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She was 21 years old, wore heavy makeup, and her hands shook as she opened the car door and nervously slid into the passenger side. “It’s Alise with an ‘A’,” she said as she introduced herself. Even though Alise didn’t know how to read or write, she was adamant about the correct spelling of her name.
I met Alise in 2008 when I was attending a nine-month leadership training program at my church. Our cohort leader pulled me aside one afternoon and told me a girl had called the church the other day. She was currently staying at a psychiatric center in a town nearby and was looking for a church to be a part of but didn’t have any family, friends, or transportation. Having just recommitted my life to the Lord and looking for a challenging assignment, I agreed to pick her up and bring her to church. I was so excited to prove myself and serve God and pulled into the psychiatric center the following Wednesday evening to greet her.
She warmed up to me during the 20-minute car ride and we began to talk and get to know each other. She wasn’t from the area. She had been living with a foster family in Kentucky but ran away when the foster mother had threatened her life. I cautiously wandered into unknown territory and continued asking Alise about her life. “My foster parents used to beat me with a pair of scissors.” “My birth mom was a stripper and used to take me to the strip club and leave me with men while she worked.” “I remember one time when she brought a man home and he raped her. I was five years old and he told me I couldn’t tell anyone.” Story after story poured out of her. I had never known someone who had gone through this much pain and suffering, but she was simply grateful to have someone to talk to. That night at church, she gave her life to the Lord. I remember she had gone up front, and we were praying with her. Afterward, she grabbed my arm and exclaimed, “I feel so free! I feel so joyful! I could just dance all night and praise the Lord!”
Several weeks went by, and our relationship grew. I continued to give her rides to church and listen to her struggles. Her foster parents were trying to get her to come back home, and she was tempted to because of the years of psychological abuse, but she knew deep down that it wasn’t a healthy situation. They had never let her go to school because they had almost a dozen foster children, and she was responsible for babysitting. As a result, Alise could neither read nor write and, a teacher at heart, I resolved to fix that. We would arrive at the church an hour early and spend time reading together in the Sunday school classrooms. Kids and teenagers would run and walk by together and she would stare wistfully out the door at them. That was the first time I felt a nagging in my spirit, “Sarah, what does Alise need more: to learn to read, or to experience love and fellowship with a church family?” I pushed it aside because reading and writing are very important.
She would “go to the bathroom” for about fifteen minutes at a time and I would go search for her only to find her huddled outside in the cold smoking cheap cigarettes. She was so ashamed that she was smoking at church she didn’t even want to tell me she had an addiction, “I know it’s wrong, I have been doing it since I was young.” I told her it wasn’t healthy to smoke and felt the nagging again, “Sarah, is it more important that Alise knows all the right things to do outwardly or that she feels loved and accepted no matter what?” Again, I ignored it because smoking is bad for your health.
One night, after church, I dropped her off at the center. We walked slowly up to the front doors chatting mindlessly. I was having her rehearse the alphabet and reminding her to practice during the week. I was about to hand her some kindergarten-level readers and say good-bye when I felt the familiar nagging, the pulling on the strings of my spirit, “Sarah, just hug her.” I looked into her haunted eyes, evidence of the lost years of childhood and the weariness of constant betrayal, and wrapped my arms around her tightly. She collapsed into me and wept. For the first time, in a long time, I think she knew that Someone truly loved her and had a hand on her life. It is so easy to clean up the exterior and disciple people in a way that comes naturally to us but the true Gospel, the one Christ hung on the cross for, is one that demands an inner wrenching of the soul and a deep commitment to His people. I had a lot to learn and Alise had a lot to teach me.
God will clean the outside in His time. He is more concerned about the state of our hearts. Do we feel free and joyful, like we could dance all night and praise Him? Can we come to Him like children and cast aside our education and qualifications?
About four months after that initial car ride to church with Alise, I was traveling in Germany when I was told that Alise had committed suicide. I was devastated and cried out to God for hours, mourning for her and wondering why she had to go through what she did. I cried with my father, who was traveling with me, and confessed that I felt like a failure and should have done more. I should have asked someone from the church to keep in touch with her while I was gone. If only I had contacted her more often, prayed with her more fervently, she would have felt like she belonged to this life and wanted to stay. My father responded, “Alise lived a haunted life but in her last few months on this earth, she had a true family. She knew what it felt like to be loved deeply and to belong and you had a part in that. I have no doubt you will see her again because death, even self-caused, cannot separate us from the love of God.”
Simply teaching our new disciples or emerging leaders how to better their outward appearance does them no good. They will only become the “whitewashed tombs” that Jesus exposed (in Matthew 23). It is our responsibility to dive wholeheartedly into the mess of their lives. Sometimes it reveals our own mess! I was a young believer who thought I had it all figured out. I was eager to teach a willing heart, but in the end, I learned the greatest lesson: first and foremost, people want to be sincerely loved. I remember when I felt the transforming power of redeeming love, and it made me want to dance. My outward mess is constantly being cleansed by that love, but it had to penetrate my heart first. Alise came to Jesus like a child with a sad heart, and He set her free.
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.” (Romans 12:9-16)