Tim Murray often introduces himself by saying, “My name is Tim, and I am an alcoholic.”
It’s part of his recovery program, which began after he landed in the Ramsey County detox center in 2009. Over the last decade, the 62-year-old former business executive has gradually forged a new identity as someone who finds creative solutions for vexing problems surrounding the struggle to stay sober.
He discovered one such problem within the last year, and set his time and energy to work coming up with an answer — a retreat center for men in recovery set to open Oct. 1 called St. Isidore Farm, located on a small tract of land south of the Twin Cities.
He is adding this to a successful ministry he started in 2012 called Trinity Sober Homes, which he founded with the help and direction of Father Martin Fleming, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who had taken Murray in at the start of his journey to sobriety. The ministry helps men 40 and older who are struggling with addiction. Over the past decade, Murray has purchased and renovated three homes in St. Paul, all named after archangels, and has helped a total of 367 men who have lived in the homes for an average length of 13 months.
In July 2020, Murray was reflecting on the success of his ministry, which has a sobriety rate of 71% — “the highest post-treatment recovery rate in the nation,” he said. But for him, it still wasn’t good enough.
“While we were very proud of the fact that 71 percent of our men are still sober, there’s still 29 percent of our men that we were … losing,” Murray said. “And, after 10 years, I thought, ‘We really should try to do something more for those men who are struggling.’”
The answer, he believed, was “in the data.” The numbers at Trinity showed a twofold trend: First, the majority of men who relapsed did so in their first six months of trying to stay sober; and, second, of those men, 90% relapsed on a Friday or Saturday night.
Murray called that second number “a bit of a head scratcher.” Further analysis helped him see that, for the men who live at Trinity Sober Homes, their schedules often are empty on the weekends. They are required to work either full time or part time during the week, but often find themselves with nothing to do after their work week ends on Friday.
“The reality is that, when a weekend comes, if you’re not really drinking the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) Kool-Aid, and you’re not totally buying into this whole ‘higher power’ thing, weekends can be very long,” Murray said. “We call it ‘white-knuckling it’ to get from, say, Friday at 3 p.m. to 8 a.m. on a Monday morning. And, you know, there’s an old saying that says, ‘An alcoholic alone in his own mind is in a very bad neighborhood.’”
“And so, the question became: What could we do to help men maybe stay busy or more engaged in their recovery on the weekend?”
The answer was simple: Give them something to look forward to. Murray kicked around ideas like buying a cabin or farm, then asked men in recovery and trusted friends what they thought of the idea. Support was unanimous, so Murray called a realtor friend and asked him to start looking for land to buy.
Months later, in January, Murray found five acres south of the Twin Cities near a small town in the Mankato area, and purchased the land using money donated to his nonprofit. The parcel of land is wooded and surrounded by farmland, and it contained an old, run-down farmhouse. The 1,600-square-foot structure needed lots of work, but Murray, having gone through three home renovations already, wasn’t the least bit afraid to tackle another. Not only that, he would have the help of the very men whose futures were tied to this weekend getaway.
At the outset, he knew he would get help from the many outside volunteers who have supported Trinity Sober Homes over the past 10 years financially, materially and spiritually. What surprised him was the enthusiastic response from the residents who will one day use St. Isidore Farm for weekend retreats.
“I just was hoping they’d be excited to eventually come down once it was completed,” Murray said, noting that the finished retreat center will be able to sleep up to 10 men at a time. “Well, we’ve had more than 25% of the men come down (to see the retreat center) and say, ‘Hey, we want to help.’”
One of them, Troy Gates, has come down nearly every weekend since construction began in March. Although he does heavy labor for a landscaping company during the week, he eagerly gets up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. on Saturdays to make the hour-and-a-half drive to the retreat center to work a full day. He currently lives at St. Raphael House, the newest of the three Trinity Sober Homes, which collectively can accommodate up to 38 men.
“I really like what he’s got going on down there,” Gates, 44, said of Murray’s farm retreat project. “This has been everything from demolishing, to framing windows and tiling floors and learning stuff. So, it has been a cool experience.”
It’s also been, as he put it, “therapeutic.” On a typical Saturday, he will make the hour-and-a-half drive from St. Paul to St. Isidore Farm with a fellow St. Raphael resident, work all day, then return home in the evening. Three hours in a car gives the men a chance to talk about life and recovery, and build the kind of relationship that can be a bedrock of sobriety.
Gates is learning that lesson now, having relapsed in February just two months after moving into St. Raphael House. Following this “dark chapter” on his road to recovery, the men at his house rallied around him and helped pull him back to sobriety. After battling addiction for many years, he now proudly lists his sobriety date as March 7.
He is proof positive of Murray’s theory on the value of constructive weekend activity to help stay sober.
“For the most part, I go there (to St. Isidore Farm)” every Saturday, Gates said. “That’s been a big part of this for me — staying busy. What do they say? Idle time is the devil’s workshop. I just like to keep moving. And, that helps me.”
Prior to coming to St. Raphael, Gates worked in the printing industry for 21 years, and continually fed a drinking habit that spun out of control. When the weekend came, it was “definitely go time” for launching into another binge. He tried to get sober about five or six years ago, and went through treatment three times. But he always relapsed.
He thinks this time will be different. Murray is staking his life’s work on it. As executive director of Trinity Sober Homes, and a recipient of the help he received from Father Fleming, who died in May 2018 at 91, Murray spends countless hours fulfilling his life’s mission of helping men stay sober. He believes St. Isidore Farm will help keep the recovery rate of the men at Trinity Sober Homes climbing toward 100%.
“There’s no question in my mind that when I’m down here, I’m doing God’s will,” he said. “I’m in the zone. I’m doing what my purpose is.”
It’s also part of his overall plan, which is to create what he has always called “authentically and unapologetically Catholic” houses for men in recovery. Anyone coming to St. Isidore Farm will see statues of Jesus and Mary outside, and religious symbols like crosses inside. There also will be walking trails winding through the woods that will guide men through the rosary and Stations of the Cross. That’s fine for men like Gates, who grew up Lutheran but respects and appreciates the Catholic identity of Trinity Sober Homes.
“I like the fact that it’s faith based,” Gates said. “I didn’t even know, when I first started looking into it, if I would be allowed, since I wasn’t Catholic. … But, I’m very welcome here.”
And, he couldn’t be happier that his recovery now includes pounding nails at a country farmhouse.
“I feel a part of it, like we’re building something,” he said. “I’m proud of myself.”
Just as important as the walls of the house are the bonds of community, which is what Father Fleming envisioned for Trinity Sober Homes back when he and Murray — both fiery Irishmen by heritage — hashed out the plan for this new Catholic ministry while Murray was in the infancy of his recovery.
“He said, ‘If you can get enough men close enough together, it’s like getting embers of coal together,’” Murray recalled. “‘And your job, Tim, is to get them as close together as you can. And then, step back and just wait, and then let the breath of the Holy Spirit just ignite those souls. That’s when community among men happens.’ And so, that’s what we’re going to try to do here.”
For more information or to donate, visit trinitysoberhomes.org.
Source: The Catholic Spirit by Dave Hrbacek