Once a heroin addict, Austin pastor finds love greater than temptation

Jacob Howell abused drugs for 16 years. But through faith, he pulled himself out of the hell of addiction. Now, he helps others.

AUSTIN, Ind. – The vows were over, sealed with a kiss, and pastor Jacob Howell couldn’t contain his joy.

With his bride Tiffanie beside him, he turned toward family, friends and parishioners, looked out at the crowd and pumped his fist in the air.

It was the best day of his life.

A day full of light — shining all the brighter for the darkness he’s known.

Addiction consumed Jacob for nearly half of his 35 years, like it did so many others in his hometown, epicenter of rural America’s worst HIV outbreak caused by IV drug use. But when Jacob surrendered to God, the light of faith and community began pulling him up. He found a mentor to guide him into recovery, a new calling as a pastor and a new family.

Once a desperate man snorting heroin daily and roaming Austin’s streets high, Jacob is now a community leader, preaching the Gospel and helping feed the hungry, clothing the poor and ministering to the troubled at a church known for service. His very life is an example to those still living in desperation — that hope and transformation are real.

Jacob is on a mission to save others still caught in that life, both by bringing them to God and helping them into recovery. By saving souls and saving lives.

And he has.

He learned how to serve at the foot of his mentor, Paul Thomas, whose willingness to befriend, teach and guide a stranger changed both their lives. Now, like any act of kindness, it’s spreading to other lives too, creating a chain of love that over time can transform the community.

“No one has ever seen God,” Jacob wrote in one of his favorite sermons. “But if we love each other, God lives in us.”

His faith pulled this Austin pastor out of addiction’s grasp
Addiction consumed Jacob for nearly half his 35 years, like it did so many others in his hometown, epicenter of rural America’s worst-ever HIV outbreak caused by IV drug use. But when Jacob surrendered to God, the light of faith and community began pulling him up.
Alton Strupp, Louisville Courier Journal

Even while mired in poverty and hopelessness, the community sought God. Many residents see faith as the meaning behind their recovery and as the path from stigma to compassion. More than 15 churches nestle among cornfields, line the one-stoplight Main Street and dot neighborhoods of tidy and ramshackle homes. They promise what the city yearns for: hope, grace and redemption.

Jacob and Paul’s sanctuary is the Church of the New Covenant, a nondenominational Christian church off Clay and Rural streets, once a notorious stretch for drugs.

Paul, also a preacher there, officiated at Jacob’s wedding, offering Scripture and prayer.

Jacob prayed, too, for himself and for his community.

“We’re grateful, God, for today. We’re grateful for the breath within us. This love that you give us is unconditional, God. We know it ain’t based on what we do. …

“Let the love be greater than the temptation and darkness around us.”

Child of destiny and despair

Jacob believes he’s fulfilling a prophecy God revealed to his grandmother, Wanda Sue Howell, long before his birth.

For decades, she told the family that an angel appeared to her at age 17 to say she’d have a grandson, Jacob Nathaniel. He would be a soldier in God’s army, the angel promised, and “part of a great revival in Austin.”

Jacob heard the story as a kid but couldn’t relate. Back then he was more mischievous than saintly, pulling pranks like putting Tabasco sauce in his grandmother’s coffee. He figured: “Grandma just thinks I’m wild, and she wants to say this stuff so I’ll stop.”

What to know about Austin’s HIV outbreak

For four years, the Courier Journal has chronicled the heartbreaking, drug-fueled HIV outbreak in the small town of Austin, Indiana. Now, come along as the town lifts itself out of despair to create a new feeling of hope in AUSTIN RISING. Find out more HERE.

Those early years were happy ones for Jacob and his little sister, even though they grew up poor.

That changed when Jacob turned 8.

A lymph node in the little boy’s upper right thigh swelled to the size of a softball. A doctor removed it and diagnosed lymphedema, a sometimes-painful condition resulting from a lymphatic system blockage.

A few years later, Jacob’s parents divorced. His dad, Wilbur, moved out. His mom, Kathleen, admits sinking into addiction — drinking, smoking marijuana and doing meth with a boyfriend.

Wanda Sue grew closer to her grandson during those years, bringing Jacob to church, praying with him and showing him how to write religious poetry. She filled notebooks with letters, poems and songs asking God to ease the pain in her family and her hometown.

In one, she wrote: Let me stand on the rock, the foundation of your love, Jesus Christ, and take your love to a very darkened world where precious little children are hurting…

Over time, Jacob’s leg swelled again, growing to 38 inches around and leaking fluid before his family brought him to a children’s hospital. Doctors gave him a compression pump to control the swelling, but he didn’t have the discipline to use it correctly. No one pushed him, so he was in a wheelchair much of the time.

Life kept spiraling downward.

When Jacob was 13, doctors diagnosed Wanda Sue with lung cancer. That same year, drug users hanging around his mom’s house began offering Jacob pills and bags of weed. By 15, he was doing meth. It wasn’t long before he dropped out of Scottsburg High School.

Wilbur pulled Jacob out of that chaos, moving him to Nashville, Tennessee, where he was homeschooled and worked with his dad in a glass factory. Jacob finally received regular therapy for his lymphedema. The swelling went down dramatically.

Then, more turmoil.

Jacob got hooked on Lortab pills prescribed for his pain. Surgery to deal with excess skin from his lymphedema didn’t work.

And Wanda Sue was dying.

Jacob and his dad rushed back to Indiana to say goodbye. As Jacob sat near her bedside holding her, she told him in a weak voice: “Don’t forget the story of Jonah.”

Jacob knew the basics of the biblical tale. A reluctant prophet called by God to preach to citizens of a wayward city tried to run away, only to fall into the ocean and be swallowed by a whale. Then he was vomited onto the shore, forgiven and saved by God.

A story America needed: Austin’s journey from drug addiction to hope

A few weeks later, a children’s storybook about Jonah, sent by a company selling book club subscriptions, arrived in the mailbox.

Jacob ignored what he now sees as a sign. Like Jonah, he ran from God.

After Wanda Sue died, Jacob moved back to Indiana, got his GED and started a job with his dad’s new employer, Wolfe Glass, in New Albany. But his addiction raged. And he sold drugs, too.

He lived in a rundown trailer with a pregnant girlfriend, his grandmother’s prophecy a distant memory.

“I had no faith in myself,” he said. “No hope.”

Further into hell

Jacob and his girlfriend, Stephanie, had a son, Tristen. Jacob smoked meth on the day of the baby’s baptism.

Jacob also snorted opioid painkillers such as OxyContin, Opana and Lortab in those days — some bought on the street and some from doctors willing to prescribe to the addicted. Jacob wouldn’t shoot up like many of his buddies did; he’d once found a friend dead with a needle in his arm. Avoiding needles made Jacob less vulnerable when HIV came to Austin.

Jacob hid his habit from the outside world. He kept his $25-an-hour job, put away savings, paid off his trailer and bought two vehicles. He prided himself on caring for Tristen and later Colten, Stephanie’s son from another relationship whom Jacob took in after he and Stephanie split up. Tristen said his father was always a good dad with a good heart.

But a deeper hell awaited.

One night, Jacob searched in vain for pills, which became much harder to get after a government crackdown. The next morning, as he rode to work with a colleague, he couldn’t stop shaking and sweating from withdrawal.

His friend offered a solution: heroin.

“Want to try some of this?” he asked.

They rolled up the windows in the Dodge Dakota and crushed the drug on a mirror. Jacob held it up for his friend to snort while driving, then snorted some himself.

Soon Jacob couldn’t go a day without it. His constant quest for heroin replaced even things he loved, like fishing trips with his boys.

Jacob lost his job and blew through savings. Water and electricity to his trailer were cut off and he couldn’t flush the toilet. Mold grew on the carpets. Bugs crawled on the furniture. Stephanie was in prison at the time, so the boys had to move in with her mother.

Jacob abandoned the trailer, sleeping on friends’ couches. He let his body go, unconcerned by his haggard face and rotten teeth.

His rock bottom coincided with the early months of Austin’s HIV outbreak in 2015, when cases skyrocketed every month, reaching 184 by early December. Day and night, Jacob roamed the streets of his hometown with other suffering souls, single-mindedly chasing heroin.

“Finally,” he said, “I couldn’t face my boys.”

 In desperation, he went to his father.

“I need help,” he told Wilbur. “I’ve got a problem.”

Wilbur took him in and helped him get treatment with the addiction medicine Suboxone. He brought Jacob to services at Northside Church in New Albany, where a couple invited him to a series of Bible studies in Scottsburg.

Jacob went to the first one but didn’t like it. He skipped the second.

On the night of the third, he returned to his father’s house to find all his belongings piled on the porch. Jacob hadn’t been there for a few days, and Wilbur thought he was using drugs again.

“I wasn’t,” Jacob assured him, trying to explain that he was staying with his boys. “I really wasn’t.”

His dad stood firm.

Jacob wondered where to turn. Two clear choices emerged: the nearest dope house or Bible study.

His whole body cried out for heroin’s oblivion.

But a small voice within him cried out for God’s salvation.

“God, give me faith; give me hope,” he prayed, sobbing on Wilbur’s porch. “Help me, Lord. I’ve dug my hole so deep I can’t get out of it on my own. I need you to help me, oh Lord.”

And help came.

Student and teacher

At Bible study that night, Jacob sat with two strangers, Paul and Becky Thomas.

Paul offered Jacob a ride home and Jacob shared his story on the way, mentioning that he didn’t have a job. Paul told him he was pouring concrete the next day and invited him to help.

Like Jacob, Paul almost didn’t go to Bible study that night. The first one had seemed too much like a self-help group, and he only kept going because Becky urged him to.

Everything suddenly made sense when he met Jacob: “God meant for me and him to connect.”

Just as Jacob was seeking a teacher, Paul was seeking a student.

In 2012, Paul had left his job as part-owner of Thomas Plastic Machinery in Scottsburg, finding money a hollow pursuit. He did mission work in Africa and tried unsuccessfully to help start a church.

“I always thought God had more for me to do than just sitting on a pew,” Paul said. “(Jacob) was crying out to God. I was wanting to make disciples. … And that’s when it started — that night.”

Two weeks after meeting Jacob, Becky and Paul got a call from Dr. Will Cooke, Austin’s lone physician at the time, asking if they could take over a community dinner program. Debbie Ousley, the woman who started it, was ill and had to stop. Paul and Becky agreed to step in.

Senior Pastor Harold White of the Church of the New Covenant agreed to host the dinners. Jacob helped paint the room, then served food alongside Paul and Becky three days later.

From that week on, Jacob and Paul spent many of their waking hours together. When they finished the concrete work, they took on other construction jobs — always talking about God while they worked.

Paul advised: “Take a year and focus on Jesus.”

Gradually, a craving for faith and service replaced Jacob’s craving for drugs. Wanting to shed parts of his old image, he quit smoking and began wearing false teeth.

He and Paul formally joined the Church of the New Covenant, where Paul asked Jacob to lead a Bible study. 

The two helped add a kitchen, bathrooms and a huge closet for donated clothing to the church’s youth center. People often interrupted them to ask for food, clothes or a prayer. Paul got annoyed until he realized that building community was more important than building that addition.

Jacob didn’t mind the interruptions. Paul watched as he effortlessly connected with people in need, including those struggling with addiction. Jacob met them with compassion, not judgment, giving hugs and telling them God loved them. In the church and on the street, he offered impromptu prayers.

One Sunday, Jacob testified to the congregation about his own struggle with drugs.

Paul heard the stirrings of a pastor.

“I felt in my spirit that he had the potential and the enthusiasm and the desire” to preach, Paul said. “As a Christian, you’ve got to love people where they’re at.”

With the encouragement of Paul and Harold, Jacob began preaching every couple of months, joining Paul as a junior pastor.

And just as Paul served and guided him, he began serving and guiding others.

Brian LaFever met Jacob at the church in late summer 2017, during the depths of his struggle with meth. Jacob asked if Brian wanted to accept Jesus as his savior and led him to the altar when he said yes. Later in the service, Jacob baptized him.

After church, the two got to know each other. Jacob shared his story and asked Brian if he wanted to help him and Paul with some work around the church.

From that day on, Brian vowed to get sober. He’d been to court-ordered recovery meetings before and had gone with no intention of quitting. But at that point, he was ready to commit. He’s been clean, and coming to the church, ever since.

“The Lord put us together for a reason,” the 54-year-old said. “He saved my life.”

Harry Clark said much the same. Harry, 44, used drugs for 25 years — weed, meth, “whatever I could get” during his darkest times. On Thursdays he went to Food 4R Souls for free meals and got to know Jacob. To his surprise, Jacob didn’t judge him like other people did; “he was just on my side … somebody I could talk to.

“… I knew he understood because he did go through that life.”

One day about eight months ago, Harry confided he was ready to get well but didn’t have money or a ride to Todd’s Place, the men’s transitional recovery housing in nearby Seymour. Jacob had connections there, so he got Harry in. He found a friend to drive and accompanied them to drop Harry off at Todd’s Place. He’s been living there, sober, ever since, working in a factory and hoping to regain custody of his son.

“Without Jacob’s help, I’d probably still be doing what I was doing,” Harry said. “He’s helped me get my life on track.”

Paul saw God acting through Jacob. So when he was asked if he wanted to be the senior pastor, Paul said he’d rather “push my brother to the front.” Jacob replaced Harold when he retired in late October.

Jacob now gives sermons every other Sunday, trading off with Paul. He vacuums the church and cleans the windows, too.

And he still builds whatever needs building.

Faith, family, future

For Jacob’s wedding, the community transformed the youth center gym. Tables covered with blue cloth and gold runners filled the basketball court, facing a regal head table beneath one of the hoops. Bunches of shiny, star-shaped balloons hovered above tables and chairs.

Guests streamed in with potluck dishes, then lined up to write notes of love and congratulations on a wooden cross. Jacob rushed to Paul and Becky, pulling Becky close and announcing: “This wedding wouldn’t have happened without you.”

In the church next door, Tiffanie balanced on a stool as friends fixed her hair and makeup. She marveled at how everyone pitched in to give them the perfect wedding.

“We’re simple people,” she said. “I just didn’t think we mattered. People really care.“

Tiffanie met Jacob as a young girl, while visiting an aunt in Austin. Jacob, who lived across the street, would chase the girl from Florida around a tree and try to kiss her.

They met again three years ago at her cousin’s funeral. They connected instantly. Both were single parents. Tiffanie was divorced with four kids. Both were trying to overcome addiction. Tiffanie had struggled with the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. A romance blossomed as they traded Facebook messages and leaned on each other. They took things slow.

Last New Year’s Eve, before preaching a service, Jacob got on one knee and proposed in front of 35 parishioners.

Nine months later, Tiffanie walked down the aisle in Jacob’s stepmom’s white gown to Carrie Underwood’s “Look at Me.” Jacob wore his dad’s suit and a blue shirt from the church clothes pantry. They promised to love, honor and obey. They lit one candle from two. 

At the reception, Jacob’s aunt Donna Barger, Wanda Sue’s daughter, teared up watching them.

“My mom’s looking down today,” she said.

Inevitably, wedding bliss gave way to the hectic balance of work and family — and the challenges of sobriety and faith.

One of the first things Jacob does every day is to ask God for help.

Less than a week after the wedding, he arrived at the church for an 8 a.m. prayer group, wearing overalls and a T-shirt from the city’s recent Overdose Awareness Day Fed Up! march.

“I am sorry for all the things I did that were wrong. God, I’m asking you to help us recognize the darkness around us. Let us not be distracted by the things of the world — whether it’s drugs or anything else …” he said, closing his eyes.

“Thank you for my church. I’m glad to be back here in the trenches. I’m ready to do this work that you have set before me.”

Later Jacob rounded up his kids to help clean their new, rented house. Jacob’s son Colten and stepdaughter, 9-year-old Adylin, mostly played as the older kids made their way from room to room with garbage bags, throwing out trash and figuring out where to put the belongings piled in the living room. Tiffanie returned home from work at CVS and pitched in. 

Just as Paul and Wanda Sue guided him toward God, Jacob and Tiffanie hope to do the same for their kids. Jacob already sees encouraging signs. Little Adylin has adopted his practice of impromptu prayers, once asking God to lift “our pain” when Jacob’s lymphedema flared up. Fifteen-year-old Tristen sings with the church band, and said his dad’s relationships with parishioners “show me how to think about others.”

Jacob nurtures those relationships through all his roles at the church: ministering and praying wherever he’s needed, whether in church, on the streets, even occasionally in homes.

 Giving out clothes or food to those who need them.

Running the youth center used for sports teams, a school gym class, community events and funerals.

And every Thursday, Jacob helps plan and run a crucial service in Austin, the “Food 4R Souls” dinners. Between helping serve food when needed, he weaves among the tables, serving prayers.

One evening he stopped at a table where young, tired-looking men hunched over their plates. He knew them. They were living the life he once did. Jacob shared a little of his own story, invited them to church on Sunday and began speaking to God as they bowed their heads.

Another evening he prayed with an ill, elderly woman. She slumped over the table, then collapsed as he helped lead her outside. So he carried her to a couch, praying as they waited for an ambulance. Again he was there when he was needed.

Each day Jacob grows more hopeful that the revival his grandmother once predicted will come to pass in Austin — that faith will pull people out of addiction and pain.

Jacob heard echoes of his grandmother’s prophecy when an older woman walked into the church in late October, crying.

“I haven’t been in a church building in 10 years,” she said. “Something told me to come here.”

Jacob prayed with her in the sanctuary. And he wept when she told him her name:

Wanda Sue.

Laura Ungar: 502-582-7190; lungar@courier-journal.com; Twitter @laura_ungar. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/laurau.

This content was originally published here.