Sunday, April 5, 2009

A healing place called Nazareth

Sunday Inquirer Magazine/Feature/By Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

“GOD is here.”

The narrow, tree-lined road leads to the gate of the wooded place on which this sign is tacked. Indeed, it’s a special place, a hidden garden for body and spirit. But more than the place, it’s people who are special here.
Here the wind whispers constantly through the leaves and into one’s soul. Mother Nature and human nature conspire to bring about newness and hope. The sun-drenched green terrain livens up with the footsteps of those who dwell here, human beings on a journey and who are slowly and purposefully finding new life again.
This is the Nazareth Formation House, a Bob Garon Therapeutic Community Center.

One arrives feeling privileged and trusted. It is not every day that a visitor is able to behold people who have extreme stories to tell about being broken and lost, and about their amazing journey within toward becoming whole.

As the trite saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. And in Nazareth, “strange” could mean bizarre, extreme, miraculous—all understatements. For residents here who call themselves Nazarenes, the way from there to here could only have been paved for them by a divine hand. They have all come from the edge. They come from all walks of life and come hurting. Society dealt them cruel blows, just as some of them did on the weak and the vulnerable, including themselves.

Founded in 1999 by couple Bob and Emmy Ilagan Garon, Nazareth employs the therapeutic community (TC) approach to rehabilitating drug dependents, as well as those suffering from other addictions—alcohol, tobacco, sex, gambling. It is not unusual for them to have multiple addictions, Bob explains. So-called “lifestylers” (non-drug dependents who simply want to experience living in a TC) are also welcome.

Bob, 72, was an American La Salette priest when he founded the Dare Foundation, the first therapeutic community in Asia. In 1977, he left the priesthood and Dare and went into business and management consultancy while continuing to counsel parents and drug dependents. The couple also established the thriving Golden Values schools for the young.

Observing the rapid spread of addiction, the Garons decided to go back to their first love—drug rehab—in 1999. They had achieved financial independence and had the skills, the desire, the resources and the place—a sprawling five-hectare ranch in Batangas, some two hours’ drive from Makati.

Nazareth Formation House, named after the place where Jesus Christ grew up, aims to help those with addictions turn their lives around and make them law-abiding, God-loving productive individuals when they return to society. Behavioral modification is key.

Assisting the Garons, who have been married for 32 years, is a staff of seven, with Bob as the president and Emmy as executive director. Their daughters Vanessa, 29, executive director of Golden Values School, and Alexandra are also part of the Garon family ministry. Alexandra, 24, the assistant director of Nazareth, is doing her masters in clinical psychology. The Garon daughters were the only female volunteer divers among the scuba divers who plumbed the Romblon disaster site where the m/v Princess of the Stars sank in stormy weather last year.

There are more than 40 residents at Nazareth now, both male and female of all ages, “from 14 to 75,” Bob reveals.

TC stands on three legs, he says of the healing approach used at Nazareth. “These are psychotherapy, education and behavior modification. At the center is spirituality.” And so standing at the center of the lush setting is the hexagonal Chapel of the Nazarene. It is without walls and embellishments, a sturdy open structure with a great view of the verdant outdoors.

Everyday Mass here is truly a feast, a communion of spirits, a sharing of hearts. Garon is quick to point out that several altar items—the red chalice (his mother’s gift), the Mass crucifix, and the big bare narra cross—are from his priesthood days.

As they say, priesthood is forever. Bob and Emmy have a special place in their hearts for the wounded shepherds who have lost their way in the dark, the wounded healers in need of special care. Fresh and green indeed are the pastures of Nazareth.

“As wounded persons,” Bob says of the residents, “they have wandered far from God and have rejected His precepts in favor of self-destructive lifestyles. But behind that godless face, there is sadness and emptiness, darkness and a loss of meaning.”

God is put right back at the center of each one’s recovery and behavior modification. It is not just the residents who need healing; their families, too, must be part of the process.

In a quiet corner of Nazareth is the Garden of Angels, a place of remembrance graced by small stone angels in impish poses. Among the flowers are the names of aborted babies carved on tiles. “The residents wanted this,” says Bob. Beside the garden is a small chapel for adoration. On the altar is a beautiful scrapbook that contains the residents’ letters to their babies.

One letter says: “I’m sorry for what happened. I never saw you, I never held you.” Another says: “Thank you for giving me peace.”

Nazareth is not strictly Catholic/Christian or for Filipinos only. There have been residents from other religions and other countries. The length of stay varies—from a year to five years or even longer. The men live separately from the women but they get to interact with each other during meals, Mass and reflection sessions.

There is time for fun and exercise. There is a swimming pool, a basketball court and lots of ground to work on. And there are animals—horses, dogs, cats—to romp with. No wonder they all look physically fit.

Says Tash, whose life story is utterly unbelievable except that it’s true: “It was difficult at first, but later I felt at home.” Says Jobi: “Here at Nazareth, God finds us (and we find God) in different ways—in nature, the people, daily Mass, confession and the support of the community.” Prayer is part of the Nazareth lifestyle, and so is work. There is no time to be idle.

This is not to say that professional psychotherapy takes a back seat. A very important part of therapy is the “journey” which a resident takes by way of recalling, writing, confronting, and later, accepting the what, who, when, where, why and how of his or her life. What went wrong, what was right. This aids in healing and in finding direction.

Easier said than done. Says Norman, a former resident: “Nazareth is a place of change and reflection. It’s my second family and friend. This place became a big part of my life because it formed my new identity. It gave new color and direction to my life. It taught me how to deal with problems and situations and moved me closer to God.”

“Tito (Uncle)” Bob shows reams of paper which contain “journeys,” all handwritten. Some are inches thick and could very well be novels, except that these are not fiction. The pages are dripping with pathos and pain, screaming for help and redemption.

Re-entry is the tricky part, says Emmy, who has seen it all. Going home is a gradual process. Some residents have enrolled in distance education or in schools outside the rehab place. “I still can’t go home and not feel terrible,” says Jon. “Whenever I see my room…” he adds, his voice trailing off.

For visitors to the center, interacting with the residents can be a painful encounter. What does one say to a beautiful teenager who turned to drugs after sexual abuse, three forced abortions and betrayal? How does one understand a grown man whose response to being sexually abused by his own mother when he was growing up is alcohol? How does one help a young fellow who has tried it all? Can he ever forgive someone he trusted, who sold him off to predators?

You listen to them speak so eloquently, you watch them dance and sing to their hearts’ content, you see them work and do their duties. You feel their warm hugs, their eagerness to share. You catch a glimpse of their hidden purity and their determination to become the best they could be. They are miracles in the making.

God is here in Nazareth. 

For inquiries, contact Nazareth at its Metro Manila office: 24 Canberra St., BF Homes III, Parañaque City, Philippines 1718. Telephone: (632) 820-6107; 825-1771 Mobile No: (0917) 832-3452. E-mail : or log on to