By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
A mother and her adult son wade through the furniture store in Fort Lauderdale, a line of rainwater marking their path. They test every other sofa until the son settles on a mocha leather number with square arms.
It's for her son's first apartment, the mother tells the salesman.
Bobby Murphy, the salesman, is 55. He is tall and has silky white hair. He has the accent of his native Boston, but for now, he listens.
Her son is moving out of her place in Boca, she says. He's getting his own place in Plantation.
"Oh, that's a good area," Murphy says as he writes up their sale. "Taking the big step out of the nest. Sounds like he's got a great mom helping him out." He smiles.
The mother looks at the prices on a kitchen table and a chair. "So what's the deal here?" she asks Murphy. "Why is everything so cheap?"
A sign on the wall asks customers not to give cash to the salespeople.
"What is this place?" she asks.
Murphy looks up. It's not just a furniture store, he says. "This place is a blessing from God."
This place is also a furniture store in a hybrid retail/religious compound that doubles as a rehab center. Men live and work here (there are other branches for women). They are supposed to be learning how to eschew drugs and alcohol as well as how to sell a sofa or strip a sink and open their hearts to Jesus. This is Faith Farm, and today it's swamped with customers — young professionals, cohabitating couples, landlords — in search of a great deal on a love seat or dining room table. Most never realize they bought a roomful of furniture from a store full of drunks and drug addicts. Sometimes, they drop off furniture — the office couch or that chair the wife can't look at for another minute.
Most of the residents will not be here long — a few months if they're lucky — before they end up in jail again or on the street or dead of an overdose. But for the true believers, Faith Farm is also their slender chance to create a new life, with families and careers and comfort that doesn't require ritual dosing.
Murphy is a believer. He's a rehab veteran, having spent 20 years in and out of recovery programs along the East Coast. He stayed sober for five years once, he says, and for three years another time.
"I'm an abnormal drinka," he tells customers, his Boston showing.
Rehab never stuck for him. Each time he relapsed, he fell further and harder. Now it's the end of the line. Doctors have told him one more drink will kill him, he says.
He's been at Faith Farm for four months. The salesman is sold.
"If this place was giving out the cure for cancer, the line would be from here to Jamaica," he says. "Well, they've got a cure here. They've got what all the men here need. This is a place where you can start a new life, living healthy, making the right decisions. You can learn to get happy in a way that doesn't involve a can or a bottle or a needle."
This salvation transpires amid an astonishing array of bric-a-brac. Besides stacks of kitchen sets, customers on a recent day could choose from a set of china, a book by Gay Talese, scuba equipment, an old Dust Buster, a croquet set, several grandfather clocks, a pair of jeans, crutches, walkers, and a painting of a bald eagle. There are dozens of sofas, broken down, dusty, and soiled. Most of those will not make it out of here either.
You don't hear the word rehabilitation much at Faith Farm. They prefer regeneration. And the participants in the program are not called patients or clients. They're students.
When most of the students come here, they are homeless. Once admitted, they're assigned a bed, allowed to shower, and given a new (donated) set of clothes. They're assigned a job based on what they think they might be good at — moving furniture or tending the grounds or working in a kitchen that serves 600 meals a day.
Murphy is a good talker, so he became a salesman. It's in this work — the interaction with customers, the flattery, the almost mindless labor — that he says he can feel the program working. As long as he's hawking a bed or scheduling a delivery, he's not thinking about "the little red-and-white can" that almost killed him, he says, cradling an imaginary Budweiser.
Bud still calls to him, Murphy says, but time passes quickly in the furniture store, and almost before he realizes it, he's kept it at bay for another day. "It's just putting the can down," he says. "Not taking that drink."
The mom from Boca gives her money to a cashier. Heading out of Faith Farm, she turns to her son. "Well, that was fun," she says. "We got a great couch at a good deal, and we helped someone. So we feel better about ourselves. This place sounds nice."
"It sounds like a cult to me," the son says.
Faith Farm is a cult, in some ways: Six days a week, the students rise before dawn and get an hour of religion, followed by another hour of philosophical indoctrination, followed by nine hours of strenuous labor. They earn prison wages. They eat canned vegetables and watery soup. Their quarters are threadbare. They sleep packed into rooms, one atop another, bedbug prey in stagnant air.
Their salvation is just a baby step up from life on the streets.
Faith Farm began in 1951, when God came in a dream to Garland "Pappy" Eastham. God told Pappy to donate six acres of prime real estate on what is now Powerline Road to treat the addicted. It started as a three-day dry-out place and quickly grew into an extensive, live-in program, borrowing methods from the military, from prisons, and from poor houses. Today, there are three Faith Farm locations: the original Fort Lauderdale grounds, where Murphy works at the furniture store; an 80-acre spread in Boynton Beach; and a 1,500-acre working farm in Okeechobee.
Faith Farm has endured in a part of the country that is chock-full of opulent rehab programs with gourmet food and seaside relaxation therapies. Such places promise a combination of pharmacology and fine living. Challenges, for example, is a local, live-in "relapse prevention" center that offers "luxurious apartment residences" as well as Prometa, Suboxone, Vivitrol, and Campral treatments. In this company, Faith Farm is an anomaly. It offers no doctors on its premises, no psychologists, no dietitians or chemical dependency counselors. "We use the age-old approach: lots of discipline and lots of Jesus," says Dean Webb, Faith Farm's superintendent.
It's a frugal outfit, Webb says proudly, that struggles to break even. Most of the 150 men at the Fort Lauderdale compound sleep in open-bay, military-style barracks, in donated bunks. They eat the least expensive food that Faith Farm can get.
Webb had no history with the rehab industry before he took over Faith Farm and no personal experience with addiction. The son of a minister from Oklahoma, he served in the Navy, rising to the rank of commander, and then worked in evangelical broadcasting in Georgia. His goal now is to maintain a rehab program that's free to anyone who needs it and is willing to work for it. Faith Farm is financed entirely by the revenue from selling used and donated furniture and other household items and new furniture that the program purchases at below-wholesale prices.
Zero tolerance is Webb's universal policy. Get caught using drugs or alcohol in the program, even just once, just a tiny bit? You're gone. Get caught stealing or fighting or being dishonest in any way? Gone, gone, gone. Don't want to work? Don't want to follow the pack? Gone and gone. And if you've sinned and repented, just a slip, a toke or sip, you're truly sorry, never happen again, swear?
"We forgive him, and we love him," Webb says. "But he has to go."
Faith Farm's Boynton Beach location has a small women's program, separate from the men. Recently, Webb got a call in the middle of the night saying a woman was being rushed to the hospital. In a moment of desperation, the woman had noticed the high alcohol content and downed half a tub of hand sanitizer. She lived through it, but doctors said it easily could have gone the other way. "Can you believe that?" Webb says. "How much do you want to get drunk when you drink that stuff? I would've never thought about that."
Webb sent a staff member to the hospital to inform the woman she was no longer welcome on the farm.
When students are kicked out or leave — they are free to walk out at any point — they must wait at least a month if they want to reenter the program. Webb says most are never heard from again.
Webb tells students that each month they live at Faith Farm and eat Faith Farm's food, they are costing him about $3,000. The program is designed to grow a new man in about nine months. "If you get out of here and you start drinking again," he tells the students, "it's like you're throwing 30 grand down the drain. I could do a lot of good with $30,000."
The annual budget for the three Faith Farm locations is about $12 million. The money goes to food and living expenses and to the salaries of the staff and employees, most of whom are alumni. Faith Farm, which gets no government grants or assistance, squeezes every dime. They'll sell anything they can, from a torn, beaten couch for 50 bucks to a rusted toaster for 50 cents. When someone donates a washing machine that can't be fixed by Faith Farm's handymen, a group of students breaks it down to sell the small amounts of precious metals from the innards, the porcelain from the wash basin, and the copper from the power cord. It's a waste-not, want-not mentality: For two days after a farmer donated a truckful of eggplant to the Boynton Beach location, at every meal at all three locations, residents ate incarnations of eggplant.
Done selling for the day at Faith Farm's Fort Lauderdale new-furniture store, Bobby Murphy heads to the dorm, a three-story, peach-colored building. It's 6 p.m. He's been on his feet peddling couches for nine hours. He walks across the compound with Jeff Schleibaum, who, at 39, is more than a decade younger than Murphy. Schleibaum supervises Murphy at the new-furniture store.
It's another gray, drizzling afternoon. The pair dodge puddles in the parking lot as they pass an old, white apartment complex where most of the employees live. They pass the used-furniture store and the warehouse, where men load and unload a fleet of moving trucks that all say FAITH FARM in purple on the sides. They pass the kitchen, where students prepare three meals a day for the nearly 200 students and staffers. The menu is a lot of soup, rice, and chili.
They pass the church, where the men gather every morning and on Wednesday nights. They pass the Omega Building, where "graduate students" can participate in college programs and pursue outside jobs. When they get to the dorm, they both skip dinner. Schleibaum already ate in his apartment; Murphy had a hearty breakfast and lunch and plans to exercise this evening. Murphy changes from his nice gray slacks with the high-cut waist and dress shirt into sweatpants and a sweatshirt.
The small workout room on the side of the dorm is crowded. Men are lined up to use the donated treadmills and weight machines. Murphy and Schleibaum get to swapping stories from their drinking days. Murphy grew up in Massachusetts. He played ice hockey in high school and was into steroids before he ever drank or tried recreational drugs, he says. It was shortly after high school that he met Budweiser. At one point, he owned a gym in Boston and had a wife and kids. Like almost every alcoholic, he started out drinking on Friday and Saturday nights. Saturday spilled into Sunday. Sunday turned into a sip or two on Monday to get through the hangover. Monday became every day of the week, and by his 30s, his wife and gym were gone.
Murphy moved to Miami in 1986 for a clean start. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He started working at a gym again. He took each day as it came and strung together five years sober. Things were going well — so well that he convinced himself he was now strong enough to handle the beast that had taken him down years before.
He found that while the monster had been out of sight, it had grown stronger and quicker. Before long, he had a six-pack with him under the desk at the gym. He chugged brews between signing up new members. Soon, that job was gone too. He saw his life pull away and disappear like a sofa tied to the bed of a truck that someone else was driving.
Murphy is charismatic when he talks, even as he recalls the blur of regurgitation his life had become. "Everything was for the beer," he says. "I couldn't do anything without one in my hand. You'd feel great for a while, but you'd be praying to the porcelain god every night and every morning. But as soon as I was done, I wanted another beer."
Years of maintaining a steady workout regimen have made him strong. Before he was a believer, he was a fighter. And he fought back against the red-and-white can. He started "working the steps" as they say, held down a steady job again, and put together three more years sans alcohol.
So when he started again, it was even worse.
Life was a rotation of sidewalks and jail cells. He says he has grandchildren he's never seen, part of a family who wrote him off long ago. At his worst, he'd wake up in the middle of the night, go to the bathroom, and chug a beer or three before heading back to sleep. Sometimes, he'd have to down a six-pack — systematically, one can after the other, like medicine — just so he could stand up straight in the shower. He was well past drinking for pleasure. Now, he was drinking because he felt like he would die without it.
"My worst fear back then," he tells Schleibaum, "was that one morning I'd wake up in a jail cell and when I asked what time I got out, they'd tell me I had just killed a family and I was never getting out."
Murphy showed up at Faith Farm in July. Before he walked through the gates, he went to a gas station down the street and downed a double-sized beer. That first day at the farm, they sent him away. He was drunk and reeked of booze, and the only rule at intake is you have to come in sober. He returned the next day, still drunk, but being a drunkard for so long had taught Murphy how to manage a conversation despite a considerable blood-alcohol level, and because this time it wasn't so obvious, they let him stay.
He sobered up the next day and began orientation. Among other things, students are taught to focus on the moment, not just the wonderful things that await them in a healthy, successful life. The logic goes: If you spend too much time dreaming about the distant future, idealizing it in your mind, and things get rough and your dream looks shaky, you are more likely to utter what Murphy calls "the abnormal drinker's anthem," which is: "Fuck it!"
For example, it's been a bad week. You're out on a boat with some friends, some bikini-clad women, and a cooler packed with booze. One of the gorgeous women offers you a beer.
"That's the insanity of being an abnormal drinker," Murphy says. "That moment. That moment where you know you can't drink. You know it. But in that moment, you sing the abnormal drinker's anthem: 'Fuck it!' "
Here, the answer to that insanity is twofold: waking up every morning and putting in a hard day's work, and living a life that is driven by Jesus and Jesus only. Many men at Faith Farm had never awakened to an alarm clock before entering the program, Webb says, and only a few were devout Christians before their attempted regeneration. Now, they wake at 5:30 a.m., eat breakfast as a group, go to church from 7 to 8, attend class from 8 to 9, and work their assigned jobs until dinner at 6 p.m. From there, some men read their Bibles until lights-out at 10. The goal is to develop a healthy approach to life and practice it until all the demons that led to drink or drugs simply fade away.
Jeff Schleibaum is a regenerated man.
A Florida native, he was the youngest of eight brothers, all of whom liked to drink. He started drinking regularly when he was 10 years old. "I'm not talking about a sip of beer," he says. "I'm talking about a few beers every night. It was sick." After high school, he got a job on a landscaping crew, an occupation that allowed him to drink on and off throughout the day. By his mid-20s, his hands would shake uncontrollably without a steady flow of alcohol, he says. At 23, he had a son, but his girlfriend couldn't take the drinking and left with the baby. She married a man who didn't drink much.
Schleibaum would start drinking first thing in the morning, he says. By the afternoon, he would load up on supplies for the night: usually a case of beer and half a gallon of whiskey. By the middle of the night, when he realized he had finished all the beer and all but a few inches of whiskey, he says, he would think about how he'd failed again. He felt like the world would be better without him.
Before he came to Faith Farm, Schleibaum says, he had attempted suicide 12 times. He tried overdosing, hanging, drinking bleach. He still has scars on his wrists from the first and 12th attempts. "I'd drink and drink and drink before I did it, knowing I was going to die," he says. "So when I would actually try to do it, I was so drunk, I could barely do anything."
He would always leave a bit of liquor in the bottle so in the event that he wasn't successful killing himself, he would have enough booze left to hold him over until he got to the store.
Schleibaum entered Faith Farm five years ago, after the 12th suicide try. He woke up early, went through the classes, went to work, and read his Bible. Soon, he began to feel a change, he says. The labor, the suffering, broke him down. The religion, the thought that no matter how bad he had been, he could be loved if only he could ask for it, built him anew. In the outside world, he had had a quick temper and a propensity to fight. But after a few weeks on the farm, a serenity enveloped him. "It was like a warmth pouring over me," he says. "An actual warm feeling that started at my head and went over my body."
After graduation nine months later, Schleibaum felt at home on the farm. He asked to stay, and he moved into a small apartment. They made him head landscaper. He planted a row of palms in front of the office and well-manicured shrubbery around the church. As time went by, he learned new skills and took on more responsibilities. Now, he manages the new-furniture store. He also launched the Faith Farm softball and bowling teams; men may participate only after receiving their manager's approval, and if Schleibaum hears that a man is slacking off at work, that man is off the team.
He doesn't really think about drinking anymore, he says — "maybe once in a while if I'm working on a sprinkler system; those things drive me nuts." As a new, sober man, though, he hungered for a relationship with his son. Men are allowed to have family visits at Faith Farm on Sundays for church. Jeff started the children's church, where he teaches the visiting kids while parents attend the main service. He teaches the children lessons from the Bible. After Bible study, they play football and soccer.
Although his son still lives with his ex and her new husband, Schleibaum is trying to piece together a relationship. For the boy's 16th birthday, Schleibaum took him on a road trip to see the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his son's favorite team. They talked about football and how alcohol can ruin lives. As they drove back, his son asked Schleibaum if he would ever leave Faith Farm.
"I really don't know," Schleibaum says he told him. "I've got a good life here. I've got friends, and I can help these guys. Right now, I feel like I'm in the right place. We'll see where God takes me."
One day, Bobby Murphy needs off from work. After a life of hard living, he contracted Hepatitis C, and it went untreated for years while Murphy sang his anthem. His liver is in bad shape. Through Faith Farm, he has access to a doctor. So he gets a pass for an afternoon. The doctor tells him if he takes his medicine, he should be OK for a while.
When he comes back to the compound, he knows what's waiting. Frank Grisanty, the assistant director, has a Breathalyzer for him to blow into and a drug test. Murphy's urine is tested for several chemicals.
The test for marijuana comes up positive.
Grisanty looks at Murphy. "Have you been smoking weed, Bobby?"
"C'mon, Frank, I haven't smoked weed in 20 years." Murphy is tense.
The two men examine the test, which looks purple, a positive for pot.
Murphy knows what a positive test means.
Men here fall. About ten walk off every month. A few more are dismissed. One night in the dorm, a few people notice that a man named Brian is missing. "Where's Brian?" they ask each other somberly. When nobody's seen him by church on Sunday, there is less mention of him. A man asks, "What do you think happened to him?" and receives no response.
But they know.
Many of these men were successful professionals before addiction peeled apart their lives one relationship at a time. Former pharmacists, dentists, even former ministers show up at the gates of Faith Farm. Richard Rosendo, 60, director of the Fort Lauderdale compound, managed engineers for Lockheed before his drinking brought him to Faith Farm 11 years ago.
Rosendo says the secret at Faith Farm is healing the addict's "inner man." "Inside every drinker or junkie is a wound they may not even know they have," he says. "They're trying to heal themselves with alcohol or cocaine." His inner man was broken, he says, when he was raped at age 5 by a man he called Captain Jack. He says he only remembered the incident near the end of his first nine months at Faith Farm. He was suddenly overcome with emotion. "Even right now, as I think about it, I can still feel the warmth of his body as he... as he... as he had sex with me."
Rosendo oversees Faith Farm's Fort Lauderdale operation: the stores, the Omega programs, the dorm and kitchen, the church, the finances. When a man violates the rules and has to go, Rosendo is often the one who breaks the news. He is part father, part principal, part prison warden. He picks the movies and television shows the students can watch, which seldom have R ratings.
Faith Farm explains to incoming students that as they detox, they will be tired. After a few days of food, sleep, and work, they will feel better than they can remember feeling. The purpose of that first lesson is to explain to new students that they aren't cured just because they feel better and that they shouldn't leave. Subsequent classes cover anger management, smoking cessation, Bible lessons, and a "purpose-driven life," for which Rick Warren's book of the same name is the text.
Rosendo is optimistic about each man who enters the program, and he's proud the program averages only a few "walk-offs" a month. But he is also realistic about recovery: The overwhelming majority of attempts to stop using fail — as high as 97 percent, some say.
That's why any time a student leaves the compound for any reason, Rosendo has a Breathalyzer waiting upon his return and probably a drug test too. "I trust the men here," he says. "But I also know who I'm dealing with."
Each man is given one eight-hour pass every month. If they fall off the wagon, that's typically when it happens. Not many fail the tests when they get back; if someone decides to start using, they usually don't even try to get back in.
All students who leave must check in by the guard shack near the front of the compound. Most nights, that means they'll meet Shane Pullman, a 32-year-old from West Palm Beach. Pullman is another man in transition. Before he came to Faith Farm two years ago, he was on the streets, addicted to meth, he says. His drug of choice, though, was weed.
Pullman grew up in foster care. In his early 20s, he was in what he describes as a cult. He took joy in confronting the Christians he came across and "showing them the truth," he says. "Basically, I was doing the work of the adversary."
Soon, he was smoking $600 worth of pot every week, he says. At one point, he began growing his own in an apartment closet where he built an elaborate ventilation system to avoid detection. Getting, growing, and smoking pot was the only thing he cared about. "If someone says you can't be addicted to marijuana, they need to talk to me."
Most of the men at Faith Farm are believers. They embrace the misery. In the swanky rehab programs, they promote luxurious relaxation, but the pain is the gain here. The misery is the treatment. Faith Farm aims to prepare them to deal with the hardships of life — the pains of poverty and heartbreak and all the sadness that comes with being human — without chemical crutches.
They believe in the humbling treatment because they see what can happen. Every day, they see sober, walking, talking proof this program can work. Unlike other programs in which the facilitators are doctors and other professionals, managers like Rosendo know the desperate agony of addiction firsthand. They've lost jobs and families and had teeth knocked out while living on the street. The stories are so compelling that some men who don't completely believe in the power of Faith Farm pretend to until they've convinced themselves.
When Pullman came to Faith Farm, he put all his energy into studying the Bible. He would have long debates with ministers and fellow students. He graduated from Faith Farm's Boynton Beach campus and now lives at its Fort Lauderdale compound, where he takes web-based computer graphics classes through Atlantic Tech.
Once, when he worked as a salesman in the furniture store, he says, a customer offered him a joint if he knocked $50 off the price of a sofa. "I turned it down once. I'm just glad he didn't ask a second time."
As Pullman watches who enters and exits the campus, marking off students' names, he makes small, hand-rolled tobacco cigarettes. He does it habitually, one after the other, until he has a dozen or more on the desk in front of him. And each, when he's done, looks like a dense, perfectly shaped little joint.
Sunday is a big day at Faith Farm. The stores are closed. Mothers, wives, and children spill into the Fort Lauderdale compound, all dressed for church. Before the service, at 10:30 a.m., husbands and wives embrace in the parking lot, a moment somewhere between a conjugal visit and an elementary school open house.
As the first song starts on a recent Sunday, every pew is packed, and men stand along the walls and at the back of the room. Most of the kids are at the children's service, but a few roam the aisles and crawl around ankles in the back. A young girl clings to her father's hand: "I love you, Daddy," she says. "Will you come home with us, Daddy?"
The service begins with a six-piece band accompanied by a choir. For each song, the congregation stands and sings while the lyrics are projected onto a screen over the pulpit. The last song is "Amazing Grace." By the time the lyrics come to "that sav'd a wretch like me!" the men in the pews are louder than the choir coming through the P.A. Most are teary-eyed, and some weep openly as they sing "Thro' many dangers, toils and snares/I have already come/'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far/And grace will lead me home."
Then Pastor Garry Steffe takes the pulpit. The sermon is about the spiritual needs of man. "You can't satisfy the spiritual with the physical," Steffe says. "The physical can dull the spiritual, men. Fill your holes with Jesus. Fill up with Jesus and I guarantee when you walk out of here, you won't need to use again."
The men give an amen.
When they were on the outside, they were walking with Satan, they're told. The way they were living led to unhappiness in this life and damnation in the next. But not anymore. One of the Scripture selections is 2 Corinthians 5:17: "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things become new."
But is transformation and regeneration really possible?
By the time Bobby Murphy is staring at the purple drug test result, he's just received a promotion. Murphy has been one of Faith farm's top sellers in new furniture; now he's going to be a house manager. He's moved from the space where he slept with 68 men who coughed through the night to a semiprivate room with a roommate. He'll have more responsibility now — and more opportunities to fall. He'll have more to lose.
He looks at the test result and is silent.
"Maybe it isn't done changing colors," says Grisanty, the assistant director.
"Maybe," Murphy says.
The liquid does seem to keep changing. It becomes slightly bluer, maybe, although they can't really tell.
Grisanty decides to believe Murphy. It's that simple. And Murphy heads to his room, relieved.