Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Two in One

In a few weeks during our church services, I will be giving a testimony on sharing the Gospel with someone. So in a way, it's a two for one kind of deal, where two lives are changed at the same time. I've chosen to talk about Blanca, because I learned more from that relationship than all the training I ever got in collegiate ministry.

I had wonderful opportunities in college to learn how to be a witness and explain my faith. I had one to one mentoring and "on the job" experience for nearly five years. I learned a lot about praying for non Christians and developing bridges with them that made a relationship possible. And I passed what I knew on to other women.

I have favorite verses that helped me shape my convictions about evangelism. Romans 1:16 "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek." The same power that created the universe and set our earth in motion, the same power that creates new babies is the same power displayed when people become Christians. I wanted to see God's magnificent power at work. Romans 5:8 "But God demonstrated His own love towards us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." I also wanted to see God demonstrate His love to sinners in helping them believe in Jesus. So, over time, evangelism was no longer a mere activity to me, but a passion, and a hunger. One of the things that I noticed in Dennis in college was that he had the same passion for evangelism that I did, and so when he asked me to marry him, I gave him a great big enthusiastic "Yes!".

After we married, Dennis became a recruiter for the Naval Reserves and so not only did he recruit for the military, he recruited for the Kingdom of God. We developed a personal ministry together as a team wherever we lived and worked, mostly through hospitality such as opening our home to non Christian neighbors, co-workers and friends for meals and bible studies. We eventually moved from California to Georgia, and my mom in Washington state had serious health problems so I was always flying home to be with my family and help out. Mom did not agree with the Gospel, and God gave me several creative, personal ways to share it with her. I was also in my mid 30's and having a serious emotional crisis over infertility. When Mom died, I didn't know if she became a Christian or not.

For a time, I grew inward with my grief. I also worked overtime a lot. Dennis had a lot of overtime as well. On my days off, I would take long two hour walks with our German Shepherd mix dog, Buttercup, and talk to God. Finally, I got to a point when I asked Him to give me a friend with whom I could share the Gospel and help grow in her walk with Him. A short time later, a matter of days, I met Blanca through a mutual friend at a new church we were going to.

Blanca was a 17 year old single mom of a one year old, Hispanic about 4'8" and maybe weighed 90 pounds soaking wet. Immediately, I sensed that the two of us were from two completely different worlds. I sat with her on the church carpeted floor as we watched over her little girl, Elly, and she talked non stop in rapid fire Spanglish mixed with a lot of gang slang. I didn't understand everything she said, but I picked up that she was living with her sister and her husband and three kids in a three bedroom mobile home close to where I lived. She worked the closing shifts at Burger King and she recently split with her no-good gangster drug dealing boyfriend who was also Elly's father. Finally she stopped for a breath and said "Call me."

We talked about our schedules about what time was best to talk on the phone. I was working closing shifts at Starbucks, and like her, couldn't go to bed until a few hours later when I got home--our circadian rhythms were pretty much in synch.
This is a sort of a lonely time for us, because there is no one to talk to. So the next week, I called her at one in the morning and she answered. I asked her if she wanted me to come over and visit on our days off, and she was glad. Everyone in the family were gone all day to school or working, and she was alone with Elly all day, so this was a great idea.

We went to the mall, got our eyebrows waxed, or I'd look at Elly's baby pictures or I'd help her with her GED class homework or teach her how to drive. She taught me how to make Chicken Mole, Guacamole, and Enchiladas. I took her to our Church retreat and that helped us bond, we got our own room with Elly and we laughed so hard we cried the whole weekend. Blanca also got to know other women in our church and found out our pastor and his wife, John and Sherry, spoke fluent Spanish.

Every so often, we'd read the bible together. We read the story about the Samaritan woman at the well's conversation with Jesus, and that really made an impression on Blanca. This woman was an outsider among outsiders, which is how Blanca often felt among people in her own culture, and how her people are often treated in America. She read about worshiping God in "spirit and in truth" and how the Samaritan became a believer and brought her village to Jesus. We read about other women in the Bible, and how Jesus cared for them. We read Psalms, about the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John and also in Psalm 23. I shared with her my life story, how the secret pain of being sexually abused as a child lead me to seek God and believe in Him.

As our relationship developed, we actually learned we had a lot in common. When I shared my testimony with Blanca, she told me that she also had been abused and how it caused her to become a reject in her family. Her father had died when she was young and she didn't get a long with her mother because her stepfathers always abused her and her mother thought that Blanca was to blame. I also shared with Blanca the long healing process that I went through with counseling and prayer to learn how to forgive the people who abused me.

Blanca asked me why I hung out with her. We were talking almost every day on the phone and we got together at least once a week, if not more. I told her after my Mom died, I prayed for a friend, and God answered my prayers with her. I didn't tell her the whole prayer, because I didn't think that telling her that I wanted to be her spiritual mom someday would be constructive. But I had a feeling that it would happen.

And it did.

I had shared Romans 6:23 with her and showed her a basic diagram where I explained how sin separated us from God but through Jesus He gives us eternal life, like a bridge. I asked her which side she was on, man's or God's. She pointed to the bridge, Jesus, and said that she was on the way but not there yet. Later, a few more friends shared the Roman Road, a short explanation in the Book of Romans of the gospel that was a lot more specific about sin. And another friend explained the gospel in Spanish, and even though I wasn't there, Blanca became a Christian. A few hours afterwards, at church, she told me and she wanted me to explain baptism to her and then she made an appointment to meet with our pastor, John, who spoke Spanish, and a few elders to see if she was truly a believer and ready to be baptized.

I picked her up for her appointment and she told me she was going back to Mexico. There was a ride back to Mexico City in a week, and she was going to go be with her family, and then get her "papers fixed". She had no real plan about getting back. I was confused about her "papers". I kind of suspected that Blanca might be here in the States illegally, but I never thought about it much. She was brought over with her family when she was nine, and she doesn't remember Mexico all that well. Blanca also told me that her name wasn't Blanca, it was Miriam. I had noticed that her nieces and nephews, who spoke english well, called her Miriam, but I thought that it was a cultural thing. Because Miriam had become a Christian, she didn't want to lie to anyone anymore. She was sad that she had told all her friends at church that she was Blanca, and she wanted to make it right. And she was afraid that I would be mad. I wasn't. I was overwhelmed. Miriam had nothing and I struggled about what it would mean for her future and her daughter's future.

I asked Miriam to tell the pastor, and see if he knew what to do. When she came back from her interview, she told me that she was going to be baptized next weekend and she got a phone number of a law firm that had people who spoke Spanish and could help her. So she gave up the ride to Mexico and decided to stay and see if her "papers" could get fixed here in the States. Meanwhile, I spent time trying to find Christian contacts in Mexico who she could live with and find a good church to take care of her. I offered to go with her and stay with her for awhile.

After Miriam's baptism, her life did not get better. In fact, it fell completely apart. There were some huge gaps in my understanding about the price that Miriam was paying to become a true follower of Christ. First, she lost her job at Burger King, because she told her boss about her false identity. Then, she couldn't find another job that would allow for an undocumented worker, she would start, procrastinating on the proof of citizenship, either she would get let go or she'd have the job and after awhile found herself being taken advantage of or sexually harassed. We talked often on the phone about her struggles. The lack of work was putting a strain on her already thin budget and her relationship with her family at large, not just her sister that she lived with.

In Miriam's culture, there is no such thing as not working. And no such thing as giving up a perfectly good false identity that was expensive and coveted. Miriam had been perceived as being arrogant and superior and too good for not wanting to live a lie. Miriam called the lawyers and learned she had to come up with two thousand dollars. For someone barely able to afford diapers for her baby, this was the same as being told she had to have a million dollars. Then, Miriam could no longer live with her sister. She was perceived as lazy and I was perceived as some kind of witch. Without telling me, Miriam left. Her sister, Alma, couldn't or wouldn't tell me where she was. And because Miriam couldn't pay her cell phone bill, her phone was cut off.

Eventually, someone told me Miriam was working out in Buford Highway. It's the international district of Atlanta but also a rough part of town with a lot of gang activity. I was really worried.
I got a call a few weeks later, her boyfriend wanted me to talk to her because something bad had happened to her. After a few minutes with her, it was obvious that she was hurting. Things had been really bad, and now, it was worse. I told her boyfriend to pack her stuff up and bring her to my house. She was going to live with me and Dennis and two other women whom I was helping.

Miriam didn't want help. She didn't want to become a burden. She didn't want people to think that she became a Christian with impure motives, to get something out of it. And she wasn't sure how I felt about her new identity. I made mistakes. But she didn't give me a chance to show her that I still loved her either. Few years later, when we were sitting around drinking coffee in her home and remembering this, Miriam shared that she got scared and decided that she didn't need anyone and rejected God's lordship over her life. She decided to break away and that she wasn't suffering just over being attacked at Buford Highway, but from the guilt she experienced that she was trying to walk away from Jesus. She felt she was being punished.

I told her that we had received much hospitality when we were new Christians, and after Den and I got married, we wanted to extend the same to others. And as I helped her, I was sure that someday she would help others the same way. This was called Christian fellowship or community, we share everything with each other. She lost everything to be a Christian, surely we could take the risks in having her live with us.

Miriam spent time with Brea and Lynette, the other women in our home. Brea was a warm and sensitive person whose father was a pastor in New Mexico, and later on, a year later, started to meet with Miriam and help her grow. Lynette was a friend from California who became a Christian shortly before we met her and we went to her bible study. She moved to Atlanta to work in the prison system as a counselor and to finish her doctoral thesis. She was almost done with the final draft and days away from her defense when Miriam moved in. But Lynette took time to invite Miriam to talk with her for hours. Lynette's own testimony is a remarkable one, she was a social worker by day and a drug user and robbed houses by night until she became a believer, she understood gangs, she understood Hispanic culture and she was the perfect person for Miriam to talk to.

While Miriam lived with us, she was having a hard time not working. I told her that her job was to take care of her daughter for now, and we would take care of her for awhile. I told her that her other job was to talk to God about that 2000 dollars she needed to be legal in America. We read the story about the persistent widow and the judge, that the widow would not give up until she got justice. Miriam was famous for her phone calls, the redial button on her cell was worn out. I told her to keep hitting her redial button with God until she got an answer.

While she prayed and waited, we spent a lot of time in the Bible looking at her new life in Christ. She learned about Galatians 2:20, that she had been crucified with Christ and that it is no longer Miriam that lived but the life Miriam lived in the flesh she lived by faith in the Son of God who loved her and delivered her. She also learned that she is longer her own, she had been bought with a price and she must glorify God in her body. And we talked about how she became a new creature in Christ, the old has gone, new things have come and we made a list of all the things she left behind, what she has now that she didn't before and what she could hope for her future.

We also talked about how she must trust in the Lord with all her heart and lean not on her own understanding, that she must acknowledge God in all her ways and He would make her paths straight. I told Miriam that she can't rely on me, I know nothing about her visa situation and she can't rely on others. But she had God and he can provide through other people, but she must have faith in Him alone. In a few weeks, Miriam saw God provide 2000 dollars, and she got her application for amnesty just in time for the deadline. During all this while, she reached out to her family even though they rejected her and warned them that they needed to pursue getting things legal. This was in July 2000, a year before 9/11, and all doors for illegals slammed shut with tighter INS investigations. She also invited them to church and started to take her nieces and nephews to church with her and she got involved in children's ministries.

Miriam also started to share the gospel with her ex-boyfriend. And her old girl gang members. Her approach was very direct and I wondered if she should "tone it down" a little. But I decided not to, because what did I know about sharing Jesus with drug dealers and gangs? Miriam did what was in her heart, without anyone telling her to do it. A few years later, I visited Miriam in her home and she had me watch a video about the testimony of a Hispanic drug kingpin turning his life to Jesus and becoming an evangelist. When I finished it, she asked me what I thought. I told her it was really good. She said great, she was going to make copies and give it to everyone she knew in her family and her old gang.

I've been sharing my faith for a long time and I still am. But knowing Miriam changed my life, because for her becoming a Christian involved sacrifices. Christ became her whole world. She was poor in every way but she became rich in Christ. And one day, towards the end of her stay with us, Miriam told me that I was the mom she never had. I shared with her that I wanted that more than anything, that this was an another answer to my prayers before I met her. Of all the women I've helped, Miriam is the only one who called me her mom.

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