The Addicts Rehabilitation Center in Harlem was founded in 1957, and is the oldest and largest drug treatment facilities in New York City, having seen more than 20,000 addicts receive treatment. It offers support for both early and long-term recovery by giving each person therapeutic support and an individualized "Blueprint for Success" helping each substance abuser put his or her life back together.
One of the important and unique parts of this center is its own choral group. The ARC Gospel Choir is an a cappella singing group of 32 singers, made up entirely of former addicts. It is open to any graduate of ARC's program who remains drug free. They rehearse and perform gospel music to both aid in their own recovery and encourage others in the process.
An inspiring success
James Allen, director of ARC, founded the organization in 1957 after seeking his own treatment with alcoholism. At first, the choir was seen primarily as a way to raise funds for ARC. In 1970, ARC broke away from the Manhattan Christian Reform Church, to better serve the community as a whole and avoid sectarian affiliation. Allen started traveling to local churches with "seven addicts who could sing," raising enough to pay for the mortgage for ARC to have a building of its own.
Today, the ARC Gospel Choir performs more than 200 concerts a year, including tours in Europe, Africa, and Japan. They are best known in the Harlem community for "The Hour of Power," a weekly concert every Wednesday at Mount Moriah Baptist Church. The choir has released two albums: Walk With Me and Thank You Lord, and can also be heard on the hit Kanye West song "Jesus Walks."
Music reviewer Fred Kaplan hypothesized that the hard life and miraculous redemption of its singers can be heard in their powerful singing characterized by "crooning, hollering, and sweetly harmonizing as if at the portals of Heaven's gate, hands clapping, feet stomping, swaying to tough-love discipline."
Purpose and community
However, even more important than musical success is the warm community and encouragement the choir is able to give to support those in recovery. Speak to NPR, Allen said he discovered, "God had a deeper meaning than just fundraising," because the choir was providing tremendous help and support to its addicted members.
Speaking to Michelle Miler for a report shown on CBS News on May 6, choir members viewed their continuing involvement in the choir as the way they stay clean. Member Carol Grayson credits the program with saving her life, because "as soon as I heard those people, I knew I was connected."
To those in the choir, the disciplined schedule of rehearsal and music-making creates a powerful community and support network, as well as a way for former addicts to proclaim their messages of hope and freedom to the world. James Allen told Michelle Miler that the music provides "a wonderful way to release the frustrations and the tensions."
James Allen explains the importance of the choir by saying, "when you stop drugs, you have to find something to fill that void. So now, I'm hooked on singing." This reflects a central truth of recovery. It is not enough to simply stop using, but you must also work to repair your life as a whole, and find a deeper way to connect with and help others. These gospel songs, and the deep spiritual tradition they express offer a compelling alternative to substance abuse, and brings a real sense of purpose to life.