“What’s happened to you since I saw you last? You’ve been clinching your teeth!” The dental hygienist went on to say the damage I had done to my teeth would ordinarily take ten to twenty years to happen on its own.
Great. Just one more reason to be mad at “It”.
“It” was something that had turned our world upside down. Like a thick, dark, evil liquid, “It” had permeated every single aspect of what we do at Blue Monarch. Not one thing had gone untouched.
“It” reared its ugly head on March 13th. As I was leaving a board meeting that evening, I called Jeannie before I drove out of the parking lot. I had a strange feeling that something with her wasn’t quite right. “Did everything go okay today while I was at the board meeting?” Jeannie Driver is our amazing Program Director. I have known her since she came to our program in 2003 as one of our very first residents. She arrived with her three little girls and years later became a key figure in our Blue Monarch leadership. Jeannie is woven through the very fabric of what we do.
“Yeah, everything was good.” I was still confused by the feeling I had, so I asked about her girls and she caught me up on how each daughter was doing. I hung up, still carrying a dark feeling in my heart that I couldn't explain.
Just a few hours later, shortly before 10:00 p.m., my phone rang and it’s a moment I will never forget. Jeannie screamed hysterically, “Carmen’s been shot! Please pray!” Carmen had just turned eighteen a few weeks before. Right away, an image of Carmen as a rowdy toddler flashed through my mind.
I immediately threw on some clothes and grabbed my purse on the way out the door. “Please Lord, no! Please don’t let this happen! Please!” Right away it felt like an evil attack.
Shortly before I walked into the hospital, I learned Carmen had not survived. I think in that moment my heart went hard. I was angry. Angry with the person who did this. Angry with the people who do things like this all the time. And most of all – angry with God for letting this happen to the sweetest person I know.
When I found Jeannie, she was a puddle of grief, suffering from every parent’s greatest fear. We cried like babies and I think it was in that moment that I became spiritually deaf. I had no interest in anything God had to say from that point on because I was so angry with him. Why didn’t he stop that bullet before it struck Carmen’s beautiful face? After all, we know he could have!
It was shocking, really. Jeannie had brought many people to know Christ. She had touched so many lives in powerful ways – not only through her job at Blue Monarch, but through her volunteer work in prison ministry, too. She had served God well, so why didn’t he protect her? I found myself trying to come up with some divine reason for what had happened – but the truth was, it just sucked. I decided right then and there that "Why did this happen to Carmen?" would be the first thing I asked when I entered the gates of heaven - right before "Where did you come from?", which was, until now, my first question.
As I sat in the church at Carmen’s funeral a few days later, I listened to all the crying and suffering from across the sanctuary. It struck me how one person’s actions could cause so much pain for so many people. It was a ripple effect that seemed endless.
This tragic event had a profound effect on our program. The residents we serve could make no sense of what had happened. If this could happen to Jeannie, then none of us was safe! They were also angry with God and it manifested itself in ugly ways. They resented those of us trying to fill the gap in Jeannie’s absence. They no longer trusted us – how could they? After all, they no longer trusted God, either. As a group they became belligerent, bitter, uncooperative, and even disrespectful. The world felt completely out of sync.
Nevertheless, our staff members carried heavy hearts into everything they did to keep the ball rolling until Jeannie could come back. We struggled to have patience with our residents while we dealt with our own grief at the same time. We tried to do our jobs and raise money with enthusiasm – but it’s hard to do with a broken heart. Yep, “It” had touched every single aspect of our organization. The ripple effect was endless.
For weeks I kept my ears shut and refused to hear anything God had to say. It was like that annoying, outdated phrase, “Talk to the hand.” Don't talk to me. My anger only got more intense as I walked alongside Jeannie over the following weeks - meeting with the detectives, reading the dreadful 911 report, seeing the photo of Carmen’s face after she had been shot, attending the bond hearing for the one charged with Carmen’s death, all while watching Jeannie’s heartbreak day after day.
It was as if the only place that brought comfort was to go back to the moment before “It” happened. Many times I wanted to take Jeannie’s pain for a day so she could just get some relief. Too bad we couldn’t sign up for shifts – the way people sign up to bring food. “I’ll take Tuesday if you can take Wednesday.”
So here we are two months later and what I have seen is nothing less than a miracle.
Jeannie’s relationship with Jesus has only gotten stronger through this terrible tragedy, even though she still has lots of questions of her own. Her personal story has become even more powerful as she describes "leaning in on Jesus and pulling from the heavenly bank we have as God's children." I don’t know how she has done it, but Jeannie has shared her testimony with four large crowds recently, and no doubt, many lives were forever changed. She has met with our residents one-on-one and has tenderly listened as they have shared their doubts and fears with her. She has wept with them as they have shared her pain. I have watched her come to work determined to serve, even on her heaviest days. Jeannie has proven to our residents that one can experience even the worst pain without turning to drugs as a way to cope. She has taught them to cling to Jesus instead. They will forever remember her example of faith and strength, long after they leave Blue Monarch. They may even share her story with their children one day. In other words, I have seen Jeannie bring her brightest light to Blue Monarch – even in her darkest hour.
As we have gradually gotten back on our feet, I have come to realize, the ripple effect of “It” is not endless after all. Once it touched the people it was going to hurt, it was finished. There will be no more. So, its power is very limited.
But the impact of Jeannie’s story and Carmen’s life will truly be endless. Just look - in two months’ time, Jeannie has touched more people in beautiful ways, than “It” did in harmful ways. In the same way that one sunflower can produce up to 2,000 seeds, I believe with every life Jeannie touches, she will be planting many more seeds along the way, which really IS endless.
Something just hit me. Even while I was stomping around clinching my teeth and refusing to listen for God, I see now that he was speaking to me the whole time. You see, he was saying some pretty powerful things to me through my friend, Jeannie. Guess God knew that sign language was the only thing I could hear for a while, so I'm glad my eyes were open, even if my ears were not. Who knew that his voice would be such a beautiful thing to see?
"Dear Lord, I guess we've got some catching up to do. Let's start with these teeth..."
After she had been incarcerated, Jeannie and her girls were reunited at Blue Monarch in 2003. Since that time, through our program and the tremendous grace of God, over 260 children have been able to reestablish relationships with their mothers who had lost custody. We are proud to name this rich aspect of our program, the Carmen Simmons Reunification Program, which will honor a part of our ministry that is dear to Jeannie’s heart. And in this way, Jeannie and Carmen can partner together in helping others for many years to come.