New Haven couple renews vows 31 years after kicking drug addiction: ‘So many obstacles’

NEW HAVEN — They called it a vow renewal ceremony after 31 years of marriage, but when John and Brenda Adkins re-tied the knot over the weekend, it felt like their first real wedding.

At their original ceremony in 1992, both were fresh off drug addiction and married in borrowed clothes, with used earrings as rings and leftover cake from a friend’s wedding on their plates, they said.

“It wasn’t easy getting to where we are. We’ve had so many obstacles,” said bride Brenda Adkins. “It feels like our first wedding because now we’re able to do what we wanted to do the first time.”

Today the Adkinses are pillars in the community. After a rough decade with addiction, they have dedicated the last 30 years to helping the neediest and most downtrodden.

They had already been together for 10 years when they first got married.

Their friends had been married the day before, so in addition to the leftover cake and used flowers, the bride borrowed a rose-colored dress and a pair of shoes that were too big. The groom borrowed his friend’s tuxedo and shoes. They had only a few close relatives at the wedding.

This time, they did the wedding in style at the Polish-American Club in West Haven, where 80 family members and friends helped the Adkinses celebrate their love.

“I have all my favorite people here,” Brenda said during the reception.

Martha Weisbart of Orange, a long-time volunteer in the couple’s endeavors, said it was an “honor to celebrate with them.”

“They’ve been through a lot of hardship together and they’ve embodied what service to community is all about,” Weisbart said.

The ambiance Saturday was candlelight with an elegant gold-and-black motif, a disc jockey, joyful dancing, a large bridal party in tuxedos and gowns, a three-tiered white fondant wedding cake adorned with streaming black roses and an abundant buffet. There were wedding favors, embossed Mr. & Mrs. Adkins napkins, throwing of the garter and a bouquet toss. They even had a professional photographer.

The bride wore a sheer dress covered in gold leaves and carried a bouquet made just for her. She had shiny gold barrettes in her hair and the groom wore a tuxedo and shiny black shoes, a boutonniere on his lapel.

Their son Quincy, 35, was best man; daughter Candace, 40, was a maid of honor.

Their vows were taken at a bridal altar laced with roses. The ceremony was officiated by the Rev. Bishop James T. Wilkinson of Spring Harvest Ministries in Norwalk.

“So many people are separated, it’s good to see a couple want to do it again,” Wilkinson said.

In personally written vows, John Adkins told his “new” bride that, “Without you I’m nothing, you made me who I am today.”

“I love you and I will always cherish you no matter what…I hope to be with you another 41 years,” he said.

Brenda kept it real, with a hint of their old lifestyle woven in..

“I’m so proud to say we made it,” Brenda said. “You took care of us even when you were hustling. Even when the police were chasing us…”

The Adkinses said they have never forgotten their past and often use it to connect with the neediest, most troubled in the city.

They met at a nightclub

The couple first met in the 1980s at a club on Kimberly Avenue – ironically in a location where they would later open a storefront church.

She was 21, he was 19 and each had two children with other partners. Brenda Adkins said John was known as a “bad boy” on the streets — a hustler — and she didn’t have any interest in him.

“I didn’t like him,” she said.

Then one Saturday night at another club, she needed a ride home. John Adkins said his friend could take her home, as long as she would dance with him first. They cut up the floor to Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean.”

Once outside her house, the friend kindly took a walk and the couple talked for three hours. John told Brenda prophetically that they would marry someday. She told him he was crazy.

He kissed her at the door.

They didn’t go out again for another few weeks. That’s when the chemistry kicked in.

The rest is history – but it was far from a smooth ride.

“The whole 10 years (of dating) was a nightmare… It was really because of the drug using,” Brenda Adkins said, noting at one point John went to jail for six months.

Through the years, they would break up on and off, and an addiction to crack and alcohol led to poor decisions and state Department of Children and Families involvement, although they never lost their children, they said. During the 10 years of dating they had Quincy, now 35.

“We went through hell and back with the drug addiction. He had to be strong for me, I had to be strong for him,” Brenda Adkins said. “We had a lot of problems. He was crazy and I was crazy. The drugs make you do even more because you’re not in the right frame of mind.”

Addiction and redemption

It was in the thick of addiction that the Adkinses agreed to go to church with friends one Sunday after the couple expressed they were tired of the lifestyle.

“Of course, we tried to get out of it,” Brenda Adkins said, but the friends wouldn’t let them.

Once inside, John and Brenda Adkins – who had no childhood framework for church – walked up to the altar, both asked God to “take the addiction away,” Brenda said.

“I was crying and asked God to deliver us… Immediately we were set free,” she said. “We never touched drugs again.”

That first Friday night without drugs was surreal, she recalled.

Although they never used drugs again, the couple had to work at resisting temptation, including having someone hold their money for two months so they couldn’t buy drugs.

Life for the couple quickly turned around. John Adkins, who had been on welfare, got a high-paying union construction job and both got off welfare. They bought a house they opened to all in need of food and counseling.

The couple took their spiritual message to the streets, and without judgment and knowing the struggles, ministered to addicts in the toughest neighborhoods, as well as distributing food and clothes out of their car trunk.

“We always had a heart for women and men still struggling with addiction,” Brenda Adkins said. “It became clear to us that we had been chosen to go back and help other people.”

They started their own church, today known as His Divine Will Fellowship, and their community work became more formalized.

“We really worked hard and the church became our safety net,” she said. “It didn’t take a scientist to know this was our calling.”

The couple also opened a faith based social service agency backed by the state that helped prisoners transition, they opened a food bank with a special emphasis on supplying quality products, they held food, shoe and sneaker drives and walked through city streets distributing condoms to battle the AIDS epidemic.

In the last decade they started “Day of Joy,” a Thanksgiving time sit-down meal for upward of 1,200 people who also receive groceries, toiletries and children’s coats. They also partner with Diaper Bank of Connecticut to distribute baby formula.

Their “Christmas to Remember” event gives gift cards at Christmas to needy teenagers.

They’ve won many awards for their work and for a long time ran a weekly church service from their house as they searched for a storefront.

It isn’t surprising that a large part of their recent wedding gifts will help fund their altruistic endeavors.

John Adkins said, “Love is not a big enough word” for how he feels about his mate of 41 years.

“We went through a lot together. She’s my lover, my wife, my best friend,” he said. “It’s an honor to marry her again.”

Marrying again, is “really a beautiful thing,” Brenda said.

“He’s always been a provider and that’s what made me fall in love with him,” she said. “Even on drugs, he always found a way.”

John Adkins said the vow renewal was something he has always wanted to do. “How many people do you know who get through the rough side of the mountain?”