John and Pam Hughes had walked 6 miles along the Dunedin Causeway by the time he finished telling her about his past, much of it not very pretty. It was early in their relationship, and he had planned to wait longer before revealing the details — his sex and Internet porn addictions, his two failed marriages.
But he had completely turned his life around through Celebrate Recovery — an international 12-step program based on the Bible and Christian principles — and was ready to move on.
Following the premise of honesty and integrity he had picked up in the program, he recalled thinking, "This is like the acid test — welcome to my world."
She didn't flinch.
"I just kept going," Pam Hughes said. "I found myself to be in the right place."
They had met on MySpace. He liked the small banner on her page that said "Yes I'm a Christian, is that a problem?"
They started sending messages and then spoke on the phone. She was living in Dunedin, and he was in Tampa.
On their first date, before she really knew anything about him, she stood him up. So the relationship actually began with forgiveness — him forgiving her, he said.
"I was just very scared and frightened," said Pam Hughes, 46, who had lifelong issues with co-dependency and enabling.
"I asked for forgiveness, and he forgave me," she said. He told her: "If Jesus can forgive us for what we do, I can forgive you for what you do."
"It was an awesome beginning for the testimony of a relationship," she said. This month they'll celebrate two years of marriage.
She went to his graduation ceremony from Step Studies, part of the Celebrate Recovery program that breaks participants into smaller groups. She was so impressed by what she learned there that she thought the program could help her, too.
The program is not just for people with substance abuse problems. It's for any hurt, habit and hang-up. Pam Hughes' is co-dependency — including enabling, reacting to people in such a way as to shield them from the full impact of a harmful consequence and allowing that person to be irresponsible, she said.
"I had a history of wanting to rescue people and make excuses for them. I had to fix everyone," she said. "I've learned through the program it's not me that fixes anyone; it's the work of God. It's God working through us."
The couple, who are both graduates of the program in South Tampa, started a new Celebrate Recovery chapter in Pasco County last year through Calvary Chapel Worship Center in New Port Richey. They received Pastor Bill Strayer's blessing after discovering there wasn't a chapter nearby. Church member Ron Norr, who has marked 25 years of sobriety, helps facilitate the small-group part of the program.
Between 25 and 45 people attend their Saturday meetings at the church. No one has to sign up. They just show up.
"I realized just how awful the power of sin was in my own life, and I realized my need for a savior," said John Hughes, 47. "There is a difference between sobriety and recovery."
He teaches that to others. To be leaders, they both went through hours of Celebrate Recovery training locally and in Orlando.
Now people throughout Pasco County have the Hughes' phone number. They call to get information or when they need help.
He said the real difference between Celebrate Recovery and Alcoholics Anonymous is the third step. AA refers to God as "we understand Him," while Celebrate Recovery says, "We have made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God." It's more definitive and Christ-driven, the Hughes say.
John Hughes works nights at a 7-Eleven. Pam Hughes works part-time as a respite care provider with the Pinellas Association of Retarded Children and is a paid caregiver for a quadriplegic woman.
Pam Hughes grew up with an alcoholic mom but watched her get help and stay sober for 23 years through AA. When her mother died two years ago in hospice care, she was able to relate to her mother's triumph on the deepest level because they shared the same recovery success stories and a similar process.
"It's like I'm living out my mom's legacy," she said.
In addition to the Saturday meetings, they lead a Step Study program on Mondays — Pam Hughes leads the women at church, and John Hughes leads the men at the couple's home.
Generations Community Church in Trinity is starting a Celebrate Recovery program in September.
Pam Hughes said one of the hardest things for people to do is let go of old hang-ups and not focus on their past. In the recovery program, they get accountability partners, and the group becomes "like an extended family becoming healthy together."
"Some people go day by day and carry a very heavy burden of shame and guilt," she said. "Guilt can be so strong that it alters the decision in their life."
B.J. Loomis attends the meetings because she is a workaholic, which she said is a way to not have to work through her problems.
"It's helped me a great deal," she said of the program. "Pam and John as a couple inspire you to have stability, someone you can call on to say, 'This is what I'm going through'. If you feel like you're sliding back, they lead you right to the Bible and say what would God really want you to do."
She added that they "always answer your questions and back it up with something biblical."
Pam Hughes is in awe of the transformation she sees people make.
"It's breathtaking," she said. "Sitting in a room as individuals are sharing their strengths and hopes, it just lays on my heart just to see the love that God has for them and for individuals to realize that and to be able to speak and share that. It's amazing."
"The transformation is incredible," she added. "I feel very blessed to be part of what God wants all of us to be like."
"Faith in Motion" is a regular feature about an individual or group doing something inspiring in the course of a spiritual journey. Story ideas are welcome, via e-mail. Send them to Mindy.Rubenstein@yahoo.com.