Boarded backyard fences, crumpled lattice wood and dry brush. A few Roosters stalked about in yards oblivious and content. Screen doors smacked open and shut as folks entered and exited their piece of the neighborhood. Pastel painted shotgun houses with … Continue reading
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.
The other night I was on a plane flying from Newark, New Jersey to Houston, Texas. The flight had actually been delayed several hours due to thunderstorms over the East coast. Once we were finally airborne, I glanced outside the passenger window and became fixated on the red navigation lights flashing from the wing. I peered closer, seeing as how the light illuminated, just for a brief second, the thousands of descending raindrops falling towards the earth. “What a journey they must have, from 25,000 feet” I thought to myself. “A 10 minute free-fall.”
…eventually they must land.
Perhaps atop a small Redbud tree in someone’s backyard. That’s where I noticed these particular drops anyway.
Days after my trip home, I had wandered outside and into the backyard to play fetch with Bonnie when the bright little water beads caught my eye. “Fascinating” I thought. With their odd elasticity, the droplets clung to tiny buds, leaves, and pine needles for dear life, refusing an inevitable fate of being absorbed by the soggy ground below.
From 25,000 feet they had recently fallen, and it was here they had landed; suspended freely above the earth in a perfect balance between gravity and the upward force of a delicate leaf. It was in this brief moment of time I started taking pictures- before the wind or more rain could disturb their fragile resting place. Before the tug of the Earth, with it’s grip on heavy water molecule that began a plight high up in the clouds, could force the droplet to finally fall.
Last Summer was miserably hot. I remember the weather guy saying Kansas City had 20 or more days with 100+ degree heat. It was also bone dry. No rain to give the parched earth any relief of the blazing sun.
Then, this past winter, three massive snow storms (in March) pounded the midwest, shutting the city down for days on end. Winter was bitter cold and simply refused to leave. Only until this past week did we see and feel the first signs of Spring. And oh how sweet it is!
Redbud and Bradford Pear trees, which I thought might have actually died from the harsh Summer have begun to bud leaves, unfurling from their tiny housing to soak in the Spring sun.
Even Melissa’s small herb garden, planted in a large pot on the deck, showed signs of life. We peeled off a top layer of dead leaves and sticks to reveal green sprouts of lemon thyme, rosemary, mint, basil, and oregano. Even in their infancy, the little shoots and tiny leaves smelled wonderfully of their distinct scents.
It will snow a few of times a year in Kansas City, but nothing like this. Last Thursday it snowed 12 inches. We couldn’t even make it out of the house for nearly two days.
Then, only four days later, another storm system moved in and dumped another foot. During this 2nd round, the heavy snow stuck to every tree limb and powerline, rendering them weak and useless. Our power went out, so we have set up camp at Mom and Dad’s a few miles down the road to stay warm. As hard as it is to shovel countless driveways and attempt to take the Jeep out to concur the cold frozen tundra, the snow-covered neighborhoods lend to us a fascinating beauty.
You step outside and the world is dampened and muted, a soft silence where the hustle and bustle has been forced to a screeching halt. As you walk out of the house and peer up through the white-covered trees, time and space seem suspended. As inconvenient and annoying as the snow storm is, I can’t help but smile. It is a rather breathtaking scene.
The pictures below are from our journeys over the last 5 days.
Melissa, on Thursday night (for Valentine’s Day), went to McGonigle’s Market down the street to get some fish. A family friend of ours is a chef and works at the market. He suggested some really fresh wild-caught salmon for the grill that had just arrived earlier in the day. Melissa also picked up a few pieces of cedar plank (as a gift for me!) to use. I had never done a cedar plank salmon before but it turned out great. We used salt, pepper, lemon juice, olive oil, and fresh cilantro to go between the wood and the fish for extra flavor.
A couple of months ago my next-door neighbor called me up. “Will, I have been doing some thinking, and realized last night you would be the perfect person to have on the Board of our HOA… young, smart, full of life… A refreshing new face. Whatdya say?”
“Sure, why not?”
Biggest mistake of my life.
Fast forward two weeks- I show up to my first annual meeting for all members held in the stinky basement of an old Baptist Church across the street. After all, we moved into the neighborhood only a year ago. I should participate, especially if I’m now on the board!
I should also point out my next door neighbor is the HOA President. He, alongside a thin frail older woman, sat behind a plastic table at the front of the room. I took a seat on the far left, unaware of the ridiculousness set to ensue. It was like sitting on the set of an episode of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ mixed with ‘Golden Girls’.
Strap in folks. This room is about to explode.
7:01 PM- meeting starts. I think it’s important you understand the group of human beings I’m trapped in this basement with: there are about 30 people in the room- two thirds are over the age of 65 (with several well over the age of 70, possibly 80- no joke). A handful of middle-aged men, a woman in her 30’s, and myself. Sitting in the corner.
My neighbor attempts to lead a civil discussion about dues and the such, but the members are having none of it. They are there for vengeance! For blood. To wage a war that would turn neighbors aggressively against each other.
For nearly TWO HOURS these people yelled and bickered.
Frank, an extremely old man up front with a shaking fist and wooden cane, would randomly mumble loud and inappropriate (completely off-topic) comments while other people were talking. He was bitter the board only took bids from 2 repair men instead of 3 during the grueling decision on who to use to repair a tiny statue near a street entrance in 2009. Frank’s life has never been the same since that fateful day, and after 4 years he remembered he was mad about it.
Frank would not shut up… the guy was seriously out of control. (WebMD “Dementia”)
Frank was not the only person with opinions. Oh not at all. Other members were outraged that fuel sur-charges had been increased by our trash service. Just who the hell do these guys think they are to increase the bill .19 cents a month?! One member of the HOA actually took it upon himself to make a large timeline graph mapping fuel costs in the US since 2000. Not sure how that changes anything but thanks for wasting 20 minutes of my life with THAT little gem.
And finally, our dear friends Sandra and Kathy- both of whom could not believe the horrifying decision made last year to provide new trash bins to the members. You see, they don’t believe in accumulating house-hold trash. They would rather the bins not exist because they take up too much room in the garage where their two cats Josie and Felix could otherwise play 0n custom-build scratch posts.
The entire experience was horrifying. My phone continued to buzz with text messages from my wife: “where ARE you?”
My neighbor began yelling for people to stop the madness. Things finally settled down.
8:55 PM- meeting closed.
I ran out of the basement, fled to my car, and drove home.
For the next several weeks, neighbors began emailing spiteful and hate-filled messages to the other members. Old people against even older people. Delirious against demented. My thoughts every time I read a new email were always the same… who CARES!!!
Can’t we all just live on the same street and happily wave hello while walking the dog? Why is this so hard?
It truly makes zero sense.
The icing on the cake came last week when my next-door neighbor resigned as President of our HOA. After recruiting me into leadership, he would pass down the glorious opportunity to tame and rationalize the throng of senior-citizens that non-stop debated about meaningless crap. The classic Bait and Switch.
Well played sir, well played.
I am leading you along the high road, but there are descents as well as ascents. In the distance you see snow-covered peaks glistening in brilliant sunlight. Your longing to reach those peaks is good, but you must not take shortcuts. Your assignment is to follow Me, allowing Me to direct your path. Let the heights beckon you onward, but stay close to Me.
Learn to trust Me when things go “wrong.” Disruptions to your routine highlight your dependence on Me. Trusting acceptance of trials brings blessings that far outweigh them all. Walk hand in hand with Me through this day. I have lovingly planned every inch of the way. Trust does not falter when the path becomes rocky and steep. Breathe deep draughts of My Presence, and hold tightly to My hand.
-Sarah Young, Jesus Calling