A True Story… The Power of the Human Spirit

I would like to tell a true story that impacted my life; a story I believe will impact yours, too. The names of the people and places in this story have been changed to protect their identities.

My only regret is how long it took me to share this story.

Last year my wife and I had the opportunity to volunteer at a domestic violence shelter in our community called Hope House where battered women and children could go and be safe from their abusers and start a new life. It is a program through our Church called FaithWorks.

When we arrived at the shelter we were picked to help sort food for the kitchen in a small cluttered pantry room in the basement of the building. We diligently separated the cans, bread, pastas, and sauce onto metal shelves. Frozen turkeys went into the freezer, and donated boxes were stacked against the wall. After a few hours we got done with our work and it was time to leave. But before we said our good-byes, all the volunteers gathered in the conference room upstairs to allow the staff members to say “thank you for coming”. The director of the shelter, a sweet woman in her 60’s, had something on her heart she wanted to share with us. It was a story.

It went something like this…

A boy and his mother lived with a man who abused them. Noah, the little boy, was only 6 and 1/2. The mother, Shirley, did her best to take care of her son, but Noah’s father was angry and often aggressive towards his family. Over the years, things became increasingly worse in the home until one day, Noah’s father did the unthinkable: he violently shoved him and his mother down the flight of basement stairs, and as they toppled head over feet, they finally hit the concrete floor at which point Noah’s father shouted from above “…and stay down there!” He slammed shut the door and locked them into darkness.

For five agonizing days Noah and Shirley huddled together, prisoners below their own home with no food and little water. During the daytime they were forced to wait in fear for their abuser to return home from work where he would run down into the basement and beat them. Hearing his keys rattle open the front door and his heavy feet stomping into the hallway signaled unbearable pain was approaching. It was a terrifying nightmare that played out each day and night over and over.

Shirley did her best to protect her son. She tried to appear strong, but it was nearly impossible not to reveal to her son the fear she felt. It was crippling.

On the fifth day, before the father left for work, he opened the basement door and shouted down to them something different: “I don’t care what you do or where you go, just get out!”

He would leave the door unlocked.

Shirley knew this might be her only chance to save her son’s life, so she grabbed Noah and fled to the neighbor’s house.

When the police arrived fifteen minutes later, they took Noah and Shirley away.

They drove with the officer to a nearby police station where he promised Shirley and her son that they would be OK, that someone was going to take care of them. To Shirley, the officer’s words carried little meaning or encouragement. Every man in her life signified lies and empty promises. And sadly, physical abuse, too. But, Shirley had nothing left and nowhere to go.

The two were homeless, hungry, and frightened. She thought about her young son and what the future might hold for him. “Noah is supposed to grow up believing he can do and be anything he wants in this world,” she thought. “He’s supposed to be told he can be the next President if he works hard and gets good grades. But now I have nothing for him.” This, it seemed, was the end of the road.

As Shirley contemplated their future, a van arrived at the station. A woman emerged and introduced herself to Noah and his mother. She helped them climb into the back seats and then they drove off. They were headed to Hope House.

When they arrived to Hope House through heavy iron gates and security cameras, Noah and Shirley were carefully escorted inside and assigned a team of people who attended to their most pressing needs. They literally had nothing more than the clothes on their back. They were given a warm shower, clean clothes, medical attention, and a meal. Shirley was ashamed that life had led her to this, but felt blessed that she and her son were surrounded by people who seemed to care for them.

That first night at the shelter was hard for Shirley and her son. There was however, a peace in knowing they could close their eyes and feel protected by the walls that surrounded them. Finally safe from harm, they slept.

Weeks at Hope House turned into months as Shirley and her son slowly became accustomed to a life of non-violence. Shirley even began to open up to members of the Hope House team, as she began painting for them a picture of the life they ran from in order to survive. Shirley found peace in sharing her story, knowing these were other women with similar circumstances. They had each other now to lean on.

Noah, however, stayed quiet.

He kept silent around the staff that desperately tried to communicate with the boy. He kept quiet around other kids his age that played with toys and ran outside. He spoke only to his mother, as she was still the only thing in his life to provide him comfort and peace.

One day, Hope House began bringing in therapy dogs to sit and play with the kids. There were different types of dogs of all shapes and sizes. A fluffy Golden Retriever, an old Beagle who hobbled on a sore leg, and a two Chihuahuas. One dog though, scared most of the kids… he was a large brown and black Rottweiler. Most folks think of Rottweilers as mean and aggressive, but you see, that’s really not so. It takes a human to make them that way. By nature they are actually very sweet.

You hear about dogs that can sense the way a person feels. Whether it’s sadness, happiness, fear, or excitement, a dog just seems to intuitively understand. This brown and black Rottweiler at Hope House was no different. In fact, he had a better sense than any of the other dogs did. As the pups and children played, the Rottweiler walked up to Noah who stood motionless against a wall watching the others. As the dog approached him, Noah cautiously extended a hand towards the animal. The dog sniffed his fingers and began to lick his hand.

Noah started to smile.

One of the staff members noticed the exchange and walked up to where Noah stood and kneeled beside him. “Noah, I want to introduce you to our friend here. His name is Hero.”

A few times a week, Hero would come to visit and Noah would light up. As they got to see more and more of each other, the staff could tell they were making progress with the boy. Even though he still rarely spoke, you could tell that a visit from Hero breathed a little more life and light back into Noah’s quiet and dark childhood.

One of Noah’s favorite things to do with Hero was read books. A staff member would sit down on the ground with Noah while Hero laid his head in Noah’s lap. Then they would read a story. Reading with Hero took Noah away from the pain and the fear caused by his father. He was with his new friend, and for those precious moments, nothing else mattered.

Then one day, something very special happened.

Hero and Noah were sitting on the floor together playing with a toy. All of the sudden, Noah stopped what he was doing and slowly lifted up one of Hero’s big floppy ears and whispered to him, “If you were my dog, no one would hurt me again.”

Noah’s mother watched her son share his secret with the big animal, and was overcome with such great emotion that she began to cry. She was witnessing Noah’s emotional scars beginning to heal, something Shirley didn’t think was possible in a life where she and her son had been kicked down so many times.

She ran up to her son and scooped him into her arms kissing his cheeks. Hot tears ran down her face as she smiled and laughed, twirling her son in her arms. “I love you Baby,” she told him. “I love you too Mom.”

This would be the break-through moment that carried Shirley and her son through the next couple of months until they were able to find safe housing outside of the shelter and start a new life. Noah adopted Hero officially as his new pet and the three of them would walk out of Hope House stronger than ever before. Shirley, Noah, and Hero- a new family. It was nothing short of a miracle.

Hero gave Noah belief that his young life had meaning and purpose. That despite the pain and sadness in his world love still existed.

Stories like these are what FaithWorks and Hope House are all about. When darkness can reign in someone’s life, we all have the power to break in with light, liberation, and love- to walk in faith and be the light of the world. To change the direction of someone’s story forever. To punch holes in the darkness.

I have learned that it takes immense courage and strength to meet people where they are; to risk your soul’s happy equilibrium by facing people and stories so dark you are left speechless. But I think it’s here, in the turbulent waters of someone else’s soul, where faith can shine. Where trust can be found. Where lives can be changed.

Here are the questions I try and ask myself: Have I intentionally asked God to take me deeper? Do I trust where his spirit can lead me? Where and how is God calling me to live outside of myself? And finally, what am I risking to discover fulfillment?

I often think back to Shirley, Noah, and Hero when I need to be reminded about the power of the human spirit and the power I have to make a difference. I hope you will do the same.

prayer[1]

Trust Him

I am leading you along the high road, but there are descents as well as ascents. In the distance you see snow-covered peaks glistening in brilliant sunlight. Your longing to reach those peaks is good, but you must not take shortcuts. Your assignment is to follow Me, allowing Me to direct your path. Let the heights beckon you onward, but stay close to Me.

Learn to trust Me when things go “wrong.” Disruptions to your routine highlight your dependence on Me. Trusting acceptance of trials brings blessings that far outweigh them all. Walk hand in hand with Me through this day. I have lovingly planned every inch of the way. Trust does not falter when the path becomes rocky and steep. Breathe deep draughts of My Presence, and hold tightly to My hand.

-Sarah Young, Jesus Calling

20130204-213515.jpg
Bonnie and myself in Denver atop “the ridge” path.

What’s the Purpose of Our Life?

I have questions about my life that I don’t know how to answer.

Sometimes I get to thinking. Thinking about the ways to understand the mystery that surrounds my existence that cannot always be characterized by something or somebody. Things that aren’t tangible or easily defined.

I think all of us, at some point or another, can’t help but try to grasp the purpose behind our lives. Most things can fall into neat little categories: our self, our relationships, our work, our beliefs, our finances. Some things, though, do not. And today there was a message about the things that fall outside of what we know and understand.

It’s that message that I want to share with you because it moved me.

This message came from Adam Hamilton, pastor at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. (http://www.cor.org)

My life has been a spiritual journey with its ups and downs, and all the while I have tried desperately to understand, to feel, and to fall into a faith that tries to teach us meaning.

And this morning, when Adam began to wrestle with the all-powerful questions that surround the purpose and meaning of our lives, I listened closely, hoping for answers.

The answer, it turns out, is surprisingly simple.

First, to be loved by and to love God. Second, to love and to serve others.

That’s it.

Adam shared a story about his own family that would form within me a deep understanding of God’s reason for our existence. More importantly, it allowed me to relate to my relationship with Him.

Adam’s daughters, when they were very young (age 4 or 5), were infatuated with their Daddy- following him everywhere, clinging to his legs as he walked in the door from a long day at work. They gave kisses, bear hugs, and snuggled right before bedtime.  But, as they grew older to age 12 or 13, the girls no longer wanted to hold hands to cross the street. They no longer gave those bear hugs when Adam returned from work. In-fact, it was almost as if they were embarrassed of their Dad. When they were at the mall, they walked ten feet in front of him. It seemed that the years when they bonded so closely as a family were suddenly erased. Adam would reach out, but they would turn away.

The only time they would call him Daddy anymore was to ask for money or for a ride to the movies. When they needed something…

The teen years came and went for Adam’s little girls.

… And finally, when they were 20 or so, they came back to Adam. Back to their Daddy. Back to the bear hugs, back to their close relationship, appreciation, and love that had been gone for years.

Does that sound like your relationship with God? It did for me.

If it’s more convenient to live selfishly, then it’s natural to slowly turn away from our Father. This happened to me during many of my teenage years and into my 20’s. My life style contradicted my faith, and I thought I could handle the world on my own because I had things figured out.

Just like Adam’s little girls, I turned away from my Father. And this never meant more to me than it has lately. Like any loving father, God simply wants a relationship with us. He wants us to come running into his arms. If we have turned away, He understands. But simply, He just wants us back.

He is our Father. And like any parent, I think Adam’s story about his own daughters allows us to relate…

Think about the reasons why you want(ed) to be a parent. You want to have a baby because you have love in your heart to give; and it’s that same love that you want to receive back from your son or daughter. Well, God is no different.

God, in creating our universe, wanted also to create a being that He could love unconditionally. A creature so amazing that they could consciously recognize God’s love and give it back in return. A loving parent’s relationship with their child, in many ways, is the same as our God’s relationship with us. Love, forgiveness, and grace.

I remember, during an Easter church service a few years ago, making the decision to run back into God’s arms. Melissa and I declared our love for Him- because we realized we could not handle the weight of this world and this life by ourselves. We came to him, we returned to him.

The pure joy and fulfillment that came from that decision and that moment has transcended and changed my life in so many ways. It has been a gigantic ripple throughout.

So when I’m reminded and explained about our purpose in life, I’m humbled.

Be loved by and to love God.

Leap of Faith

It’s okay to be afraid of change and to fear the unknown. Just don’t sell yourself short. Don’t over-think things. Trust your heart. Most importantly, belive in the possibilities that come from taking action. Identify your strengths and rely on your character. Act on ambition and accept the challenge, for those that risk what they know gain strength and wisdom.

Sometimes (maybe a lot of the time) it’s hard to understand where you ought to be in your life. But, to get where you want, where you deserve… where God intend for you to be… requires a leap of faith.

So take it.

20121107-195214.jpg

Stepping Outside My Bubble of Self-Pity

I have recently developed a bad habit that I couldn’t shake until this last weekend. The habit is a trap you can fall into when your vision and focus is too narrow (and selfish). I was stressed out and so bogged down with my immediate stresses with work and life that I began moping around the house looking for ways to feel sorry for myself. It wasn’t even one thing in particular… just a pile of meaningless baggage that continued to manifest itself into something bigger than it needed to be.

So sometimes in order to appreciate the immense blessings you have, it requires stepping outside your tiny little bubble of self-pity to see things through a different lens. Some people I know actually do this quite a bit (in the form of community outreach or even traveling to help others in need during a mission trip).

I’m not one of those people. Melissa and I are inspired to change that though.

Last weekend through our church, Church of the Resurrection Downtown, we had the opportunity to play a part of something outside our own world of problems. For me it meant getting invited to move desks and furniture into a brand new Charter School in downtown KC called Crossroads Academy of Kansas City http://crossroadsacademykc.org (check out their site they have a great mission and story).

I know our helping hands meant so much to the staff and teachers, but I ended up helping myself more than anyone else.

I met many people from different walks of life who were all there to help. Throughout the morning I began to listen to some of their stories. Everyone has stress, but we all have something more powerful to defeat the slump- a choice. A choice to shift your focus onto something other than yourself. And be happy with it.

What gave me the ability to choose to focus on something other than myself, specifically the blessings God has given me, was surprisingly simple and unexpected. Smiles. Yep, just a smile. The hundreds of folks I rubbed shoulders with throughout the day were just smiling and laughing, even dancing in the street outside the new school. Just happy to help! I’m not naive enough to doubt some of them (maybe all of them), are battling their own unique circumstances that can break you, hurt you, or stress you out. But they chose to embrace happiness- living in the moment, living for something bigger than their own problems.

So when I think about last weekend, I smile, too.

20120820-211754.jpg
Outside the school on 10th and Central.

20120820-211900.jpg
Moving desks.

20120820-211954.jpg
Still a lot to do before their first day of school.

20120820-212047.jpg
Awesome lighting and rooms.

20120820-212210.jpg
The little details… sunflowers at the entrance.

Grandpa

I don’t think it’s necessary to get too sentimental or emotional with this entry, but those are the words that tend to describe an 86th birthday party- especially for a man who has 3 generations of family to surround him with old stories, Italian sausage, and a good glass of scotch to warm his belly.

Victor DeMaria is his name. I call him Grandpa, of course.

No one can predict where we will be when we are his age. I think we all hope for the best. And for most of Grandpa’s later years he has had the best; living at home with his wife and close to the whole family. Catholic Italians, I’ve come to understand, tend to stick together.

Things change though.

His situation these days isn’t ideal; stuck 65 miles northeast of Kansas City in the VA home in a tiny town called Cameron, Missouri. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why they decided that’s where to build the home… no where near anything or anyone.

So when the time comes to celebrate 86 years of life on this earth, everyone makes the trip up there.

I know Grandpa was looking forward to some real food (the food he has been used to his whole life) and a drink to enjoy. Mostly though, he just wants to see the people who love him. I imagine it’s a lonely place, the VA home, when your days are marked by eating cafeteria food, sleeping, and taking your medicine. The highlight of his day I know are the conversations with Grandma over the telephone. If he can hear her…

They just celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary.

This post, as I said, it not intended to ponder a once easier past, but rather to celebrate the blessings that have, and still do, surround this man’s life.

The times I have been up to see him (too few I know), always help to remind me of what I have to thank God for: good health, family, and the other blessings in my life. When you boil everything down, that’s all that matters. My wife and I move through life faster than most I would guess- always on the run and too busy. The VA home puts it all in perspective.

So these are the pictures of a family that Grandpa Vic helped raise and support. The generations you see here all link to him on the family tree. Grandma too, of course. We are all there.

The most beautiful characteristic of our family is that we are simply traditional. Whole. Committed to each other. Iv’e grown up and realized how rare that is. Because of that, I appreciate my family more than ever.

And I know that Grandpa, if you asked him, would say the same thing.

20120802-181302.jpg
Joining hands to say grace.

20120802-181352.jpg
All smiles after blowing out the cake.

20120802-181432.jpg
Everyone together.