Before and after. Who I was and who I am. I’ve started thinking about this contrast as I’m reading Bill Hybels’ book, Just Walk Across The Room. Thinking of examples like the Woman at the Well and Zaccheus or more modern-day examples like Chuck Colson or Bob Buford, I’m reminded that my contrast isn’t that stark. I’ve had “Christ in my heart” since I was a kid, and I was always a good kid, at that. I’ve never been a woman of ill repute, or cheated my countrymen out of their hard-earned wages. I wasn’t a “bored, rich guy,” and I certainly haven’t reached dizzying heights of success from which I could fall.
I’m just a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who, according to traditional wisdom, shouldn’t amount to much of anything. The deck has been stacked against me from Day One. Or, at least, that’s what the world would have me think. Looking back, it’s undeniable how God has been working things out behind the scenes…
I was a fatherless child, with the stigma that comes attached to that…now, I know that I am the daughter of the King.
I was burdened by the weight of cares and concerns…now, I am free.
I was alone, drifting aimlessly…now I know I am part of a family that transcends generations and geographic limitations.
I was depressed, and defined by the circumstances which surrounded me…now I have found joy that is beyond measure, and I define my reactions to circumstances through the Word.
I was bound by fear…now I walk more and more in the freedom given to me in Christ.
I don’t know why I feel compelled to post this, but I do…so here goes…
Hey. Want to join me for a cup of coffee? Have a seat. That couch there looks pretty comfy. I should know – couches are something I am quite familiar with. For almost seven years, I was a “couch surfer,” part of the unseen portion of the homeless population.
To look at me, you would never know I was homeless. (Even now, it is difficult to think of myself as homeless during this part of my life.) I went “home” every night, had a roof over my head, somewhere to do laundry, food on my plate, but it wasn’t MY home. I was there at the discretion of friends who were kind enough to open up their home to me.
My story starts just over 8 years ago. I was 20, in my freshman year of college, and working part-time in an after-school program. I lived at home with my mom and my grandmom. We were working-class, but riding the fine line of the edge of the poverty level. I was the first one in my immediate family to graduate from high school, and the first in my extended family of cousins, aunts and uncles, to go to college. (I was also the youngest.)
Just after the end of my freshman year, my mom suffered a stroke. This was her second stroke, and complications from this stroke would ultimately lead to her passing five months later. When my mom went into the hospital, my grandmom went to live with family, and I was on my own. Some would say that, at 20 years old, I should have already been on my own, and in fact I have friends who have been on their own since they were 17 or 18. I, however, was not ready for life “in the real world” yet, and it showed.
While I put on the “everything is ok” face, my world was falling apart, held together by one thin thread – the fact that my mom was still alive, in spite of her persistent vegetative state. I fell into a depression that only deepened at time passed. Ten days before my 21st birthday, I received the phone call I had been dreading for the past five months. The voice on the other end told me that my mom had died that morning. With that phone call, the thread snapped.
One of the symptoms/effects of depression is disabling apathy. I stopped caring about anything and everything. I lost my job and my apartment. I was supposed to enter into a transitional housing program in West Philadelphia, but due to a problem at the facility, I was unable to move in when I was scheduled to. A family from my corps offered me a place to stay for the weekend, until my intended housing was available. During this weekend, I realized that this program, although run by a capable, sympathetic administrator, was not the right program for me, and removed myself from consideration for the program. What was supposed to be a weekend stay turned into a few months. This was my first couch.
Due to various factors, my time there came to an end. I will always be grateful for their hospitality and for the time they allowed me to be a part of their family. At this point, I was the closest I ever had been to entering the shelter system. I knew that entering the system would have been the end of me. I had, up until this point, lived a very sheltered life, in spite of the challenges faced during the years following my mom’s first stroke. If I didn’t suffer physical violence while in the system (I’ve read that most women are victims of sexual assault within their first 11 days of being homeless), I would be changed for the worse by having to learn to survive in that environment.
By this point, I was doing temp work, so I had some income, although it was inconsistent at best. In spite of this, I was able to secure “housing” in a single-room occupancy (SRO) unit in my neighborhood. I had a room with a mini-fridge, a hot plate, and access to a common kitchen and bathroom at the end of the hall. Although it was more than a couch, this still wasn’t home. With a week-to-week, if not day-to-day, income, this arrangement was far from permanent.
The fleeting nature of housing such as this would be proven in November of 2001. Most of my temp work had been at the headquarters of a major insurance company in Philadelphia. With the events of September 11, 2001, this particular company was, as many insurance providers, severely affected. One of the first things cut from the budgets of many departments were funds for temporary help. I was, again, out of work.
With the downturn in the economy-at-large came a further slump in my personal finances. My (very) small reserve fund was just about gone, and I was close to losing the SRO I was in.
Through a good friend, I found out about a couple who lived in my neighborhood who were looking for office help for their private personal-care practice. What started out as coming over a few days a week to help out in exchange for a good, home-cooked meal and few dollars evolved into what would become my third couch. This would be the most “permanent” of all my living arrangements up to this point, lasting for 6 of the seven years. These friends, who became more and more like family, saw me through some very dark days, as I recognized the depth of the depression I had been facing. They were with me when I tried to get professional help but was denied because I didn’t have insurance and because I wasn’t suicidal. This is one thing for which I am grateful through all of my experiences – I believe that God guarded my heart and mind from any overtly suicidal thoughts because I honestly do not know if I would have been strong enough to resist. However, in retrospect, I see that my apathy, had it continued unchecked, would have resulted in, if not my physical death, a very real spiritual and emotional death.
I thank God, however, that He did not permit that to happen. Instead, He provided a way for me out of the pit into which I had climbed. It wasn’t a direct path out, and it required work, diligence and faith on my part, but it is clear to me that it was entirely His provision for me.
The beginning of the path out of my pit and off of my “couch” was talking about all the stuff that had happened to me over the years. God provided this opportunity in a change of leadership at my corps. With the welcoming of new leaders, God ushered in what was to become a season of healing, not just in my life but in the life of my corps.
Now, I’m on my fourth couch, but it’s only my couch when I’ve fallen asleep in front of the TV. (And, that’s if my roommate hasn’t beaten me to it!). I have a good job, working with great people. In April, 2008, I moved from Philadelphia, PA to Carlisle, PA to work at The Salvation Army here. As I move on to the next part of my life, where life becomes “normal,” I still need to be aware. There are many residual effects from living a transient lifestyle for so long. But, I know that God will continue to place people in my path that will walk with me along this journey.
THEME: “God Is The Author Of Our Identity”
SCRIPTURE: Jer. 18:1-6
I Am Not Forgotten
Trading My Sorrows
ALTAR CALL: Refiner’s Fire
THEME: “God Is The Author Of Our Identity”
SCRIPTURE: Jer. 18:1-6
I Am Not Forgotten
Trading My Sorrows
ALTAR CALL: Refiner’s Fire
Eight years ago, I suffered two great losses. One was entirely out of my control – the passing of my mother. The other was, while not specifically my “fault,” was at the least, within my reasonable control – losing contact with the rest of my biological family. In the depths of the depression I was suffering from, I thought they didn’t care – that they had abandoned me.
In the midst of my moving from friend to friend during that time, I lost my address book, which contained all of the phone numbers for my aunts and uncles, and cousins. In losing that book, I thought I lost my one link that connected me to my family. I also, during these times of transition and upheaval, lost all of my childhood photos – memories of times spent with my mom and grandmom, birthdays, special occasions, and more.
These losses hung over my head for the last eight years. The weight of the loss of my mom continues to shift as time passes. It would be inaccurate to say that that particular weight lessens, because that would, in my view, cheapen it. However, my outlook and perspective have changed over the years to a healthier point of view on how I feel about and deal with it.
But, the weight of losing contact with my biological family continued to burden me. I tried from time to time to search for them on the internet and in telephone directories, but it seemed that their phone numbers were unlisted. I thought for certain that I had lost contact with them forever.
Having resigned myself to this seeming inevitability, I moved on with life as best I could. After a job opportunity in Virginia didn’t pan out, I accepted, with gratitude and excitement for the new start it afforded, a job in Carlisle, PA. I knew that I was coming into a season of rebuilding and renewal in my life, physically, emotionally and spiritually. I had no idea that it would also be a season of restoration.
A couple weeks ago, my roommate and I took one of the kids from the church to the lake for a few hours. Little did I realize that this side-trip would be the beginning of the restoration of my family to me, and me to my family. Upon arriving at the lake, I was struck by the familiarity of it. I realized, to my amazement, that I had been there previously, as a young child. I mentioned this to my roommate, noting especially how strange it probably sounded.
Memories began coming back to me of summer weeks spent at my great-uncle John’s cabin in Fort Loudon, about 30 miles west of the lake. We would come out to the lake on particularly hot days to cool off, or to enjoy a picnic meal together as a family. These were treasured memories which lessened in frequency as I grew older and more responsibilities came into my life. Eventually, our trips to the cabin stopped completely, when the drive became too much for my mom, and I couldn’t find convenient times in my oh-so-busy schedule to go.
We returned home from the lake, and I went to work for my shift. In the middle of my shift, around 3:00 AM, I was struck by the thought to look up my Uncle Johnny’s phone number. Having done this a number of times in the past few years with no results, I hesitated to try again, only to be disappointed. However, I was quite surprised when I actually found not only my uncle’s number, but the phone number for one of my aunts as well.
Later that afternoon, I called the numbers, hoping and praying that the listings were accurate. I tried the first number…voicemail. I left a voicemail, which I am certain was rambling and verging on incoherent. At the second number, there was no answer, so I kept trying. Eventually, after about 5 attempts, someone answered. Immediately, the butterflies that had been flying in my stomach since the night before started flying in earnest. I was speaking with my aunt, who I hadn’t talked to in almost eight years! We spoke for almost half an hour. Finally, she had to go because it was dinner time and she was cooking. We said our goodbyes, knowing that we would speak again soon.
I then called my uncle’s number, where I had earlier left the incoherent voicemail. Through our conversation, I found out not only how many of my cousins were doing, but also that, through all these years where I thought they had abandoned me, they were looking for me just as I had been looking for them. They were so hopeful of being reunited with me eventually, that they held on to my mother’s ashes (which I had given to my grandmom after my mom’s funeral), and when my grandmom died, they kept her ashes. They did this so that I could determine how to best honor their memory.
As I hung up from the conversation with my uncle, I was reminded of the story of the Prodigal Son. Specifically, the image of the Father, waiting for the errant son leapt to mind. Knowing that even in the darkest depths of my depression, when I thought my family had abandoned me, they were looking for me brings this parable to life for me.
I look forward to keeping in touch with my family, and, hopefully, even getting together with them sometime soon.