On Aug. 18, 2003, Robert McClellan walked into Seymour Christ Temple Apostolic with hair down to his shoulders, tattoos and piercings and wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt and patchwork bell-bottoms.
He was 21 and wanted to surprise his parents by going to church with them.
He had been baptized when he was 8, but by the time he was 13, he started smoking cigarettes and marijuana. By 15, he was a full-blown alcoholic. At 16, he was selling drugs on the streets of Seymour. By 17, he was heavily involved in psychedelics and methamphetamine.
“Basically, I did everything that I could get my hands on short of shooting up. That’s the one sort of line in the sand that I said I won’t do,” McClellan said. “I look back on that now, though, and if I would have continued going down that path, I’m sure it would have led to that because I was just on a downward spiral.”
During the church service, the pastor stepped down off of the platform, came toward McClellan, wrapped his arms around him and said he was so glad to have him there and thankful he showed up.
McClellan thanked him and said he was looking forward to hearing him preach. The person preaching that day, however, was a 23-year-old evangelist.
“When he got up to that pulpit, this guy was reading my mail,” McClellan said. “He was saying stuff that only God would know.”
At the end of the service, the evangelist threw his notes to the side and asked everyone to stand and if they felt led by the holy ghost to grab a neighbor’s hand, lead them up to the altar and quietly pray.
“As I closed my eyes and bowed my head, it was almost like God was replaying over in my head these different memories, and I started having these flashbacks,” McClellan said, including being shot at two different times, nearly overdosing on drugs and/or alcohol numerous times and surviving after falling out of car going 40 mph.
The evangelist slammed his hand down on the pulpit, jarring everyone awake, and when McClellan opened his eyes, the evangelist was pointing at him.
“He said, ‘Young man, I don’t know who you are, but this could be your last chance,’” McClellan said. “The stuff that he was saying, he was almost literally recalling word for word nights that I had had in despair and despondency, recalling word for word situations that I had been through, and I’m like, ‘How does he know this stuff?’”
McClellan then went up to the pulpit.
“I didn’t know what to say. I had no relationship with Jesus Christ,” he said. “As my eyes were closed, my hands were lifted, I just basically said, ‘God, I’m sick of this lifestyle,’ just talking to him like you would anybody.”
McClellan said he saw a little pin of light in the distance, and the closer it came to him, the larger it got.
“I remember as soon as it got (close to him), I had this incredible warm sensation from the top of my head to the sole of my feet,” he said. “My tongue went one way. My jaw went another. I could physically hear myself talking in what sounded like ancient Hebrew or some kind of dialect.”
When he came to, he was on the floor looking up at the ceiling.
“When I came to and opened my eyes, this huge smile hit my face, and for the longest time — I still look back on that — I’m like, ‘That was the first real smile that I had actually smiled in eight years.’ It was amazing,” he said.
His father picked him up off of the floor and hugged him, and the preacher asked him how he felt.
“I said, ‘That’s the best buzz I’ve ever had in my life,’” McClellan said.
He then took his piercings out and placed them on the altar along with his cigarettes and stash of drugs.
Ever since then, McClellan said he has never had a desire to go back to drugs and alcohol.
As he celebrates 20 years of sobriety, McClellan has started Freedom Alliance, a Bible-based substance abuse rehabilitation program that offers refuge for those dealing with addiction, at The Tabernacle at Sandy Creek in Seymour, where he has attended since February 2022.
It utilizes growth principles that don’t focus on the identity of an addict, doesn’t try and resolve past shame and guilt but instead leans on a hopeful future, has a foundation based on testimonial experiences rather than successful percentages and incorporates a preexisting community-based model for immediate and ongoing after-care support.
McClellan created the program after talking to Pastor Aaron Arrowood. The Tabernacle is heavily involved with the Department of Child Services as a provider of care, food, clothing and other needs. Knowing the amount of love the church members have for people, DCS asked the church to be the first in this area to offer a state-sponsored program.
They asked Arrowood if the church has a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.
“He said, ‘I had to say no,’ and when he said that, my heart just sank,” McClellan said. “I was like, ‘After everything that I’ve been through, that God has delivered me from, there’s no way I could just sit here and let that message go by without at least approaching him and seeing if there’s something that we could do.’”
He had shared his story with Arrowood in the past, so the pastor knew McClellan would be a good fit to lead the program.
When McClellan was in kindergarten, his parents were growing marijuana in their home in Brownstown. He said he often went to bed at night wondering if police were going to kick the door in and take his parents away, and he cried himself to sleep a lot.
By the time he was 13, instead of going to a more controlled atmosphere, McClellan told his parents he was smoking cigarettes and marijuana. Their solution was for him to stay there so he wouldn’t be out and get arrested.
“At the time, I thought that was an awesome idea. I don’t have to hide this from my parents anymore,” he said. “A lot of times, our family bonding time would be like we would sit down, take psychedelics, LSD and we would watch ‘The Simpsons’ together or we would sit down and smoke a bowl together. Just very dysfunctional.”
By 21, he didn’t have a driver’s license, a car, a house or friends, but his parents had quit their addictions cold turkey, got into church and were opposed to his substance abuse.
“I had seen a dramatic transformation in their lives,” he said. “Just being around them made me see my shortcomings even more.”
One night at a home in Cortland with his friends, he had a mental breakdown. He found out two of his friends were being dishonest behind his back, and he downed a pint of straight bourbon whiskey and walked from Cortland to Village Green Mobile Home Park in Seymour, where his parents were living. His mom said he could stay there as long as he didn’t have any drugs on him.
After a few months of staying there, McClellan woke up that one August morning in 2003 and decided to go to church with them.
Twenty years later, he was asked to create a program for substance abuse rehabilitation at the church he now attends. He named it Freedom Alliance.
“Having all of that in my background and knowing what God can do for me … I want to deliver that same experience. Not that I can do it, but I want to help lead people to the one that can,” he said. “I know that if Jesus could do that for me, he could do that for anybody.”
The Road to Freedom has seven elements: Faith, action, confession, resolution, redemption, connection and commission.
“Not just faith in God but also faith in yourself that you can change, that you want to change,” McClellan said of the first step.
He said the Bible says we have to have faith to please God, and faith without works is dead, so we have to put legs on our faith — action.
Confession involves an addict confessing what they have done and saying they need help.
“That makes us accountable to God and also to other people, and it removes that burden of that need to try to perform in front of others,” McClellan said. “You don’t have to perform in here (during meetings). This is a completely anonymous group. If you want to cry, you can cry. There’s no need to have a performance.”
Resolution is where a person digs their heels in and says they want this more than anything else.
“If you’re like that, if you have that mindset, as pastor Arrowood has said in his classes, a stayer, one that just stays regardless of what wind is blowing, then the next step is redemption,” McClellan said.
“That’s where my transformation came, and once they have redemption, God has freed them from all of that, and I believe that he can,” he said. “Our goal is to show them that this is the power of God, that he can completely take all of that away just like he did for me and he has done for others that we’ve signed up as alliance mentors.”
The alliance mentors — currently two men and two women — were chosen from the church. They attend the meetings and encourage those involved in the program by sharing scripture, telling them they are loved and supporting them in other ways.
That’s part of the next element, connection, which relates to the group and the church.
“We want them to leave feeling clean, we want them to leave feeling better than they did when they came through the door and we are striving to be nonjudgmental,” McClellan said. “Regardless of what their background is, regardless of who they are, of what their race or ethnicity is, we want anyone and everyone to come.”
The last part is McClellan’s favorite: Commission. His goal is for the program participants to reach a point where they are helping teach the classes and helping others with their addictions.
“By all of us working together in this commission with God at the head of all of this, we can reach as many people as we possibly can and also empower them to make them feel like they are not just a part of this, but now, they are like the hands and the feet of this, as well,” he said.
During the first meeting May 25, five people attended, and McClellan described it as impactful and received great feedback to help grow and expand the program.
Meetings start at 5 p.m. Thursdays at the church, 5707 N. Sandy Creek Drive. Anyone can join at any time and stay as long as they want.
“We want to make sure that every need is dealt with and everyone feels helped, and if they have to leave at a certain time, that’s fine. But if they want to say until 6 or 7 or even 8 and pray and talk, we’re here for them,” McClellan said. “I think if we are truly a Christ-centered church, we’re going to be constantly extending to people that no one else would. Our goal is just to help as many people as we possibly can. We just want to be another resource.”