From my front row seat

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Love, not judge. No, really.

Last week a couple I had never seen before sat right in front of me at church just as the service began.  Being a church with multiple services, it is always hard to know if someone is visiting or just attending a different service.  

When the singing began, a woman who typically sits a few seats from me began her usual songbird vibrato tenor, which is often heard above the praise and worship team.  She has a beautiful voice, which probably made her quite a catch for some church choir in the past, but in our contemporary service, I’ll admit, it can sometimes feel a little awkward.  

What I observed that day, though, hurt my heart.  Every single time this sweet woman’s beautiful voice rose above the congregation, the new couple in front of me looked at each other and smiled.  They were not endearing smiles.  Instead, they were exchanging very critical, make-fun-of-someone-and-laugh-about-it-later smiles.

Each time they did this, I glanced over, just hoping the woman was not aware the two were making fun of her. Whether she knew it or not, she was simply worshipping God with her hands raised, praising him with her melodious voice, clinching her eyes in fervent prayer.  There were emotional tears in the corners of her eyes.  

I felt certain she was praying for great healing.  Just moments before, this woman shared with me that she was waiting on some pretty serious test results and could possibly have cancer.  And yet, there she was without abandon, praising God with complete trust and adoration.

I couldn’t help but wonder how the insensitive couple in front of me might feel if they knew more about this woman.  If they knew how sweet she was, that she would be sure to remember their names if she met them, how many immense health trials she had faced in her lifetime, the circumstances that would cause her to attend church by herself – would they have behaved any differently?

This incident reminded me of a recent conversation about a life lesson that I had with our residents. They had collectively decided they were not happy with certain individuals about something that had happened, and I knew their rush to judgement was based on very few facts, which is always dangerous. So, I used a jar of beans to illustrate the process they had used to come to their group conclusion.  It went something like this...


“Hey guys, let me share a little story with you.”

“Years ago, I was excited to take the women of Blue Monarch to my hometown of Franklin.  It meant a lot to me to revisit the downtown where I spent so much of my time growing up – and to share it with the amazing women of Blue Monarch.”  

“I was so excited I could hardly wait.  The downtown is nothing like it was when I was growing up and I described the way Franklin was often considered an unsophisticated cow town back then.  In fact, there was a time when I played on the high school tennis team, and on an occasion we visited a school in Nashville, the other team yelled ugly remarks to us, like ‘who loaned you shoes today?’  I remember looking down at my white seersucker tennis dress with blue trim and my bloomers with rows of frills (that my friends apparently admired?), all of which I had made myself – and suddenly noticed the opposing team had nice, matching outfits.  When I looked around me, I realized each girl on my team was dressed in her own tennis garb, unique to her.  We were all wearing white, but no two outfits were alike.  And as for our shoes, they were a collection of everything from sneakers, to oxford saddle loafers, to sandals.  We left our school that day feeling pretty special, ready to take on our opponents, but we returned feeling wounded and humiliated.”

The women seemed a little puzzled as to where I was going with my story.  I continued.

“By the time I took the Blue Monarch women on this trip, Franklin had become a pretty hip town full of cute, unique shops, and we were going to have fun exploring each and every one of them!”

“There were perhaps seven women with me, and we strolled down Main Street together, checking out the beautiful window displays, and entering the little shops and boutiques, one by one.  I knew we wouldn't be buying anything but I thought it would be great fun to just look.”

“Pretty soon, though, I noticed there were fewer and fewer of my companions going into the shops with me. Instead, the women began waiting on the sidewalk out front instead.  I asked them, ‘What are you doing out here?  Don’t you want to come in?’”

“What they told me broke my heart.  It wasn’t easy getting it out of them, but the group finally explained that they felt uncomfortable about the way people were looking at them and acting toward them.” 

“What?  Nonsense, I said. Come with me and I will show you, you are imagining things.”

“The group didn’t want to, but they followed me into the next little boutique, and it didn’t take long to see what they were talking about.  One of our women pulled a beautiful blue sweater off a rack to show me, and the sales lady quickly came over and removed it from her hand with some clumsy excuse about having misplaced it.  I looked around at the other shoppers.  Two were clutching their purses to their chests, and one lady even looked a little frightened.” 

“I stood back and took a good look at the women I had brought with me, trying to understand what others were seeing that would cause them to react in this way.”  

“As I studied the hurt and shameful expressions on the faces of the women I had brought on this little field trip, I realized the people we had seen that day were basing their opinions entirely on what little they knew and saw, which was only a fraction of what was really there.  It was understandable, we've all done it, but these women who were so dear to me had been hurt, which hurt me, too.”

“For instance, there was Teresa missing her front teeth.  Well, they didn’t know she had suffered a severe blow to the head by a steel toed boot.  She was actually lucky to be alive and still struggled with slight brain damage because of it.”

“There was Amanda with crudely drawn tattoos all over her arms and neck.  They didn’t know the tattoos told the story of the painful death of her child, whom she was still grieving.”

“And there was Melissa with a prematurely aged face and rough exterior.  There was no way for anyone to know that she grew up in a house that had no heat except the hot air that came from the dryer vent in sixty minute intervals.  She never once got a Christmas gift as a child.”

“As I glanced over the rest of the group, I was reminded that each of them had been sexually abused as a child, by someone she should have been able to trust. There was no way for a stranger to know that.”

“Just like this jar of beans, it is full of things we don’t know – circumstances, life experiences, events, disappointments, hurts, losses – but just like the people we encountered that day, we often draw conclusions from just a few beans, only the ones we can see in that moment.  Perhaps that conclusion would be different if our opinions were not based on such a tiny portion of the information.  And then I asked the group, when you are the recipient of that, it doesn’t feel very fair, does it?"


At Blue Monarch we live by a phrase that God powerfully gave me during a spiritual mountaintop experience a few years back – “Serve, not fix.  Love, not judge.”  It has become our favorite saying, and in fact, I realize I am actually wearing a sweatshirt bearing those words as I write this.

We often focus on “Serve, not fix.”  But sometimes I think we overlook the equally powerful, “Love, not judge.”   

Those we serve at Blue Monarch are easy targets for quick judgement, based on only a few facts.  So, during this season of thankfulness, I am especially grateful for all the amazing folks who love so sweetly, and support so generously – without judgement - the incredible women and children we serve. Thank you.  

Truth is, even though I will never know all the hurts and struggles each bean represents, and it’s sometimes tempting to judge from only a few, I do know our residents are the most remarkable, courageous, and beautiful women and children one could ever have the pleasure of knowing.  And I somehow get the tremendous honor to serve and love them each and every day.  May I always make the most of this unique and priceless opportunity.  

Only you know what’s in that jar, Lord, so help us to see others through your eyes.  Give us the hearts to love before we are tempted to judge.  And help us to never forget that you first did the same for us.  Amen

Here is a link to an earlier blog post about God’s message to “Serve, not fix.  Love, not judge.”

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

But, what if?

It was 6:45 on a Saturday morning and my phone chirped.  “Someone at Blue Monarch must be going to the emergency room,” went through my head as I grabbed the phone to see the text.

“Hey, this is Tyra.” (For the purposes of this story, not her real name.)  Tyra is a teenage girl whose mother was a part of our program about four years ago.  She wrote a touching book for school one time about her mother’s journey at Blue Monarch, and all these years later it still lives on my coffee table.  I typically hear from Tyra about once or twice a year.  

I texted back, “Good to hear from you, Tyra!  Is everything okay?” 
“No, I’m in really bad shape.”  

“What’s wrong?  Can I call you?”
“I’m crying too hard to talk.  I need help really bad.”

“Are you thinking about hurting yourself?”

“Do you have a plan to hurt yourself?”

“Is anyone with you?” 

At that point I set down my coffee cup, threw on some clothes and took off out the door as I called our psychologist friend, Dr. Nancy, for advice, and our Program Director, Jeannie, to meet me on the way.  The rest of the day involved a stressful two-hour drive to find Tyra, a dramatic arrival at her door with a police officer, and hours and hours at the hospital.  However, the day ended late that night with Tyra getting the support she knew she needed.  I was proud of her for reaching out, and I was thankful she felt Blue Monarch was a safe place to seek help. 

This incident weighed heavily on my heart for weeks afterward and there were a lot of “what if’s” that ran through my head.  What if I had not seen the text?  What if I had waited too long before responding?  I could hardly bear the thought of worst-case scenarios.  

Seems like “what if” has been a constant theme throughout my Blue Monarch experience.  When Blue Monarch first got started, I received a desperate call from a woman with four children.  She was begging for help and had nowhere to go.

“Oh, I am so sorry. We haven’t even gotten started. We have no staff, no program, I barely have a board.”  I turned her away thinking I needed to have all those things solidly in place before bringing on the enormous responsibility of a woman and her children. Wasn’t that using good business sense?

But this, too, weighed on my heart for a couple of weeks.  I could not get this woman off my mind and thought about her constantly.  Finally, I decided to track her down and let her come anyway. After all, what would be the harm in that?

When I finally reached someone who knew this woman, I was devastated to learn that all four children were in the process to be adopted, and the mother had disappeared.  I still, to this day, do not know what happened to her or her children after that. The “what if’s” are endless.  (This experience was my first lesson in how quickly big, life changing things can happen with the population we serve.)

But those wondering questions continue even today.  At any given time, we have over 200 families on our waiting list.  We have developed a very effective, unique program with a strong emphasis on children and parenting. For this reason we are in high demand so it feels like we are turning people away every single day.  Each time we hang up the phone after talking to a desperate and often tearful applicant, I am certain we all ask ourselves what is going to happen to her after we hang up. This is why we have been so committed to finding a way to help more families.  We have no other choice and our entire staff feels the tremendous urgency.

A couple of weeks ago, we entered a whole new, very exciting chapter in our Blue Monarch history.  For nearly seventeen years I have been looking at a wire fence, just 52 feet from my office, hoping and praying that one day we would find a way to purchase that beautiful farm adjacent to us.  I was always fearful it would eventually be filled with houses and we would lose the healing sanctuary the open farmland provided.    

Each year I would ask the owner what he would take for the 58-acre farm with the house and outbuildings, just in case some miracle happened and we could somehow buy it.  There was one very scary year when the farm was officially on the market with a sign and everything.  I’m not proud of it, but when I would see potential buyers walking the property line, I would suddenly come up with an outdoor game for the women and children. The object of the game was to be as loud and obnoxious as possible – and in the process make us look like really undesirable neighbors.  As I said, I’m not proud of it, but hey, a gal's gotta do what a gal's gotta do.

So, this was the year some miracle did happen, and we were able to buy the farm.  A very generous couple offered an amazing gift of $200,000 as a matching challenge, and in one night we were able to raise the matching funds to purchase the farm.  It truly was a miracle.

The closing was held at Blue Monarch so all our staff and residents could participate.  It was most special to me because it was such a dramatic difference from the closing on our original 50 acres back in 2003.  That time I was alone in a room with a couple of realtors and a closing agent, about to sign a note for nearly a million dollars, and still a little in shock that it was happening at all.  (Thankfully we paid this off in 2014!) 

This time, however, I was surrounded by the amazing women we serve, as well as our staff that so beautifully lifts me up and loves our families so deeply.  Unexpectedly, as soon as the papers were signed, the women began singing a beautiful song, praising God for this remarkable moment.  It has been very moving to see how excited our residents are over the purchase of this property.  As we prepared to raise the money we needed, the women prayed together on their own, asking God to bless Blue Monarch and future families in this tremendous way.  

We are excited beyond words that this campus expansion is going to greatly improve the services we provide, offer even richer opportunities to the families we serve, and most importantly, serve more women and children who are hurting.  

One day recently, as I put together a detailed plan for each proposed additional structure on our new land, the square footage for each space, and the estimated cost for construction, I began to feel and absorb the enormity of what is about to happen.  I’ll be honest.  Not only was I imagining the incredible blessings our women and children would receive as we doubled our population to 40 families, but I couldn’t resist picturing a double dose of frustrations as well.  

Such as, the other morning when I got to work, I got out of my car and stepped onto a popsicle stick with the nasty, gooey wrapper still attached.  Great.  Someone wasn’t watching her child and should have picked this up.  I carefully peeled it off my shoe and carried it with me as I walked across the parking lot.  Great again.  A bike was blocking the sidewalk and I had to step over it.  How many times have we talked about where the bikes belong?  And what's this?  A runaway stroller (empty, thank goodness) was blocking the steps.  Who left that there?  Get the DNA.  For a moment I imagined myself going through this same morning with not one, but two popsicle wrappers stuck to my shoes as I fought off two bikes and two strollers.

As I fantasized about the impact of doubling all our struggles, someone sent me a photograph that immediately put everything into perspective.  

Jessica, the mother in the photograph, had applied to Blue Monarch a long time ago but realized the waiting list was lengthy and she may need to make other plans.  She was already struggling as the single mother of a toddler, she was pregnant, trying to overcome a life of addiction, and she felt extremely hopeless.  In her overwhelming desperation Jessica scheduled an abortion in Atlanta.  

However, before this day came, this day that would end the life of Jessica’s baby, she received a call that Blue Monarch could take her.  She saw this as a bright sign of hope and came to Blue Monarch and canceled her abortion. Canaan was born last week and just look at the proud expression on that mama's face.

So, are we looking at an expansion that will double the number of women and children we can serve?  You bet we are.  Will that also double the work, the heartaches, the challenges, and the frustrations?  You bet it will. 

But this is the beautiful side of that story - just imagine...

What if  instead of one canceled abortion, there are two healthy miracle babies like Canaan?  

What if  instead of one Tyra, there are two teenagers who have a safe place to reach out to, if they are on the brink of suicide?

Now imagine this...  

What if  we missed out on twice as many blessings and miracles because we didn't have the faith and courage to take that next big step?  I don't know about you, but I'm glad I don't have to ask myself that question any time soon - even if it means a dad gum popsicle wrapper on each foot.

Lord, above all, may we always seek your will and not ours.  Please guide us as we enter this exciting new chapter at Blue Monarch.  You already know the names of every woman and child that will need us in the years to come.  Give us wisdom and strength as we prepare to serve them well.  Amen

Friday, August 30, 2019

How dare you get better!

“Miss Susan!  Today was a good day at school!  I didn’t slap, scratch, or bite anyone!”

“Well, that is certainly a good day when we don't do those things. Great job!”  Everyone within earshot of this boy cheered.  “Yay! Good for you!”

I looked at this four-year-old and saw how excited and proud he was to please his mother who bragged on him as she grinned from ear to ear.  The magnitude of this news may have been lost on an outsider.  It really was a big deal that no one had been slapped, scratched, or bitten that day because lately, any one of those things could happen – or maybe even all three.  Again, yay! 

As I leaned down to give him a hug, the boy's mother stood behind him with an expression that showed how much she loved him.  This little family has struggled to overcome lots and lots of trauma, most of which would cross over into the category of “horrific”.  I could only imagine how she might want to relish this moment as long as she could because there is still a lot of work to be done, and it is not going to be easy.  Trauma for a young child leaves a lasting impression and can manifest itself in lots of ugly ways.  Fortunately for this family, through Blue Monarch, this boy and his mother are getting counseling and intense support to recover from their wounds.  Progress is steady but can sometimes feel very slow.

As I looked at this little boy and how eager he was to make his mom proud, I couldn’t help but imagine her as a young girl.  I was aware of the atrocities her own mother subjected her to when she was growing up, and I realized she probably never saw that same pride on her mother’s face.  Does she even know what that looks like? 

This time of year, there is something that always catches my eye and reminds me of women like this young mother.  I often feel blessed to work at a beautiful farm in the country where, during the summer months, I drive between beautiful cornfields to get to my job.  Every year, I spot one tall corn stalk that outgrows all the others.  It towers over the other rows and stands completely alone.  To me, this represents some of the courageous women we serve.  They often stand alone as well.

Sadly, a lot of our residents do not get any family encouragement or recognition for their amazing accomplishments.  I remember how stunned I was to witness this for the first time.  A mother attended her daughter’s graduation at Blue Monarch one year and was not shy about showing her overwhelming disapproval.  She fumed over her daughter’s achievements and made no effort to hide her feelings as she fidgeted, huffed, and groaned.  This bitter woman sat on the front row at our graduation ceremony and glared at her daughter the entire time.  She did not clap, she did not smile, and she did not congratulate her daughter.  As soon as the event was over, she stomped out the door.  I still remember the hurt and embarrassment on the daughter’s face on this day that represented the first thing she had ever successfully completed. 

Little did I know this dysfunction was something I would witness many times in the coming years.  In fact, we once had a woman who resented her daughter’s success so much, she tried to get her kicked out of our program by planting drug paraphernalia under her mattress, for crying out loud.  

It is not uncommon to hear our residents on the phone with their mothers, desperate for a pat on the back, but getting nasty ridicule instead.  There are lots and lots of tears, and hours and hours of counseling over this very thing.  For reasons like this I am grateful our program is so individualized and long-term.

So, how do we understand this?  How can any mother be angry when her daughter gets stronger and healthier?  How can she resent her own child’s recovery?  

I am no expert, but I truly believe it is because the family structure is crumbling, and no one knows their roles anymore.  It is like shaking the family tree until limbs begin to split and fall off.  

Perhaps the mother has always felt like the heroic rescuer, and when the daughter no longer needs rescuing, she is left confused about her role in the family.  Or, what we often see, is that the mother is struggling as well, perhaps even in prison herself, and she is jealous of her daughter who is getting better.  Maybe the mother’s failures become more vivid as her daughter learns what it means to be a healthy parent.  And then there is also the mother who has selfish needs and wants her daughter to take care of her.  (Like the mother who felt she was too old to be an exotic dancer any longer so she wanted her daughter to pick up where she left off…)

We also see siblings who resent the recovery and success of a sister.  Perhaps the sibling has always been the good child and the bad one made him look even better.  But now that the bad child is doing well, where does he fit in?  This often reminds me of the colorful parable of the Prodigal Son. (Luke 15:11-32) 

In this parable, the younger son goes off and lives a reckless, chaotic life – much like the women we serve. When he finally hits rock bottom and decides to change his life, he returns home to find a father who immediately embraces him and celebrates his “recovery”.  But the older son is angry and resentful of the attention the Prodigal Son receives after all the poor choices he made.  It’s just not fair.  

Of course, in this parable the father represents our Heavenly Father who will always be there.  But what if the Prodigal Son returned home to an empty house?  What if there was no one there to receive him and lift him up, not a parent, not a sibling - no one.  It makes me think of a race held one year to benefit Blue Monarch.  The organizers of the event did not think about a plan to celebrate the winner, so the poor guy ran through the finish line with not one person watching or cheering.  I have always wondered how that made him feel. 

That is what often happens to our remarkable women.  They work, they persevere, they cry, they struggle, they fight the temptation to give up. They do this day, after day, after day, until one brilliant day, they see things have changed.  Their children are listening to them for the first time. They aren’t shouting at each other anymore.  They aren’t having “using dreams” and they no longer crave their drug of choice.  They have a sense of peace and literally feel the presence of God throughout the day.  They are excited about their futures for the first time.  They are healing.  Isn’t it only natural to want a family member to share in the excitement?

At Blue Monarch we try to celebrate our residents' successes as much as possible.  From time to time we have even been accused of spoiling them.  But you know what?  We do it anyway.  We present them with charms when they accomplish something notable.  We invite them to share their incredible stories of recovery with others.  We acknowledge their amazing journeys in the bags of granola we sell.  And we try to always remember that “great job” goes a very long way.  As hard as it is to imagine, some women hear those words right here for the very first time.

We realize this will never replace what some of our residents so desperately want from their mothers.  But we do our best to make sure the children we serve get the real thing from their moms, in real time – even if it’s for simply going through the day without slapping, scratching, or biting anyone.  After all, that deserves a “great job” for sure!  And the truth is, it's always easier to say it when we are accustomed to hearing it.

Thank you, Lord, for granting us the amazing privilege and honor of delivering an important message to the women we serve.  Let us never forget to say "great job", especially when they need to hear it the most.  Amen

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Postcard from The Land of Intensity

Most mornings as I am leaving for work, my husband will ask, “What kind of day do you think you’re going to have today?”  I typically laugh and say, “I don’t know, but I’m going in!”  There’s always an image in my head of a soldier charging into battle, unsure of what he will encounter – but he’s going in anyway.  The one thing I know for sure is that whatever I face, it will be intense.  Good or bad, it will be intense.    

Despite the heartbreaks and disappointments, there are many weeks when I feel like I have been given a front row seat at the greatest show on earth – hence, the name of my blog.  Sometimes I think God hands me those times just when I need them the most. I get to see one miracle after another – things that literally take my breath away.  And those are the intense moments that carry me through the darkest times.  For example, here are three blessings from “The Land of Intensity” that happened just last week.  

Let’s start with Angela.

Honestly, I’ll have to admit, when Angela first came to Blue Monarch, I really didn't expect her to make it.  She never spoke, she carried around an angry expression that never changed, and it was clear she was simply going through the motions.  “Fake it until you make it” is a common expression among those who have just arrived from jail, but Angela wasn’t even doing a good job of faking it.  Just take a look at her mug shot.  Honestly, I think if I found myself behind her in the checkout lane at Wal-Mart, I’d be tempted to move to another line.  No offense, Angela.    

Angela’s husband had recently died of an overdose.  He was the father of her two young children.  True, she had a lot of reasons to be angry, but I wasn’t so sure she didn’t prefer to feel that way.  I once had her do a creative writing assignment that I like to use.  It's a great tool to see what's going on in someone's head but it was scary in there.  Angela's paper was strikingly dark and depressing.  She was going to be a tough nut to crack.  That is, if she even stayed.  

So here we are a little over a year later.  Angela is no longer that angry person.  She has developed a beautiful relationship with God that has totally changed who she is, inside and out.  And she has started school to be a dental assistant – in fact, she aced both her first tests!  So last week, I found myself tearing up when I saw her looking so professional in her black scrubs with that amazing smile across her face. It was hard to imagine she was even the same person.  She absolutely took my breath away.  (I'll pause for a minute so you can look at the before and's hard to stop comparing, isn't it?)  

There was another moment last week that will play over and over in my head for a very long time.  One of our graduates who is currently living in our WINGS Community is in the process of getting her pilot’s license.  (If you haven’t read my blog post about her, I’ll put a link below.)  Lauren had been a resident here years ago, got discharged for fighting, and struggled for several years.  But she returned a couple of years ago with her two children and begged for another chance.  I will never forget the day Lauren sat in the peach chair in my office - crying, reeking of cigarettes, overcome with anxiety, and completely broken.  We took a deep breath, allowed her to come back, and she impressed us all.  

Lauren was serious this time and really dug into her recovery.  She worked her tail off.  So, when she took my work ethics course right before graduating from our program, I could see she needed a career that would be incredibly exciting or else her short attention span might lead her back to drugs.  “Have you ever thought about aviation, Lauren?” 

Long story short, a supporter of ours miraculously made it possible for Lauren to learn how to fly.  So, last week she was excited to fly solo over our Blue Monarch campus.  It was such a thrill for me!

I ran out the door and anxiously waited for the small blue and white plane.  We could hear it off in the distance, and then bam!  There she was!  Sam, our protective Blue Monarch dog, chased her around the property barking, and the residents cheered and waved their arms from the front yard.  I, on the other hand, could live off this moment the rest of my life.  Seeing Lauren fly right over my head, imagining how broken she once was, but looking at the bright future she has ahead of her…well, it was overwhelming.  Yep, it was intense and completely took my breath away.

Finally, this special moment.  Jessica is another one of our current graduates who came to us a couple of years ago having lost custody of her three children.  I remember one of my first encounters with her.  She came up to me and said, “Miss Susan, I’m going to get my kids back.  I'm gonna do it, I promise!”  I looked at her, and in her current state, it was a hard thing to imagine but I encouraged her anyway.  

Sure enough, after much hard work and dedication, tremendous healing, and a lot of growing up, Jessica eventually regained custody of her two boys.  But there was still one child she did not have back.  I was with her the dreadful day an officer showed up to serve Jessica papers with shocking news.  Her daughter was apparently in Florida and there was someone trying to terminate her parental rights to adopt her child.  As one can imagine, Jessica was devastated.  At this point the long, drawn out, complicated, gut wrenching battle began.  I couldn't help but wonder how in the world Jessica would navigate such a complicated custody issue if she was not at Blue Monarch.  Could she even get to Florida to show up for court?

This battle became highly emotional, very intense, and included many court appearances – even two trips to court in Florida.  The painful separation from their sister caused emotional trauma for the boys, and the uncertainty of how this might turn out was stressful and agonizing for all of them.  It was an enormous weight for Jessica to carry as she continued to work on her recovery and learn to trust others for help, especially when things didn't happen as quickly as she would like.  Naturally, lots of regret was included in this complicated cocktail, and this only made it even more difficult.  Honestly, if not for her growing faith in God, I don't know how she would have survived this experience.

But here we are, after a very long battle, and Jessica finally has all her kids back together again.  I had the incredible pleasure of seeing Jessica’s reunion with her daughter after two years’ separation – and it was beautiful.  They picked up right where they left off like they had never been apart.  They laughed and sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider” together all the way home.  (This is one thing that always amazes me.  I have never seen a child who did not remember his or her mother, no matter how long the separation.)  

A few hours later, Jessica’s boys got off the school bus and saw their sister again for the first time.  The oldest son immediately lifted up his sister and held her in a tight bear hug. She latched onto him right away and wrapped her arms and legs around him.  He just cried and cried and barely got the words out, “We’ve been waiting.” Then when she saw her other brother for the first time in what must have felt like an eternity, she ran over with excitement and yelled, “It’s still me!  You know me still?!”  (Is that the greatest line ever?  "It's still me!") 

Last week when this precious little girl came running into my office to say hello, she jumped into my lap and started telling me about all the exciting things she had done that day.  Every time she does this, it takes my breath away for a minute because this was such a difficult journey for Jessica, her boys, and even our entire staff.  There were many tears, endless days, and lots of prayers for this ordinary moment to even be possible.

Well, I said I had three blessings from last week, but I actually have one more thing I’d like to share.     

Last week I found a hummingbird caught in a spider web. I had always wondered if they instinctively knew to stay away, but this bird was tangled in the web and hanging upside down.  It was fighting to get loose but seemed to get in worse shape the more it struggled.  I ran outside, knocked the web loose from the house and lowered the tiny hummingbird into my hand, just hoping I could somehow get the spider webs off without hurting it.  

Much to my surprise, the hummingbird calmly settled into the palm of my hand and gently opened its wings.  It laid so still I wasn’t sure if it might have died.
I began carefully pulling away the spider webs from both wings, then the tail, and then the long, pointy beak.  The spider webs were very stretchy and I had to extend my arm way out to get them to break loose.  Once I had removed as much as I could, the tiny bird jumped from my hand, hopped across the floor of the deck, and took off flying.  It was alive and it was free!  I couldn’t help but laugh at how some poor spider must have thought he had hit the mother load, and now he had to start all over.  "I swear I caught the big one but it got away!"

As I watched the hummingbird fly to the treetops, I realized I was seeing the same thing I get to see at Blue Monarch all the time.  The amazing and courageous women we serve must do the same thing this little hummingbird did.  Just like Angela, Lauren, and Jessica, they must reach a point where they are willing to stop struggling, sit very still, and trust someone to pull the spider webs off one by one.  When those chains are finally gone, they will be able to fly.  I know this because I've seen it over and over.  And every time it literally takes my breath away.  

This morning started out like all the others.  “What kind of day do you think you’re going to have today?”

“I don’t know, but I’m going in!  And if I’m lucky, I’ll get to pull off some spider webs today.”

Thank you, Lord, for providing a place where women can slow down, rest, and trust you to remove the spider webs that have caused so much torment. We ask for strength to fight the battles alongside the women and children we serve, but above all, we pray that before going in, we always remember to seek your will first.  Amen

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Family We Can't Afford to Lose

A group of students from a prestigious business school visited us recently.  Naturally, they were particularly interested in our granola business and how it works with the overall mission of our non-profit. 
Before they left, one of the students asked me, “So, do you think there will come a day when the granola business totally funds Blue Monarch?” 

My gut reaction to that question was immediate.  “Well, I certainly hope not!”  What?

This answer surprised everyone, including me.  My word, our granola business is something I have poured blood, sweat, and tears into for many years - doing store demos, delivering granola from the trunk of my car to loading docks behind large grocery stores, and rolling boxes into coffee shops on a hand dolly.  I have always wanted the business to do well because that means more jobs for more women.  So why would I say such a thing?

Then I realized, if the granola business totally funded Blue Monarch, this would mean we were no longer dependent on our donors – and they are our family.  I know it sounds crazy, but in that split second when he asked me that question, I began picturing specific faces of individuals who give money to us. I suppose the thought of losing them was actually painful to me in a way I wasn’t expecting.  

For instance, we have a really sweet man who began writing to us regularly after his wife died a couple of years ago.  He typically encloses a $20 bill with a handwritten letter, which is usually several pages long.  

Each time a different Blue Monarch resident writes him back, so he essentially has almost a dozen pen pals by now.  He encourages them, lifts them up, and tells them they are special.  The love and admiration he frequently expresses for his wife is good for our residents to hear.  See, not all men are bad.

Or, let’s take this woman for example.  We had a particularly rough week at Blue Monarch recently and all of us were excited for the weekend to get here.  But on a Friday afternoon we got an unusual call from a woman who said she wanted our address so she could bring us some money.  She did not want to mail it.  Reluctant to give out our physical address to a stranger on the phone, and not really sure of her true motives, we were hesitant to do so.  However, after deciding she was genuine, we gave her directions and waited on her arrival, anxious to meet the mysterious woman. 

When she arrived with her sister, right away we fell in love with her. She was just precious.  With tears in her eyes, this young woman began sharing how she observed her mother in an abusive relationship for many years and wished her mother could have had a place like Blue Monarch.  Her mother had recently died, and she wanted to honor her by giving Blue Monarch a tithe of what she had inherited.  Amazing.  She went on to describe how she would love to volunteer at Blue Monarch, but she worked at a factory, typically six to seven days a week, and didn’t have the time.  She learned about Blue Monarch after reading an article in the local paper about Lauren, our recent graduate who was working toward getting her pilot's license.    

We had a wonderful visit and before she and her sister left, she reached into her pocket and pulled out an enormous wad of cash, which was wrapped in rubber bands.  I had never received a gift like this and although I couldn’t wait to see how much it was, I respectfully waited until she walked out the door before ripping off the rubber bands to count it. 

As I built stacks of bills on the coffee table in my office, I began to get choked up.  That big wad of cash added up to $7,600!  It was an enormously generous gift – and represented a tremendous sacrifice on her part. Clearly this kind of money could have a significant impact on someone working seven days a week at a factory.  Speechless and moved beyond words, our staff members just sat around my coffee table shaking our heads at what an unbelievable gift this was.  Such an unexpected blessing!   

It wasn’t too long after that when we had another surprising gift. We received a $300 check from a new donor and just look what we found in the memo line…”donations from coins on floor at Wal-Mart”.

Turns out, this man works in maintenance at a Wal-Mart store.  For a whole year, he collected the lost change on the floor until he saved up $300 to give to us.  Can you believe that?

So, yes, I would love to sell a boat load of granola!  I wish our granola was in every store across the country.  But if it meant losing our Blue Monarch donors who support us so faithfully, I would have to say, “No, thank you.”  They mean too much. Plus, I know they are often blessed by blessing us.

Yesterday, as I was leaving to go home, I found one of our residents on the front porch crying.  Her mother had been released from prison recently and she was hurt that she had not heard from her.  “My mother knows my address and she hasn’t even written."  Barely able to get the words out, she cried, "I just want her to say, ‘Hey, I’m proud of you.’”

In that moment I realized there was nothing we could do that would substitute for what she needed from her mother.  But I was grateful she had a Blue Monarch family that would support her, lift her up, and tell her she’s special.  In fact, I suspect there might even be a dear old man sitting down right now, about to tell her that very thing.  “I am proud of you.  Keep up the good work.” 

That reminds me.  We should send that man a bag of granola.  After all, he’s family!

Lord, thank you for each and every donor who helps us to become the family our women and children need, and perhaps the family they never even had.  Amen