BOLIVIA

Going Upstream

In Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Community is Core to Recovery

Written by Artyom Keller
Aug 18, 2020

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” – Desmond Tutu

“My passion,” says Warren McCaig, “is to create communities where people can really heal and belong.” For 13 years McCaig has pursued that mission in the liminal space between two cultures. Reared in traditional evangelical Christianity and surrounded by a “monocultural, affluent, very politically stable, very economically stable” community in Alberta, Canada, McCaig now resides in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. He is clearly no longer Canadian, but to look at him, he’s just as clearly not Bolivian. And in a sense, his work in Bolivia also lives in a kind of liminal space, connecting a Western-oriented business with a mission very much rooted in the needs of his Bolivian community. The business is called Refugio. It’s an eco-friendly retreat and adventure tourism company that McCaig and his partners created to draw foreign visitors, including Canadians. The Bolivian mission is called NOVO. It’s a holistic, faith-based recovery community that those same partners founded to care for Bolivian men lost in addiction. Profits from Refugio help finance NOVO; NOVO residents help maintain Refugio and use it as an occasional respite from the city. Refugio’s adventure tourists learn about NOVO’s mission, often meet some of its residents, and sometimes become financial supporters of NOVO after they return home.

McCaig’s belief in nature’s restorative power is one of the biggest reasons for creating Refugio. NOVO clients are frequently prescribed “time in community and nature,” something that McCaig has coined “immersion therapy.”“There is a profound spiritual connection in nature that cannot be emulated in a concrete building,” he says.

None of this happened overnight, of course. The journey to Bolivia began years before, back in Canada, back in that comfortable environment where a young Warren McCaig entered a bible college to study counseling and theology.

NOVO facility, Santa Cruz, Bolivia
Bible college shapes students to become pastors. Counseling majors like McCaig might spend five to 10 years as a youth pastor before taking charge of their own church. But for McCaig, pastoring didn’t feel like a natural fit. And at Bible college some of his experiences began to show him possibilities beyond the church traditions in which he’d been raised. For one thing, his college mentors embodied a theology and an experience of grace and empathy that made him see the culture he’d grown up in in a new light. It had been a comfortable culture, but not one that paid heed to the messiness and vulnerability in so much of the world; grace for the broken seemed like a foreign concept. These ideas were on McCaig’s mind as he worked on his counseling practicum. They were there when he and his wife, Jackie, were offered a real-life opportunity that would put him face-to-face with a very different culture: a six-month trip to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where McCaig would join the Evangelical Free Church of Canada Mission. They signed up.
NOVO facility, Santa Cruz, Bolivia

In Bolivia, McCaig’s work took him to a radio station doing outreach to migrant workers. There, he says, he formed a profound connection with Diego Davila, a Quechua migrant from the mountains of Bolivia, who introduced McCaig to a very different world from any he’d seen before: a world of struggle, pain, and inequality.

“I don’t think I had even heard Spanish in Alberta,” said McCaig who was captivated by the Davila’s compassion for his people and his enthusiasm for helping them.

“He had a real outreach into the settlers into the lowlands. I was working alongside him while barely able to communicate, solving technical, computer, and networking issues for the radio network. He had such a compassion for those people that even without a lot of language, it was impossible not to pick up on his enthusiasm and heart for outreach to that people group.” This non-verbal partnership with Davila led to an epiphany for McCaig. “I remember thinking what a privilege it would be to be able to work alongside that guy and get to know him without a translator.”

Jackie and Warren returned to Canada but soon the EFCCM invited them to come back. Inspired by his time with Davila, this time they went better prepared: for nine months they took Spanish language immersion classes in Texas, Mexico, and Cuba. After they landed back in Santa Cruz, a home for abused and neglected children invited Jackie to join its board of directors—a position that opened them to new life-changing experiences.

Bolivia has no foster care system, so such homes often become permanent shelters for children removed from abusive situations. Part of Jackie’s role in that project was to throw birthday parties for all the kids. At one of these parties, McCaig befriended a young boy, spending a carefree afternoon swimming and playing ball with him. Eventually he asked the boy about himself.

“He looked over at me, and without breaking a stride said, ‘I saw my dad kill my mom, so they took me away and put me in this home.’”

McCaig believes a spiritual component should be one element for recovery—but not the only one. “If you don’t help those people understand the root of their addiction, heal that, develop better emotional tools, sometimes better vocational tools, you’re not providing them with a real opportunity for real recovery and freedom.”

Later, he learned the family had a history of substance abuse. One night the father had come home drunk. An argument ensued, and he murdered the boy’s mother. “I just didn’t know how to emotionally respond to, or appropriately respond, to a kid with that kind of trauma,” McCaig remembers. “We need to help kids in this situation, but what needs to be done to help before they get into these types of situations?”

As he tells this story, McCaig recalls the words of South African cleric Desmond Tutu: “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” Tutu’s words gave McCaig an answer to his question “What needs to be done?” He looked upstream, at rehab programs that could help adults and potentially spare children the kind of trauma experienced by the young boy he’d met.

As he researched rehab in Bolivia, though, what McCaig found was not promising. Existing projects fell into one of two camps. One model, a longtime classic in addiction treatment, pushed men into lockdown facilities, forcing on them a stringent regimen of work and moral reform. Instead of healing, these programs often create more layers of trauma. Other projects were led by pastors who were usually in recovery themselves, using their churches to pull men into a litany of church services, prayer groups, and religious commitments. McCaig describes the approach like this: “Let’s do church eight hours a day, every day, until these guys aren’t addicts anymore.”

McCaig believes a spiritual component should be one element for recovery—but not the only one. “If you don’t help those people understand the root of their addiction, heal that, develop better emotional tools, sometimes better vocational tools, you’re not providing them with a real opportunity for real recovery and freedom,” he explains.

A series of connections and conversations eventually led McCaig to Andy Partington, a British cleric who had served as pastor at a church in Bolivia and whose drug and alcohol rehab center outside of London was well-known in the field. Partington’s center blended a faith-based approach with quality clinical care, a combination that made sense to McCaig, because, “what I see as the real cause of addiction now is trauma, and trying to traumatize the traumatized just doesn’t work.” That is one of the foundational principles that McCaig, Andy Partington, and Myron Penner used in shaping NOVO Communities. NOVO, which they founded in Santa Cruz in 2014, takes a holistic approach to caring for the broken and lost, marrying faith-based recovery with well-informed clinical treatment. The funding approach is also holistic, using profits from Refugio, the tourism business, to support the rehab program. Once a month McCaig and his team bring the men enrolled in NOVO rehab to Refugio, where they work in the gardens, build the trails, and unplug from the cacophony of the city. In communing with nature and each other, many men find peace and healing. And many of the adventure tourists who encounter the NOVO clients leave impressed and inspired by the mission—enough so that they contribute financially to the NOVO program. NOVO holds many stories of breakthroughs made by the men who have come to the community to recover and rebuild. Redeemed lives and family reconciliation are common themes, and McCaig recalls one story in particular. One man had run away from home at the age of 12 or 13 and traveled south to Santa Cruz, where he was living on the streets. For at least a decade, the man had been out of touch with his family in the north. They believed he had gone to the city and died there. Part way through his time in the program, the man asked his psychologist if he could look for his family. Family reunions can be risky for those in recovery, because they may trigger a relapse. But eventually the NOVO staff agreed to send someone with the man to find his family. With the client’s consent, NOVO filmed the encounter.
NOVO facility, Santa Cruz, Bolivia
When they arrived at his town, though, the man couldn’t remember what street his family lived on. They wandered up and down the streets, asking around for a family with his name. “In the end, he rounds a corner, and there’s his mom and dad sitting on the front patio of the house,” McCaig says. “And they see him walking down the street. It was, I suspect, as close to a resurrection as I would ever see,” Stories of family reconnections and other moments of profound redemption are the fuel that keeps McCaig going in his mission. After years of work in the field, he understands the upstream factors that lead his clients to this place—that anyone who endured the trauma, lived in the same environments, likely would have ended up there, too.
NOVO facility, Santa Cruz, Bolivia
“I feel a deep sense of call to build communities that are transformational, because I want one,” says McCaig. “And because I’ve been privileged to cross paths with enough people who have suffered from the lack of one, that I can’t conceive of doing anything else.” That understanding has forced him to accept his own shortcomings, McCaig said, and to learn to lead from a place of weakness—knowing his greatest failures can be his greatest gifts in teaching others to open up, trust, and become vulnerable. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus asks his chief critics, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” When asked, “What is the speck in the eye of our community?” McCaig has an immediate answer, one with a deep message for those who live in comfort and keep a distance from the suffering and trauma of others.
“I feel a deep sense of call to build communities that are transformational, because I want one,” says McCaig. “And because I’ve been privileged to cross paths with enough people who have suffered from the lack of one, that I can’t conceive of doing anything else.”
“We are all participants in the system that puts people in this position,” he says. “We lack the sense of social connection, meaning and belonging we all long for. And yet we put so much effort—even more so inside of our faith community than outside—into putting forward a face that says, ‘I’m doing great.’” Wearing that “I’m doing great” mask makes one unable to deal with others who “don’t play that game,” he said. “We need to rush them out of here and dehumanize them as soon as we can, because if we keep them around, it could expose all of us.” Instead of hiding our shortcomings or only promoting our strengths, McCaig seeks to build communities that embrace the idea that “all of us need the same sense of love, support, community, connection, and belonging that people in recovery need. And rather than deny he needs these kinds of communities as much as anyone, McCaig has decided instead to build them.