NEW YORK CITY — Eduardo Rosa was homeless at 50, on the streets of Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, after his brother kicked him out of his house for smoking crack.
All he had was the name of a man, 1,500 miles away, whom he hoped would save him.
“I want the guy they call ‘Palmares,’” Rosa told local officials when they offered him aid. With their financial help, he boarded a plane to New York.
For much of a century, the flight routes connecting Puerto Rico and New York City have been busy with Puerto Ricans in search of a better life. But more recently, they also became a thoroughfare for drug users seeking a cure for their addictions.
In towns across Puerto Rico, the name Julio Palmares — the pastor in the Bronx — is synonymous with salvation. Mayors on the island have even pitched in to send troubled addicts, whom their towns are unable to help.
Palmares started the Ministerio Renovacion Cristiana, or Ministry of Christian Renovation, in 1999. The rehab program has a stern approach and preaches Pentecostal devotion to Jesus Christ as the path to rid drug and alcohol users of their addiction.
Palmares died in March, at age 65. As survivors, he leaves not only his wife and grown children, but thousands of Puerto Ricans, mostly men, who in the past 13 years have journeyed to the Bronx to be healed.
Eduardo Rosa still lives in the ministry, now run by Palmares’ client-turned-disciple Rafael Concepcion. “I like it here and I don’t want to go back,” Rosa said. “The change in people and in my life, I’m grateful.”
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Many alumni remain in the Bronx. Jeffry Salgado arrived in 2001 with 15 other men from Dorado, a small town on Puerto Rico’s northern coast. The town’s mayor helped them get there.
At the height of Salgado’s heroin addiction, he stole his grandmother’s oxygen tank, and sold it. “I knew she could die, but in that moment I didn’t care,” said Salgado.
Today, his beard neatly trimmed, he wears clean, fashionable clothes. He takes English classes, lives with his wife, and aspires to become a mechanic.
The pastor’s declining health was apparent during a gathering late last year, as program administrators helped him get to his seat. Palmares was frail and walked with a cane.
Palmares’ death, reported by his family to Concepcion, leaves the ministry at a crossroads. He was the first to admit that his path to freedom from addiction was not for everyone. Some ended up on the streets of the Bronx, still hooked.
“I had to stop because it was like cleaning up Puerto Rico and dirtying New York,” said Palmares this winter. “For that, they should stay in their towns.”
Palmares had served prison time and had been addicted to drugs. He claimed that he had overcome addiction and HIV after an angel visited his cell. After that, he sought to help other addicts heal through devotion.
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“God gave me this program,” he said. “If I can change, so can they. I’m here to show them the way.”
The ministry has received help from the New York City Human Resources Administration, where the ministry signs up new recruits for welfare benefits. Participants surrender their benefit card PIN numbers, and must ask for funds for purchases. The ministry also receives $215 in rent subsidies per month for each man.
Two dozen men share four bedrooms and two bathrooms and spend their days together, mostly in prayer. An hour’s morning devotion is followed by breakfast and chores, and then more group sessions to build resistance to temptation. They reflect, and they repent. On Sundays, residents church-hop on a circuit of Bronx Pentecostal ministries, turning Sabbath into an endless service.
They aren’t alone in seeking a cure to addiction through worship — many Puerto Ricans do, both on the island and mainland.
Evangelical drug treatment is nothing new in the United States, but Palmares and other Puerto Rican practitioners who settled in mainland cities brought with them the conviction — mainstream on the island — that intensive prayer and privation are the only path to recovery. It’s even in the territory’s law that addiction is primarily a spiritual problem, not a mental one, and in Puerto Rico it is virtually impossible to find medical treatment for addiction.
Yet some experts doubt the effectiveness of faith as the sole cure. “Many of the drug-free treatment programs in Puerto Rico are not using interventions based on scientific evidence of effectiveness,” said Dr. Carmen Albizu-Garcia, a professor at the Puerto Rico Graduate School of Public Health. “We lack data on their outcomes.”
Palmares’ strict regime failed many. When Alfonso Casta arrived at the ministry in 2003, clients huddled without heat, amid bedbugs, roaches and mice. Within a week, Casta decided to get out. He was once again homeless and battling addiction; he now says he felt scammed.
Louis Barrios, a Catholic pastor and professor at John Jay College, visited the ministry in 2007 and recalled the facility as “devastating” in its disrepair. He accuses Palmares of preying on the desperate. “The idea behind this place is to destroy the ego so they are born again,” said Barrios. “He’s using religion to oppress people.”
Palmares didn’t deny that he got tough. If someone brought drugs or alcohol to the house, Palmares and residents gathered to berate and humiliate him. Even Salgado admitted that sometimes the pastor went too far. Once, Palmares ejected a resident into a winter snow after finding a beer can.
“I love him, but the problem with Palmares is that you have to do what he says when he says it,” Salgado said. “If he says something is red and it’s something blue, no. It’s red because he says it.”
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Rafael Concepcion, 53, was once an addict who got hired at the ministry that treated him. Now he runs the place, and works as a dishwasher at Hunter College when he’s not at the rehab, for extra cash.
In the last months of Palmares’ life, Concepcion began to prepare for the day his mentor would be gone. He had no doubt that Palmares’ road to a cure was the one addicts must continue to travel.
“He has maintained this program because of his character,” Concepcion said days before Palmares’ death. “I practically copied his style. That's how I'm doing it. Just like he showed me.”
This is a condensed version of an article co-published with New York World, an accountability news project based at Columbia Journalism School.