From a makeshift pulpit in Nu Cafe’s dining room, Corey Bowser, 26, delivers a simple but profound message to his flock every Tuesday.
“God loves you. He loves everything about you,” the recovering heroin and crack addict told a crowd of nearly 50 this week. “I love you, and I will love on you until you can love yourself … I’ve got your back.”
The dining chairs, rearranged into pews, are filled with the young, the tired, the addicted and the recovering joined together into a nondenominational group that’s dubbed itself the Family Unit.
It’s here that Mr. Bowser is working to create a place where people can “be real and raw with each other, grow and hold each other accountable” – a place he believes could have saved his brother, veteran Adam Morse, who died April 29 from a heroin overdose.
“You don’t have to clean yourself up to come to God,” Mr. Bowser – who attends the Excel Church in Lancaster on Sundays – said. “You come to God, he’ll clean you up.”
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When Mr. Bowser first “came to God,” he was in pretty bad shape. “I don’t know anyone more wrapped up in drugs than I was,” he said. “I was bottom of the barrel. I was not a good person, but God loved me.”
Mr. Bowser was 16 the first time he smoked weed at Bickford playground. A good student at Gardner High School, with high math scores and plans to go to college, he had the American Dream in front of him and hopes of breaking the cycle of addiction that has plagued his family tree.
Until he lost control.
As he became more consumed in drugs, the other pieces of his life fell away. Dreams of college were shattered. He was arrested multiple times by the Gardner Police Department, though never served serious jail time. He robbed people. He started dealing to fuel his addiction, first in marijuana, then escalating into pills. He lost his home and started living in a tent in the woods.
“For months, I told people I wasn’t homeless I was camping. I was drinking a fifth of vodka a day. I was doing opiates. I couldn’t stop,” he said. “Every day, I prayed to God to help me stop.”
Then, he says, he took a leap of faith and checked into Community Healthlink, a detox center in Worcester.
From there he got himself clean, moving into sober living house where piece by piece he patched his life together, eventually working as a case manager at that same detox center.
“It was tough,” Mr. Bowser said. “I used to sell drugs to some of them.”
Harder still was the death toll, as heroin’s popularity grew and deadlier strains killed clients, friends and even his brother.
“I couldn’t leave work at work anymore,” he said.
About this time, he said he felt called by God to come back to Gardner. He wasn’t keen on the idea at first – the city was filled with a history he didn’t want to relive, a past he didn’t want to face. But, he listened.
“I always felt called to preach. I always wanted to be a pastor, but I had such an idea of what that looked like,” he said. “It’s not based on a title though … I am a shepherd, and there are sheep all around me.”
And so, he started the Family Unit, which he describes as “ a community of young people intent on growing horizontally, closer to each other, and vertically, closer to God.”
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The first week 21 people showed up, too many for Nu Cafe’s back conference room. So they moved into a corner of the main dining room, and there Mr. Bowser preached.
The next week 26 people came. Then 31. And then 34.
This week, 43 people attended, enough to fill the main dining room.
For the first part of the meetings, people simply listen. Mr. Bowser talks about Scripture, salvation and how it relates to everyday life.
“I was dead, now I’m alive. I was so broken,” he said. “I’m not here to point out people’s sins. I am a 26-year-old who loves Moe’s (Mexican restaurant) too much … I’m here to love these people until they can love themselves.”
Then, breaking into small groups, they have a half hour to talk about the message, their lives and get to know one another. At the end, they come together for a final group prayer and Mr. Bowser asks if anyone would like to pledge to devote themselves to God. A handful of people have so far, including friends of Mr. Bowser, like the young man this week.
“He used to shoot heroin in my bathroom,” Mr. Bowser said. The Family Unit, he said, is not a place for the perfect. He wants it to be a place where a user can come with the smell of smoke still lingering on their clothing and start anew.
“Jesus said it’s not the well that need a doctor, it’s the sick,” Mr. Bowser said. “We want the lost and the broken.”
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More than anything, Mr. Bowser wants the Family Unit to transcend an hour and a half at Nu Cafe and become a part of their everyday life.
Though it’s still early, the pastor said he’s already started signs of the happening. Last week, four girls from theFamily Unit met up to make inspiration posters, and there are routinely pick-up games of basketball among members.
Then, there are texts Mr. Bowser is getting.
“I definitely need more God. I have to start somewhere and the Family Unit is the place to start,” said one Unitmember in a text, after admitting they were ashamed of getting high.
Another called Tuesday her special day, when “everything clears out of her head” and she feels like she can talk with God without being uncomfortable.
“I’m thankful for the Family Unit,” she added.
For his part, Mr. Bowser is committed to the people who show up. If they need someone to pray with at 2 a.m., he’ll be there. If they need someone to go back to their apartment with them and keep them from using, he’ll be there too.
“The vision isn’t just to fill a coffee shop … this is going to blow up into thousands,” he said. “This is a powerful generation of people. We are going to change this city one person at a time. We are world changers.”
That change starts, he said, with a single question.
“How would this generation feel if they knew God wasn’t mad at them?” he asked. “If they knew God loves them and just wants a relationship with them?”
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The Family Unit meets every Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Nu Cafe on Chestnut Street in Gardner. For more information, visit “The Family Unit” Facebook page.