On the first Friday of the month at the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribal Administrative Center there is an event to celebrate and encourage recovery from addiction called Sobriety Friday.
The monthly event was founded by Gordon Thayer and his wife, Sheila, when the couple moved back to the reservation in 2011 from Minneapolis, where they had created the same event at the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Urban Center.
“We say it is where friends meet and new friends are made,” he said. “It is a time for the community to come together to hear a message of hope and encouragement.”
Last Friday, March 1, was special for Sobriety Friday because the Community Trail Blazers from Hayward Area Memorial Hospital and Water’s Edge Senior Living Community, led by Linda Waystedt, along with Marilyn Worley and Allison Cuddy, supplied and prepared the evening meal and offered door prizes.
“We thought it is a good example of a community working together,” said Thayer of Sobriety Friday, which focuses on Christianity and a “relationship with Jesus.”
Thayer says the cooperative support from the hospital is an example of the joint effort needed to respond to the drug epidemic that has seen an explosion in heroin and methamphetamine addiction.
“It takes a collective effort by local government, tribal government and the faith community to make it work,” Thayer said.
“Community Trail Blazers are a team of 10 employees that serve as champions for community involvement for Hayward Area Memorial Hospital and Water’s Edge,” said Cherie Morgan, public relations director for the hospital. “The team members meet twice per month and discuss opportunities for our organization and employees to support our community. The members reach out to a variety of community organizations and causes to see how we can help support their efforts. The team then works on promoting those opportunities to staff, coordinating volunteers and scheduling events.”
Faith and tradition and recovery
After two tours of duty in the Vietnam War, for Thayer the element of faith was critical in his own recovery from alcohol and marijuana addiction, and also in his wife’s recovery from a heroin addiction.
Many tribal elders emphasize a return to cultural practices and beliefs as a foundation to steering away from addiction. There’s even a major campaign on the reservation using the slogan, “Culture is the Antidrug.”
Thayer respects those who see cultural grounding as instrumental in staying sober and says it is important to respect the “diversity of beliefs.”
He also understands the trepidation of those who see Christianity as religion imposed on Native Americans with a legacy of undermining the culture.
“I felt my relationship was not with a religion in the past that has abused Native people and Native culture, but Gordon Thayer’s real relationship is with Jesus Christ, my personal relationship,” he said.
Though the emphasis is a Christian worldview, Sobriety Friday, Thayer said, is not a church service and doesn’t exclude others if they don’t believe.
“Sometimes there is a misconception that the Christian way is just the white man’s way, and I don’t believe that,” he said. “We have a diversity of people within our community with different beliefs, and I believe the strength of our community is our diversity. We have those who are of the tribal culture, the traditional spiritual values. We have those who are Christian, and we have others that are neither one, but I think we have to respect the diversity. There is not just one way. It’s up to a person’s choice, and one of our hardest things is to let people know Sobriety Friday is faith-based focused but it is not a church service.”
Besides Sobriety Friday, another ministry offering is Life Recovery in Christ Wednesday Bible study at Thayer’s home using the Recovery Bible, which notes the famous Alcoholic Anonymous 12 Steps and verses to support each step.
And the third week in August, a Victory Over Addiction and Gospel Music Festival is held, featuring three physicians who have a background in treating addiction, including locally Dr. David Brown, former director of the Cleveland Clinic, and participants hear from speakers who have been in long-term recovery.
Thayer — a former LCO tribal chairman — and Sheila have been helping people with dire needs and recovery for over 30 years.
Sheila is a licensed alcohol and drug counselor and working on a master’s degree in family therapy.
Gordon has helped create housing options for late-stage alcoholics and the homeless and was also part of a team that implemented Hennepin County’s detox program.
For 30 years the couple have made yearly trips to Mishkeegogamang First Nation Reserve in Canada to minister to a small band of Ojibwe people, and they will return again in late March for seminars: he with a father-song group and she with women.
“I’ve had a career of helping people who fall between the cracks and don’t get services,” he said.
Locally, he sees a lack of services for helping the addicted and those in recovery— recovery, which, he said, is a long-term process.
One big issue facing those in recovery is environment, being surrounded by friends and family who continue to abuse substances while one is trying to stay sober.
Thayer said he had to make the decision in his life not to visit bars and stay away from those who were abusing. He says it’s about making a choice.
“You really have to make a change,” he said. “You choose your friends carefully who are not using. I went through that myself in the late ‘70s and ‘80s and (chose) not to hang out in bars.”
Instrumental in Thayer’s life, he said, was a mother who prayed for him. He calls people like his mother an “anchor point,” those who provide stability. He contends each person in recovery needs that anchor point and, in part, Sobriety Friday offers a place to meet others who can provide stability.
“We try to build trusting relationships with people in our community,” he said. “That’s not always easy and you have to show you are living and walking the talk.”