The Reentry Project

How Jesus Christ Block Parties help fight Philly’s opioid crisis

‘It’s not for everybody,’ but Shawn Lawler is doing what he knows best.

Shawn Lawler has been hosting Jesus Christ Block Parties since 2009, lately hosting them in areas affected by the opioid crisis.

Shawn Lawler has been hosting Jesus Christ Block Parties since 2009, lately hosting them in areas affected by the opioid crisis.

Mark Dent/Billy Penn
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The Dunkin’ Donuts at Fifth and Oregon attracts as diverse a clientele as you’ll see in Philadelphia. Police officers, men and women in scrubs, a few people in suits and others in clothes ready for the curb stand in line for coffees. There is also a large, crew-cutted man sitting in the back dressed in a navy hoodie emblazoned with “Jesus” in bold white letters on the chest and sleeves.

He’s Shawn Lawler. He wears the same thing almost every day so his many connections recognize him. One walks in, and Lawler calls to him. He’s a weathered, pencil-thin man with a mustache.

“His name is Smokey. My name was Dopey,” Lawler said. “I used to do drugs on the streets with him,” Lawler said. “I tried to work with him so many times.”

Work once meant dealing and stealing cars for Lawler. These days it means recovery and evangelization. Lawler, 48, is the guy people call when friends and family are in trouble, known for his years of selling and using drugs and now his second act:

Nearly 10 years into his recovery, Lawler hosts “Jesus Christ Block Parties” every summer, combining messages of faith and attempts to get others into treatment.

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When the year ends later this month, some 1,200 people will have died from drug use in Philadelphia — the vast majority from opioids. The feel-good stories are rare, but they happen. People recover. They get better, and they get back on their feet. And sometimes when they make it through hell, they have enough connections to the other side and enough strength to not get caught up in their past that they return to help steer others away. That’s what Lawler has been doing for almost a decade.

He speaks in such a hurry he can be difficult to understand. He didn’t graduate high school. Reading and writing, he admits, are not his strong points. But for many Philadelphians, living like he once did, Lawler is essential. As one friend described, he’s like a scout, scouring the streets for people whose lives have been ruined by drugs.

“He’s not the most educated, he’s not the most communicative person. By no means is he eloquent,” said Rick Cartagena, a local minister with the Urban Hope Training Center in Kensington, who’s worked with Lawler. “But he has a story. And that is all that’s required in a field like this.”

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Facebook via Shawn Lawler

The beginnings of an addiction

Lawler’s twisted journey began in the 1980s when he was a young teenager on the 300-block of Gladstone Street in Whitman, popping Xanax and smoking marijuana. His early rebellion would morph into years of addiction, crime and incarceration.

He began abusing cocaine and Percocet, and then crack and methadone and heroin. To support his habit, Lawler also stoles cars with his friend Mike Johns. Johns usually stole and Lawler acted as a lookout. They could take one in 10 seconds. They stole from all over Philadelphia and the suburbs, often honing in on Veterans Stadium. One time, Johns recalled, they nabbed a football player’s Z28 Camaro. Another time they got a cheerleader’s Chevy Suburban.

“Her whole uniform was in there. The pom poms, the skirts, her whole boots,” Johns said. “Everything.”

The cops soon got them. Both served jail stints for their crimes. When he got out, Lawler couldn’t shake his drug habit. Family and friends would go months, even years without seeing him as he went from crackhouse to crackhouse. And when they did, he’d be asking for or demanding money.

“When he got into the hard stuff, he just cut off everything,” Johns said. “He wasn’t even stealing cars. He’d rob you, steal from you, whatever you had to do to get a dollar. If you’d turn your back for one second he’d steal the remote from your TV and sell it. That’s how bad it was.”

In the late ’90s, Lawler nearly died after being stabbed in the chest by a girlfriend. He needed two open-heart surgeries to survive. That was still wasn’t the low point. In fact, the medical care gave him an opportunity to access more Oxy, which he would chase with crack and heroin. Much worse was yet to come, like when his son died and the police followed him at the funeral. And in 2002 when he faced an attempted murder charge.

It was a Sunday night in early September. A drug friend needed $6.50 to get back to New Jersey from Lawler’s home. An argument ensued. Lawler had a knife lying on a table. He grabbed it, stabbed the friend in the chest and fled with leftover drugs. The friend died shortly after, from a drug overdose, and Lawler ended up with reduced charges and only a few months in prison, followed by probation. Nearly everyone with whom he used drugs is dead, Lawler said.

“It’s impossible to be alive,” he said. “I gotta tell you. It’s impossible.”

Finally, in 2007, he stopped using hard drugs. He stopped drinking. And he stopped smoking. Lawler traces the turn back to a moment of clarity in a cell at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Holmesburg. He said couldn’t have turned away from drugs without believing in a higher power.

“I’d been in and out of jail all my life,” Lawler said. “God shut everything down in my life. It was unbelievable. I just tried it out.”

Turning faith into block parties

His born-again moment didn’t instantly end his addiction. Lawler remembers going cell to cell spreading what he’d learned about Jesus and organizing bible studies while incarcerated, but he still relapsed over the next few years. He did a few 30-day detox stints and cut off the drug use eventually.

Experts agree religion or spirituality can powerfully impact addictive behaviors as part of well-rounded therapy programs. The 12-step process for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, one of the most popular and successful treatment plans for addiction, is based in spirituality. Karl Jung, one of history’s most famous psychologists, believed spiritual awakenings were among the best ways to spur behavioral change.

“When folks do recover from a religious or spiritual framework it really does reorient them,” said David Eddie, a research scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Recovery Research Institute, and Center for Addiction Medicine, as well as a research scientist at Harvard’s Recovery Research Institute. “They see themselves in the world differently.”

Since 2007, Lawler has certainly resided in a different world. No more hard drugs, of course, and he eventually gave up cigarettes and drinking, too. Even swearing, his friends say. He got a job with L&I and later operated a crane. Now he drives a tow truck for the police department. The same agency that chased him down for stealing cars, selling drugs and stabbing a man now employs him.

Lawler began attending functions of the Christian Life Prison and Recovery Ministries in Bucks County and Urban Hope Ministries in his spare time. He also held some bible readings at his South Philly home (he now lives in the Northeast). In 2009 he had a crazier idea: What if he made these gatherings larger and louder? He combined his devotion to faith with Philly’s devotion for block parties.

In the thick of the opioid crisis, they’ve taken on a new direction.

‘We offer the community whatever we can’

The block parties involve grilling and sodas, music and facepainting and a water slide for kids. The biggest differences between the Jesus Christ Block Parties and most every other Philadelphia block party? There’s no alcohol, but there is a giant tub for baptisms.

“We do not add no worldly stuff,” Lawler said. “No worldly music. It’s all about Christ Jesus and lifting up his name.”

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Facebook via Shawn Lawler

Lawler organizes the events with the help of people like Cartagena and Chuck Miller, director of Shall Never Thirst Ministries at 19th and Girard. They say they run the block parties solely off donations. Over they years, they’ve gotten bigger and bigger, with more attendees and locations outside of South Philadelphia. This summer, they held their first block party in Kensington. At least 50 people got baptized, they say, and hundreds showed up.

“We offer the community whatever we can,” Cartagena said. “Almost always it’s automatic we encounter people who have addiction issues.”

Lawler often starts by introducing himself, telling his story and then moving on to a few bible verses, usually Jeremiah 29:11, before explaining to them how he could help get them into detox and therapy programs. Anyone who wants help must choose the faith-based method.

“That’s what we do,” Cartagena said. “It’s not for everybody. Not everybody gets the help from us. Thankfully there are a lot of organizations that offer the same things we offer without Christ attached to it. But we have a faith-based approach and we believe it works.”

The platform of the block parties has afforded Lawler more recognition throughout the community. When friends are in trouble or have a family member or another friend addicted, they know who to contact. Lawler’s Facebook message inbox is always packed, filled with people reaching out to him for guidance or him seeking out other proactively.

“Sometimes I’ll be with him and we’ll be driving down Kensington Avenue, and he’ll pull his truck over and start talking to someone he believes can turn their life to the Lord,” said Elwood McHugh, who credits Lawler with motivating him to get clean. “He tries to help so many people. Some people look at him like he’s crazy and he doesn’t care.”

Lawler stops the block parties in the winter. He held the last of 2017 in October. But he has a plan for outreach he hopes to enact in the next couple of months, something called “Holy Ghost on Wheels.” He’ll hitch a generator to his SUV and bring speakers and cups of coffee, letting people preach and sing.

“Under the El,” Lawler said. “We could pull up there and minister and sing and have a church service under there.”

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