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How the Army Helped Recycle a Life

TO serve in the Salvation Army, a person needn't have hit rock bottom. But sometimes it helps. Take Tom Lucas, for example. He is a drug counselor at Booth House II in New York City's Bowery district. His world is filled with pictures of wretched addiction. The work requires a strong constitution and an unshakable faith that lives can be salvaged. His was.

After his marriage broke up in 1966, he began taking under-the-counter pharmaceutical drugs. With evidence mounting that he was on a self-destructive course, family members came to his apartment, tied him down, and had him put in jail. Because he hoarded drugs in an airline bag, the police felt they had a dealer.

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The shame was compounded, since besides being the first New York City employee arrested for drugs, he was a social worker for the Department of Welfare at the time, responsible for helping others to disentangle their lives. A newspaper account carried the tragically ironic story, virtually dooming any hopes he might have had to get back into teaching drama at the college level.

``I knew what my career was worth after that,'' Lucas says, relating his story during a recent phone interview.

His case was eventually dismissed because it involved an illegal search and seizure. Nonetheless, he was totally alienated from his family and fell to even greater depths of despair.

``In 1981 my home, if you want to call it that, was a men's shelter, my bed a concrete floor,'' he recalls. ``I laid in my own waste with hundreds of other men, drunk and drugged out of our minds.''

The turning point came in 1981, when he came upon an open-air Salvation Army meeting on 14th Street. What he calls ``a surrender to Christ'' followed during his stay at an Army rehabilitation center.

Like so many others on the comeback trail, he initially was unemployable. ``My production for an eight-hour day was equivalent to what someone else could accomplish in an hour,'' he remembers. This was menial labor, too, putting clothes donated to the Salvation Army thrift stores on coat hangers.

``Hanging one shirt at a time - it was difficult,'' he says. ``But day by day I started getting my physical health back and my spiritual health was being nourished by attending Bible class, our holiness meetings on Sunday, vespers during the week, and morning devotion. You start to grow and get stronger.''

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From the clothing recycling assignment, he gradually moved up the ladder to his current post as the chaplain to 400 men, who like Lucas, are trying to haul themselves off the canvas. Lucas calls his duties part of ``the greatest recycling the Salvation Army does, the recycling of human beings.''

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