The Salvation of Community

Talking trauma, addiction and healing with Warren McCaig

Written by James Galt
May 15, 2021

I almost flew off the back of Warren’s juggernaut of a BMW motorcycle when he cranked the throttle and sent the front tire careening into the air. 

Afterwards, while my heart rate lowered, I considered how that was the most suitable way to describe Warren. He goes full throttle with everything he puts his mind to.

After relocating to Bolivia, Warren helped establish Novō Communities, a center for men struggling with addiction. Not long after, he committed himself to the creation of Refugio, an idyllic nature preserve which employs residents of Novo. To tie it all together, Warren was a founding father of Novo Adventures, a cross-country motorcycle tourism company that financially supports Novo Communities.

Most notably, Warren’s high-speed pursuit of a trauma-informed practice has placed him underneath the wing of world renowned physician, Gabor Maté. Responsible for pioneering research in the fields of mental health, Maté is helping to develop Warren’s understanding about how trauma and addiction are interconnected.

How has the pandemic impacted people who struggle with addiction or who are at risk of addiction?

Globally, people self-identifying as having a struggle or addiction to substance abuse has gone up over COVID. I think that’s an indicator of addiction as a response to isolation and trauma. Circumstances arise that have people separated from each other. In lots of cases [the pandemic] can undermine people’s economic stability. Those added stresses increase the possibility that someone is going to go out and find some way to medicate those feelings. 

Photo by James Galt

What is the correlation between trauma and addiction?

I’m very close to adopting Gabor’s philosophy, which is that every addict is somebody trying to cope with trauma. Certainly, I have not yet run into somebody who doesn’t fit that definition. 

[Imagine] something difficult occurs in your life: it could be extreme—they call that capitol T trauma, like rape or physical assault or significant abandonment—but actually it could also be small t trauma. Say you needed emotional support in some key moment and it wasn’t there and you were really wounded by that. The idea is that the addiction is an adaptive response to the pain caused by that trauma. Say I feel profoundly lonely because I don’t know how to connect with others in the way that I want to, so I choose to use X or Y substance or X or Y behavior as a way to temporarily escape that sense of loneliness.

“I’m very close to adopting Gabor’s philosophy, which is that every addict is somebody trying to cope with trauma.”

Your model of ministry and addiction rehabilitation is very unique. How does Refugio tie in to the core work of NOVO?

Refugio has been a really fun and exciting opportunity for me. I initially bought into it with a few friends, primarily as an interesting side project. I just really loved the property. I wanted a place for my own kids to spend time outside the city, to spend time off the internet. 

The more time I spent out there, the more I realized that getting people together in nature, in small groups, is really important. It’s proven to be important for me: it’s changed what I look for in friendships, the kind of depth that I find in relationships, the kind of depth that I find in relationships with people whom I can spend time with in that more intimate environment. 

And it’s become kind of another job creation location for guys from NOVO. A lot of guys who are in the program at various points will go out and work on the grounds at Refugio, and the funds that come in from that help subsidize the cost for their rehab.

Do you think that this pattern of ministry—with revenue-generating programs—will start to become more common?

I hope it does. I think it has lots to offer. I think it keeps the people who are investing in the ministry engaged. It feels like a different sort of invitation to be part of a revenue-generating thing. I think it invites people with different skills along. Some of the people who have been involved in planning and investing in NOVO Adventures are business guys in Canada who felt a real sense of excitement, of privilege, being able to bring their business knowledge in to benefit a ministry. 

Certainly, situations like COVID will and have already led to many ministries being closed. Because if those ministries are primarily reliant on donations from churches and churches see their money going down, then those ministries don’t have anywhere to draw funding. I think people who want longevity in their ministries will be looking for some way to have at least a business component at the core of what they’re doing. 

Photo by James Galt

The people who visit Refugio on retreats or book a tour with NOVO Adventures come from wildly different backgrounds than the men who participate in the NOVO community. How do you facilitate relationships between those two groups?

The majority of guys who come on NOVO Adventure trips are middle to upper middle class. It’s unlikely that a Candadian at the bottom of the income bracket would have the resources to fly internationally to go on a motorcycle trip. You’re already getting a selection of people who have more disposable income than most people do. Thankfully our experience as a whole has been that those people are extremely generous and are looking for a way to have an impact with their funding. 

One of the key reasons to get them on the ground is so they can have a chance to see first hand the work that’s being done, who’s doing the work, and to build the credibility—because many of them at some point or another have been involved in a ministry where they felt misled. We recognize that the responsibility is really on our end to communicate with integrity what work is being done. 

We’ve had beautiful encounters between people in visiting groups and guys in the program. We make sure the guys on the program have the right to privacy, which means they’re not obligated to receive and engage with visitors from the outside just because they’re in rehab. By and large, most of the guys are quite open and enjoy the opportunity to meet the people from somewhere else and to thank them for investing in a project like NOVO.

I don’t know that the average [visitor] can ever fully put themselves in the shoes of most of the guys that come through our program. I certainly can’t. I’ve been in Bolivia for over a decade but I’ve never lived under a bridge in a gutter, ever. There have been times when we weren’t sure how we were going to cover groceries, but we were trying to figure that out from inside our comfortable home, not on the street struggling to survive. You have to engage with a lot of gratitude for the path that your life started on that you realize you didn’t pick, it’s just the one you were given. And a lot of grace for the guys who have grown up in circumstances that are incredibly difficult. 

Do these in-person encounters feel like a more effective way to connect supporters with some of the needs Novo addresses in Bolivia?

You know, going to Canada and putting on a powerpoint presentation with pictures of people just doesn’t have the same impact as coming down, sitting face-to-face with someone, eating a meal with them, taking the time to really hear their stories, looking them in the eyes when you hear it, and realizing: this is a person who is as infinitely valuable as I am but by circumstance of birth, their path has been so much different than mine. 

I think it’s a privilege in the ministry to be able to be that liaison between two worlds. I think it’s one of the reasons why the church still needs international workers. They really can bridge the gap between two cultures, two worlds, in a way that someone who has never lived internationally just cannot.

“I think it is maybe impossible to recover without community. Certainly borderline impossible. I think that emotional trauma has as a main feature: isolation.”

What are your future plans for Refugio and NOVO?

My hope with Refugio is really to see it become a retreat center. A place where people go for healing. [Even] before that intention was clear to me, people really experienced it that way. I would have people go out with their families for a few days and reach out to me afterwards and say, “Wow I really feel like we had a bunch of conversations that we never would have had in the city. This being offline and in this place together, eating together and walking together, has just had a real impact on us.” 

As I began to see the impact of it on my own with my family, my kids and friends, it became something that I really wanted to develop intentionally. So I hope to see retreats out there with the specific intention of helping people work through their emotional and spiritual issues. I see an interesting team coming together around that. I think NOVO will continue to be involved, with residents working out there and potential resident employment.

Photo by James Galt

You’ve talked a lot about the importance of intimate, vulnerable relationships. How important is community when it comes to addiction rehabilitation? 

I don’t know that I could overstate it. I think it is maybe impossible to recover without community. Certainly borderline impossible. I think that emotional trauma has as a main feature: isolation. You end up closed off from others and closed off from yourself and kind of locked away. The path out of that has to be in a loving and graceful community with other people. 

At this point I can’t conceive of the Gospel in any other terms. I just don’t see a compelling reading of the Bible that makes space for a gospel that’s primarily about my individual salvation. I just don’t see it. I think it has to be something that’s understood as a function of God’s grace in community. [At NOVO, we believe] that we encounter this personal transformation in communities. It’s not devoid of the work of God in your life, but rather it recognizes that one of the key ways that God works in your life is in your relationship with others. Vulnerable, open community is a place where your broken hearts can find healing and where your healed parts will be tested. In coming through that testing, you can actually find some new life and new hope for a different future. 

Is there a lack of community among those who don’t struggle with addiction?

I see many many people whose lives from the outsides look objectively okay by the metrics that society asks for. They’re well dressed, they show up to work on time. They pay their bills. But their inner world is a dessert. There’s trauma and isolation that prevents real relationships and healing and I think it’s epidemic. I think the number of people who really have vibrant, rich community that they can depend on, where they can feel authentic and open, is very few. 

I think the church in particular has a lot of work to do if it wants to be that kind of community in people’s lives. Because my experience of it, and I have a fair bit, is that a lot of times, it’s a group so intent on communicating that God has already done this work in me, that I can’t really be open about what I struggle with because I’m supposed to already be better. That need to look like, “Everything is okay with me,” is a real blockage of authenticity for people to come forward with the parts of their lives that don’t make sense to them, because they don’t see anybody else doing that, and so it doesn’t feel welcome.

Photo by James Galt

What are some action steps we could take to foster a healthier community?

The choice to open up to the people closest to you about those parts of you that are struggling and don’t fit has to be where it begins. I also think it’s really practical stuff like a shared table. I think the idea that we are divided off into private households where we privately eat and privately watch TV and privately go to bed and privately struggle is not the best way for us to live. I think [it means] opening our homes to one another in a way that doesn’t require a lot of formality, but says “Hey, we care about each other. You’re welcome in my home and I’m welcome in your home.”

I also see churches, some of them, really taking the initiative in the time of COVID to set up plans to care for each other. To have communal kitchens and such to look after people who are struggling. I think it would be beautiful for those types of programs to reach everybody and not just the people who are in a precarious position. The idea that we should come together as a community and rally help people once they’re in grave risk seems to me to be waiting to do surgery until the infection is so bad you almost have to amputate—rather than recognizing that coming together and caring for each other is something we would all benefit from if we started it even when we’re thriving, especially when we’re thriving.