Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer
Walking around his property, the gospel of Matthew 23:25-26 came to Lowell Monteith: “Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he admitted, standing in front of what he hopes will be a 2,500 square-foot double garage where residents of his group home can learn a new skill and get a hand up. He walked past a trailer laden with trash bags. Wood debris rested in the mud nearby. Then he crossed a 2 x 4 laid over a ditch to enter the ground floor room that was once five, two-bedroom Lake Emory apartments.
“This is going to be a sanctuary for meetings and church services,” he said. “I worked it out with the county and building codes. They told me it has to be on the bottom level.”
Monteith wants to get in good with the county. And he seeks their blessing. About five years ago, when he started a group home for addicts to get off the street and get cleaned up through the word of God, he ran into trouble with Fire Marshal Jimmy Teem. Monteith was allowing about a dozen people to live in a rented building on Jim Mann Rd., behind the new Ingles.
“The fire marshal said, ‘We’re going to kick all these people out of here,’” he remembers. The building wasn’t fit to house the individuals that Monteith and his wife were putting up for free. Monteith had just launched an upstart church because he saw the need. He, too, was an addict. He had been “saved by the Lord Jesus Christ,” and the idea of a group home came to him in a vision.
“The Lord woke me up at 2 a.m. about six years ago with His vision, so I started writing it all down,” he recalled, sitting at a small round table in the spacious upstairs living room with a tall Styrofoam cup of after-dinner coffee at his side.
About 30 people, including three family units and 17 children (Monteith and his wife have six), live in the 8,600 square-foot former apartment building. Monteith remembers driving by the condemned building in late 2015 and thinking it was perfect. He bought what became “The Father’s House” for $55,000 and moved in by early 2016.
Now, Monteith estimates that about 80 percent of his $55,000 yearly salary as a construction project manager goes to upkeep for the home and keeping the lights on. He estimates that it costs about $300 per person per month, to house and serve nightly meals to down-on-their-luck recovering drug addicts and alcoholics and their children.
A local church group donates $150 per month. Sometimes checks arrive in the mail or people drop off household supplies. Monteith preaches the tithe but doesn’t expect residents to make donations until they are able to.
“We don’t teach behavior modification,” Monteith said of the group home’s mission. “We teach the blood of Jesus.”
A Christian life rehabilitation center
Worship music plays 24 hours a day in the living room, its worn wooden floors installed by Monteith, who tore the boards off the walls during the renovation.
Instead of four apartments, interior walls were knocked out to make way for a kitchen, living room and dining area, fireplace with colored chalk Scripture quotes on each stone and men’s and women’s dorm rooms, each with a private bathroom. Eleven bunkbeds are in the women’s dorm and 12 bunkbeds in the men’s dorm.
“We can have up to 19 by code,” Monteith said of the men’s dorm room. “But this is more spacious.”
Men lounge on their beds in the afternoon darkness before 6 o’clock dinner as Monteith flipped a light switch on. “They shouldn’t be sleeping, it’s almost dinnertime,” he said, while giving a tour.
Monteith, 32, is 5’10” and 160 pounds. He has a light brownish beard and deep bags under his sunken eyes, the product of his five-hour-a-night sleeping schedule. He’s the kind of guy you might be afraid to see in a dark alley. “All the police used to know my name,” the Sylva-born, New Jersey raised former troublemaker said.
Now he practically snaps his fingers to call to prayer dozens of children and adults in what he calls a “Christian Lifestyle Rehabilitation Center.” His church is not registered and the services he provides are not through any official nonprofit organization. He doesn’t have time for that, and it’s too much bureaucracy anyway, he says.
“The Lord is gracious like that,” Monteith’s wife, Kelly, said, when asked how the couple learned to support addicts and operate a group home. “He gave me the grace to do it.”
Monteith has no doctors, psychologists or social workers on his staff. It’s just him and his stay-at-home wife and children. Neither have training in addiction recovery or Bible study, but the results speak for themselves.
The power of testimonials
“I’m walking right with Christ now,” said Samantha White, 30, as she cooked frybread with cheese, for group dinner.
“It’s clean and sober living,” the Pawnee Indian from Clayton, Ga., said with a smile. Her husband, Tanner, 36, of Franklin, helped her make the sausage and gravy and eggs to accompany a sumptuous breakfast for dinner.
A little over a year ago, Tanner and Sam were going through hard times. Sam said she had a lot of self-doubt, she felt like her life would never amount to anything as a stay-at-home mom for their three children.
They were living at Relax Inn on Georgia Road in Franklin, both addicted to methamphetamines.
“I couldn’t get… I mean, I didn’t want to get away from it,” Sam explained. Meth was her escape.
“It just keeps you up and active,” said Tanner. Sam added, “It helps you to not feel anything, it numbs you.”
With money running out, Tanner remembers going into Walmart to look at a four-man tent so his family could live in the woods.
“God said to me: ‘Don’t buy this tent,’” recalls Tanner. Instead, he and Sam walked out and went to McDonald’s to use the Wi-Fi. Sam had a Facebook message from a friend with Lowell’s phone number. They called him.
“He said, ‘Come over, we have a place for you,’” said Tanner. That was May 2018. Monteith helped Tanner to switch from seasonal landscaping work to a full-time job at Coppage Construction in the Highlands.
“There’s no five-step program,” Tanner admits. Residents don’t have to be believers, but they do have to follow the house rules and may stay as long as they need to. Now, Sam and Tanner talk to addicts who come by the house, considering whether it’s right for them.
“We share our story with them, what the Lord has done for us,” said Tanner. Sam added, “The testimonials are key. A lot of them are similar, some down on their luck.”
Tanner continued. “Some are alcoholics, some are addicts.”
Sam began again. “Our life has changed. Our marriage is going great. My family relationship is better, and my children are happy.”
The Father’s House isn’t right for everyone. Some people think it’s just a place to crash, where they can continue their bad habits.
“I have to have a lot of hard conversations,” said Monteith.
Monteith thinks part of the reason why he has a bad reputation around town comes from the resentment and stories spoken by those who get kicked out for not following the rules.
“If we catch them smoking meth somewhere, and they get kicked out, they’re hostile after that,” said Kelly.
“If they don’t want to live a Christian lifestyle, they leave,” Monteith said. “Those who stay are here because they like the atmosphere, they want to receive as much as they can.”
As a former addict himself, Monteith usually can tell who to watch closely by the way they behave during their intake interview. But just as Jesus ministered to Judas, knowing that Judas would betray him, Monteith ministers to those who may betray him.
Paul Maynard, 38, was at The Father’s House with his wife, Tiffany, Monday night. They left the home in 2017 but were back to lead their weekly session on relationships.
“My wife and I have been addicted to meth, we were cheating on each other and we lost our kids to DSS,” said Maynard, who lived at the group home for about nine months after being put on probation for committing breaking and entering and larceny to feed his drug habit.
“It’s not to fix a drug addiction problem, homelessness, a marriage, it’s to fix a relationship with Christ. Everything else follows,” said Maynard, who works in construction under Monteith and says he’s still a big part of the church.
Maynard said his marriage is strong now, he has his children back and his family is moving from their current home to a bigger home. He added, “We haven’t just mended, we help others to succeed.”
From addict to pastor
The Lord came to Monteith at the moment he was about to lose everything.
“When the Lord stepped into my life, I was an addict. My wife was about to leave me and take my three oldest children,” he said. Monteith had made a commitment to himself never to leave his children as his father had left him when he was two years old.
“I was doing the same thing that my dad did,” he said. But while Monteith was physically present, he was absent to his family. “I was hanging out on the porch getting high.”
While driving home one day he contemplated all he had to lose. He threw the drugs he had with him out his car window and when he got home, he went around the house collecting all the drugs and drug paraphernalia he had and burned them in his driveway.
Monteith believes all too often people use the excuses of past trauma to explain their addiction. He did the same.
When his father left, his mother worked two jobs and was rarely home to provide supervision and structure to his life.
“She did the best she could,” both he and Kelly said almost simultaneously. By 12, Monteith was earning $200 a week mowing lawns. The older kids liked hanging out with him. He had money, they had drugs.
“I got right out of high school and into drug addiction,” he said. “I was there. I know what it’s like. I know what it’s like to be an addict and be cast out. Nobody wants to be homeless. Nobody wants to be an addict. The only people who will accept you are the people who are homeless and addicts.”
After he burned the drugs in his home, he turned to the Christianity he had converted to in order to marry Kelly, his high school sweetheart whom he had met his freshman year.
They started attending LifeSpring Community Church on Main Street in Franklin. He wanted to open a soup kitchen, Kelly agreed to help. Then one day a spiritual mentor of his came in the door with a homeless person who needed a place to stay.
Monteith went home and cleaned out his shed and plugged in a heater so the man could stay there. Soon, three people were living in the shed. Then, Monteith rented the building on Jim Mann Road.
Monteith feels that all too often if someone admits that they have a problem, that they have an addiction, they are treated in a lesser way. And he said families won’t admit they are homeless or have a drug problem for fear of losing their children.
“Here, we treat them as normal people,” he said. In his warm living room, as Chris Tomlin worship music played in the background and a screen projected the words to his songs, children laughed and played. People wore smiles on their face. One man sat by the fireplace, another carried a Bible. A couple quietly dined at the long tables that had been set up for dinner. The home was orderly, clean and neat, even if the floor was scratched and some of the kitchen cabinet doors were missing.
Getting the county’s blessing
Lowell Monteith was thoroughly unsatisfied with the Macon County Board of Commissioners response to his public comments on Feb. 12.
“The way that the county perceives the problem is not actually accurate,” he said. Monteith referred to county data that estimates homelessness at around 60. “I believe it’s double.”
Monteith also believes by not having a board dedicated to addressing homelessness and drug addiction like other counties, Macon County is not taking its problem seriously. A friendship he struck up with Highlands Commissioner Jim Tate, with whom he regularly lunches in Highlands, has encouraged Monteith to engage with the Board of Commissioners.
Still, he left the board meeting feeling board members were more interested in “privileged” issues like building new community centers, and they were eager to gloss over the drug addiction problem, an acknowledgment of which would look bad for tourism.
Commissioner Karl Gillespie, who serves as liaison to the Planning Board, disagrees with Monteith’s conclusion. At the Feb. 12 meeting, he said all the commissioners were thinking about how to address this overall problem. At the session, the board called for community meetings to listen to service needs, such as addressing homelessness, and incorporating those needs into the pending Space Needs Analysis.
“From my perspective, you’re hearing from somebody who has firsthand knowledge,” Gillespie said of Monteith’s comments to the board about homelessness and drug addiction. “When you enter a position where you’re starting to plan what to do about that issue, you need to be listening to those people.”
Gillespie said he had once asked Sheriff Robert Holland how much crime was drug-related, and the Sheriff had estimated about 80 percent.
“So, if we’ve got an issue that is affecting that many people, something needs to be looked at,” Gillespie said, noting that he was open to finding a model that worked because the current system is not enough. “Those programs are so stressed financially, that the period of time that they’re being helped is so small that they kick you out the door with a pamphlet and say, ‘You’re on your own.’”
Borrowing from a phrase used by Commissioner Ronnie Beale, Gillespie said: “They need to have a bed, a buddy and a job.”
He continued, reflecting on Monteith’s home. “That may be what they’re getting up there, that’s the reason for their success.”
Monteith admits he was too headstrong in his early relationship with county authorities. He also said he did not go to the county commissioner meeting seeking funding for his group home. He went there to seek a blessing.
Each year Macon County parcels out $75,000 to the Macon County Community Funding Pool; this year’s deadline to ask for some of those funds is March 29. Groups without tax-exempt status may enlist a nonprofit as their fiscal agent.
“With the support of the county, we might get a lot more community support,” he said. They could “recognize the problem is a county problem and not a personal problem.”
When told Monteith’s reaction, Gillespie said, “Did he ask for that?”
“If he wants that, he needs to ask for it,” he added.
Back at the group home on Lake Emory Road, Paul Maynard reflected on how far he has come, even starting his own charity organization, “Street Reach,” which helps the homeless in Asheville.
“I’m not embarrassed about who I used to be,” he said. “I’m just delighted about who I am now.”