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Speaking from the heart

COUPLE MAKES HOME VISITS TO THOSE IN NEED -- Many years ago, Michael Lyon was a drunk. He had cirrhosis of the liver and weighed just 112 pounds. Most of all, he had no hope. He had lost his wealth, his career and almost his life. But, he found God, and now uses what he learned from that devastation from those years ago to help others with their own addictions and problems. In 1999, Michael and Joan Lyon founded the prison ministry called "Charity Behind Bars." The program uses the 12-step philosophy based on Alcoholics Anonymous. Michael said more than 90 percent of the inmates in prisons and jails suffer with addiction. "You go through it and you realize that nothing else was important other than that addiction," he said. "All the other addictions we address. They are all the same, it is just that it is a different physical thing." Joan suffered from an emotional pain which spiraled her toward to the bottom. "I had cancer and I know what it is like to get on your knees and pray and mean it," she said. "That was my devastation that brought me to this spiritual journey and faith before I even met Michael." Joan said she believes everyone faces a spiritual challenge. "When you hit the bottom and there is nowhere to turn, all of a sudden God becomes an alternative," she said. "I realized that one night I prayed, he became the final resort, then the blessings and miracles happened. That's when you know you have to give it away." Despite facing more recent struggles — the death of her 19-year-old son a few years ago — Joan believes everyone is "called." Not everyone answers, she said. "We talk about gratitude instead of a life of regret," Joan said. "I wouldn't be who I am today without those experiences. I see that as part of my journey. There is no growth and there is no peace until you can forgive your past and the people in it."
December 22, 2010 | 08:45 AM
Michael and Joan Lyon are answering the call.

The ministers of the Spirit of Charity Church have overcome their own tragedy and devastation and they are sharing their knowledge and experiences from the past to help others facing similar difficult times now.

"Our calling is to give away what's been given to us," Michael said. "What has been given to me is that I had no hope, no alternative and no place to go. What happens when you get in that place, you finally remember there is a God and then you get down on your knees and ask for help."

But, for several years, the Lyons have been helping those who have been on their knees themselves.

The couple's main effort for the past 11 years is called "Charity Behind Bars," a program focusing on the 12-step recovery with men and women in Wisconsin prisons and jails.

Their most recent and local effort is called "Holiday House Calls." If asked, the pair go to people's homes, bring them a small gift and spend time there. Joan said the holidays can be a bad time of the year for older people whose families may not be able to visit or for those who are alone at this time of the year.

"There are people out there who feel alone and desperate and some who feel sorry for themselves a little bit," Michael said. "Maybe if they have lost someone recently, or have lost someone awhile ago and haven't gotten over it — they carry that with them all the time and the holidays it really shows up. You look around and everyone is supposed to be happy."

Michael explained a scenario for someone who could benefit from a home visit. He said think of yourself as an older woman, your husband died recently and you are all alone. You have trouble maintaining your home and your children visit, but not too often.

"You don't understand why you are alone, why things aren't better and why you're not happy," Michael said. "We come in and introduce ourselves and ask how we can be of service. What would you like? Would you like us to read something to you? Do you want to pray? Do you need to go to the cemetery? What is it that you need?"

Most of the time the people are just lonely, Michael said. And, what the couple does is all about charity.

"Charity is not a hand out. That's not what we are about," Michael said. "Charity is about giving and receiving."

Joan said there's nothing more special than helping someone.

"We are so blessed because we have been able to touch someone," she said. "But, we also know we have been touched. It goes both ways."

But, there was a time in which charity was not the prime motivation in their lives.

Michael and Joan understand desperation and loss. It wasn't long ago, both were facing what Michael calls "devastation" in their lives.

Michael is a recovering alcoholic who admits he lost almost everything because of it. He was once "very wealthy," lived in Europe for 12 years, and had "dynamic careers."

Joan struggled through a divorce which led to depression. She also was diagnosed with cancer. She said she was "addicted to sickness, pain and death."

"It doesn't matter what your devastation is, in life if you believe you are on a spiritual journey, you become aware of the fact that your kind of off the mark on your journey," Joan said. "We believe everyone is born to learn a lesson here in their lifetime and all of a sudden it hits you that you are not learning your lesson."

She said the experiences the two have had has led them to answering their "calling." It is apparent during their ministry efforts in the prisons.

"We try to teach and believe all of this comes from your own experience," Joan said. "We teach love, forgiveness, prayer and hope. If the inmates believe they can change, there is hope. We teach from the heart, because they have been devastated. They want to know that you have walked in their shoes and if you meet them as a brother, not an authority figure, their resistance goes way down. Then you are sharing with them and praying with them."

"You have to be truthful and expose yourself," Michael said. "You can't expect someone else to do the same — I have to let them know I am for real and I have to be honest. My life is wonderful, I spent 12 years in Europe, if have travelled the world, I have been drunk, I have been sober, I have found God and didn't even know he existed. This is a wealth of love and life and experience that I draw from."

That's why Michael said he truly heard the call.

"When you recognize that for yourself, you have a calling," Michael said. "It all comes into play. We just come to realize that all those experiences bring us to a particular point and we use that to give back what's been given to us."

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