Every year near the end of May, the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge Choir performs at First Lutheran Church in White Bear Lake.
The choir, which is made up of participants in Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge’s chemical dependency treatment and recovery programs, performs a mix of gospel, Christian contemporary and Americana-themed songs accompanied by prerecorded music. The group’s performances — one at each of the church’s four Sunday services — are popular among First Lutheran’s 650 parishioners.
“We love having them here,” said Angie Way, First Lutheran’s associate pastor. “It’s clear that the people in the choir aren’t there because of their singing abilities, but it still sounds good to us. They are very clearly worshiping when they are singing. It’s always a very positive experience.”
The choir has been a central part of Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge since the program was formed nearly 30 years ago. The faith-based organization offers short- and long-term residential and outpatient programs for people facing drug and alcohol addiction. Clients are typically asked to pay only a portion of the monthly $2,426 program fee, said Communications Director Patricia McConeghey.
In 2013, the program operated with an annual budget of $18 million, which came from a mix of sources, including private donors and state and county funds. Money raised through choir performances represented a significant portion of the program’s budget. “About five percent of the money we need to raise for faith-based programming comes from the choir in some way,” McConeghey said.
Last year, Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge was threatened with significant budget cuts when Democrats, concerned about how gays would fare in the environment of its religious values, tried to strip $1.6 million from the state Human Services Bill that had been earmarked for the nonprofit. After lobbying by the organization’s supporters, the funding was restored.
Part of the program
Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge serves some 540 people in its residential locations in Minneapolis, Duluth, Brainerd and Rochester. Singing in one of the program’s choirs is required for every participant. “It is not a surprise,” McConeghey says. “We make it clear that it’s part of the program when they sign up.”
On Sundays, the choirs perform at as many as nine different churches around the state. They also perform at the organization’s many fundraisers and annual Christmas concerts.
Some choir members have singing experience. Most do not.
“We have a real gamut of ability and talent,” said Crystal Kveton, Adult and Teen Challenge Choir director. The choir also features volunteer soloists, mostly people who have never sung in front of an audience before. Kveton, a former middle-school choir director who was drawn to Adult and Teen Challenge because of its Christian perspective, offers potential soloists a six-week crash-course in vocal technique.
Occasionally, a soloist will knock everyone’s socks off with his or her spirit and skill.
“There have been people who get up and sing and I’ll say, ‘Oh my word. When were you going to tell us that you can sing like that?’ ” Kveton laughed. “Sometimes, even people who’ve never tried it before have this amazing talent and you just want to let them loose with it. Other times, a person will volunteer to solo, and I’ll have to take them aside and say, ‘Maybe this isn’t the best role for you.’ ”
After a performance, churches often take a free-will offering for the group. Other times, money comes from a different source, McConeghey explains: “Sometimes a church will offer a stipend or a grant directly out of their mission fund.”
Music as message
Singing works for Adult and Teen Challenge participants, said Senior Clinical Director Saul Selby, because it provides an opportunity for people fighting addiction to let down their inhibitions and surrender to a higher power. “It’s a different kind of challenge,” he said. “Performing forces them to open up and express raw emotion in a public setting.”
The words the choir is singing also provide inspiration, McConeghey added.
“Things that you say when you sing can be very therapeutic. One of the songs we perform says, ‘I am not going back. I am moving ahead, and I’ve given my life to a new way.’ Those words and feelings will stay in a person’s mind later when they are facing temptation.”
Beyond singing, Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge Choir performances usually feature heartfelt testimonials by clients who speak openly of their addiction histories. The choir’s performances are like an AA meeting — with a twist. After the singing, selected performers step forward to bare their souls for the audience. Sharing recovery stories is voluntary.
“Our performers are aware that they are probably not talking to other people with addiction problems,” McConeghey said. “That makes them nervous. But what comes out of the sharing usually is something significant. Many of our clients think, ‘How will they understand if they’ve never abused drugs or alcohol?’ Then, they open up and honestly tell their stories. All of the sudden a group of strangers seem to understand and care for them.”
Stories inspire congregation
Though sometimes choir members’ testimony can be a bit raw, Way said their stories of struggle and redemption are what inspires her congregation the most.
“We usually do a little disclaimer before the testimonials,” she said. Families often worship together at First Lutheran, so it is important to get the message out to parents. “Some of the things people share may be something that kids will ask their parents about later.”
But sad and graphic details of struggle are inspiring. Way said that members of her congregation are often moved to tears by the choir members’ stories.
“We just find it to be a really encouraging experience for everyone to hear the stories of how the power of God changes lives,” Way said. “We find it very encouraging in our own walk of discipleship to see that God is changing their lives and can change and transform ours too. It its mutually encouraging, a testimony to where God leads us.”