Cover Story - The Road to Recovery

Steve Rhoades passed through addiction, whorehouses and near-death experiences on his way to the Catholic Church

By Kevin Birnbaum

Steve Rhoades cuts a striking figure striding through downtown Seattle. The 6-foot, 180-pound former Marine wears a long graying ponytail and a chunky metal cross around his neck, and he's pushing a stroller. Inside are wool hats, candy bars and two folding chairs. His easy smile belies the often distressing nature of his work.

Steve Rhoades

Rhoades is searching for people who need help— homeless men in the grip of addiction, on their way toward a rock bottom that could very well be death. When he finds these men, lying in gutters or crouching in alleyways, he begins his ministry. He unfolds his chairs, sits down, and starts to share his story. He was once where they are, he tells them, and there is hope.

Rhoades' own descent into hell happened so naturally.

Growing up in a military family, he moved around a lot and always had trouble fitting in — until he discovered alcohol. "I found out, throw liquor into it, I could make friends, and that's the group I started hanging around with," he said. "So that's how it started."

After high school, he joined the Marines in the early '70s and was part of an elite Force Reconnaissance team. "These guys were pretty hardcore, and they drank hard," he said, "and I got into that."

While in Hong Kong in 1976, he also got into the dangerous heroin-like drug China White, and spent three days in a 4-by-4 cell after police spotted his stash sticking out of his pocket. "It took a two-star general to get me out," he recalled.

But beer was always Rhoades' drug of choice, and by 1978 he'd drunk his way to a discharge from the Marines. After that, he set out from his home in Indiana for Hollywood with hopes of becoming a stuntman. Along the way, he stopped in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and ended up staying for three years. "The bars were open 24 hours a day and the women had French accents, so I said, 'Hell, I'm not going anywhere. I've landed.'"

He worked on oil rigs there — 21 days on duty, 21 off. During his off time, he'd stay drunk the whole three weeks. He once spent six months in Tulane University Hospital after he shattered his ankle jumping off a second-story balcony on Bourbon Street. (He'd wanted to talk to some drag queens down below.)

After leaving New Orleans, Rhoades spent the next decade living on the streets and hitchhiking to nowhere in particular. He often slept in trash bins, fearing he'd be killed in the night for his possessions, which consisted of a poncho, a poncho liner and a piece of cardboard. He was perpetually "filthy and just so pitiful," he said.

Through all those dark years, Rhoades kept in touch with his Methodist mother. She was devastated by the life he was living, but she never gave up on him. "And she always said, 'Steve, get God in your heart,'" Rhoades said. "I said, 'I'm having too much fun.' I didn't want to change."

But he wasn't having fun anymore, and he didn't believe he could change. He was trapped in his addiction and convinced that he would never be able to sober up.

"I remember hitchhiking someplace once and I was on the side of the road all night, and it was snowing and I was cold, and I just was praying a truck just would run me over," he said. "I mean, I really gave up on myself. … I think that's probably why I went to heroin: I just wanted to kill myself."

'I'm so lost'
Rock bottom for Rhoades came in 1993. He was in Kent, getting kicked out of what he described as a whorehouse/crack house on Pacific Highway. "They were throwing all my stuff out of the front door, and … they were probably going to have me shot because … I used up all the cocaine I was supposed to be selling," he said.

Rhoades had never been a religious man, but he was desperate. "I got on my knees in the bathroom and I asked for help," he said. "That was my last hope and I knew it. I completely, completely surrendered and asked for help. I meant that. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was asking for help, because I didn't have anywhere else to go."

He went outside, grabbed his "two bags of crap," hopped on a bus and made his way toward the back. He saw a man wearing a clerical collar and went right up to him and said, "Man, I need help. I'm so lost."

The man asked Rhoades to sit down. He was Nyer Urness, a Lutheran minister and chaplain at the Compass Center, a homeless shelter in Seattle. He arranged to get Rhoades a bed there. Later that year, on Thanksgiving Day, Rhoades moved into a cabin on the minister's property on Bainbridge Island, where he lived for the next several years.

On the bus, Rhoades hadn't seen Rev. Urness as an answer to his prayer. But looking back after 20 years, he sees their meeting as the beginning of "the miracle of my life change."

'I wasn't converted'
With Rev. Urness' support, Rhoades soon sobered up and got a job as a bicycle messenger. He loved flying around the streets of downtown Seattle and getting his body back in shape, and he immersed himself in the world of competitive cycling.

On Memorial Day in 1995, Rhoades was training for a race on a country road in Suquamish when he was hit by a car and left for dead in a deep ditch by the side of the road.

There was little traffic on the road, but a husband and wife in a passing car stopped when they noticed Rhoades' arm moving in the ditch. The man, a lawyer named Patrick Middleton, recognized the bike messenger who often made pickups and deliveries at his Seattle office. Cellphones were not yet common, so he drove to a gas station and called 911 while his wife stayed with Rhoades.

Rhoades spent the next two months at Harborview Medical Center. "I have no idea how I even survived it," he said. But just a few weeks after being discharged, he was back to work as a messenger. He needed to get back on the bike, he explained. He wasn't drinking anymore, but he was a "dry drunk," and the bike was his "higher power," the only thing keeping him sober.

It wasn't enough. Eventually, after seven years without a drink, Rhoades fell off the wagon. "I was the same guy," he said. "I wasn't converted."

But the relapse was not permanent, and with the help of several 12-step meetings a week, Rhoades has been sober for the last 12 years. In that time, he has been a cycling and surfing coach and made several long-distance rides for charity. He's become a well-known member of the community on Bainbridge Island. Life has been pretty good.

A joyful embrace
But things really got interesting for Rhoades when his cousin John Brand and his wife, Carmel, visited from Indiana in July of 2011. Rhoades traces two life-changing events to their visit: the start of his street ministry, and his conversion to Catholicism.

Steve Rhoades
Steve Rhoades walks the streets of downtown Seattle four days a week, sharing his story and encouraging addicts to get help. Photo: Sarah Wright

Rhoades led John and Carmel on a tour of Seattle, giving them a glimpse of his past life: the spot by the Alaskan Way Viaduct where he used to play the harmonica and panhandle; the corner where he once overdosed on heroin; the Compass Center.

They were deeply moved, and encouraged Rhoades to start a ministry to people living on the street. In October of 2011, with financial support from his family, Rhoades started the nonprofit Rhoades to Recovery (now called Extreme Sobriety). He walks the streets of Seattle four days a week, sharing his story and encouraging addicts to get help.

During their visit, John and Carmel, both Catholics, took Rhoades to Mass at St. Cecilia Church on Bainbridge Island. It inspired him to make a weeklong silent retreat early last year in Tucson, Ariz., where he was the only layman in a sea of priests and religious sisters. "They'd never had a guy like me come in there, on the Harley with the American flag on the back of my jacket and Marine Corps stuff all over," he said with a laugh.

When the retreat ended, Rhoades was "crystal clear" about what he should do: become Catholic. He called St. Cecilia's and decided to attend a Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults class. When he walked in, he didn't immediately recognize the catechist, who'd grown a beard since their last meeting. It was Patrick Middleton, the lawyer who found Rhoades by the side of the road after his accident 17 years earlier. When Middleton explained who he was, the two men shared a joyful embrace.

Last spring, after a year of preparation, Rhoades received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and first Communion during the Easter Vigil at St. Cecilia's.

'On fire with God'
Rhoades' newfound faith fuels his ministry to addicts on the street. For those who want a better life, he has a simple message: "Your way is not working. God can help you through this." After sharing his testimony, he can sometimes con-vince the men to go with him to a 12-step meeting or to the hospital to get help — but not usually. Rhoades doesn't get discouraged.

"I'm just planting the seed — that's all I'm doing," he said. "I'll never probably see the miracle, but I planted the seed."

Thinking back on his miserable past, Rhoades can hardly believe the life he has now. He radiates peace and joy, and he traces it all to that prayer of surrender in the bathroom of a brothel. "I just want people to know that I've been saved," he said. "This ride, man, I tell ya — I'm on fire with God!"

Besides his street ministry, Rhoades is always looking for new ways to help people in need. He started a boot and clothing drive for the homeless at the Harley Davidson shop in Silverdale, and he's visited shops all over the country encouraging others to do the same. In a few years, he hopes to open an addiction treatment center with cycling, surfing, 12-step meetings and a spiritual program.

He's also started volunteering with hospice. He went through the training after spending three months last year caring for his dying mother — the mother who never gave up on him. During their final conversation, she asked him what he was going to do with his life. He told her simply, "I'm serving God."

October 18, 2013