Br. Christopher Stephen Jenks
Brotherhood of St. Gregory
“Mentoring is always mutual. It is not and cannot be a one-sided proposition. I firmly believe that I received far more from the men at Fessenden House than I gave them. I am called ‘Brother’ for a reason. I am not here to push or pull anybody toward a destination. I am here to accompany them on our mutual journey together.”
We are proud to induct Brother Christopher Stephen Jenks into the Susan Daniels Disability Mentoring Hall of Fame.
Br. Christopher Stephen Jenks, BSG, was born in 1959 and grew up in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, where his father served as pastor of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. His parents were both active in the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement of the 1960s. The church rectory was an open house of sorts, where all sorts of people would show up, from the high and mighty to the down and out. “One night we had Mayor Lindsay at our dinner table, along with two of the local street people. Boy did they give him an earful!” Other occasional guests included Dorothy Day, H. Rap Brown, Angela Davis, and Daniel Berrigan. The rectory also housed many of the church’s outreach programs, including a drop-in center for homeless folks and a food pantry and clothing bank. Many of these people became his friends as he was growing up.
Br. Christopher attended a local church school where some of his teachers were members of religious orders, and he developed an attraction to the “religious life” (life under religious vows) at an early age. This, combined with his parents’ commitment to issues of social and economic justice, has informed his life and vocation to this day.
While in college, Br. Christopher became addicted to drugs, particularly amphetamines and cocaine. Although he did not realize it at the time, he was dealing with depression and anxiety, and the drugs gave him a measure of relief. When he realized that he had become an addict, he worked for many years to become clean, but it was a frustrating and difficult experience. He was only able to give up the drugs in 1990, when his depressive disorder was finally diagnosed and he began to receive effective treatment.
Following through on his early attraction to the religious life, in 1987 Br. Christopher was admitted to the Brotherhood of St. Gregory (BSG), a religious community for men in the Episcopal Church, and he made his life profession of vows in 1993. In 1995 he was invited to join the staff of Fessenden House in Yonkers, NY.
Fessenden House had been founded by members of BSG to serve as a home for men with HIV/AIDS who were too ill to live on their own but who did not need to be hospitalized or placed in a nursing home. In its first few years of operation it became clear that nearly all of the men who lived there were dealing with Substance Use Disorder, and in most cases that was a more immediate and compelling concern than the HIV infection itself, especially after new medication protocols were developed in the mid-1990s. In 1998, Br. Christopher was appointed Executive Director and, at his suggestion, the focus of the house was switched from HIV/AIDS to Substance Use Disorder. The board and staff soon realized that Fessenden House was the only recovery-oriented housing accepting men with serious medical and/or mental health issues, so the mission of the house was further refined to focus on that population.
Fessenden House was distinctive, maybe even unique, for two reasons. First, it had an open-ended stay policy. Men could live there for as long as they needed the support that Fessenden House offered. The average stay was about three years, but some men lived there for as long as ten years. Second, the staff lived with the men. “Their home was our home, and our home was theirs.” The purpose of the house was not to treat the men; they received treatment for Substance Use Disorder and medical and mental health concerns off-site. However, Fessenden House gave them a safe place to live, physically and emotionally, and the time necessary for healing could take deep root. The program proved to be highly successful. Fewer than 25 percent of the residents relapsed with drugs or alcohol, and many of those who did relapse were able to get back on track quickly and successfully.
In the summer of 2017 Fessenden House was forced to close. The property that Fessenden House leased was sold, and the board and staff were unable to find another suitable and affordable building for the work. Br. Christopher is now retired and living in Providence, RI, where he does volunteer work for the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island.