I would like to tell a true story that impacted my life; a story I believe will impact yours, too. The names of the people and places in this story have been changed to protect their identities.
My only regret is how long it took me to share this story.
Last year my wife and I had the opportunity to volunteer at a domestic violence shelter in our community called Hope House where battered women and children could go and be safe from their abusers and start a new life. It is a program through our Church called FaithWorks.
When we arrived at the shelter we were picked to help sort food for the kitchen in a small cluttered pantry room in the basement of the building. We diligently separated the cans, bread, pastas, and sauce onto metal shelves. Frozen turkeys went into the freezer, and donated boxes were stacked against the wall. After a few hours we got done with our work and it was time to leave. But before we said our good-byes, all the volunteers gathered in the conference room upstairs to allow the staff members to say “thank you for coming”. The director of the shelter, a sweet woman in her 60’s, had something on her heart she wanted to share with us. It was a story.
It went something like this…
A boy and his mother lived with a man who abused them. Noah, the little boy, was only 6 and 1/2. The mother, Shirley, did her best to take care of her son, but Noah’s father was angry and often aggressive towards his family. Over the years, things became increasingly worse in the home until one day, Noah’s father did the unthinkable: he violently shoved him and his mother down the flight of basement stairs, and as they toppled head over feet, they finally hit the concrete floor at which point Noah’s father shouted from above “…and stay down there!” He slammed shut the door and locked them into darkness.
For five agonizing days Noah and Shirley huddled together, prisoners below their own home with no food and little water. During the daytime they were forced to wait in fear for their abuser to return home from work where he would run down into the basement and beat them. Hearing his keys rattle open the front door and his heavy feet stomping into the hallway signaled unbearable pain was approaching. It was a terrifying nightmare that played out each day and night over and over.
Shirley did her best to protect her son. She tried to appear strong, but it was nearly impossible not to reveal to her son the fear she felt. It was crippling.
On the fifth day, before the father left for work, he opened the basement door and shouted down to them something different: “I don’t care what you do or where you go, just get out!”
He would leave the door unlocked.
Shirley knew this might be her only chance to save her son’s life, so she grabbed Noah and fled to the neighbor’s house.
When the police arrived fifteen minutes later, they took Noah and Shirley away.
They drove with the officer to a nearby police station where he promised Shirley and her son that they would be OK, that someone was going to take care of them. To Shirley, the officer’s words carried little meaning or encouragement. Every man in her life signified lies and empty promises. And sadly, physical abuse, too. But, Shirley had nothing left and nowhere to go.
The two were homeless, hungry, and frightened. She thought about her young son and what the future might hold for him. “Noah is supposed to grow up believing he can do and be anything he wants in this world,” she thought. “He’s supposed to be told he can be the next President if he works hard and gets good grades. But now I have nothing for him.” This, it seemed, was the end of the road.
As Shirley contemplated their future, a van arrived at the station. A woman emerged and introduced herself to Noah and his mother. She helped them climb into the back seats and then they drove off. They were headed to Hope House.
When they arrived to Hope House through heavy iron gates and security cameras, Noah and Shirley were carefully escorted inside and assigned a team of people who attended to their most pressing needs. They literally had nothing more than the clothes on their back. They were given a warm shower, clean clothes, medical attention, and a meal. Shirley was ashamed that life had led her to this, but felt blessed that she and her son were surrounded by people who seemed to care for them.
That first night at the shelter was hard for Shirley and her son. There was however, a peace in knowing they could close their eyes and feel protected by the walls that surrounded them. Finally safe from harm, they slept.
Weeks at Hope House turned into months as Shirley and her son slowly became accustomed to a life of non-violence. Shirley even began to open up to members of the Hope House team, as she began painting for them a picture of the life they ran from in order to survive. Shirley found peace in sharing her story, knowing these were other women with similar circumstances. They had each other now to lean on.
Noah, however, stayed quiet.
He kept silent around the staff that desperately tried to communicate with the boy. He kept quiet around other kids his age that played with toys and ran outside. He spoke only to his mother, as she was still the only thing in his life to provide him comfort and peace.
One day, Hope House began bringing in therapy dogs to sit and play with the kids. There were different types of dogs of all shapes and sizes. A fluffy Golden Retriever, an old Beagle who hobbled on a sore leg, and a two Chihuahuas. One dog though, scared most of the kids… he was a large brown and black Rottweiler. Most folks think of Rottweilers as mean and aggressive, but you see, that’s really not so. It takes a human to make them that way. By nature they are actually very sweet.
You hear about dogs that can sense the way a person feels. Whether it’s sadness, happiness, fear, or excitement, a dog just seems to intuitively understand. This brown and black Rottweiler at Hope House was no different. In fact, he had a better sense than any of the other dogs did. As the pups and children played, the Rottweiler walked up to Noah who stood motionless against a wall watching the others. As the dog approached him, Noah cautiously extended a hand towards the animal. The dog sniffed his fingers and began to lick his hand.
Noah started to smile.
One of the staff members noticed the exchange and walked up to where Noah stood and kneeled beside him. “Noah, I want to introduce you to our friend here. His name is Hero.”
A few times a week, Hero would come to visit and Noah would light up. As they got to see more and more of each other, the staff could tell they were making progress with the boy. Even though he still rarely spoke, you could tell that a visit from Hero breathed a little more life and light back into Noah’s quiet and dark childhood.
One of Noah’s favorite things to do with Hero was read books. A staff member would sit down on the ground with Noah while Hero laid his head in Noah’s lap. Then they would read a story. Reading with Hero took Noah away from the pain and the fear caused by his father. He was with his new friend, and for those precious moments, nothing else mattered.
Then one day, something very special happened.
Hero and Noah were sitting on the floor together playing with a toy. All of the sudden, Noah stopped what he was doing and slowly lifted up one of Hero’s big floppy ears and whispered to him, “If you were my dog, no one would hurt me again.”
Noah’s mother watched her son share his secret with the big animal, and was overcome with such great emotion that she began to cry. She was witnessing Noah’s emotional scars beginning to heal, something Shirley didn’t think was possible in a life where she and her son had been kicked down so many times.
She ran up to her son and scooped him into her arms kissing his cheeks. Hot tears ran down her face as she smiled and laughed, twirling her son in her arms. “I love you Baby,” she told him. “I love you too Mom.”
This would be the break-through moment that carried Shirley and her son through the next couple of months until they were able to find safe housing outside of the shelter and start a new life. Noah adopted Hero officially as his new pet and the three of them would walk out of Hope House stronger than ever before. Shirley, Noah, and Hero- a new family. It was nothing short of a miracle.
Hero gave Noah belief that his young life had meaning and purpose. That despite the pain and sadness in his world love still existed.
Stories like these are what FaithWorks and Hope House are all about. When darkness can reign in someone’s life, we all have the power to break in with light, liberation, and love- to walk in faith and be the light of the world. To change the direction of someone’s story forever. To punch holes in the darkness.
I have learned that it takes immense courage and strength to meet people where they are; to risk your soul’s happy equilibrium by facing people and stories so dark you are left speechless. But I think it’s here, in the turbulent waters of someone else’s soul, where faith can shine. Where trust can be found. Where lives can be changed.
Here are the questions I try and ask myself: Have I intentionally asked God to take me deeper? Do I trust where his spirit can lead me? Where and how is God calling me to live outside of myself? And finally, what am I risking to discover fulfillment?
I often think back to Shirley, Noah, and Hero when I need to be reminded about the power of the human spirit and the power I have to make a difference. I hope you will do the same.