people elsewhere for help.”

While Blessed Hope Ministries serves as a crucial resource in this journey, Ponce-de-Leon also encourages pastors and churches to use a variety of other resources to support recovery, emphasizing a collaborative approach to addiction ministry.

The ministry has helped pastors like Stephen Robbins, who serves on staff at Elkin Valley Baptist Church in Elkin, get a handle on helping people mired in addiction. Surry County, where Elkin Valley is located, has experienced a surge of addictions in recent years, from opioids to alcohol. Like many other pastors, Robbins wanted to help but he struggled to know how.

“I constantly felt inadequate in the face of this challenge,” Robbins said. “You try to help people and you don’t feel like you’re making inroads.”

But participating in a training event from Ponce-de-Leon and Blessed Hope Ministries helped, he says. Not only did he learn more about how addictions work, but he discovered practical solutions that helped him later when an opportunity came to help someone.

Most importantly, Robbins says, he doesn’t feel as helpless now. Last Christmas, when he met someone struggling with an addiction at a holiday event at the church, he had a meaningful, gospel-saturated conversation. 

“Because of my experience with Blessed Hope Ministries, I approached that situation differently than I would have before,” Robbins said.

According to Robbins, the laminated resource list from Blessed Hope Ministries is especially valuable for guiding crisis-related meetings with individuals struggling with addiction. Robbins calls it a roadmap you can keep in your top desk drawer for whenever those important conversations happen. Besides a list of references on addictions, it also includes a number of important frequently asked questions.

Ponce-de-Leon is quick to say that ministry to people struggling with addictions isn’t easy, but that shouldn’t dissuade the church.

“Ministry is inherently messy, a truth we face whether in addiction ministry or any other,” Ponce-de-Leon said. “We’re stepping into the fallen world to shine the light of Christ, facing inevitable resistance. But being realistic about this messiness is crucial, without painting a rosy picture. We don’t have to look any further than our Savior, who left perfect glory to rescue us in this imperfect world.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Tobin Perry is a freelance writer with more than 20 years of experience writing about faith and ministry. For more information about Blessed Hope Ministries and to learn more about trainings available, visit blessedhopeministries.info or email Ponce-de-Leon at [email protected].)

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