I was reminded of the encounter of Jesus with a Samaritan woman at a well outside the city during the hottest part of the day. She went there at an inconvenient time and place possibly to avoid being subjected to scorn over her lifestyle from the other women who met at the well in the city. The wife of five previous husbands, this woman was currently living with a man she was not married to (see John 4:1-26).
How in the world will she ever find the way to a right relationship with God in the place and lifestyle she was in? What hope was there for her? So Jesus went to her Himself and presented the truth, about her and about Him. And truth changed her and set her free. She had found living water and would never thirst again…
Remembering all those promises and prayers to God for direction, I find myself today in Citrus County, Florida, working full time with a gospel rescue mission called The Path. To put it more simply, working for a faith-based homeless shelter that provides a structured living environment and a variety of programs that address spiritual, physical and emotional needs of homeless men and women who want to change their lives, become employed so they can support themselves and family, and maintain a stable, permanent place to live. And, break the cycles that keep them from doing so. In the broader context, The Path helps people change from being takers in a community to contributors in a positive, productive and healthy way.
What I have discovered is that it’s not just the homeless who are finding healing and purpose through The Path: our supporters and staff do as well. We find deep healing, peace, and fulfillment in giving to help someone else—whether it’s giving time or talents, material goods or money. There is a great blessing in giving, and being able to see the direct impact of those gifts. I see it every day in the faces of the transformed men and women who make it to The Path and work hard to begin to rebuild their lives. The word
“success” takes on a brand new, and very specific meaning for each of them.
I wonder some days if we really can make a difference. From their point of view, we do. No one can say they aren’t shown how to make a better life for themselves. No one can say they haven’t heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ and can know Him personally. At The Path, they do live a different life from the lifestyle that brought them there. But we still have to turn many away for lack of space. True, some don’t want to make the commitments required to change. But others do.
Most are desperate and full of despair. So many are women with children, no one to turn to, no place to go. Like Sara and Veronica. I met both of them, and the most striking things are the haunted look in their eyes and the maturity in their children. The concern they show for their mother. The fear and shyness around strangers, particularly men. I cry every time I remember seeing those things.
This is Sara’s story, as written by my husband, DuWayne Sipper, Executive Director of The Path:
Sara called me one afternoon, and after thousands of phone calls, you naturally begin to pick up tones and words. I know what the phone call is about in just a couple of seconds.
“Hi, I was given this number and they said you might be able to help me? I have two children, and I am eight months pregnant, and I have to leave this place.”
“How old are the children and what are their sexes?” I asked, knowing full well that The Path cannot take boys with their mother if they are over puberty. The present conditions are too close and the risk is too high for other mothers staying in the shelter. Without the money to expand the shelter, we have chosen this route to help as many as we can and the category of women with small children is the highest.
“The girl is 2 and the boy is 7,” she said, and her voice begins to quiver as they often do when the full realization of the situation they are in begins to sink in.
“Where is the father of your unborn child?” I usually ask this question to see if there are possibilities of working with the father of the children in finding a home.
“He’s gone. I don’t know where he is.” Now with the sound of tears in her voice.
The unbelievable burden and saga that a young mother goes through in her hopes of finding love and security through a man with good values continues as it has through the ages… In most of the cases we deal with, the father has now changed his mind about helping to feed, support and raise his children. The reasons are varied and really don’t matter. It is a severe erosion of commitment and understanding of a man wanting sex who does not think about the consequences until too late. In this case, the father of the first two was different from the current pregnancy. This, too, is a common occurrence in America: young women trying desperately to find someone who will help her take care of her babies.
“Do you have family?” I said.
“I have a mother in New York.” Her voice is slow and blank, as she tries to think while speaking.
“Will she take you back?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she said, “I have done some bad things…”
DuWayne’s article ends here with a “to be continued” but I know the ending: Sara was one of the fortunate ones. After some phone calls, we were able to help mother and daughter reconcile. A few more phone calls, and we had donors lined up to put together the bus fare for Sara and her children to travel to upstate New York. Path staff helped Sara put together food for the trip. Donated suitcases, clothes, jackets and sweaters, socks and sneakers were gathered up quickly to equip this little family for their two-day bus trip. Through hugs and tears, Sara was sent off to stay with her mom and have her baby with family. DuWayne and I prayed with her before she left us. We knew she was nervous and scared…
Veronica’s story was very similar, but I don’t know the ending. You see, we had to send Veronica away from The Path because we didn’t have any room for her when she needed our help. I’ve never forgotten her. I pray for her almost every day…
I was filling in at The Path office, covering for vacations, when there was a knock on the door. A young woman, in her early thirties walked in with a young boy, who was almost hiding behind her, like he wanted to be invisible. We rarely get walk-ins, so I knew something dramatic—or traumatic—had taken place to bring her to The Path like this. After speaking to her in calm tones, reassuring her and making sure no one was hurt, I began to ask gently what her situation was. It goes something like this:
“Veronica, tell me what happened to bring you here. Most call in first.”
“I had nowhere to go, and the police had to come to the house I was at because my fiance’s parents started yelling and throwing things and threw me out. The police told me to come here, that you could help me, and the neighbors let me borrow their car.”
“How did you come to be living with your fiance’s parents?”
“I was living in St. Pete and lost my job as a book-keeper. I’ve been doing that for about 10 years. I met my fiancé at my apartment complex and we had been living together. When I lost my job, we couldn’t afford to stay there and came here.” Looking down, she said quietly, “I’m pregnant.”
I wondered to myself if that’s what caused all the fighting and arguing, but there was one thought that interrupted all that: where was the fiancé? Since he wasn’t with her now, I suspected that he wasn’t all that concerned, or committed to any relationship, and wondered if she was calling him “fiancé” to fool herself or to save herself the embarrassment with us.
Instead, I spoke to the little boy and greeted him. He shrunk back and wouldn’t speak. So, I got some crayons and paper to occupy him. And turned to Veronica. “You haven’t eaten anything today, have you?” Tears in her eyes, she shook her head no. “You are probably not feeling too well either, are you?” Again shook her head no. I said as gently as I could, “Your fiancé just watched while his parents screamed at you and threw you out?” Looking at the ground, barely whispering, tears streaming now down her face: “Yes…”
I got her some tissues, some water and gave her half my sandwich and the other half to her son. I called out to one of the women staying at the shelter and asked her to get some food together for them. While that was all being taken care of, I continued with my questions. I was struggling with the reality of the situation: we had no room at The Path shelter for her. The Path was full. How was I going to tell this desperate pregnant woman and her child that she couldn’t stay? There had to be someone who would be willing and able to help her… Somebody out there must care about her…
“Veronica, what about your family?” She responded, “Well, I don’t know exactly where they are. My mother was in Georgia.” Anticipating my next question, she said “but I haven’t spoken to her in over ten years and I’m not sure where she is exactly. I HAVE NO ONE TO GO TO!” I knew enough by now to not ask about her father—she may not know who her father is, much less where he was. I calmed her as best as I could, just as DuWayne arrived.
Quickly assessing the situation, he told her that we had no room for her and her son presently and told her what the other shelter options were. The only other shelter in Citrus County that took women was full. We had no other choice but to call the shelter in Brooksville—about 30 or so miles away. Miraculously this shelter had room and agreed to take them. The neighbor agreed to drive them there.
DuWayne and I prayed with her. We had to send her away. I never saw or heard from Veronica again. To this day I wonder if she’s all right, if she found a job and a decent place to stay, if her boy and her unborn child are safe and ok. I made promises to God that day, too: that I would pray for her every day, that I would tell her story to everyone who would listen, and that I would dedicate my life to rescuing others in similar situations.
Veronica, I’ll never forget you. I hope you are ok. I pray every day that you, your son, and your child are safe. I’m so, so sorry we couldn’t help you, Veronica…
But I know God can…