Finding a Constant Love

Jun 30, 2016 | by Kathy Lovin

J Koebel’s dreams were coming true.

As a child growing up in Wisconsin, Koebel was drawn to the performing arts. He later studied music and theater at Judson University in the suburbs of Chicago. After graduation and a stint at the Second City Conservatory, he landed in New York City, where he was soon working regularly as a stand up comedian.

Even though he loved doing comedy, Koebel discovered he didn’t like who he was or where his life was going when he was not performing. Something was missing.

He began drinking, and was soon using a combination of drugs, including cocaine, ecstasy, Special K and heroin. He says the drugs became a “security blanket” that kept him from dealing with his life. As his addiction consumed him, Koebel stopped showing up for gigs. “Ultimately those chemicals took over everything for me in New York and I just quit doing everything,” he said. “Quickly.”

Koebel became overwhelmed one night following a cocaine binge. He called his parents and told them he needed to come home. They bought him a plane ticket, and he flew to Wisconsin that night.

Yet even though he removed himself from that scene, Koebel did not stop drinking. He would wake up and immediately start drinking from a bottle hidden under his bed, and he would drink all day long until he blacked out.

It caught up to him in the form of five DUIs in six weeks. After serving jail time, his caseworker placed him in an outpatient recovery program, but he went right back to drinking, even timing his intake to pass the mandatory drug and alcohol tests.

Eventually, Koebel felt so out of control that he went to his caseworker and asked her to help him find a place where he could truly get his life back on track.

“You need to put me in some sort of program where I can’t leave,” he said. “I gotta be … locked in somewhere and learn the basics of life again because I don’t remember anything.”

The caseworker said that in her previous job in Southern California, she would send people to The Salvation Army drug and alcohol center in Riverside County, Koebel said, “Ok. Let’s go.”

He arrived in California a couple of weeks later, and after a few days of detox, he was allowed to check in on his birthday, in 2006. “That is when my life really changed,” he said.

Early in his time at the The Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitaion Center (ARC) Koebel said he felt completely hopeless, thinking there would never be anything joyful in his life again.

But then he began observing the couple who ran the center, Captain Man-Hee Chang and his wife Captain Stephanie Chang. He concluded: “There’s got to be something about this God thing that these two people want so badly for all these other people to see it that they’re doing this,” he said. “So I gave that a try. And I realized, wow, I have, like, a little bit of hope now.”

It was enough to inspire him to pursue a relationship with God, something he never realized was possible before. And as that relationship deepened, his sense of hope grew.

Following his graduation from the program, Koebel began working at the center. He attended the local Salvation Army church and found himself surrendering his life more and more to God.

Every evening, he would spend time praying in the ARC chapel. One night, he clearly recalls hearing God: “I want you to live this life of service. And you can do this as a Salvation Army officer [pastor].” He didn’t agree, but as he ministered to the ARC beneficiaries, he started to feel that maybe this was something he could do.

Koebel entered The Salvation Army’s 2-year seminary and completed his training in 2011. Now he’s in charge of youth programs at The Salvation Army headquarters in San Diego, which serves San Diego, Imperial, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

He works alongside his wife, Lt. Ashley Koebel. The two recently adopted a son and daughter out of the foster care system. He now laughs when he thinks about his old fears that a sober life would be boring. “There is nothing boring about being an officer,” he said.

A few times a year, Koebel returns to the ARC where he got sober to share the good news of God’s transforming power in his life. Going there reminds him of how thankful he is for his addiction and recovery, because he said it was the road he had to travel to discover God’s enduring love for him.

“The beauty of it … is He’s put all those messy pieces of my life together into this puzzle that I could never have imagined,” Koebel said.

“By surrendering my entire life to God, all these amazing things have happened to me. Are there still bumps in the road? Heck, yeah. That’s normal. It’s a lot easier to get through those bumps, though, when you have a constant love in your life.”

If you or someone you love needs help from one of The Salvation Army’s drug and alcohol centers, click here to find the closest program.

Or, if you’re looking for a “constant love” please enter your zip code in the location finder to locate a Salvation Army worship community near you. 

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