She walked by our house every day, ankle length, leopard print coat barely hiding her long, bare legs walking on high heeled boots. The clothing underneath was minimal to be sure, and the long, processed hair framing her face was thinned by the affects of substance abuse and lack of good nutrition. Her face – though pretty, was gaunt and dark.
Our first youth ministry was in a rough neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, right beside the MAX line. The church – a small, older congregation – couldn’t support us financially, so instead gave us a house to live in for free. It was a monstrosity of a 100 year old farmhouse, transplanted to the church parking lot years before. There was a full basement (with it’s own bomb-shelter), a main floor with crown molding and 12 foot ceilings, a formal dining room, and a two-room attic big enough for a dozen kiddos. It was quite the place for sure, perfect for houseguests and youth group activities, but very out of place right there on the curb of one of Portland’s busy, apartment lined streets. The front door and our large picture windows were seperated from the sidewalk by only a few feet of grass, which gave us lively, up close and personal views to drug deals, domestic disputes, business conversations, and crazy things we’d never heard or seen before. It was our front door to a whole new set of opportunities to be light to hardened and hurt people walking right past us.
A usual weekly occurance for us was pulling out our cheap hibachi grill to BBQ a couple burgers outside our front door. Without fail, those sizzling grease drippings could lure even the most anti-social of MAX foot traffic to take a glance up, or yell out a “Hey! What’s for dinner?!”, at our big old farmhouse front steps. On just such an evening, while my man grilled something yummy, Laura walked by. Her glance was sidewalk focused, and a “Hi!” and a smile caught her off guard. I don’t think she received kind gestures very often from someone without an agenda. She said hi back as she continued moving, guarded in a shroud of suspicious coldness.
Her daily ritual of walking by became something of an expectation for us. After all, it’s hard to miss the only full length leopard skin on the street. As time and hello’s, and the occasional offer of some dinner, became more comfortable, one day the walk stilled for a few minutes and the conversation went deeper.
Laura was a stripper, rejected by her morally religious family, mother to a school-aged boy that she didn’t get to live with, and “girlfriend” to a mysteriously absent, yet controlling “boyfriend” who expected her complete obedience and paycheck. A burger eventually headed home with her, and a wall let down.
It seemed something of a miracle the day she showed up at our church with her little boy. A bold move for her, in more ways than one, she came with expectation of hope to be found, and food to fill her starving soul. We invited them over for lunch and discovered a girl longing for pure relationship without strings attached.
Over the coming months, they were often in our home or along on some adventure with us, laughing, playing, and eating. Laura’s little guy became a special part of our weekly routine as we began to help ferry him back and forth from his grandma’s, where he lived, to church and our home where he was allowed to be with mom.
At some point, Laura decided she wanted to understand why we were living in this odd home, being her friend, letting her be a part of our family. Mostly, she wanted to know about the freedom and peace Jesus had given to us. She said she’d never been loved unconditionally, even by her own family – who’d abused and expected much from her, only to reject her after she committed what they called the “unpardonable sin”…having an abortion. She was thoroughly filled with guilt over her choices and hurts in life, but had become calloused to the shame they brought, and figured she was already as good as dead. And yet, every longing in her 22 year old body was for life and Someone to look at her with delight, and not with hate, embarrassment, or disgust.
That day in our home, as she poured out her sorrows and broken heart, she believed Jesus was her answer, and received a new life! There was great rejoicing as we looked to a future full of hope for Laura.
Immediately, she determined she’d have to leave her present situation to experience the abundant life she wanted so badly for herself. The few times we saw her after that, she talked of looking for a new job, of needing help to move out of her boyfriend’s grasp, and of the joy she was experiencing knowing that she was loved, no matter her past, present, and future.
When she decided a month later she could really leave her boyfriend, we offered to be a physical support as she made the break. Despite the anger she was sure to face, she insisted on doing it alone. He’d take it better, she said, if she stood up for herself without “church” people visibly backing her up. We hugged, prayed for her, and waved as she walked back home.
We never saw her again. She never called us, walked by, or was seen in the grocery store we both shopped at. Laura was gone.
I wish I knew the rest of Laura’s story. It breaks my heart to think of what may have happened to her as my mind brings up the worst case scenarios. I know God brought her to us for a particular season, and allowed her to disappear into the night when it was over, but it’s still hard to know something didn’t go as planned.
Laura’s desire to leave her external captors may have ended badly, but nothing can take away the eternal life that is hers! If even for a moment Laura got to experience true Love – than her story doesn’t have an ending, but a new and everlasting beginning. And for that I can rejoice even in sorrow.
She will forever be a reminder to me that even a messy story, one without the pretty illustrations and happily ever after, can still be a beautiful and good gift from God. Laura came into our lives and gave us a firsthand glimpse of how God’s love transforms. She came dark and lonely and left lit up and unafraid. That is a powerful thing.
There is hardship in loving. But it is a seed that when planted will yield a crop somewhere, somehow, someday. And all the broken pieces will begin to fit into place to show the masterpiece of God’s great plan. I’m banking on that with Laura.
I can’t wait to know the full story