By LESLIE COLLINS
November 7, 2012
In this two part series, Northeast News takes a look at Grace United Community Ministries and how it’s changing lives in Kansas City.
Greg Parr became a pimp at the age of 16.
His new career stemmed from watching the movie, “The Mack,” whose characters glorified pimping and prostitution.
His first taste of alcohol came during grade school when he snuck a few sips of his uncle’s beer. That first taste of beer later led to experimenting with marijuana and more potent drugs like cocaine, acid and LSD.
With drugs, he finally felt like he belonged.
“Day by day, all I wanted to do was get high,” he said. “I wanted to escape reality, period. I didn’t like my reality; I didn’t like me. I felt inferior. I didn’t feel like I was part of a group, part of a crowd. But, when I learned how to drink, I felt accepted. When I smoked weed, I felt accepted.”
By 21, he quit pimping, but he continued to cling to drugs.
Snorting cocaine and abusing alcohol became a way of life. As his addiction festered, so did the relationships of those closest to him. He lied to his mother, he stole from his family.
He lived in abandoned houses and panhandled in Westport to support his drug cravings.
After cheating death a number of times, he finally turned his back on his haunting addictions.
Today, his story is about redemption. Today, he serves as a lay minister and is the director of the Homeless and Substance Abuse Recovery Ministry at Grace United Community Ministries, 801 Benton Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. He’s credentialed as a drug prevention specialist, a Missouri Recovery Support Specialist, Associate Substance Abuse Counselor II and has a state license in drug prevention.
“I now have a vision,” Parr said. “Back in the day, I didn’t have any goals or objectives. Now, I have big goals. My goal is to be the best friend to people that I can be. My goal is to take as many people to treatment as I can and to connect as many people as I can to the God of my understanding.”
Parr grew up in Maryland and New York, where his divorced mother raised him and his two brothers alone. Although his mother earned a masters in education and promoted continuing education, Parr didn’t listen.
“I was a knucklehead,” he said.
After high school, Parr hopped around cities in the U.S. and continued to lose jobs, whether from stealing or showing up intoxicated. To hide his alcoholism, he’d stash alcohol in the depths of his closet or pop a peppermint to mask his breath.
Finally, he settled in the Westport area of Kansas City, where his profession became panhandling and drug dealing. One night, he tried to seek shelter in the abandoned home he’d been staying in, but someone locked the window. Drunk and high, he shattered the window and cut his nose in the process. He woke up with blood smeared across his face and waited three days before washing it off because he discovered he made more money panhandling when people felt sorry for him.
“It was a money maker and money means drugs,” he said.
Kansas City police officers knew Parr by name and arrested him 97 times, mostly for panhandling.
“These were my really down, seemingly hopeless days,” he said. “My dreams of going back home were gone, my dreams of going to school were gone, my dreams of doing better in life were gone. I just thought I was going to die from addiction, and I pretty much accepted that.”
But as he roamed the streets of Westport, individuals began planting seeds. There was the officer who continued to ask Parr when he would turn his life around and the woman who attended church nearby who gave Parr sack lunches, each filled with a scripture verse.
Over time, his wallet bulged with scripture verses, which he read during his stints in jail.
Despite multiple visits to detox and drug rehabilitation centers, Parr continued to slip back to his old ways. It wasn’t until he had an alcoholic seizure and checked himself into detox, that he began to question where his life was headed.
“I started praying to a god that I didn’t know existed. I said God, whoever you are, if you are… It was that night that God entered my heart,” Parr said. “That spiritual experience is something I’ll never forget. I knew everything was going to be better.”
Following 60 days in a treatment center, Parr received a call from one of the pastors in Westport who offered Parr a job.
“That was the beginning of my ministry right there and it still exists. It’s called Neighbor to Neighbor Ministry,” he said. “The same area I was arrested in so many times, I was going back and helping people get off the streets.”
Later, Rev. Sharon Garfield of Grace United Community Ministries in Northeast asked Parr to head up the Substance Abuse Recovery Ministry.
“She wanted me to implement a substance abuse ministry because she believed that at least 90 percent of her congregation had substance abuse in their families,” he said.
Garfield said the church’s mission focuses on breaking the cycles of violence, poverty and substance abuse.
“We started out working mainly with poverty issues and working with families, but we kept finding so many situations where families were broken up because one of the family members was addicted to some kind of substance,” Garfield said. “This is an issue that affects so many people and it really doesn’t matter where you live. It can affect you if you’re living in Johnson County or whether you’re living here (in Northeast), an area that is more low income.”
For 10 years, Parr has worked at Grace Ministries, connecting residents to drug treatment centers, support groups, counseling and job placement. One of Parr’s No. 1 success stories is Greg Edwards, who now serves as a lay minister and is on the board of directors at Grace United Community Ministries. Edwards celebrated his 10-year anniversary of being drug-free in October.
“Grace taught me how to love myself, and in the process I’ve learned how to love other people,” Edwards said. “This ministry means so much to me. It’s like life, it’s like giving life.”