A meth addict finds redemption from the streets on the street.
Up before the sun, he laces his shoes and steps into the misty morning—an hour so early that the quiet city has not yet succumbed to the cadences of daybreak. He stretches, warms his muscles, and when rubber sole meets pavement, pounds out a story years in the making. It’s what he has always done. Steve Cannon runs.
But for nearly two decades, he ran away from God and family, headstrong down a path that nearly destroyed him. A seasoned construction worker, Cannon had an established career, coupled with a crippling addiction to methamphetamines. At the height of his addiction, he was using on a daily basis, both at work and at home. He willfully distanced himself from his children, withdrawing further into the rote life of a gang- and drug-infested world.
Changing Lives Through Exercise
And then, on March 22, 2001, Cannon fell more than 30 feet at a construction site. He landed on his back, cracking four ribs, nearly cutting off an index finger, and sustaining head trauma and nerve damage. He was in and out of the hospital for months. The injuries to the right side of his body suggested he might never walk normally again. His speech was greatly affected, and he’d lost all ability to move his right arm.
After just six months, Cannon was released by his doctors and told he could return to his job in construction; it felt like a second chance at life. He connected with a church and multiple support groups in an effort to keep himself busy—and removed from his old lifestyle. But after four and a half years of clean, drug-free living, the former life beckoned, and drug abuse once again became the norm.
He was running again, and Cannon knew he needed help. Finding himself in court for a $300 fine, he asked to be sent to a short-term facility for men battling chemical addictions.
The Potter’s House in Jefferson, Ga., is one of the many facilities of Atlanta Mission, an organization focused on ending homelessness in metro Atlanta. After staying there for two months, Cannon was transferred to The Shepherd’s Inn, another of the Mission’s facilities, where he would remain until the completion of the program. It was there that he met Jesse Salters—a retired Army drill sargent with a degree in social work. Salters is now a counselor who works with the men at The Shepherd’s Inn. He had not been there long before realizing that true rehabilitation and restoration encompassed even more than meeting a person’s emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs. With the support of the Mission, he began a physical fitness regimen that has since become a mandatory part of the program.
At 4:50 each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning, Salters arrives and begins wake-up calls. By 5 a.m., all of the roughly 60 men are standing outside of the downtown facility, stretching and warming up. Then together, though each at his own pace, they take on the roads of Atlanta, running the same streets where many of them once walked as addicts and dealers.
“The benefit is capturing the whole person . . . so while their mind’s clearing, their body’s healing at the same time,” Salters said. This has proven true for Cannon; running has become a stress reliever, a way to empty his mind of clutter. He often asks for permission to run on his own, even when the group isn’t meeting.
“It takes a lot off my mind—it puts me at ease,” Cannon said. He can’t get enough, if only for the fact that running is something he never dreamed he’d be able to do. But as the prophet Isaiah reminds us, “‘[God’s] thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways [His] ways,’ declares the LORD” (Isa. 55:8). And the strenuous act of running is teaching Cannon just that.
Each time he goes for a run, he prays, asking for the ability to complete what he’s setting out to do. Whether he runs 1 mile or 8—his farthest distance so far—he ends with a prayer of thanksgiving. He hasn’t forgotten where he came from or Who has brought him to this point. The right leg that once barely functioned carries him step by step. He doesn’t have to be the fastest; he just wants to finish. “I like knowing I can do it.”
On Jan. 25, 2014, thousands of people gathered in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. It was cold, with temperatures in the low 20s, as the sun peeked above the skyline. A gunshot rang out, and Cannon joined the throngs of people running through city streets. Though from varying walks of life, they ran with a single purpose: to support the Atlanta Mission and its efforts to change lives. He ran for men like himself, whose drug addictions had led them into physical and spiritual bondage. He ran for women and children who were sleeping in the bitter cold—for men and women alike who had lost their jobs, homes, and families.
Around the 30-minute mark, a winded Cannon crossed the finish line of his first official 5K, repeating the word “Awesome!” through a big grin. It mattered little how he had placed; the man who’d stood in front of a judge months before, strung-out, tired, and defeated, was now proud, strong, and accomplished. He had run for himself—to do something challenging, healthy, and positive—and for the first time in ages, he had finished something truly good.
Laughing and singing, the 5K finishers who were clients of the Mission danced in celebration. Even as the festivities began to wind down, the DJ who’d kept everyone lively despite the cold continued to play music. Cannon and his friends congratulated one another on a job well done as some proudly wore the T-shirts they had earned. Like other participants—businessmen, mothers, fathers, pastors, and elite runners—they had finished the race and were no longer merely drug addicts, homeless people, and ex-convicts. They were portraits of grace bestowed freely and lavishly by the God in whose image they were made.
Cannon is still running. For him, each morning spent with Salters and the other men in his program is a new opportunity to fine-tune the man he’s becoming. He once had much to flee, but now he runs with resolve and purpose—pounding the pavement for the glory of God.
Written by Erin Chewning
Photography by Ben Rollins