Keri’s Love Story (So far)

While the king’s horses and men may fail…Keri L. Miller can put Humpty Dumpty back together again…with Love like light…like a city on a hill…a lamp on its stand.

Give what you have, where you are…and wherever the Lord may take you.

“And so I go back home and think, ‘what can I do?  I’m a dentist, what do I have to give?’  And I give what I have.  I give them services and love as I am treating these families that nobody else wants to treat.”

Pause for a moment to look out upon the crowds.

Be still and just observe.

What stirs within?

There was a man who looked out and saw.  He seated himself on a nearby hill and drew those closest to him to share what stirred within.  He spoke of the blessedness of those poor in spirit, of those who mourn, of the meek, of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, of the merciful, of the pure in heart, of the peacemakers, and of the persecuted.  He spoke of their kingdom, of their comfort, of their inheritance, of their provision, and of their receipt of mercy, being enabled to see God and to be known as His children.

Then, he spoke of the manner by which the blessed in these multitudes would realize these things.  He spoke of salt, a preservative that in time may fail and be useless and discarded.   But light, he said, like a city on a hill, could not be hidden; like a lamp on a stand, it gives light to everyone in the house.  And so, in that same way, the multitudes will see the light in you and praise our Father in heaven.

A few years ago, two weary travelers plopped down next to each other in cozy airline seats returning from Haiti to the United States.  Both, on separate journeys, met for the first time.  Both, returning from service with the people of Haiti, were physically exhausted and emotionally wrung.  Yet one, though tired and worn, had a radiant shine about her, and the other inquired.  Somewhere in the blue skies over the Caribbean Sea, he heard a little of the story of the light shining in Keri L. Miller.

Keri is a children’s dentist in Auburn, Alabama.  For about 6 years, she treated mostly affluent children in an upscale practice.   It was a good living and fun, but she always knew there was something more she wanted to do. As she looked into her community, she saw need.  As she looked within herself, she saw she had something to give.

About 7 years ago, Keri split apart from her dental group and formed her own practice to treat children in poverty in her state.  She opened a new clinic called “The Lighthouse,” named after the scriptures in Matthew 5:14-16 about being a city on a hill and being a light of the world.

The “Lighthouse Children’s Dentistry” offers more than just dental care to children in need.  The staff works purposefully to build relationships with their patients and families and learn about what is going on in their personal lives.  Through that, they have found ways to minister to the children and their families in a broader context such as establishing a clothes closet in the office to provide clothes, shoes, and coats.  They also take personal time to pray with the children and their families and offer friendship and support.

Keri explained:  People often come into her office with much greater needs than just dental work. “They may come in with a tooth problem, but we pray with them, we encourage them…we have a little girl right now with brain cancer who we support and pray with.”  Another example involves a woman who had a toddler and was pregnant again.  The woman knew she could not care and provide for the new baby and was struggling with whether she should give the baby up for adoption or consider other alternatives.  One of Keri’s staff, who had adopted children, came alongside the woman with encouragement to continue with the pregnancy and offer the baby for adoption.  The woman cried as she had felt led to give the baby up for adoption but none of her friends or family had supported her thinking.  That day, her faith was strengthened with the support she needed to go forward with that difficult decision.

Like those stories, there are many types of family situations that come through the office.  It is very rewarding for Keri and her staff to help connect patients and their families with others who can help them or sometimes guide them to help themselves.  Her staff loves on them and treats them, as they do all their patients, with the same quality care regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Keri said her model stems from looking at God’s word and listening to what Jesus actually said.  “We need to minister to those who cannot help themselves, the downtrodden.   Going to Haiti perpetuated that because you see the richness the people have in their lives, and they don’t have anything, but they have God.  And so I go back home and think, ‘what can I do?  I’m a dentist, what do I have to give?’  And I give what I have.  I give them services and love as I am treating these families that nobody else wants to treat. I think it works hand in hand. Giving what you receive, and being missional…missional living right where you are.”

Keri is a pediatric specialist and treats children, trauma, and special needs cases.  She employs 14 staff persons in a single operation, but with two branches.  She maintains a private practice and formed Lighthouse so she could accept Medicaid and low-income patients to focus on those families as a ministry.  Through Lighthouse and accepting Medicaid, she is able to treat patients who otherwise would have difficulty finding care.  She is able to receive those patients in a way that does not focus on income so they can maintain their dignity.  She employs five staff persons and two part-time dentists at Lighthouse whom she selected for their heart and interest in treating and caring for patients in need.

Recently, she had a child whose mom was in jail.  Keri commented that this ministry is not always easy.  The mother failed to show at a hospital appointment that had been scheduled along with an urologist to provide dental and unrelated surgery.  The mom called later and wanted to come at 3:00 PM that afternoon when she had been scheduled for 6:00 AM that morning.  That would not work for the medical and dental staff.  Situations like that can be frustrating.  Keri said: “Some parents with challenging lifestyles are not like the parents of routine dental patients from mainstream American households.  They may not have steady jobs or may have other complications such as being in jail.   Part of our ministry is patiently guiding and shepherding these parents back to responsible parenting and care of their children.  If Lighthouse’s focus was simply to report hard cases to family service agencies, that may disrupt the already fragile family structure more than if we can just gently guide them back with kindness so the children can get the care and treatment they need and hopefully a better family life situation.”

Keri’s “Lighthouse” vision began years earlier when she was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and raised in the Baptist church with a very strong, devoted family.  She did not “always walk with the Spirit,” but she knew about God, Jesus, and the Gospel and was expected to be in the church.  She loved children and had an interest in dentistry, so she gravitated toward pediatrics.

Keri attended the University of Alabama in Birmingham for her dental training and then moved back to Montgomery where she began practice with her own personal pediatric dentist.  She later became his partner in a group practice and opened a few satellite offices, one of which was in Auburn.  In August 2008, she split apart and moved to Auburn to take over that practice.  During those years, Keri saw that many children were often unable to receive quality dental care due to their families’ low-income level.  She realized her calling to offer treatment to every patient who came in her door and not just “bless the blessed.”  She wanted to treat all children, and her heart drew to children in poverty.  She soon realized she needed to open a separate clinic to manage the scheduling and special needs. It was then that “Lighthouse” was formed.

Keri said:  The practice has grown and grown and sees more patients each month.   Lighthouse currently sees about 45 patients a day. Some children may have minimal needs such as cleanings and check-ups while others require intensive treatment.  Either way, there is quite an opportunity for impact.  Health care is like the great equalizer.  Everybody has to have health care.  Our patients come to us expecting we will provide quality dental care for them, and yet we have opportunity to connect and minister to them as well.  It’s not just bodies, it’s souls.  And by extension through the children, we reach into the families as well.  It is different every day.  Every day there is something.  It is really just unbelievable.”

Hiring the right person is part of Keri’s business strategy, and she hires people who have a heart for the Lighthouse ministry.  “They have to be all in.   They have to understand and kind of ‘get it’…because it’s not always easy.  Kids will spit on you, people will treat you ugly, some will try to sue you.   I know there has been spiritual warfare going on.  My staff and I have very much felt attacked, but we pray a lot.  We pray a whole lot.  We went through a time when it seemed relentless.  We had employees with family hardships, a cancer diagnosis, one was hit in her car by a semi, there was unexplainable discord in the office.   So we finally decided to have a prayer meeting right there in the office.  Since that day, we have felt the heaviness lift.  The attacks have stopped.”

Keri added that Lighthouse is not only a ministry to its patients and families but also among the staff.  “A paycheck is one thing, but people love their jobs, not necessarily because there is a paycheck…they love helping people and making a difference.  I mean, really, that’s what we all want out of life, right?  We want to know that we made a difference, and the world is better.  I think that feeds the souls of all my employees because they are the ones who stock the clothes closet.  They are the ones bringing in their children’s hand-me-downs. They are the ones who are going and doing the outreach.   They are the ones who are circling around patients and praying for them. It’s not me.  They know the stories better than I do because they are the ones who talk with them.   I just provide an environment for them to be able to do that freely.”

As Lighthouse was coming into being, God awakened Keri’s heart for the poor both locally and globally.  One of Keri’s cousins was a missionary to the Dominican Republic, and he is now stateside with a non-profit that sends out missionaries.  In 2013, he invited and took Keri on her first trip to Haiti where she went to a Port Au Prince slum that had no available dental care.  Through that experience, she connected with the Christian Light School ministry and joined the board of directors.  She also connected with Have Faith Haiti mission founded by author Mitch Albom.  Since that first trip, she has returned every year to serve in both ministries.  She has gone twice a year to serve at Christian Light School and once a year for Have Faith Haiti mission.   She has provided dental care to children in the schools and orphanages and to the poor living in the “ravine” drainage canal area.  In November 2014, she visited a satellite school in Cornillon, a village high in the mountain area, and she offered a dental clinic to people who had never had any dental care before.

During these trips, Keri has treated adults who never had any dental care and had no conventional options to treat their pain.  She was able to provide anesthetics and medications to relieve their pain and cure their infections.  For others who have wanted help, she has had to find creative ways to explain the procedures and assure them because they were afraid and did not know what was going to happen to them.  Some, like Americans, have come to her just wanting their teeth “cleaned” to be white.  She’s had to explain that they had infections and other issues that needed to be taken care of, and they have resisted because of fear of further pain.  She’s had to coax and convince them that she can help them and actually take away their pain.  She has had children who literally fought her like the devil.

One of her first lessons about ministry was a little girl who did not understand what treatment Keri was trying to provide.  Instead, the girl literally thought Keri was trying to kill her and the child was trying to kill Keri in response.  The girl pulled Keri’s hair out and bit her and acted like the Tasmanian Devil.  She could not understand how Keri was trying to help her.  It made Keri realize that ministry is not all about people smiling and saying “thank you” or that they want you to help them and are appreciative.  Sometimes it is messy.  They do not necessarily want the help, or they do not understand how you are trying to help.  “Sometimes you skip lunch in 93 degree heat and get your hair pulled out by a kid. Some of it is not easy.  I know what I am doing is right, and I know what I am doing is going to help them.   Not only am I serving them, I am serving the Lord in doing these things.  Paul got shipwrecked, put in jail, and beaten, and all these things in his ministry, so why should I think that my ministry is going to be sunshine and roses?  Sometimes it’s hard.  It’s really hard.  But we are serving the Lord and we should do it with a grateful and cheerful heart.  It has been a journey.  I’ve had some bad days where I have questioned this ministry and whether I am up for it.  But in the end, I have also had times where in those hard times I have felt God say, ‘I am with you, I’m with you. I know it’s hard, but I am still here.  I’m with you.’  And you keep going because you know it’s true.”

And the experiences of Haiti have personally and deeply impacted Keri.   They have changed her.  “You look around and see the people who have absolutely nothing.  In that ravine, they have a tent, and it’s dirty and they can’t get clean.  I can’t imagine anything worse.  I know they probably have equally bad situations in India and different places like that.  You can’t get any less than what some of these people have.  And yet they still have such life in them, and they have such hope, and they can teach us.  In America we have so many things to distract us, to cloud our vision, and they don’t have the things to do that.  Their hope is in the Lord, it’s not in their things. And you realize how true that is and how maybe having what we have in America is almost a curse because we can’t see past it.  And their hope is in the Lord.  That is what they have.  And they look forward to heaven because that will be better than where they are.  I really don’t think we can see all that.  I always tell people when I take them to Haiti for the first time, there’s ways that God can speak to you there, there are things you can see that you can’t see when you’re at home.  The materialism that I think we are inevitably numb to, when all that is stripped away…they know God more.  The Haitians can see the miracles because they have to depend on them.  And we don’t.  We just don’t.  And we miss it.  We’re missing that.”

Having had those experiences, it has changed they way Keri lives back home.   “I think it does change you, it can’t help but change you.  I think it makes everything more real.  It’s not just a story in a book.  This is real.  So, when I go back home, I am more intent on making sure my life is going to make a difference at home.   I’m not just going to put on my Jesus clothes when I go on the mission field; I’m going to live it at home.  It becomes more a part of you.  It doesn’t just go away.  You don’t just think about it when you are in-country and then put it on a shelf.  I can’t do that anymore.  After it’s exposed and it’s real to you, you can’t put it away anymore.  So it does change you.  Going overseas makes you more missional where you are.  You can’t turn it off anymore.”

Keri’s first trip to Haiti was with her daughter in April 2013 over Easter.   She had a great experience but was unsure if she would ever go back.  In her work, she is a dental trauma specialist able to calm, nurture, and help children who have been hurt.  “It’s always very scary and can be very bloody, but I can help. I can put Humpty Dumpty back together.  I told you God knows where he wants you and how to get you there.  So in May 2013 at Mitch Albom’s Have Faith Haiti mission, a little girl broke her two permanent front teeth pretty badly.  The Haitian dentist wanted to extract one tooth and put a gold crown on the other.”  Keri looked at the situation and believed the teeth could be saved.  At first, she thought about sending money so the Haitian dentists could do the procedures.  That is how she believes things should be done, not with Americans coming down and taking over.  But the local dentists thought extraction was the only way.

So, in July of 2013, Keri and an assistant returned to Haiti.  She had thought the girl might need a root canal which is a procedure she usually referred out to an endodonist.  So before leaving, she contacted her endodonist friend who happened to have a spare dental treatment unit to donate.   With God’s hand of navigating through the barriers of customs, weight limits, transportation, and the Haitian heat, she got the unit safely to Haiti.  Keri was able to treat the little girl and save her teeth.  During her recent 2015 trip, she visited the girl and found she is doing just fine.  Without this incident back in 2013, Keri may have never returned to Haiti.

And the dental unit is still in Haiti and still in use.  Now, the mission has a dental office with a modern piece of dental medical equipment allowing children from two orphanages and others to receive good, competent dental care.  Keri has been able to build upon that unexpected provision and offer clinics and treatment when she has returned to Haiti.  Because of the continual care, the children in the area are now dental pain free.

Several of Keri’s employees have joined her ministry in Haiti.  This year, one returned to stay and serve for a month forgoing her work and income in the States. “It rubs off,” Keri beamed.

Just recently, Keri closed on the purchase of the Lighthouse property and looks forward with anticipation to the ministry continuing well into the future.   She is uncertain exactly what that future will hold but noted that: “Seven years ago, I had no idea I would be doing what I am doing right now.   When I leave Haiti, people ask me all the time when I will be coming back.  I don’t know when I am going back.  God hasn’t told me yet.  So, it’s day-by-day, and I think that’s what faith is…just day-by-day.  I don’t know what I am going to encounter…none of us do…so I am just going to keep walking, and he will let me know.  He’s let me know this many times so far…it’s time to go back to Haiti.  When the next time comes, I’ll know.  And we’ll set it all up and go again…or where ever we go.”

Keri also serves and mentors high school girls and encourages them to consider how they may serve God in their careers.  She explains, “I drive it home over and over.  What is your major?  How are you going to serve God with that major?  I know you are going to have a job and you have to make a living, but how are you going to make a life?  How are you going to serve God?  Consider that, if you are going to be a nurse, how are you going to use that for God’s glory?  No matter what you are, if you are an interior designer, whatever it is, always be on the lookout.  You have something to give. He is going to equip you…we are salt and light scattered through out the general population.”

Keri is married and has two children, a 15-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter.  All are very well traveled in short-term missions.   Her son has served in the Dominican Republic a few times, in Uganda, and in Haiti.  Her daughter has also served in Haiti and was baptized in the ocean in the Dominican Republic at 8 years old.  Her husband has served in Uganda, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and also a few times in Guatemala where he has drilled water wells.  Her entire family has been “ruined for the normal” and finds purpose and blessing in serving others at home and abroad.

Keri holds dear the passage of Scripture that serves as the foundation for her Lighthouse ministry, Matthew 5:14-16:

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

Keri explained, “So they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.  We are the light. We are the hands and feet.   We are the people on earth who are the salt and the light.  When we do those things…you know, when we do dental mission that’s one thing I really want to drive home with all the patients we see.  We are coming here not because we are nice people.  We’re not nice people.  We are coming here because we are representatives of Jesus Christ.  Jesus loves you so much that he sent us from America to help you.  Making that clear.  We are not humanitarians.   We are here because Jesus loves you…we are followers of Jesus, and Jesus loves you enough to send us to help you.   That’s important, especially in Haiti where they have so many people, the UN and so many others, come in from all these different places.  We are there because of Jesus Christ.”

That is the message of God’s love Keri brings. And that message, personally to her, means: “That is so broad…it is so deep.  That while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  I’ve been really steeped in grace the past couple of years.   I can’t seem to find a Bible study that isn’t surrounded by grace.  I’m just drawn to that right now and resting in that in my Bible studies.  I think if we ever get tired of that, we miss out.   You should never get tired of the Gospel, and that is the Gospel…that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  We weren’t even accepting him, didn’t even care!…and still he died for us…and because he did that for me, he forgave me…I can forgive…like what happened in Charleston…the grace these people have…these Christ-filled people…being able to look at that horrible boy after losing their loved ones and forgive him on the spot.  That is what Christ would have us to do, although it is so hard.  I don’t know that I would be able to do that so freely and publicly as they did.

But…it makes it easier when someone bites you or pulls your hair out while you are treating them…because I was biting, and clawing, and pulling hair trying to go my own foolish way…and even though I knew, I very well knew what was in the Bible and could spit it back out to you.  It was just saying words.  I don’t know that there was ever a single point in time in my adult life where I said, ‘Oh, now I understand.  Now, I’m going to re-commit my life’ or whatever you want to say…I was baptized at 7 years old…how worldly can you be at 7?  It was faith of a child, which is pure and true.  But I think that as you encounter the stages of life, you get a deepening of understanding, and it gradually set in…I knew the Word…but the meaning for it…it keeps pouring forth.  The love of Christ has done that for me.  It makes me able, because he loves me so deeply, and even when I was combative towards him…it makes it possible to love others…because it is impossible otherwise.  I assure you I can find a lot better place to vacation than a Port-Au-Prince slum, but the love of Christ compels me to spend my time and money to minister there.”

From her life experiences in growing and serving in the Love of God, Keri offers this bit of encouragement: “Going to another country and serving is a great thing to do.   I think that everybody in some point in their lives should go on a short-term mission trip.  But we are all missionaries right where we are.  We are all called to do God’s work in what we do.   God put us all in special places surrounded by special people to minister to.  We are all placed exactly where we need to be.  So all we need to do is open our eyes, see where we are, who is around us, and what do we have to give.  Even if it is the smallest thing, we can give something.  We will be blessed by that…and as I have found, that as you agree and say I am available to do God’s work, he will give you more…and more…and more.   And the next thing you know, you will look back and go, ‘Wow!’…I mean how the Lord can bless you and bless those around you by just saying I’m available with what I have.  The little boy had two fishes and five loaves of bread.   That’s all he had.  God used it in a mighty way.

I have dental skills to give and a heart for those who come in the office and need someone just to hug them and pray with them.  I have clothes my children have outgrown to give.  Whatever you have.  It doesn’t have to be something great.   Give what you have.  That’s all.  And you will see it be multiplied, like the little boy and his fish.  It’s truly amazing.  I’m not anything special.  I’m just available.”

For more information on Lighthouse Children’s Ministry, visit: http://www.lighthousechildrensdentistry.com  www.facebook.com/pages/Lighthouse-Childrens-Dentistry/157298274425030

For more information on Have Faith Haiti mission, visit: http://www.mitchalbomcharities.org

For more information on Christian Light Haiti School, visit: http://christianlighthaiti.org

Feel free to send a message of encouragement to Keri at: drkerimiller@gmail.com

FAMILY PIC

Like our page on FaceBook and join the Express Lane community! http://www.facebook.com/expresslane2ormore

Advertisements

Karen’s Love Story (So far)

IMG_5928

Karen Gowing – Stretching towards Hope

 “You can read every book about riding horses and learn everything there is to know about horses and be able to talk a good horse game with anybody…but until you get up on that horse and start riding, you are not a horse rider…riding that horse is like experiencing Matthew 25.”

Back in elementary school, we affectionately knew Karen Roberts as “Stretch,” a name she gave herself at the school talent show. She could do something few others could. From a seated position, she could put both feet behind her head at the same time! (Oooo! Ahhhh!) We were amazed and certain she had a bright future with the Circus!

Today, Karen still does amazing things few others do…feats that exceed imagination. As it turns out, she works in a world that is often much like a Circus…with strange, exotic characters, dizzying acrobatics, and risky maneuvers. Ladies and Gentlemen! Boys and Girls! Children of all ages! Step right in! The Incredible, Wonderfully Spectacular…“Stretch!”

Karen Roberts was born in Dumas, Texas, and like many fine people ;), she grew up in Hobbs (America), New Mexico. After high school, she attended Abilene Christian University, obtained a Theater and Speech Education degree, and began teaching school in a small town outside of Abilene. Within a few years, she was convinced teaching was not her cup of tea, so she moved to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area and enrolled in the University of North Texas for a Masters degree. Shortly thereafter, she married her husband, Gil, became Karen Gowing, and they moved to the Boston area. However, within six months, the approaching winter caused them to reassess their desire to weather massive snowdrifts and wind chill factors, so they returned to Texas where she began her career in the apartment management industry. A few years later, her husband’s job brought them to Nashville, and then in 2000, to the Orlando, Florida, area. Through the moves, Karen was able to transfer and keep her job with the same apartment management company.

Karen assumed the apartment industry would be her lifelong career. She eventually got her first property manager position, but shortly thereafter, that property sold. The new owners kept her on, however, and all was well for a few years. She received accolades and awards and could do no wrong…until the downturn in the economy and the apartment industry tanked. Everyone’s numbers were down, and her regional manager began to ask her to do things she did not feel were morally right. Some involved misrepresentations in advertisements on the amenities of certain properties and soliciting clients from competitors. She also clashed with her manager over an unethical salesperson who often misrepresented terms in order to contract leases. Her manager pressured her to go along with the program and seemed more concerned with increasing the number of leases than the methods in which they were obtained. Karen resisted but did what she could to try to meet required goals. Her numbers started coming back up, but not fast enough, and in October 2009, her manager let her go.

Karen was not surprised. She had prayed a lot about the situation and felt like she needed out. She had contemplated giving her notice but had delayed because she did not want to leave the good team of people she managed. Still, she felt like this was God answering her prayers. She had no idea what would come next but decided to give it over to God. It was a bit traumatizing, but at the same time, she felt a huge sense of relief.

She and her husband had scheduled some travel, so she decided to delay looking for another job right away. In the mean time, she began volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center through her church. That was something she had always wanted to do but never seemed to have the time. Early in 2010, the pregnancy center leader invited her to a local ministry leaders networking meeting. One of the leaders there shared the need for churches to assist the area homeless by providing shelter during a rare cold spell hitting the Orlando area. Karen and her pregnancy center leader looked at each other and thought maybe their church could help. They made some calls, and their church joined the effort. Karen approached the shelter leader, Scott Billue, and offered her support. She explained she was currently unemployed and could volunteer to assist him organizing the churches to help provide shelter. They emailed each other that night and immediately got the planning underway. Between that time in the third week of January to the first week of March, the network of churches provided shelter for 27 nights during a very long, cold winter for Florida.

Karen continued to get more and more involved. The new ministry began to consider needs beyond just a warm place to sleep- needs such as showers, meals, toiletry items, laundry, new clothes, and new community. They wondered if they could continue the outreach past the winter and offer services at least one day a week. Her church gave the network an old, portable trailer, which they renovated and opened for services on March 30, 2010. They offered meals, laundry, haircuts, showers, clothes, toiletry items, and a mobile medical unit.

Just prior to this, Karen had discussed with her husband that she felt it was time for her to begin looking for another job. He responded that they had not had two paychecks in five months and somehow they had been making it. He encouraged her to keep doing what she had been doing and said they would somehow figure things out. She said, “Okay” with a smile. Karen continued volunteering, primarily as the volunteer coordinator, and by the end of the summer, she had been dubbed with the title of “Executive Director.” Karen laughed as she recalled how she had gone from being unemployed to being called the Executive Director of a non-profit organization. For pay, she received business cards which she said meant more to her than any kind of pay :).

From a cold spell in Florida and the responsive, compassionate hearts of those desiring to help others in need, “Matthew’s Hope” was born- the name taken from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, verses 35-40: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

Matthew’s Hope began to flourish and grow. The City of Winter Garden and the surrounding community began to get behind and support their efforts. As the ministry leader Scott Billue is known for saying, “They went from praying for our deaths…to being partners with us!” In time, Matthew’s Hope added transitional housing and a garden project where guests work, learn new skills, and receive work credits to pay for housing and other living needs. Guests meet weekly with an advocate to assist them towards healthy, independent living including obtaining employment and housing. A weekly “Life Recovery” support group is offered as well as assistance to those wanting to return to school or college. In addition, a new preschool is opening.

Many community partners collaborated to help provide opportunities. “We have guys washing dishes at some of the fanciest restaurants in town…restaurants that also buy produce from our garden.” One woman who runs a catering company has also hired several of the guests.

Karen said they realized there is no “cookie-cutter” plan for success. They approach each guest as an individual, meet them where they are at, assess their individual needs, and help them make a plan for moving forward. Success for some may be helping them show up for a meal, a shower, and fresh clothes, getting them items to help them through the next week, and making sure they have a few hugs. That may be the most some guests are capable of doing for themselves. For others, they may be capable of working and responding to opportunities to get them back on their feet. Whether it is relational wounds or addictions, economic difficulties or other issues, the volunteers do what they can to help each individual work through the issues “to push, pull, or drag them across that finish line.”

The transitional housing includes 12 homes which Matthew’s Hope rents or owns. Some of the purchases occurred when members of the community approached them and wanted to help buy a house. That led to the purchase of a strip of five houses less than two blocks from Matthew’s Hope’s property. Those folks established an LLC to receive donations for the purchase of the houses and to act as a bank for the repayment of the loans. Many from the community helped renovate the houses which included donations such as granite kitchen counter tops and stonework for the exteriors. At every turn, they saw God at work drawing others to be involved.

In the housing, families and individuals begin their stay in the smaller units for a period of assessment and then transfer to the larger units. During the transitional stay, volunteers assist with budget counseling and savings plans. Some of the guest’s employment income is put into a savings account which is later matched by Matthew’s Hope to assist in transitioning into permanent housing. Since the ministry has a good reputation in the community, many offer their rental properties to the graduates.

Matthew’s Hope receives most of its funding through local churches and the community. Businesses and individuals regularly donate, but much of their support comes from the local churches working together. Matthew’s Hope operates on the Church of Christ property. Their founder, Scott Billue, is the pastor of NEXT Community Church. Their volunteers come from over 50 different churches, and over 30 churches donate monetarily. They also apply for and receive grants from various foundations. They do not receive any government funding. Their current annual funding is about $550,000.00, and they expect it to grow to $600,000.00 this year. Karen commented, “We are only five years old, and we have no idea how this has happened…well, we do know…God has made it happen!”

During the five years since they began, Matthew’s Hope has served approximately 3,000 people. Each week, they serve 50 to 80 people at the service center, and they have capacity for up to 36 people in their transitional housing program. As a testimony to the help they receive, many guests proudly wear Matthew’s Hope shirts around town that include the words, “I am one of the least of these.”

Karen reflected, This is something I always had a heart for, but I worked like crazy…I remember I lived a good 30 minutes from where my old job was. I would drive in and listen to the radio…you know that Leeland song?…(Follow You)…‘You live among the least of these, the weary and the weak’I remember hearing that song one morning and just crying…and I thought I need to be doing more for other people…and yet here I am…there’s no time…I’m doing everything I can do to hang on to this job that is making me miserable and I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

So then after the shelter was open, when I was getting up at 4:00 AM to drive in to make sure these guys have breakfast before they head back out, I would get in my car almost every morning and hear that song…and I’d be so tired from staying up the night before, playing cards and chatting with guys and listening to them play guitar and get home really late and have to turn around and get up early and get in…I’d hear that song and go ‘Oh, Yes! This is exactly what I am supposed to be doing!’…God is saving me…I feel like I am doing exactly what He has been preparing me to do.”

Karen now sees how God planned her prior apartment management experience to equip her for the transitional housing contracts, grant applications, and other administrative duties she now performs for Matthew’s Hope. Karen also uses other talents in photography, videography, and secretarial skills, and said she feels that “everything has just come together.” She even sees how her previous difficult personnel relationships helped prepare her to work with guests who can sometimes be “cranky” and challenging to assist. She laughed, “At least the cranky homeless guy has a reason to be cranky.”

Karen recounted that she was brought up in the Church of Christ. She said, “I had always gone to church and had been active in youth group…but until you really let God in, you don’t realize he will change you and you will see things differently and look at things differently.  I was a ‘good girl’ before…I lived a ‘good’ life.  But it really wasn’t until I really committed myself to Christ that my life really started changing…I became a follower of Christ, not just a fan.   

You can read every book about riding horses and learn everything there is to know about horses and be able to talk a good horse game with anybody…but until you get up on that horse and start riding, you are not a horse rider…riding that horse is like experiencing Matthew 25.

No one is going to say you shouldn’t feed a hungry person or you shouldn’t do any of those things. Nobody is going to be against that. But until you are really doing that…I mean, we are not feeding someone’s stomach by agreeing that we should be feeding someone’s stomach…You cannot know what God is doing for you and to you until He’s using you to actually do those things…I never really had thought much about what it would do for me, it was all about taking care of the other person, as it should be when we put others first, but, oh my goodness, the blessings we receive in return!”  

Karen said she has always been a compassionate person and the more her faith has grown and the more she has come in contact with people in need, the more she has been drawn to giving her life in service to them through Christ, everyday. She said she knows this is what God prepared her to do and it is the first thing she has done in her life that “feels exactly right…this is what I am supposed to be doing.”

Karen said the Love of God to her means that no matter how bad things get, no matter what happens in this world, “I know He has me…I knew that day I lost my job that somehow He had me…He certainly has, and He has proved Himself over and over…and as hard as this job is, as overwhelmed as I get, as heart-breaking as it can be, and frustrating and tiring, and all of that, I am happier than I have ever been, and that can only come from God.”

Karen said the best thing in believing God loves her is that nothing else really matters and the hardest thing in believing God loves her is she has to act on that. “He loves me so that I can love others. I have to act on that…I have to respond, daily.”

For others on the journey, Karen offers this encouragement: “We always say ‘Do what you can, not what you can’t.’ Not everyone can go start a homeless ministry. We only exist because people are willing to send us $10.00 a month or come help wash clothes all day long or pray fervently for us or bring us some canned goods or write that $5,000.00 check or whatever…God doesn’t call us all to do the same thing…It’s very clear in Scripture…so, if people will just find something they can do, God will keep opening up doors…It can be daunting to look at what other people are doing and think, ‘well, I can’t do that.’ I tell you right now, if five years ago, if God had come to me and said I want you to start a homeless ministry and I want you to have transitional housing and I want you to have a garden and a car wash and a preschool…and He just laid out the whole thing, I would probably have said ‘You’ve got the wrong person. I’m not capable of something like that, that’s not me’…But I just kept taking that next step and doing that next thing…we need to do this, well, we can do that…these people need this, well, we can provide that…it would be nice if we could bring in someone each week to cut hair, well, we can find that…and we just kept taking that next step, and now we look back and go, oh, my goodness…but God knew what was going to happen when we had no idea…and we are very glad we didn’t.”    

Karen sees how God has worked within the different periods of her life to draw her to Himself, to reveal His love for her, and to prepare her with lessons, love, and skills to serve others for Him. She understands that nothing gone before has been in vain. We affectionately knew Karen as “Stretch” way back when. We are greatly encouraged and honored to know her as “Stretch” now, the example of Jesus amongst us, and the fulfillment of Matthew 25 to those in need.

Please remember Karen in your prayers, that she, Matthew’s Hope, and all their supporting partners will continue to be equipped and encouraged to keep serving Jesus well in their love to the hungry, broken, and homeless in their community and that they may shine forth as a model for others to follow. Pray that prayers will also bring partnerships, and that others will do what they can, not what they can’t.

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” -Ephesians 2:10

For more information on Matthew’s Hope, visit their website at:

http://www.matthewshopeministries.org/

Feel free to send a message of encouragement to Karen at:

kareng@matthewshopeministries.org

 FOLLOW YOU

 “You live among the least of these, the weary and the weak
And it would be a tragedy for me to turn away

All my needs You have supplied
When I was dead You gave me life
How could I not give it away so freely?

And I’ll, I’ll follow You into the homes of the broken
I’ll follow You into the world
I’ll meet the needs for the poor and the needy God
I’ll follow You into the world

Use my hands, use my feet to make Your kingdom come
To the corners of the earth until Your work is done

‘Cause faith without works is dead
And on the cross Your blood was shed
So how could we not give it away so freely?

And I’ll, I’ll follow You into the homes of the broken
Follow You into the world
Meet the needs for the poor and the needy, God
I’ll follow You into the world

Follow You into the homes of the broken
I’ll follow You into the world
And meet the needs for the poor and the needy, God
I’ll follow You into the world

I give all myself, I give all myself
And I give all myself to You

And I give all myself, yes, I give all myself
And I give all myself to You

And I’ll follow You into the homes of the broken
I’ll follow You into the world
Meet the needs for the poor and the needy, God
I’ll follow You into the world

I’ll follow You into the homes of the broken
Follow You into the world
Meet the needs for the poor and the needy, God.”

-Leeland

Like our page on FaceBook and join the Express Lane community!

www.facebook.com/expresslane2ormore

Preston’s Morning Coffee

sunday-morning-coffee-porch

“As Christians, we claim to put God and the pursuit of a Godly life first, but does this really reflect in our heart? We claim that he has the #1 spot and we would put everything else aside for him…  In fact, if we were to truly follow him, there would be no ‘#1’ spot. There would be no list. Our heart would be solely God’s and everything in our life would reflect a pursuit of knowing and sharing the love and grace he has given us.”

My son, Preston, will graduate from college in June. He’s been a good student, learned a lot, and has a firm foundation on which to build his future.  Recently, he shared with me his “Morning Coffee,” a devotional of sorts he wrote for himself to read each day.  I get the sense he has learned the things that matter.  Take a few sips and enjoy!

“Our true passions in life are what we pursue. When we want something bad enough, we do everything in our power to get it.

When we truly want something, we make it, not just a part of our day, an hour or two of our week, an occasional thought in our head during our day, but we make it our top priority. It becomes our motivation for everything else that is a part of our lives.

We leave habits and aspects of our lives that keep us from that goal. We are focused day in and day out on achieving that goal. We eliminate distraction, put things aside and allow everything in our lives to be a contribution to that goal. Some of us want to make money, some seek high-achievement or success, and some of us want to explore. The ambition that we have takes the #1 spot in our heart and if we want it bad enough, we will let all else suffer to meet that goal.

As Christians, we claim to put God and the pursuit of a Godly life first, but does this really reflect in our heart? We claim that he has the #1 spot and we would put everything else aside for him.

Jesus said if anyone is to come after him we must die DAILY and take up our own cross. Christianity is not simple. It is not one decision to pray a prayer or a single approach to the alter when the preacher calls for such an occasion. It is a daily decision to die to ourselves, to die to our selfish ambitions that take his place, our selfish thoughts, our evil desires, and anything that is impeding on that #1 spot. In fact, if we were to truly follow him, there would be no “#1” spot. There would be no list. Our heart would be solely God’s and everything in our life would reflect a pursuit of knowing and sharing the love and grace he has given us. We would put aside the worldly thoughts and desires that keep us from this and allow our day to day, hour to hour, second to second existence to contribute to this pursuit.

Instead, we minimize him into a part of our lives, a single day, single hour, single prayer, or single study. We think we can pursue everything we want in this earthy life and that as long as we pray enough, go to church enough, or read our bible enough, God will honor our desires and he will not ask anything more of us. Is this really the God of the bible? Does this life we desire reflect the life Jesus lived?

We often say Jesus is the model in which we want to live our life, yet day after day we talk about how we will make steps to live that life, but never take any action. It is an impossible standard, but we have so many other “impossible” ambitions that we make the center of our being and pursue day after day.

What if we began to take Christ seriously? What if our sole ambition was to be more Christ-like and spread his love and let everything we do in our life be an avenue to put it into practice. We cannot highlight John 3:16, say a prayer, and call ourselves followers. What if we stopped highlighting the parts of the gospel that we like and are comfortable with and we actually believed that Jesus truly meant what he said. This is what separates the followers of Christ from the fans of Christ. This, I truly believe, is what it takes to be a Christian.”

Like our page on Facebook and join the community:

http://www.facebook.com/expresslane2ormore

St. Louis Roy’s Love Story (Sort of…and so far)

ROY ROY 2

“Can anybody find me somebody to love?” -Freddie Mercury

It has been within this context that God has been ‘saving’ me.  It’s not so much that I bring the hands and feet of Jesus to those in need, but in the going, I often find he is already there.  And in this context, he is reshaping my heart, transforming my thinking, and re-ordering my priorities…in ways that I hope are his heart, his thinking, and his priorities.”

Early evening on a damp, snowy street in downtown St. Louis, Roy sat under the acrylic canopy of a bus stop as cloaked and gloved pedestrians scuttled by. A roundish black man of about 50-years-old with a long, scraggly, peppered beard, he was layered in clothing covered by a worn, blue nylon coat. On his head, he wore a loose-knitted beanie with a yarned ball on top. His bare hands fuddled with his belongings consisting of a small backpack, papers, and empty food containers that were spread across the bench in an apparent claim of territory and a warning to stay away.   I held out a warm cup of coffee, apologized for my pretentiousness, and asked if he would receive it.

Roy’s suspicious eyes fell over me. I saw speckles of food stuck in the front of his beard below his mouth. With his tongue filling the gap of missing upper teeth, he said, “Sure,” and held out a dry, cracked hand. I took a seat at the far end of the bench not claimed by Roy’s possessions and sat quietly watching the large snow flakes float softly to the street in front. Roy rummaged through his backpack and pulled out a small pint of Vodka. He paused before pouring some in his coffee and held out the bottle to me. I graciously declined.

“It’s beautiful snow tonight,” I said. “We don’t get this where I live in California.” Roy looked up at the snow, then his eyes met mine. That began an hour-long conversation in which Roy shared about his “many lives.” He told me he came to St. Louis in 1805, that he came by boat up the Mississippi from Louisiana, that he once was an Iroquois Indian and a Chippewa Indian, that he had been married many times and had many children, that the father of his last wife shot and killed him, that he cannot die because he keeps coming back as different people, that the food at the local shelter was “garbage,” and that he does not sleep indoors but has a place to get out of the weather at night. Roy spoke with a grunty, gnarled voice, and he often paused to yell at some unseen person or persons in the street in front of us. It also seemed as if someone else was speaking out of Roy, a quieter, more timid voice. It would answer after each rant at the unseen irritating unknowns. I was, as if, eavesdropping on Smeagol and Gollum.

I asked about his gloveless hands. He produced one gardening glove from his backpack and said someone had stolen the other one. I had to leave for a convention event and asked if he would be around in about an hour so I could return with a warm meal. He said he’d be there. I took hold of his dry, weathered hand, and again his eyes met mine. This time, the suspicion was gone.

I returned later with a meal, a blanket, some gloves, a scarf, and two beanies, but Roy was not at the bus stop. I walked the streets in several directions searching but did not find him. I returned to the bus stop and left the items on the bench. Later that evening, they were gone.

Roy is a caricature of the homeless, hurt, and broken in a city or neighborhood near each of us- alone, ignored, discounted, often with addictions, mental illnesses, and depressions, often without friends, without hope.

A few blocks away in St. Louis that night, 16,000 people were gathered to pray, worship, and learn about serving others around the world. Roy was just a few hundred yards away. Over 4,000 of these 16,000 pledged to find, befriend, and bring Living Hope to the “Roys” in their neighborhoods and to the ends of the Earth. Will you consider joining them?

This meeting with Roy took place in late December 2012, and I wrote the above shortly after.  This was a period when God was awakening in me a growing awareness to the reality of His presence, goodness, and love for us…an invitation to enter deeper in.

I did not really know what to do.  It was awkward…and often still is.  But things resonated within…conventional wisdom began to give way to spiritual realities…fears faded to faith.  Simple connection.  Respect.  Value.  Sincere interest.  Commitment.  Time.  Relationship…Community…God’s salvation and love.

It has been within this context that God has been “saving” me.  It’s not so much that I bring the hands and feet of Jesus to those in need, but in the going, I often find he is already there.  And in this context, he is reshaping my heart, transforming my thinking, and re-ordering my priorities…in ways that I hope are his heart, his thinking, and his priorities.

The encouragement, I hope, you may find in this is to “begin” or “continue” to respond to that “voice” inside, that “nudge,” that “pull”…towards compassion and engaging those who are in need, poor, orphaned, wounded, oppressed…and to let it have it’s way with you.  It may feel awkward, uncomfortable, even embarrassing…at  first.  Stick with it.  Keep coming back.  I think you will find Jesus is there…and there is no pressure to make something happen or to “save” someone.  God will do the work.  And you may just find that it is you he is “saving.”

Timothy Keller wrote in his book, Generous Justice:

“Many people who are evidently genuine Christians do not demonstrate much concern for the poor.  How do we account for that?  I would like to believe that a heart for the poor ‘sleeps’ down in a Christian’s soul until it is awakened.”

Like us on Facebook and join the Express Lane community! 🙂

www.facebook.com/expresslane2ormore

 

 

Georgia Rose

Georgia before her 3100-mile journey across the United States.

 “What if, instead of saying, ‘I love you, God,’ we said, ‘I love you, too, God.’? Just that one difference in that one word makes all the difference because it acknowledges that He loved us first. There is nothing that I can do to try and earn that love. And so…it’s not about trying to earn His love or do what He asks of me, but to be ‘In Him’ enough that I can turn around and what He asks of me flows out of me.”

A beautiful Rose blossoms on the prairie in northern North Dakota. Her name is Georgia. On the thousand-acre farm that surrounds her, she labors each day caring for the cattle and the organic small grains in the family business that supplies wholesome meats and foods to the local community and customers across the state. Like the flower of her family namesake, Georgia Rose radiates an inner and outer beauty and the fragrance of a captivating Love, which has uprooted her heart and firmly planted it in a fertile garden of wholeness, freedom, and transformation.

On a snowy, December day in 2012, I met Georgia while standing in line at a “St. Arbuck’s” in St. Louis, Missouri. We, along with several dozen other gloved and bundled folks, were seeking a warm beverage and refuge from the biting cold outside. Thousands of young adults had converged on the city to attend the latest Urbana conference on world missions. Georgia was helping staff a vendor booth for Source, an urban, runaway youth, and human trafficking outreach ministry in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She was late in returning from a break and the long line was not relenting. I took her order and promised to find her at her booth. She dashed away.

We met up later, and I had hoped to connect with Source’s founder, Peter Wohler, because I was on a journey of learning how God is moving folks around the world to care for the homeless, poor, and broken. We missed each other, but as God often does, he introduced me to family kin in Georgia who has blessed me through her friendship and sharing of “God’s Love Story” in her life so far.

At 26-years-old, Georgia lives in the same house she came home to after she was born. Her closest neighbor is three miles away. Her family homestead is in an area that rivals Kansas as the top wheat producing state and Texas and California for honey. Local “life” is all about agriculture.

She works with her mother and father and is learning the process of managing the business in hopes to take over the farm some day. They grow organic grains and beef cattle. She likes the cattle more than the crops, but they need the crops to support the cattle and keep things sustainable.

She has one sibling, a younger sister who is married with a baby and who lives about 12 miles away. She comes to the farm almost every day to help. Her family is a close-knit community who works together to derive most of their sustenance from the things they grow and raise.

She thinks farming and agriculture, if done as a way of life and not just as a business, can be very “healing” for people. That is the main reason she wants to stay with the family business. Working the soil and being around nature keeps her grounded. If she is grounded, then she can better help others become healthier. If she can help a few, then they can help others, and healing and health can continue to multiply. She hopes to develop the farm as a place to invite others, not only to learn about healthy ways of growing food, but also to experience the spiritual side of being in nature and learning about our Creator.

The family business is small but growing. Her mother does the marketing, paperwork, and customer service. Georgia does all the “outside” work. Their customers seem to appreciate their “local” aspect in contrast to the big production plants in how their farm is operated more holistically and sustainable by people who care about the earth and animals. Other customers really value their organic certification, which represents no shots or hormones in the beef. (https://www.facebook.com/prairieroseorganicfarm)

Georgia was homeschooled but did go to public school one year in her elementary years. That was her grandmother’s idea thinking she needed more socialization. Instead, she felt she learned a few “negative habits” and returned to homeschooling the following year. She later attended Crown College in Minneapolis and obtained a degree in High School Science Education. She had considered being a teacher but is now seeing a different call on her life.

Stirring in the depths of her heart, Georgia seemed to always have a concern for the victims of “human trafficking.” While a freshman at Crown College, she participated in a weekend community service outreach with an organization called “Source” in Minneapolis.

“Source” is a Christian ministry established in 1987 with a mission “through urban outreach and anti-traffi­cking efforts, to empower the at-risk and unreached to make a break from the past and build foundations for the future.” Source serves “the urban poor, homeless youth, victims of prostitution and drug abuse – along with anti-mainstream individuals and emerging artists – all who are trying to overcome walls built by victimization and skepticism.” Source provides food and shelter for those in need, community events, mentoring and life-skills programs, and transitional housing for those set free from trafficking. (http://www.sourcemn.org/)

At the time she went, Source was in its infancy in its human trafficking outreach. She worked with others to demolish the interiors of buildings that would be remodeled for use as transitional homes. As a college senior, Georgia returned for an intership program and lived in one of the rooms she had initially “gutted” years earlier.

Georgia’s “faith” journey grew from a “nominal Christian” foundation. Both her parents were raised in “believing” families but with “nominal” connection and commitment. As a child, her mother, sister and her attended church weekly until she was about 10 or 12-years-old, but her father was never really a “church-goer.” In 2001, the family experienced some challenges, and through those pressures, they began to think about the bigger and broader issues of “life.” It was a very hard time, but through that, her family came to faith, and her mother led the way. Georgia recalled that Scripture often speaks about “someone and all of his household came to the Lord.” She used to think, “awesome,” what ever apostle was there just snapped his fingers and they all immediately believed. Now, through her own experience, she thinks that process was a little more gradual. It was a period of over three or four years that both her parents, her sister, and she all became “believers.”

As she looks back, Georgia said she did not have any specific “conversion” experience but saw how much “faith” meant to her mother. Her sister responded next, and along with her mother, the two started going to a church in town. Georgia became curious about church, but her father was not interested. She had always stuck a little closer to her father than her mother as a child, so since he did not go, she did not either. Eventually, however, her curiosty drew her to check it out. It was not long before she found herself helping out with Sunday School and church services on the Chippowa Indian reservation nearby. As she spent more time around faithful followers who helped her understand the Scriptures better, she became more deeply rooted in her faith.

Although her personal faith was established before all of this, it was the community of believers that helped her faith really start to take root and grow apart from her being alone and trying to figure it out by herself. As a teenager, Georgia had attended church, heard the Bible stories, and had studied the Scriptures, but her faith really did not begin to become “her own” until she was a sophomore or junior in college. At that time, she had met a guy and became good friends. She thought their friendship might have developed into something more. However, through a series of unfortunate events, the relationship did not continue, and she was left extremely hurt.

As Georgia processed through that hurt, she went through probably the darkest point of her faith. She thought she had faith and a personal relationship with Jesus, and she did, but it was not as strong and as deep as she thought it was at the time. For about a year and a half, she went through a period where she was angry at God and would not talk to God. She eventually came to the realization that it was not God’s fault about what happened, but it was her choices, and in that, not entirely her fault either.

As she realized that God sometimes puts us in hard situations in order to grow us to glorify Himself, she began to experience forgiveness of this person and acceptance of God’s forgiveness of her. That was the point in time when she “personalized” her faith and realized God is not out to prove we can not make it without Him, to let us just stumble and fall, but that God really does love us and He cares for us. She concluded that at times we may have to go through hard things in order to know God’s love more, and God is willing to allow those things so we can more surely glorify Him.

Georgia agreed that God loves us, and when He squeezes us, sometimes it hurts. Georgia recalled the Scriptures that talk about “I need to become less, and He needs to become greater. So when He does squeeze us, maybe we become a little bit less…or He squeezes the old nature out of us a little bit more…if we can get rid of that old nature that is completely against the new nature He’s given us, then, if we can get rid of that, we have more room to become more like the person He has created us to be.”

Georgia believes our response to this love, this getting rid of the old nature, is not some new focused effort on a self-improvement program. Instead of embracing the new nature, folks often focus on improving the old nature in an endless struggle of trying to be a better person or a “do-gooder.” She said there were certainly different stages of life where she felt like she was “supposed to” go to church or “supposed to” donate money to a certain cause or a certain amount of money or “supposed to” do “this or that.” Sometimes it was her heart responding to what everyone was telling her she was “supposed to” be doing as a “good Christian” by their example of what they were showing her she should do. She said she was too “weak” in her faith to yet understand that what someone else is doing is their concern, but what God is doing is her concern. She said the effort of pursuing to be a “morally good” person was part of her search to find what God wanted of her and she was not strong enough in her beliefs and understanding of Scripture to understand that was not what He wanted.

Georgia commented that the reality of this understanding is hard. “There’s an old saying, if there’s no pain, there’s no gain.” She said she thinks that saying is true and explained that obviously there are bad kinds of pain we bring on ourselves, whether physical or spiritual. Since that time in college, it was certainly hard to grow out of the hole she had dug for herself, and she has had other set-backs, things that she questioned why she did them or why they happened to her, but she has found herself returning to the fact that “my life is not for my pleasure so that I can be here and have fun and then go to heaven, but my life is to glorify God. So if any of those things that are hard or are squeezing us happen, then more glory to God in my response…I ceratinly hope there is more glory to God in what my response is then just an old nature type of response that just feels good at the time. So, it is certainly very “freeing”…and at the same time, every time there is a smooth patch in my life, I have to wonder what’s coming next because there is not many times where I am not squeezed at some point, unless I am doing something wrong, unless I am on the wrong path, and then the squeezing is going to come sooner than later anyway.”

Georgia said she feels free and has a sense of purpose. Her current path is not about working to earn God’s favor, but she is free to surrender and partner with Him in what He is doing in her life. “It is a good feeling to be on the right path, for the most part. I sort of have a long-term range goal that I know God has shown me in some sense, at least. And I can be on that path and know where to go. And everything else is either to help that or it will fall away. His goal has become my goal. That almost sounds like it’s a little too high of an attitude of myself, but that’s not what I mean. The more in step that I become with God through Bible study and fellowship and community, the more I can take on and understand what His goal is for me and I can more fully live in that.”

Being homeschooled, Georgia found herself being more comfortable around people older than herself. She sees the young adults her age around her are not generally embracing God, especially in her small hometown and community. Many who stay around after high school are not very career or goal oriented. Many who do not leave for college will succumb to alcoholism or drugs, have multiple sex partners, have children, and will spend their days in the bars and not at church. Obviously, it is not just about church, she said, but they have no desire for anything of the Lord. That makes it difficult for her to look at that type of community and want to be a part of it. The friends she does have are in their 30s and 40s. They are a small, close-knit group who are her mentors and who stretch her vision and thinking years ahead of where she is now. Most of the people in her church are older than she is, and she sees that it is good to be a part of that family than a part of her own age group who is not necessarily keen on attempting to live for God.

When Georgia interned at Source, she desired to learn about how to host a transitional home for survivors of sex trafficking. She learned a lot but realized it was just the tip of the iceberg. She discovered she could not learn in just six months if that was the method she wanted to pursue in developing the transitional home she had in mind. During her senior year at college, Georgia wanted to do something to make a difference, something to draw attention and bring awareness to the growing scourge of human trafficking in the United States and around the world. She had a vision. As she completed her time at Source, she found a new friend and partner to journey with her on a cross-country bike ride to raise awareness and support for a transitional home.

In January 2014, Georgia and her friend, Jen, set out from San Diego, California, on a 3100-mile bicycle ride to St. Augustine, Florida. Beforehand, they trained locally and solicited sponsors and raised support. During their 63-day ride averaging 65-70 miles a day, they wrote blogs and posted photos of the adventures and experiences along the way. They camped in tents alongside roads, in RV lots and campgrounds, and were welcomed into the homes of kind people from state to state.

On the journey, Georgia learned a lot more about God and about herself than she expected. She and Jen shared and spoke with those they met along the way but found most were so unfamiliar with human trafficking that it was difficult to communicate the concerns and urgency for action. After returning, however, she was greatly encouraged to learn how her church had really gotten behind her with regular prayer and support while she was gone. She was asked to give a presentation that inspired several to approach her and ask about ways they can get involved. She found that the bike trip thousands of miles away actually served to plant seeds at home and awaken a desire in many to make a difference and support her as she moves forward with the vision of establishing a transitional home.

While reflecting on her cross-country journey, Georgia said, as is often true in life, the hardest things were sometimes the best things. The first few weeks traveling through the southwest were extremely difficult partly because she had done all her training on the flat prairie lands of North Dakota and the southwest was mountainous. She also struggled through health issues from the stress of planning and putting together the trip. Between being weak and sick and going through the mountains, she was able to learn a lot about her identity and self-worth and trusting in God and not in her own ability to keep up the pace or to meet pre-set goals all the time. She said those might have been the most important lessons she learned.

Things did get better along the way. On a stop in Marathon, Texas, she and Jen had made arrangements to stay at a local hostile. Riding into town, she recalled the weather was rather strange that day. Dark clouds filled the sky and there was a dead calm. A snowstorm was forecasted, but it was not that cold. It was really strange. The sun shone out from behind the clouds, and she spoke out to God asking for either energy or rest because a planned extended rest break was several more days away.

They arrived at the hostile and settled in when a young man named Martin arrived. They spoke briefly and reconnected the next morning over breakfast. Martin shared his story of his search for faith and asked why they were biking across country. She shared her blog name, which was “Faith in Action,” and he asked how they came up with that name. She shared the verses that inspired the name. “That led to a several hour conversation about what putting our faith into action looks like in real life, and how we can communicate with God and pray and hear from Him and how the conversation is not as formal as his background had taught him. That was just a really sweet time of fellowship for me… to be able to come away from that, and for the next week at least, that conversation gave me the energy to keep going on the bike ride, and to realize that there are people that we are touching along the way and God is using that in our lives and in theirs. And it’s not just saying ‘Hello’ and moving on to the next town.”

Georgia’s cause was to bring awareness to the scourge of human trafficking and inspire people to get involved. Statistics state that the United States has the most human trafficking in the world. It includes the sex trade and forced labor. 80% of all trafficking in the United States is sex trafficking, and 90-95% of those in the sex trade are American citizens, not immigrants brought in from foreign countries. They include both women and men.

Georgia said awareness includes the call to stop the demand from people buying sexual “favors.” A lot of the problem is the buyers do not even realize what they are doing. Often the “Johns” who are paying for sex separate the prostitute from the daughters who are living in their homes. She said the act of buying and selling prostitution is not really about the sex, but more about the buyer wanting some sort of power or control. It may also be associated with the emasculation of men in America and feminism leading women to seek more power and gain control. Both are in departure from the way things were meant to be with men and women in mutual submission to one another, that departure being the result of sin and the Fall in the garden, she said.

Georgia questions the well-intentioned mission of many non-profits who say they want to stop human trafficking in the next year or the next ten years. “That’s a noble cause, but I don’t think it’s realistic. The awareness I really think that is most necessary is we need to see survivors, and victims if they have not yet come out, as individual human beings with a story and that often includes poverty and neglect in the home. Often times a girl runs away from home and turns to prostitution for survival or a family member gets her involved to make an income for alcohol or drugs. A lot of it is a family system that the victims feel trapped in, and they are trapped in it. They see no way out, and they feel this is the normal way, even if it’s not the right way in their gut. So understanding how the system works before just jumping in and trying to pull girls out to rescue them is really important, and yet not getting so overwhelmed that we cannot do something risky in order to save one girl, to save that one life, if we can’t save them all.”

Source in Minneapolis had one such “risky” mission. They had an outreach called “B4-48” named from the statistic that within 48 hours of a runaway youth hitting the streets, he or she would be propositioned to enter the prostitution or drug trades. Source’s mission was to reach those kids before the pimps and drug pushers did. They combed the streets at night and offered shelter, food, counseling, and other resources to rescue those at risk from the predators.

And Georgia has a vision for another “risky” mission. She desires to provide a place of healing and a launching pad for young girls rescued from the sex trades. She has a vision to establish a transitional home on her farm so that the girls could heal while experiencing farm life and connecting with God and nature “…and to be able to do that with a sense of family and community that is healthier than the sense they had gotten from their pimp who called themselves ‘daddy.’”

Georgia is still exploring opportunities and existing efforts in the state. She has the support and interest of several women and the pastor or her church, and she is searching for others who share her vision to become partners. She has plans to visit a similar safe home in Montana in order to learn more and get acquainted with their process.   She is excited to see what develops as God puts the pieces together.

In her 26 short years, Georgia has come to know and believe in God’s love for her. She said, “The Love of God…is wholeness. There is a verse that says Christ is perfect, therefore He calls us to be perfect. I don’t think the perfection he talks of is having all of our ducks in a row all the time, or being a morally good person…it’s the idea of ‘wholeness’ and ‘completeness.’ Only God is whole and complete. All others of us are broken since the Fall…and so the Love of God to me is what grounds me and makes me complete. The more I can understand that on a heart level and live it out, which is essentially growth in God and sanctification, the more I can be whole and complete. I will always have that brokenness, but I will be able, in Him, to be complete because He loves me, and I can let that love pour out through the cracks.”

Isaiah 30:15-18 has been a heart passage for Georgia: “For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.’ But you were unwilling, and you said, ‘No! We will flee upon horses’; therefore you shall flee away; and, ‘We will ride upon swift steeds’; therefore your pursuers shall be swift. A thousand shall flee at the threat of one; at the threat of five you shall flee, till you are left like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain, like a signal on a hill. The Lord Will Be Gracious. Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.”

Georgia said the passage has encouraged her to return to God and rest in Him so that she can understand His Love and let it wash over her. She said the alternative is to flee from what He wants, and yet, still, He will wait. “Certainly, in my life, I have fled. And He has waited, so that He can be gracious, not waited to punish or correct in a mean way, but waited to be gracious so that He can exalt Himself in showing us mercy. It always turns around to God. And in the meantime, He is being good to me despite my fleeing.”

Georgia said perhaps the hardest thing about believing God’s Love for her is accepting that He loves her unconditionally. She mentioned a friend who shared some insights from a Scripture study. “She said, what if, instead of saying, ‘I love you, God,’ we said, ‘I love you, too, God.’? Just that one difference in that one word makes all the difference because it acknowledges that He loved us first. There is nothing that I can do to try and earn that love. And so…it’s not about trying to earn His love or do what He asks of me, but to be ‘In Him’ enough that I can turn around and what He asks of me flows out of me.”

Georgia’s greatest joy in believing God loves her “…has to be the freedom in that. There’s nothing I can do to earn that love, and there is nothing I can do for Him to reject me. That freedom to be myself opens up a whole new level of being able to go out and pursue…while I am still trying to be smart about the mistakes I make…I’m not trying to be reckless, but I have the strength and the understanding that I am accepted the way I am…so I can go out and pursue what He has called me to without a fear that if I fail I am a failure, because that’s not my identity.”

It is certainly amazing and awesome in this age to see a 26-year-old young woman so devoted to the pursuit and passion of God’s call on her life. While her peers may be leaving college, self-focused, and pursuing personal goals for success, Georgia is laying down her life and following God’s voice to serve in a field that many people want to ignore or not even acknowledge. There is a lot of dark, heartbreaking realities in human trafficking, and through God’s tears, grace, and mercy, He reaches into those realities to set people free, to bring His healing and salvation, and to bring His love. He is doing that through people like Georgia.

Please remember Georgia in your prayers, that she will continue to hear and follow God’s voice and be refreshed and encouraged. Pray that awareness and support and partners will arise to help realize the vision of providing a safe healing home for those young girls and women in desperate need.

Feel free to send a message of encouragement to Georgia, or if you would like more information about human trafficking or Georgia’s vision to provide transitional housing, contact her at: girl4god88@gmail.com

Like and share our page at: www.facebook.com/expresslane2ormore

Georgia’s Love Story (So Far)

Ani’s Love Story (So far)

Ani washing feet in Haiti

Ani washing feet in Haiti


Ani was so relieved when God healed her of her compulsion to use drugs that she told Him she would do anything He asked her to do, even if He asked her to scrub toilets with a toothbrush for the rest of her life.  She would do it with a smile on her face…”because He saved me.” Even now in saying that, tears still come to her eyes.

Ani Salisbury was born in San Jose, California, where she lived until moving to Ashland, Oregon, at age 12.  Later, in her teens, she returned to San Jose with her mother while her father remained in Oregon attempting to sell their home.  Due to a series of bad choices he made, her mother and father separated leaving Ani very angry with him.  She found herself not wanting to live in San Jose, and she did not want to live with her father, so she graduated high school early and moved out on her own at age 17.

Ani came to the Santa Cruz area when she was about 20, and she took a job as an assistant buyer at a retail store.  Soon after, she met and married her first husband.  Unfortunately, he was an alcoholic.  The relationship was troubled from the start and lasted only about a year and a half.  During that time, Ani’s recreational drug use morphed into full-blown addiction as she sought to numb herself from all the hurtful words he would say to her. Because she had so wanted her marriage to work, she never shared with her family the reality of what had been happening. They were shocked when she left her husband, and they initially took his side.  It was quite some time until they figured out what had really been going on.  Once again, she found herself all alone.

Ani’s aloneness led her to other troubled relationships, and at age 27, she was single and pregnant.  She knew something had to change.  She realized her drug use was not only affecting her, but that it was going to affect her child.  

When Ani was little, she had attended church and had an awareness of the existence of God.  As an adult, through the wreckage of her drug use, she had prayed many times that God would just take her out in her sleep…because she was “too chicken” to commit suicide.  She did not know Jesus at the time, she just prayed to “a god.”

One day, her son’s father invited her to a church he attended. She went and returned several times.  It was there she found the God to whom she had been praying.  His name was Jesus.  In desperation, she cried out to Him for help and asked that He heal her from her drug addiction.  And He did.  In the remembrance and re-telling of it, Ani beamed saying it was a “miracle” how God totally eroded the compulsions that made her an addict, something she had never been able to do on her own.  Eyes twinkling, she pronounced with pride how God has kept her clean for 21 years.

Ani initially attended regular NA meetings with her son’s father, but he was unable to stay clean.  That led her to make the hard decision that they could not stay together.  They separated but remained friends, however.  Another miracle in itself, she says.

It was at the NA meetings where Ani met her current husband. In a time of need, she reached out and found his phone number posted on a support list on the wall.  They connected and in time a relationship developed. They both had similar backgrounds and both were committed to their recovery.  They had learned wisdom in seeking wise counsel and attended counseling together before getting married to address the individual “baggage” they both carried.  With the new marriage came a new blended family. Her husband had two children of his own, a daughter now 27, and a son now 24.  (Ani considers them both “her kids,” not “step-kids.”) She had her own son, now 22, and together, she and her husband had a son who is now 20.

As she and her new family grew together in their recovery and healing and love for Jesus, more than her heart was opened.  She opened her home.  Thirteen years ago, her family adopted a 19-year-old girl who had been abused physically and sexually by her biological father.  The girl took their last name and became a full member of a family she never had.

Ani said that is her “Family Story.”  She said her “God Story” is so entwined with that.  She was so relieved when God healed her of her compulsion to use drugs that she told Him she would do anything He asked her to do, even if He asked her to scrub toilets with a toothbrush for the rest of her life.  She would do it with a smile on her face…”because He saved me.”  Even now in saying that, tears still come to her eyes.

Her husband had some church “baggage” from previously attending a “cultish” church with oppressive, legalistic teachings.  So, they met with the senior pastor at their new church for spiritual counseling.   The pastor presented the message of Jesus to them as had been presented to her so many times in life before.  It was not like some magical moment happened, but “it was like I had this pill stuck in my throat for years and suddenly it just went down.”  Although hard to fully describe, it suddenly made sense.  She trusted Jesus, not there in that office, but later at home by herself.  It was very emotional, and she said she still gets “goose bumps” when she thinks of that moment.

That moment changed the whole trajectory of Ani’s life.  She soon enrolled in Bethany Bible College to obtain a church leadership degree.  The church she attended recognized her life-change and commitment and commissioned her as a minister even before she got her degree.  At that time, she had four kids, was going to school, and was leading discipleship groups.  They knew her heart and how “on fire” she was and told her it was not necessary to work so hard for a degree in order to serve.  She later went to her 30-year high school reunion and told her classmates she had become a pastor.  In disbelief, they were like “You???”   

A lot of challenges, growth, and life transitions followed.  Ani said she has had a great marriage and great kids; and even though it can be tough for children to grow up as “preacher kids” and go through all that rebellion, the majority of them are walking with the Lord now.  Some are wandering and searching, but she is confident they will come back.  “That’s what He promises.  I don’t worry about it.  I just pray.

Ani said her husband became ill with an undiagnosed source of chronic, excruciating pain.  After 8 surgeries and all sorts of “gnarly” treatments, the doctors still do not know the cause.  He was the family “bread winner,” a senior engineer in Silicon Valley, making great money, and then he had to go on disability.  

It was a scary time as her work at the church had transitioned from pastoral to administrative work, away from her pastoral heart for care.  She had given notice and quit the position she had for 11 ½ years.  The economy was in a downturn and jobs were scarce.  She decided to go back to school to become a hospice nurse feeling that God was leading her to work with older adults who were dying.  She later completed her nursing prerequisites and received her AA degree in Community Health Services at Cabrillo.  However, while preparing to transfer to a nursing school, she sensed God leading her in a new direction.  More on that a little later.

With her husband being out of work for the past 6 years, Ani said they should have lost their house.  Their provisions and survival has been a work of God.  Years ago at church, she did an exercise where she was asked to list all the things she thought she “owned” and then entrust them to God.  One of those things was her house.  God then moved her to open her home to others, and they have had many people live with them over the years.  A single woman with two children lives with them now.  Another single woman has been with them for 3 years.  Others have come and gone, staying for as long as they need.  In addition, every Monday night, a “Growth Group” meets at her home to study God’s word and share “real life” together.  It is a safe place for others to share their struggles and find support and encouragement.

Ani said one of her greatest “God Stories” was before she and her husband adopted their 19-year-old daughter and they were living in a mobile home in Scotts Valley.  For years, she had wanted a house and had “coveted” those of others.  God was dealing with her on that.  It took her several years to come to terms with what He was telling her- to be happy with what He has given her, with what she needs.  She finally came to terms with that and had not been coveting anymore when one day her husband came home and told her of a home for sale in a neighborhood she had previously “coveted.”  He had checked the price and financing and found they could qualify to make an offer. She resisted.  She did not even want to go look at the house- something she thought she could not have.  She had already dealt with God on the matter, and did not want to go.  But…she went.

They learned the man who owned the home had accepted a job in Washington and was traveling back and forth every week to see his kids.  His new employer was afraid he might quit his job, so the employer gave him incentives including money to help with inspections, closing costs, and the down payment on the sale of his house.  Ani and her husband looked at the house and found they were short $7,000.00 for the down payment.  This man’s employer paid the difference and all the inspection and closing costs; and, surprisingly, this man had turned down an offer from someone else for the same amount of money not long before them.

Before committing to buying the house, her husband checked with the CFO of his company to make sure his job was secure.  The CFO assured him things were stable and stated he also was buying a new house.  So, they signed the contract.  Two weeks later her husband received a layoff notice due to company downsizing.

Her husband came home in a panic trying to figure out what to do and concluded they would have sell the house.  They could not afford a realtor, so he decided they would try to sell it on their own.  Ani told him, “If you freak out, you are going to rob God of the opportunity to move in a huge way.”  God gave her the peace to trust Him, as He often has, in the weirdest situations where she should absolutely “freak out,” but she hasn’t.

The CFO was very apologetic and asked if there was anything he could do, but it seemed there was nothing that could be done.  He asked how much their mortgage payment was which at the time was about $4,000.00.  The following week, they received a personal check in the mail for $10,000.00 with a note that it was a gift and not a loan!  Her husband later received a severance package and soon found another job.  So, they came through this with $10,000.00 ahead and still had their home!  God moved again in a huge way and set the stage for how He wanted to use the square footage for His purposes.

Ani had been leading a discipleship group and felt God was leading her to do something “radical.”  She did not know what.  She wondered if it was something like moving somewhere else and buying property to take in orphans or maybe going to the “mission field.”  There was a young college student in her group who said she knew of someone who needed to be adopted.  The girl was 19-years-old and had been sexually abused by her biological father since she was 3.  The girl had left home when she was 18, had an eating disorder, and was in very bad emotional and psychological shape.  Her remaining family had taken her to a psych ward and basically just dropped her off.  Ani and her family invited this girl to their home and to go with them on a family camping trip.  At the end of the trip, they “just knew.”  Her husband asked the girl if she was looking for roommates or if she was looking for a family.  The girl said she was looking for a family.  She moved in and has been family ever since.  She took Ani and her husband’s last name, they helped her attend college, and her husband walked her down the aisle.  She is married now, has two babies, is a nurse, and is doing great!

There’s more.  Eight years ago, Ani and her husband opened up their home to a woman with two kids whose husband was strung out on drugs.  He had a gun in his house and needed psychological help.  Ani sat with the woman in her truck while the SWAT team went into her house to get the husband and take him to a psych ward.  He was in the ward for a month or so, and the woman and children lived with Ani for several months.  The woman wound up getting back together with her husband for a while and had another child.  As he got clean and sober, the woman’s own problems became more evident.  She was not willing to address them, and they ultimately separated.  Now, oddly enough, Ani and her husband are good friends with that man when they had not been before.  Recently, she was working in her garden when he came to visit with his new fiancée.  She laughed to herself thinking there she was sitting in that truck waiting for the SWAT team to go in and get him, and now here he is sitting on her couch and they will have dinner together next week.  “Life is just so crazy.  You never know what God is going to do with somebody’s life.  It’s amazing!  Take the most down and out person who’s totally acting psycho with a gun, and they end up being a really good friend of mine eight years later.  Now, he is clean and sober.  He’s the director of a regional non-profit over the hill, active in church, and active in an accountability group and Bible study. Awesome!  It’s really awesome!

In the midst of Ani’s “Love Story,” she had an encounter with God when she was in a very dark place.  She reached out to Him, found Him near, and believed.  She gave not an intellectual or emotional assent but  a surrendered and receptive will.  Into that, God has empowered and expressed a response.  She allowed God in, and He totally unraveled her and set her on a new course.  The stories of her life demonstrate His love for her and how He has expressed His goodness and love through her to so many others.  So, what is God’s “Love” to Ani?

God’s Love to me is peace.  It’s security without safety, if that makes sense?  That’s come up a lot for me recently.

I just realized that at the end of life, there’s this huge…and that’s why I was drawn to hospice, too…there’s this huge open door for people where when you realize that life is finite, that what you have to look forward to is just 6 feet under, or that’s what people think anyway…and you can offer something better.  It’s such a gift to be able to offer.

Through that (college) course, being with a bunch of secular people, and being able still to stand my ground and be a believer and express my love for God and His love for me and how I’ve seen Him work in my life and how I have that hope…even though times will be tough here on earth, absolutely, being a believer doesn’t mean life is easy, but I have that hope of being able to spend eternity with Him where there are no more tears and there is no more pain, where I’ll be able to worship Him…to have that hope of not just having my life and what matters here but when I die…to be able to share that with other people…

So, through that course, I realized there is this void…like when people are diagnosed with a terminal disease and the time they spend in hospice.  Before I went to Haiti, I was working with my mom’s best friend who had grown up in a church but with some kind of twisted views with the way you dress and if you wear make-up and jewelry and that kind of weird stuff. She was at odds with her daughter and granddaughter, and was still so afraid to die.  At 78-years-old, having COPD and emphysema, she was still hoping she was somehow going to get a heart and lung transplant because she was so fearful of dying…being able to explain my peace that I had that I could go today, and I’d be happy to go today, that I wouldn’t have fear of going today, and being able to somehow, like through osmosis, being able to transfer that to her little by little in sharing Scripture with her and by God planting other people in her life like somebody who gave her a Bible…Her daughter was a strong believer, but they had butted heads so many times…being able to facilitate she and her daughter making amends and she and her grand-daughter making amends and she and God making amends…and having it all come together at a point where she was able to help plan her own memorial, to the point of picking out the Scripture and the photos she was going to have in her photo montage, and picking out these little tea pins to go in the bulletin because she always did these teas…and then being able to officiate it, and have it be not only a reflection of her, but a reflection of God, and have two men come up to me afterward and say that was the best memorial they had ever been to, where’s your church?  Just to be able to walk with her from the first step of that diagnosis to the very end was not only very gratifying for me but also for her whole family, and for her too.

And so, God had kind of been working on me, before I went to Haiti…and through my step-dad, too, who had grown up Catholic and had Alzheimer’s and was fearful of dying and fearful of Purgatory.  I said when Jesus was on the cross, he didn’t said to the thief ‘Today, I’ll see you in Purgatory.’  He said, ‘I’ll see you in Paradise.’  To be able to ask him about his fears and to be able to ask him about things his wife could not ask, for whatever reason, or others in his family could not do, and have him feel safe enough to be able to cry and tell me what was going on.  That made me see that pastoral heart that God gave me, still with people who may be near the end of their life but maybe not at the hospice part, because I learned in my class people don’t use hospice until it’s too late.”

And that has birthed in Ani an idea to pursue forming a non-profit organization.

When I came back from Haiti and got this virus and was in excruciating pain…not being able to walk or get our of bed…coming to terms with the limitations God was allowing on my life…asking Him where, then, was He directing me if I was not going to be able to go to school, if He’s closing that door…the difficulty I have turning a page or not being able to write, even walking some days, kind of negates 12 hours on a nursing floor…and having me look back at those experiences with my step-dad and my mom’s friend, and more recently, with an alcoholic friend of my sister’s who had meningitis and was in a coma.  They had asked me if I would come and talk to her.  Even though she couldn’t speak, they say they can smell, they can hear in a coma, so I prayed with her and read Scripture to her and talked with her about being repentant, how it doesn’t matter if you trust Christ when you’re 6-years-old or when you’re 20 or right now when you’re here with me.  Her mouth was trying to move and her eyebrow was going up and down…she couldn’t move her hands, but her eyebrows and her lips were just trying to go, trying to go, trying to go.

It was interesting to hear some judgment.  Her aunt was on the phone with my sister at the time and could hear me praying with her and said to my sister, ‘She’s not a believer’ as if to say there’s no hope.  There’s always hope.  You never know what that person is doing with their last breaths…that conversation they’re having with Christ.  It doesn’t have to be with me, it can be with Jesus.  My sister was devastated when she got off the phone, and I had to explain to my sister it doesn’t matter.  My sister’s friend died two days later.  She was not any more responsive than she was with me when I sat there with her and prayed and held her hand.

My idea is to start a non-profit and work with hospitals and doctors and families of people who are dying of a terminal disease…because hospice cannot come in until they are not using any curative measures any more.  But what if you are diagnosed with cancer and you are given 2 years to live…and they are struggling in those 2 years of coming to terms of ‘my life is coming to an end’?  Everybody wants to end well.  Everybody wants to end well.  I don’t know of anyone who just wants to die and piss everyone off…and I think when you are given that final date, you suddenly realize nothing else really matters.  There’s nothing worth arguing over.  There’s nothing worth holding a grudge over.  There’s no money, no thing, worth holding on to that is more valuable than a person or a friendship or a relationship, or more importantly, your relationship with Christ.  To be able to open that door and offer that to somebody and offer them that peace.  And so, with the degree I already have and with being a commissioned minister, I don’t know that I have to go back to school…which is kind of what God was knocking me over the head with…’I’ve already given you what you need.’

I asked Ani if it is hard sometimes for her to really believe God loves her.  She said, “I think the hardest thing is…I struggle all the time with…I’m a worker bee…and I think somehow I have to prove my worthiness…and that’s not the way God works.  I was worthy the day I was crying out to Him on my knees as an addict.  He loved me as much then as He loves me today when I’m serving Him with my whole heart.  There’s nothing I can do to earn His love or make Him love me more today or tomorrow…and I struggle with that all the time, you know, just because I’m a worker bee.”

 I asked Ani what’s the best thing in believing God’s love for her.  She said, “The amazing things He has done in my life.  The amazing stories I get to share.  The miracles.  The story of my adopted daughter.  Being able to go to Haiti.  Those are things I never would have been able to imagine I could do or would be worthy enough to do.”

I asked Ani how she would explain the “reality” of God’s love for us to someone apart from the theoretical or philosophical.  She giggled.  “I was just having this conversation with someone yesterday.  My sister has a friend who is here visiting from near Shasta, and she’s a believer, but she doesn’t attend any church.  She was talking with somebody else who wasn’t a believer and used an idea I had presented to her which she presented to this other person.  People want to choose all these different pathways, and they think all paths lead to God…and all paths don’t lead to God.  God says wide is the road and narrow is the gate.  I have a son who is exploring new age stuff.  Rather than discourage him from exploring it, I kind of participate with him in exploring it so he can see why it doesn’t pan out…Buddha didn’t claim to be God, Buddha was a prophet…Muhammad didn’t claim to be God, Muhammad was a prophet…Jesus is the only one who claimed to be God.  He’s the only one.  And then somebody said, well, it came back to science…taking all the science courses I did for the nursing, you get down to science… You can’t deny what God’s done in your life.  Nobody can take away what God has done in your life…and the miracles He has done in my life.  Your personal story is something someone can’t argue with.”

When asked if there was any particular Scripture of importance to Ani, she immediately replied, “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11).  “Just thinking about that God’s plan is never to harm me, that any hardship I encounter, it’s never God’s plan to harm me…God’s plan is to refine me and to prosper me and to grow me and to strengthen me and to stretch me…but never to harm me.  We live in a fallen world, and things happen, and I can choose to go through those hard things with God or I can choose to go through them without God.  It’s always going to be better with God.”

Ani laughed and said she cannot even begin to imagine the goodness God has planned for her future.  She said her hopes and desires include that God will heal her pain and she is thankful for the wisdom and care of her doctors.  She also hopes God will heal her husband’s illness and restore her partner fully to her, even though she realizes God has strengthened both of them through the tough circumstances.  She added she would love to see all of her kids walking with the Lord and serving Him and that it is “really cool” to see one currently getting “re-ignited” and “fired up.”

I asked Ani if God has ever had a message for her that He has either whispered or shouted.  She smiled and said she tells her husband, “God told me…” and her husband just says, “Well, how do you argue with that?  God told you…”  She said, “God speaks to me through His word, but God has also spoken to me audibly on a couple of occasions.”  In one trying time when she cried out to Him, and He answered.  God did not say what would be done or how it would be done.  God just said, “It will be done well.”

She said it is hard for her to be still to hear God’s voice.  That is one reason why she relishes working in her garden.  She said when she has her hands in the soil, she feels grounded, and the garden is a place where she talks with God and works out her frustrations, or if she is sad.  She said gardening is her “new drug.”  “I work things out with God in the garden.  That is where we wrestle.  That is where I talk to Him, and I pray, and I cry.  We talk.  We talk out in the garden.”

Ani said, “Yes,” she knows God loves her.  “I know God loves me because of His active presence in my life.  The way I am blessed in how He has allowed me to be a vessel that He works through…(and as tears form in her eyes)…It feels like such a privilege.”

And as we concluded, I asked Ani if there was anything she would like to add.  She responded with a smile, “I’d still scrub toilets with a tooth brush.  I’d do what ever He asks.”

***

Ani has served in women’s and children’s ministries and in short-term missions.  She has led ministry teams to Haiti, led and hosted discipleship and growth groups, cared for the ill and terminal, opened her home as a refuge to many, and loved the wounded and torn.  God loves her.  God’s love lives in her.  God’s love is expressed through her.

Please remember her in prayer, for her physical healing and that of her husband and for the development of the new ministry God has put on her heart.