From my front row seat

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Racist Interrupted

It was my very first day of high school as a 9th grader in Franklin, Tennessee.  And it was the very first day for integration in my county.  The year was 1971.

Neither school was big enough for all the students, so the oddly curious solution was for us to spend half a day at the white school and half a day at the black school.  In the middle of the day we were bused back and forth to switch places.

This plan was insanely inefficient.  For most of us, it meant two lunch periods back to back while this time consuming craziness took place.

After my first lunch, I got on the bus for the black school but unfortunately, all my friends went the first half of the day.  I quickly discovered the students were not evenly divided between black and white.  (Wasn't that the whole point?)  The bus was already packed, standing room only - and I was the only white student on the entire bus.  Wow.

Not knowing what to expect, I found a safe place to stand behind the bus driver who was also black.  I tried to look cool, like I hadn't even noticed my present circumstances.  Truth was, I was pretty scared.  Isn't it interesting how we often fear what's simply unfamiliar?

The only other school I had ever attended had just two black students in the entire school - Georgia, who was in my class, and her brother who was in another, also alone.  As I looked across the mass of unfamiliar black faces on the bus, I couldn't help but imagine that Georgia must have felt the very same way I did in that moment.  No wonder she never said a word and always looked so scared.  As I look back now, I'm ashamed I didn't do more to make her feel comfortable.  She must have been miserable in our all white school.

Gripping the pole behind the driver, I steadied my feet best I could as we began our journey to the part of town I had only heard about.  My blond hair was long and straight and the girls around me were absolutely fascinated with it.  As a matter of fact, I was pretty fascinated with theirs as well.  How did they get it to grow in that perfectly round "fro"?  

All of a sudden, without asking, a group of girls began running their fingers through my hair.  They squealed, "Come feel this!  Feel it!"  Well, I didn't like it one bit.  This had to stop.  (My personal bubble is quite large.)

When I'd had enough, I flipped my head around and immediately felt my hair getting jerked and pulled in all directions.  Oh my word, I'm being attacked!  It turned into quite a ruckus - kids yelling and laughing while my hair was yanked out by the handfuls.  Everything was a complete blur as my head got violently pulled back and forth, back and forth, and I was in a lot of pain.  I screamed for help but couldn't imagine who would even come to my rescue.

Suddenly all the violence stopped but not the laughing.  I grabbed my head and slowly faced my attackers, only to discover no one had even touched me.  What?  Apparently, when I twirled my head around to stop them from feeling my hair, I had actually gotten it stuck in the bus driver's stupid fan!  It had gotten whipped into a massive ball of knots.  Fortunately, one of the nice girls helped untangle my hair from the fan that now seemed to possess a good bit of my hair.  There was an enormous rat's nest in the back of my head.  No wonder everyone was laughing.  I'm sure it was hilarious for everyone on the bus but I was humiliated - and yet relieved at the same time.

As I tried to regain some kind of dignity, which was near impossible under the circumstances, I straightened my short little skirt, pulled up my knee socks, patted down my hair best I could, and marched into the black school for the first time, which I couldn't help but notice was behind a tall, metal fence.  Was this to keep people in or out?  (I later learned it was both.)  

The place was shocking.  I could see right away that the black school wasn't nearly as nice as the white school.  But how did this happen?  Didn't the same people pay for both?  It was filthy and needed lots of repair.  It didn't seem right, that's for sure.

As the year went on, I felt like I was seeing the world for the first time through someone else's eyes, and much of it was painful.  Many things were clearly not fair or equal.  And even though there were uncertain, new experiences during that first year of high school in an integrated school (or schools) it taught me some lessons I will never forget, and quite frankly, some lessons I needed to learn.

I've thought a lot about this experience recently.  And this is why:

As I've reflected over our past year at Blue Monarch, there were so many unexpected blessings and miracles.  After all, we expanded our campus with the construction of four beautiful cottages for our graduates.  This increased our population by 33%.  That's huge!  

But that's not all.

There were many remarkable miracles of transformation for our women and their children - countless, amazing things that you wouldn't think possible!  However, there's one specific thing that quickly rises to the top of the list when I think back on 2016.

Sadly, this is not a unique case, but we had a little boy with us last year whose father was involved in the Aryan Nation.  This man was quite vocal with his racist views and had passed these harmful prejudices along to his impressionable young son.  Even the mother wore Aryan Nation tattoos on her chest and at first, refused to open up to our counselor who is black.  (Thank you, Lord, for our counselor's patience, grace, and professionalism.)

But you know what happened over their time at Blue Monarch?  This little boy learned that we are all equal, that God loves each of us the same, and by the time he walked out our door, this sweet child no longer feared or hated people of color.
 
(Not the actual child)

And his mother?  Well, she eventually changed her own perspective and to this day, our counselor is the first person she turns to when she needs help.

In this day and time, when it's well beyond 1971 but we're still hearing daily news about racism, there is no way to know how differently this little boy might have turned out if he had not learned this critical lesson at an early age.  He may always be challenged through his ongoing exposure to people who feel otherwise, but I have to wonder...is it possible that a future hate crime was perhaps stopped in its tracks because a little boy and his mother had the opportunity to come to Blue Monarch?  

We may not be able to fix racism, but I'm grateful we have a chance to chip away at it - one child, one mother at a time. 

But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.  1 John 2:11

    

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Little did I know...

If you would like to get the background of this story, you may want to read an earlier blog post:
A story too big to tell...

Dear Bob,

I have been composing a letter to you in my head throughout the year and planned to mail it before Christmas.  Little did I know you wouldn't be here to read it.  I can't possibly begin the New Year with this letter unfinished, so here it is.

Someone asked me recently what year stood out above all others for Blue Monarch?  That's easy.  It's 2016.  And that's because of you and Jacque.

I now keep a photograph of your beautiful wife on my desk.  It's not the best one I have of her, but it is a huge reminder that you just never know when an ordinary moment may turn into an extraordinary one. 

You see, this picture of Jacque was taken when she first visited Blue Monarch in 2010.  She came with a group of church folks at the invitation of her bowling buddy, Pat.  On that day, I'm sure I probably told the story of how Blue Monarch got started, described what we do to help mothers and their precious children recover from some pretty deep emotional wounds, and we might have asked one of our residents to share her personal story.  This routine we do quite often.  But something Jacque heard that day must have made quite an impression on her.  Little did I know this moment would dramatically affect our world six years later.

I also didn't realize when I received your unexpected email back in February, that by November we would mark a huge item off my bucket list and open four incredible cottages for our graduates, which would bear the names of your wife and four children - and immediately increase our population by a whopping 33%!

This year has been full of unexpected surprises.  But your passing was not a good surprise and although I thanked you many times, I wish I thanked you more when I had the chance.

Thank you for sharing your wife's passion for Blue Monarch.  I can't describe what it means for others to believe in our mission as we do, enough to invest their treasured resources.  Every gift, no matter how large or how small, means the world to us.  That's one of the reasons I love to get the mail out of the box myself - so I can cherish each one as it arrives.

I never told you this, but I found it amusing that you and Jacque frequently told me the same thing when the other was not around.  She would tell me that although she loved Blue Monarch, it was you who felt most passionately about it.  And then you would tell me the exact same thing about her.  I'm grateful you both cared about our mission so much.

Lynn, Robert, Susan, Bob, Kent and Beth
Even though you and Jacque discussed your tremendous plan before her death, you made it clear that you wanted to involve your four children in this gesture and the gift would actually come from them.  Thank you for passing your passion for Blue Monarch along to "The Sibs".  I am so grateful for their commitment to provide a beautiful place for our graduates to transition into the outside world.  And I also appreciate their vision for our cottages to be so unique they would serve as motivation for our residents to succeed.  The cottages are absolutely amazing, inside and out.  I've always said, "why do something ordinary when it can be extraordinary?"  Thankfully, your children - Kent, Lynn, Robert, and Beth - feel the same way!

Bob, your wife was an exceptional woman - no doubt, you know that.  I can't describe how much it meant for you to trust me with her memorial service we held in June along with the groundbreaking.  As I searched through hundreds of photographs I gradually gained a clearer picture of the remarkable life she lived with you, the strong values she instilled in your children, and why all of you wanted to honor her memory in such a special way.  Yes, she was an extraordinary mother - and now she's allowing others to become one.

There were several times you mentioned you were worried you might not live to see our WINGS Community completed, which always troubled me.  Other than the fact you were turning 89 in July, I didn't really understand your sense of urgency.  However, this was a determining factor as I interviewed potential builders.  If they couldn't begin right away, they were quickly voted off the island.  (Wasn't that one of Jacque's favorite shows?)

I think God dropped the perfect builder right in front of us for a reason.  The project went supernaturally fast!  "What?!  You need paint colors already?"  My word, we got four houses built in three and a half months.  Who does that?

But now we know why this project took on a life of its own.  I believe God wanted you to see the M. Jacqueline Peters WINGS Community finished before he called you home.  And only he knew that you would pass away just eleven days after you came to the Dedication Celebration, where you so tenderly handed keys to the first families moving in.  Little did we know...


What a legacy, Bob.  It's only been a little over a month since our first families moved into the beautiful cottages and already I'm seeing the enormous impact in so many areas of their lives.  Just imagine how that influence will grow in the many years to come.  I hope you're proud and feel the magnitude of a life well lived.

I love this picture of you leaving our Dedication to return to New Hampshire.  You look pleased, as I hope you were - and I love the fact you are still wearing your Blue Monarch name tag.  Yet another ordinary - yet enormously significant - moment that will live on my desk from now on, alongside Jacque's.


Bob, as this incredible year comes to an end, it's tempting to worry that we will never, ever have another year like this one.  After all, it was pretty unbelievable.  Not only did we enjoy this dream-come-true, insanely fun project, but our many supporters enthusiastically rallied around this venture and embraced it with us.  It was truly glorious.

However, you and Jacque have reminded me of something I must never forget:  It's important to treat even the most ordinary moments as if they have the potential to become extraordinary ones.  After all, little do we know...God may be using those commonplace moments and the people around us to do huge and powerful things one day - just like he so beautifully did through the two of you.

With much love and gratitude,
Susan

Lord, may we always be grateful for the ordinary moments that weave the tapestry of this extraordinary journey with you.  We ask for your abundant blessings in 2017 so we may best serve the courageous women and precious children who come to us seeking your help.

"No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" - 1 Corinthians 2:9

Click here to see the aerial documentation of the construction by Joe Marler of Dynamic Images:

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Why is HEAL a four-letter word?

Have you ever noticed how addiction tends to be a sensitive topic?  It seems everyone has strong convictions about how to fix the problem and many experts believe they are holding the key to the vault.  But the debate for a cure seems to have many still scratching their heads.

I don't claim to be an expert on addiction.  In fact, after nearly fourteen years of dealing with addiction up close and personal on a daily basis, I am still quite puzzled by it.

I've often tried to get in the head of an addict and imagine how it must feel to have absolutely no willpower to resist a temptation of some kind, even when it has devastating consequences.  Honestly, with the exception of eating an entire pan of Christmas fudge until my eyes swelled shut, or justifying every single biscuit until I'd eaten an entire batch in one sitting - I really can't relate to what addiction feels like.  I wasn't willing to choose fudge or biscuits over my child and I never went out purposefully looking for them, either.

So I'm no expert on the subject.  But, I am an expert on what I have personally observed day in and day out as we deal with women struggling with addiction. Through this powerful experience I have established some pretty strong opinions of my own and I'm going to share a few of them with you today.  I realize some folks will adamantly disagree with me, and others will wholeheartedly agree, but hey - this is what I've seen with my own two eyes.

There are so many theories floating around about addiction:  "It's a disease that can never be cured."  "Once you're an addict, you're always an addict."  "Some people are just genetically wired to be addicts and can't help it."

Sometimes people struggling with addiction are told these things for so long, they label themselves as addicts for life.  This not only removes all hope for a cure, but what we've seen at Blue Monarch, is that it sometimes gives them an excuse for their behavior.  "Well, I can't help it.  I'm an addict and that's what addicts do."

We believe there is a difference between sobriety - and freedom.  We can easily provide sobriety.  It's the freedom we're interested in.

We see women who began using drugs for a laundry list of reasons.  Here are only a few:
  • My mother and grandmother taught me to use drugs.
  • My stepfather (or even biological father) sexually abused me and drugs numbed me from the pain.
  • I had surgery and the doctor prescribed me painkillers.  Then I couldn't live without them.
  • I tried drugs one time out of curiosity and I've been chasing that first high ever since.
This list could go on and on.  But see what it tells you?  There isn't a cookie-cutter addict out there.  They begin using drugs for all kinds of reasons.  So how can you treat each one the same?

That's why I'm so grateful for our program and the flexibility it provides as a privately funded non-profit.  When we see that something works, we can implement it that same day.  We can have a good idea at a 10:00 a.m. staff meeting, and by that afternoon, we're doing it.  We're constantly improving what we do to meet the individual needs of each and every woman we serve.

Therefore, we address addiction in a variety of ways because we are treating a cluster of issues.  We look at the core reasons for why she starting using drugs in the first place.  This is discovered through counseling and the recovery curriculum we use that focuses on thinking errors and criminal behavior.  We look at the wounds that possibly led to drugs and then work on forgiveness and self-esteem.  We study relationships and how to avoid unhealthy ones in the future.  When our own family members are not good for our recovery, we work on how to establish healthy boundaries.

But this is what we believe truly brings freedom:  We believe you can be healed from addiction.  Yes, I said it.  Healed. 

I've always thought it made absolutely no sense that God would scratch his head and say, "I can heal all kinds of diseases, but that addiction thing really has me stumped."  In fact, in Matthew 9:35, the Bible tells of how Jesus went all over "healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness."  Can you imagine if Jesus had said, "All you addicts, I'm sorry.  I can't help you.  The rest of you, over here."

Psalms 103:2-5 says:
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And forget none of His benefits;
Who pardons all your iniquities,
Who heals all your diseases;
Who redeems your life from the pit,
Who crowns you with loving kindness and compassion;
Who satisfies your years with good things,
So that your youth is renewed like the eagle.

Just to be sure, I asked some experts recently if they felt they had truly been healed of their drug addictions.  They just happened to be three incredible women on our amazing staff.

Each one described how she had been healed through her personal relationship with Jesus Christ - and each one described how she no longer had any cravings whatsoever for drugs.  One had even been unexpectedly exposed to her drug of choice, and just the idea of it sickened her.  Wouldn't that be the definition of healing - when the addiction is completely gone?  Not just managed - but gone!  This picture is what true freedom looks like and we want that for every woman we serve.

So is addiction a disease?  Do some people have a defective gene that makes them an addict no matter what?  Truth is, it really doesn't matter.  We can stop people from using drugs in lots and lots of ways.  That's been proven.  But the true cure has been right before our very eyes this whole time... 

"...for I, the Lord, am your healer."  Exodus 15:26


Thank you, Lord, for a place where women discover that's it's possible to heal, not only from emotional wounds and traumas, but even addiction.  Thank you for the true freedom that is only found in you.

Monday, October 31, 2016

"I wouldn't wait in line to be born." Really?

Many years ago when I was between recovering from a bad mistake, and going back to school, I interviewed for a position as road manager for a female country singer.  (Hint...tiny body, big voice, big hair...and it was the late 70's.) 

I remember my initial meeting with the artist's high rolling manager.  He asked me to meet him for lunch at 3:00 in the afternoon after the crowds had died down because he "wouldn't wait in line to be born."

My interview was at the famous singer's Nashville home and went something like this:  "So, if I were to call you in the middle of the night while we're out on the road because I've run out of the color fingernail polish I want, what would you do?"

What would I do?  I had to think carefully about my words because everything that came to mind was not very nice.  So I explained that, not to worry, as a visual artist and fine arts major I would be able to mix any color she wanted.  After a few more vitally important questions she and her husband went into the next room to discuss whether or not I got the job.  After they left the room, I immediately shook the manager's hand, told him I was no longer interested, and left before I heard their decision. 

The biggest thing that stuck out in my mind from that experience all those years ago was not the eccentric (and perhaps a little spoiled?) singer, but her manager.  I've never forgotten his comment, "I wouldn't wait in line to be born."  Really?

I'm no good at waiting either.  In fact, I can't even wait for all the kernels of popcorn to pop.  By contract, my brother is the master of waiting.  The way we married our spouses is a great example of that.  When Doug was fresh out of college and working as a game warden, he was teaching a gun safety class one night when a cute sixteen-year-old girl came in to take the class.  He decided right then and there, "I'm going to marry that girl one day."  So he waited for her to grow up, asked her out when she turned nineteen, and married her four years later.

I, on the other hand, met my husband Clay at our 20th year high school reunion, decided to marry him three months later, then waited one more month because four sounded so much better than three.  (We had a surprise wedding on Thanksgiving Day, with mixed reactions, but that's a whole other story.)

Three weeks ago I decided to take violin lessons.  (And if one more person tells me that's great because it will keep my mind sharp, I will scream.)  When I rented my violin I also picked up a book for beginners because I knew I couldn't wait until my first lesson a whole week later.  However, by then my instructor had to undo some of the incorrect techniques I had already developed trying to teach myself.  And even though it's only two weeks since my first lesson, I'm already frustrated that I'm not an accomplished violinist by now.  I gave myself two weeks to struggle as a beginner and now I think I should sound like the violins on the radio.

We observe a great deal of waiting at Blue Monarch and that's one of the many reasons I so deeply admire the amazing women we serve.  Many arrive without custody of their children.  They have perhaps not seen them for weeks, months, or for some, even years.  The separation, despite the circumstances, is very painful - especially when they are living at Blue Monarch surrounded by children who have been reunited with their mothers.  This separation gets even more excruciating as they become stronger in their recovery, free from the drugs that previously numbed the pain, and begin to process how their choices have hurt their precious children along the way.  Waiting for that pain to heal is hard!

So they wait.  They wait for a chance to speak to their children on the phone - if and when the caregiver allows it.  They wait for a court date to get the lengthy process of custody started.  They wait for all the court dates that follow.  They wait for the scheduled visits so they can have longer and longer time with their children.  They carefully prepare their rooms for their children's arrival - counting the weeks, days, and even hours until the big day finally gets here.

But the waiting isn't over at that point.  Their children often arrive very angry and difficult to handle.  They wait for the time it takes to develop a new, healthier relationship with them.  They patiently wait for their children to trust them again as they prove day after day that Mom will still be here in the morning and again when you get off the bus.  They wait as their children adjust to them as the parent again while they gradually learn new parenting skills they never learned at home.  They wait for those new methods to actually work, which can take lots and lots of frustrating repetition and consistency.

Let's face it.  This journey is so, so hard.

The kind of waiting our residents endure is way beyond having to wait in line at a restaurant or wait to master a musical instrument - or wait until the store opens to get that fingernail polish you can't live without.  Their waiting is so agonizing it often brings them to their knees in floods of tears and brokenness.  

This is what I have learned through the years as I have watched these courageous women go through this process:  These moms eventually discover that turning to God for strength is actually what makes the waiting easier.  It works every single time.

It's no wonder that the Bible refers to waiting 160 times.  After all, it's such a huge part of our walk with the Lord.  But this is what our mothers have shown me:  When we rely upon God for strength and trust His divine timing, the results are much, much sweeter.  But more importantly, it gives us an opportunity to give the glory to God - and that's the part our moms do so beautifully.  


Lord, thank you for showing our moms that no load is too heavy for you, no child is too broken for you, no wound is too deep for you - and the journey is always easier when you are at their side.      

Thursday, September 29, 2016

My three miserable nights in jail

It's as if God said, "You know what?  I think you need to walk in her shoes for a while.  In fact, maybe for the next three nights."

God often speaks to me in my dreams.  Actually, the whole plan for Blue Monarch came to me in a powerful dream about twenty years ago - and just look at how that turned out!  But this dream I could have done without.

When my dream began, I was in jail getting booked for some crime - but for what?  It was a vivid, very realistic dream.  I had just undergone a humiliating body search, which left me feeling extremely embarrassed and violated.  The ink on my fingertips made me feel marked and branded.  I remember looking at my fingerprints and saying to myself, "Well, this is the only thing that proves I'm an individual because now I'm just a number."

I stood for a mug shot, holding my number in front of me while fighting back tears, and I immediately pictured my photo in the local paper where everyone I knew would see it.  I thought I just might throw up.  It even occurred to me that the numbers behind my head would tell the whole world how tall I was.  Not sure why that even mattered, but it felt like one more violation.

The.  Shame.  Was.  Unbearable.

Even though I didn't seem to have any kind of awareness of the crime I had committed, I can't describe the deep, intense humiliation and shame I felt.  Nothing I ever experienced even came close to it.  But this one moment somehow seemed to wipe out anything positive I had ever done in my life.  I saw how the officers looked at me with total indifference and then I realized I had become completely insignificant.  They were joking among themselves about something unrelated to my crisis and it hit me that this was just another day at the office for them while it felt like the end of my life for me.

Then I woke up in a cold sweat, relieved to discover I was at home in my own bed.  I spent the entire day sort of rattled and afraid that maybe my dream was a warning that I was about to get into some kind of trouble.  It was so real!  So I began paying much more attention to the speed limit and vowed to drive more safely - since that was the only thing I could think of that might get me into trouble.  Even speeding wouldn't get you arrested, though, unless you hurt someone so what was about to happen?

Unfortunately, the next night another dream picked up where the last one left off.  I was back in the jail and could smell that stale odor of too many bodies in an enclosed space with still air.  (It's an unpleasant smell that I've noticed lives at every jail I've ever visited while interviewing potential residents for Blue Monarch.  I've always wondered how folks working there avoid bringing it home with them on their clothes.)

They handed me the orange jumpsuit and "whites" that I had to wear and I could only imagine who and how many had worn them before me.  Clothing and creative style had always been important to me so handing my personal jewelry and belongings to someone to store in a paper bag seemed like the last hand-off of who I was.  Little by little, drip-by-drip, I was truly becoming a nobody.  A worthless nobody.

I was then taken to my cell, which I would share with a stranger, and right off the bat I realized there was no such thing as privacy anymore.  The nasty toilet was out in the open for the whole world to see.  At that point I actually wanted to be nobody and simply disappear.  I felt overwhelmingly empty and hopeless, and even crying didn't seem to make it better.  I couldn't get away from my terrible feelings.  I looked around and realized there was no place to go for comfort.

Then I woke up.

The fact I had this sort of dream two nights in a row was really unsettling.  Surely I was about to get arrested for something.  So I continued to watch the speed limit because that's all I knew to do.

Well, you guessed it.  The third night picked up right where the last dream left off.  Except this time the humiliation and shame accelerated to a whole other level.  

A group of us were lined up to go to court.  Our hands and feet were shackled together so even walking was embarrassing because it was impossible to do so with any kind of dignity, taking baby steps and lined up like cattle.

When we walked into court I was devastated and wanted to crawl into a hole.  I was especially embarrassed to be in public without any makeup, and my highlights were beginning to grow out leaving terrible dark roots.  (I know, I feel pretty shallow admitting it...)  The orange jumpsuit I was wearing was soiled - and from what, I was afraid to know.  The long-sleeved white t-shirt underneath was actually more of a dingy grey color, and my scratchy socks had holes in them that were visible in the oversized plastic shoes I was required to wear.

We paraded into the courtroom in single file and as I looked out across the room I immediately recognized people I knew - some were people I just happened to know from the community who looked shocked to see me.  Others were friends and family members who had expressions on their faces that were a complicated combination of disgust, anger, disappointment, hurt, grief, and even their own personal humiliation, which I knew I had caused.


There really aren't any words strong enough for what I felt.  The deep regret, the excruciating heartache, the agonizing shame, the anger toward myself, and the extreme hopelessness were so intense I thought I might pass out.  I cried and then struggled to wipe my eyes, which was hard to do with my hands connected to my feet, so I finally decided to let the tears just run down my face.  What difference did it make anyway?

Thankfully, at this point I woke up.  I sat on the edge of my bed just struggling to understand why I had been taken on this terrible journey over the past three nights.  What could it mean?  Please, Lord, what are you trying to tell me?  And please make it stop.

Truth is, as time passed and I was greatly relieved to see that my dreams were not prophetic, I realized they actually taught me a lot.  I've reflected back on them many times since then.  Some of the lessons were pretty obvious:  
  • God needed me to really feel how impossible it seems when the journey out of hopelessness and despair looks straight up and you're standing at the very bottom.  That road is extremely long and extremely hard. 
  • He needed me to feel the level of shame our women experience so I would know how important it is for them to receive constant encouragement and praise over even the smallest accomplishments.  Words matter. 
  • I needed to feel how tempting it was to become hardened and indifferent in order to avoid appearing weak and vulnerable.  So we must be patient.
But this is the lesson I didn't get until today:

In my dreams I never knew what crime I had committed, which has always been a little puzzling to me.  After all, wouldn't that affect the circumstances and outcome?  So today as I prayed for further understanding of these powerful and graphic dreams, I revisited this question.   Suddenly God pointed something out to me, which I now see is the most valuable lesson of all:

He doesn't care what the crime was!

What is important to God is that we understand we are new creations through Christ and that the old self is gone.  And THAT is what we must never forget to teach the amazing women we serve.  Only then does the shame truly go away.  After all, in God's eyes no one is a nobody.  No one.  Not ever.


Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation;  the old is gone, the new has come!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them.                2 Corinthians 4:17-19

Thursday, August 25, 2016

"My Greatest Teacher Was a Meth Cook"

Laurie Anderson was the very first resident at Blue Monarch - and first graduate.  Laurie loved to boast, "There will never, ever be another FIRST graduate of Blue Monarch!"  And she was so right.

The news of Laurie's recent death from a heart attack hit me harder than I would have expected, and I believe it's because Laurie was symbolic of so many "firsts" in this Blue Monarch journey.  I had the great honor of speaking at her memorial service last week and this allowed me to really examine how deeply Laurie impacted my life.

When we first got our beautiful property in 2003, I received a frantic call from a mother of four children.  She was desperately looking for help.  At the time I was trying to run Blue Monarch as I would any other business and couldn't see a way to help her until we had our staff and program completely nailed down.  So I turned her away.

However, for two weeks this mother stayed on my mind.  I finally tried to track her down and discovered that within those two weeks this woman had surrendered all four children to others who were willing to adopt them - and disappeared.  My heart was broken.

I decided then and there that too many huge things happened very quickly to the population we were going to serve - so the next woman who called was not getting turned down, no matter how unprepared we were.

That next woman was Laurie Anderson, known as the "Betty Crocker of Meth" to some, and this reputation had landed her in jail.  She had been released and was looking for a new start. 

This is a photo of her interview at Blue Monarch and in looking back I have to wonder if I was making up the questions as I went along?  I'm not sure.  What I do remember, though, was that I had never heard such tragic stories in my entire life.  One story I remember in particular was of her being left in a ditch to die for several days after being severely beaten.  There were lots of other disturbing stories - one right after the other.  I immediately realized I was in over my head, but yes, we were taking her anyway.

The day Laurie moved in, I watched her from my office window as she strolled the beautiful grounds admiring her new home.  I got an immediate rush of "Oh my word!  I am responsible for this person!  What have I done?" 

I keep a photo of this moment on my desk because God quickly pointed out to me, "This is my plan.  Not yours."  And I've discovered the world is always less scary when I can remember this very important fact.

Truth was, even though Laurie came to Blue Monarch for help and it was exactly what she needed at that point in her life, God also knew I desperately needed a teacher.  I knew absolutely nothing about the people our organization was designed to serve and I'm sure Laurie figured that out right away.  I had a Fine Arts degree, for crying out loud!  

What I learned from Laurie, though, became the very foundation of what we do and helped to shape what we have become.  

Here are just a few of the valuable things Laurie taught me:
  • The world of drug abuse and what it does to destroy families - and especially how it impacts the children in the middle of the chaos.
  • To not make eye contact with people who are currently using meth so I don't get caught up in their crazy paranoia.
  • The world of crime and law enforcement - how to work with probation officers, judges, and how to navigate a jail interview.
  • The different kinds of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse and how it causes so much damage to one's emotional health and self-worth.
  • How to protect myself from a manipulative population and to have greater discernment regarding the people around me.  In other words, she taught me "street smarts" that has really come in handy through the past thirteen years.
  • What happens when harmful destructive cycles of behavior are allowed to continue generation after generation.
I watched Laurie grieve the hideous, suspicious deaths of her mother and little brother, which taught me how injustice comes in all shapes and sizes for some and not for others.

But while I observed Laurie's steadfast courage and determination as she recovered from a life of abuse and addiction, she also taught me volumes about forgiveness, emotional healing, and most importantly, faith in God.  Her love of Christ was tangible and she gave Him the glory for her healing.


I've always thought one of life's greatest tragedies would be to get to the end of your life, look back, and see that you haven't accomplished anything significant.  That is certainly not true for Laurie.

Laurie raised two amazing children, Robbie and Becca.  Thankfully they have not repeated the cycle of drug abuse in their family and are both vibrant, wonderful young adults.  Laurie has a beautiful granddaughter who only knew her grandmother as completely wonderful.  Laurie was a devoted daughter and actually restored that relationship while she was at Blue Monarch.

But this is what Laurie probably never knew.  She impacted the lives of HUNDREDS of women who followed in her footsteps.  She paved the way for many, many women who showed up on our doorstep with the same hurts, disappointments, and tragedies that Laurie did.  But because of Laurie, we were better equipped to help them.

Through the years our residents have asked me many times, "How is your first graduate?"  They ask as if they are afraid of the answer.

I have always been very proud to say that our first graduate was successful and doing well!  Then I show them the photo on my desk of the day Laurie graduated from our program.  Laurie always said, "Miss Susan, the Holy Spirit must have been with us in this photo because just look at the incredible glow!"  I would have to agree.  It was an amazing, triumphant day - not just for Laurie, but also for the Kingdom of God.

As I visited with Robbie and Becca at the service last week, it was moving to discover the tremendous impact Blue Monarch had on their lives, even though the time Laurie was with us was very brief in her life of fifty years.

Robbie shared, "Mom's time at your program was the first time she was able to be a real mom.  Even though I was entering college at the time, it was the first time she was ever involved in my school."

One time many years ago Laurie told me that if it weren't for Blue Monarch she would probably be dead.  At the time I thought she was being a little dramatic.  But last week Becca told me, "If it weren't for Blue Monarch, we wouldn't have had all these extra years with Momma.  So thank you for what you do for families."  

And then Robbie told me, "If it weren't for Blue Monarch, I don't think our mom would have made it another year."  So maybe Laurie was not exaggerating after all.


Thank you, Lord, for taking the darkness of Laurie's life and using it to bring light to so many.  And thank you for sending the perfect teacher to partner with me on this amazing journey.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Oh Lord, please don't call me...

I grew up in a Southern Baptist church and my family was there every single time the doors were open.  Even a huge load of homework didn't get you out of Wednesday night services.  By golly, we were going anyway.

We also attended revivals once or twice a year, sometimes in a large tent.  I remember Brother Burns in particular, one of our visiting evangelists.  He was a hell fire and brimstone, fist-raising, slobber-slinging preacher who scared the living daylights out of me.  We were all going to hell from what I could tell.  Every single one of us had terrible sinful thoughts, God knew what they were because he could read your dirty, filthy mind, and we were all doomed.  Doooomed.

One thing I figured out early, though, was that you sure didn't want to get "God's calling".  My word, it was something you couldn't anticipate or guard yourself against.  It was something that just came out of nowhere and boom!  You had been called by God to do something - and most likely, it was something you didn't want to do.

So as a child I came up with a plan.  Best I could tell, I needed to find a safe zone where I could stay out of eternal fire - and not have to go to Africa as a missionary, either.  Those poor folks always looked tired and wore hand-me-down clothes that looked like they had gone out of style years ago.  For sure, it was safer not to make eye contact with God, lest he see you and then call you to do something awful.

This plan worked pretty well until I was in my forties.  I felt pretty sure God hadn't really noticed me, but I trusted him not to turn me away when I showed up at the pearly gates.  Yep, I was a C-student Christian.  Just enough to get by and I was in the safe zone.

Then the day came when God did call me.  I knew, without a doubt, that he was asking me to put Blue Monarch together, just as he had revealed to me in a powerful dream years before.  You've got to be kidding me.  Despite all my efforts to fly under the radar, he found me anyway.  Crap.

Clearly there had been a terrible mistake.  I couldn't imagine, with all my mediocre spirituality, that he would ask me to put together a ministry like Blue Monarch.  What was he thinking?  My word, I hadn't even been to church in almost seven years.  Surely lots of people must have turned him down, which was not a good sign.

Truth is, I felt enormously unworthy.  Unequipped.  Unqualified.  And pretty scared.  In fact, I cried about it for three whole days (my version of the belly of the fish) because I felt so totally incapable of such a mission - or yes, calling.  I was really struggling.  "Why me, Lord, why me?  Please, no."

That's when Mary Susan, my seventeen-year-old daughter who had always been light years ahead of me spiritually, said something that changed everything.  She said, "Mommy, you can tell God no.  He won't love you any less than if you said yes."  Really? 

Well, this changed everything.  I thought, how could I say no to a God like that?

So I gave up the struggle, prayed my heart out, cried with overwhelming humility, took an enormous leap of faith, and accepted his call - with one condition:  that I would never, ever have to speak in public.  (Two weeks later I was in front of a Rotary Club and thought I would die.)

Many times I have thought about what I would have missed if I had said no and gone my own way.  Just this past week was a great example. 


I saw a woman, who was addicted and living under a bridge just a year ago, burst into tears when she learned she had passed her high school equivalency exams and would be able to attend college. 

I saw another woman, who never thought she'd have her precious son again, regain custody of him and weep with joy. 
And while eating my lunch one day, a young boy thanked me because he had prayed every night for four years to be with his mother again, and now through Blue Monarch, his prayers had been answered.  That's just the first three that come to mind!  I have thirteen years of stories like that.



Truth is, the life I could have chosen for myself, would have fallen way short of what God allowed me to experience "from my front row seat" at the greatest show on earth.  I see his miracles every single day in the lives of the courageous women and children we serve.  And I see his mighty hand in the way he provides for our ministry because he loves them so much.  His calling was not something to run from - it was a beautiful, beautiful gift!  A privilege, and an honor.

This issue of God's calling has been on my mind a lot lately because of something my preacher said recently.  We were studying the book of Jonah (with whom I can relate...) and he said, "Some callings are not transferable.  Some things God will not get someone else to do."

Of course my first thought was, how do you know that, Pastor Frank?  But it did cause me to start thinking back on God's calling for my own life.  I think I always took great comfort in thinking that if I had turned God down he would have simply gone to the next name on the list.  But what if there wasn't a next name on the list?  What if that calling was not transferable?  In Romans 11:29 it says, "for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable."

God's call on my life made no sense to me at the time.  But it does now.  You see, I think I fit the job description perfectly.  God has shown us over and over that he loves to call the unworthy, the unequipped, and the unqualified - and I happened to be all three.  But the truth is, the only real qualification...is your answer.  Yes.

"God doesn't call the equipped.  He equips the called."  Henry T. Blackaby

Side note:  Through the years, as I have told the story of Blue Monarch to many groups, it's often that individuals will come to me in tears afterwards and describe how they feel God wants them to do something but they are struggling with their decision.  (They are in the belly of the fish.)  If you are one of those, I'm afraid you're missing out on some tremendous blessings.  Try saying yes.