Master in the Message

Written by Richard Drebert

©Good Catch Publishing

Excommunicated.

As a mother of four, I didn’t feel like a heretic …

The funeral-faced Catholic bishop adjusted his dark robe. “Divorce is a curse, Elena. Marriage is a permanent sacrament. It endures until one of you dies.”

“But I’m not getting the divorce. Juan is divorcing me!”

The bishop’s office held a chill, like a basement full of meat. My little daughters, Julia and Daniella, played on a Persian rug near a teetering floor lamp, and I wrestled Marie and Jacob on my lap as Jesus stared down at me from his big golden cross on a wall.

The bishop looked grave as he said, “In our diocese we are very strict in these matters. I’m sorry.”

I nodded resolutely and gathered up my four jewels. Walking slowly past pews and gilded pulpit, I studied the figures set in the stained-glass windows from inside the sanctuary for the last time. Frustration and shame convulsed from my heart in great teardrops as I drove home.

I spoke to my children who crawled over the crumpled divorce papers that Juan had served me: “Everybody who loves me is gone. And now I have lost my church, too?”

My next words I kept from my babies’ ears, but I shouted them in my head: If God has forsaken me, I shall live for the devil! 

***

I was born in Trinidad, Colorado, east of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountains. Mexican families had settled in the New Mexico Territory after the region was ceded to the United States following the Mexican-American War. Trinidad is about 20 miles north of the New Mexico/Colorado border.

I never learned my grandfather’s native tongue when I was a girl, and some of Grandpa’s Spanish ways died with him in a horrible accident in a coal mine. His family had joined work crews that kept the Trinidad mines thriving in the late 1800s. The coal beds lay in the Raton Basin along the original Santa Fe Trail, and ox-drawn wagons moved loads of coal to the railroad at Trinidad. Hispanic families built adobe homes around town, and Trinidad grew into a metropolis run by coal-mining companies owned by men like the Rockefellers.

My first memories are of Grandma’s old home on Convent Street, an inviting two-story palace to me. When snowdrifts crowded the doors, a big black coal stove heated the living room. My little gray-haired grandmother baked bread in a coal-fired kitchen stove, and she smoothed our clothes with a heavy iron, shaped like a boat with a wooden handle on top. She heated the little boat on the stove top, and I could barely lift it when she let me try.

Grandma gathered her brood in her warm nest, nurturing my uncles, aunts and cousins. Her sons hunted deer in the forests around Trinidad, and we ate sumptuous meals with venison as the main course. Grandma sternly warned her tribe of grandchildren against playing in the basement, but we peeked down the mysterious stairs when an adult opened the door. In my uncles’ bloody sanctum, venison hung in thin strips upon clotheslines, drying into jerky. Slabs of meat cured above the cool earthen floor.

I loved walking with my cousins to a soda shop, the Trinidad Creamery, to lick ice cream cones or sip milkshakes. Everything about my home seemed stable in those days, until Mom and Dad loaded up our station wagon with all that we owned.

“California, here we come,” Mom said, putting on a brave smile for my little sister, Judith, my two brothers and me. Mom’s asthma troubled her more and more in the high Colorado altitude, and Dad knew he could get a job in Los Angeles with his craft. We honked goodbye as we left Grandma’s house, looking forward to coming back to Trinidad to visit in the summers.

My hardworking father found a demand for his trade, making jewelry for stores and dentures for dentists. Mom enrolled me at a Catholic school called Saint Vibiana, adjacent to a cathedral that once entombed the 3rd-century Roman martyr. It seemed like the gates of heaven had opened to me when I sat in the great Cathedral of Los Angeles.

A tribute to Saint Vibiana summarized the demeanor that the nuns required of students:

“Through your fasting and prayer you were given the grace to endure suffering and torment at the hands of your persecutors. Intercede for us, dear saint …”

I absorbed a satisfying piety at Vibiana, awestruck by the onyx and marble in her sanctuary, and desirous to imitate the kindness of the sisters. I joined the choir, though I had no idea what we were singing. The nuns taught us songs in Latin, and during Mass, the priests rambled in the language of the ancient Roman church.

Inside Vibiana, I sensed a peaceful presence that I attributed to God as I attended Mass, required by my parents. The nuns taught me to genuflect in “God’s house” and obey the priest who represented God himself, a man who could absolve me from sins when I confessed to him.

But Mom’s health slowly continued to go downhill. The Los Angeles smog clogged her lungs, and Dad moved us to San Bernardino, where the air was dryer and less full of particulates. Dad worked for dentists there, and when Mom gained back her strength, she landed a job with the San Bernardino County Hospital, cleaning and helping in the kitchen. Side by side, especially during my teens, Mom and I seemed more like sisters than mother and daughter — she had given birth to me when she was 15.

To anyone but a child, our move to the Highlands might have been a step down, and though our house was small, I loved our little farm. Dad brought home some big rowdy dogs that had acres to romp in. He built us cages to raise rabbits and chickens. As the eldest daughter, Mom expected me to care for my brothers and sisters when she was at work, where she expended her waning energy. By the time I was 10, I could cook and clean like a grown woman.

I was in fourth grade when Mom enrolled me in my new Catholic school, Saint Ann, where my aptitude for sports showed up unexpectedly: I could really swish the net in basketball. And I was fast. I had great ball-handling skills and toured with our players to beat teams in other towns like Turner and Artesia. I excelled in the sport for the next four years and received a golden medal to mark my achievement as a basketball champion.

But the projects, called Waterman Gardens, changed my life. One day the buzzer on the basketball court sounded for the last time, signaling a new quarter in life when I attended public school. We moved away from our farm to the city, not far from church. I never missed Mass, but had to teach myself new skills to survive in a rough neighborhood.

“Just stay close,” I told my sister and brothers as we approached the back of the big brick hardware store beyond the schoolyard. About 20 girls and boys milled around its windowless rear entrance near an overflowing trash bin. They smoked and talked, until they saw us and started moving in our direction. We crossed to the opposite street, but a dozen of them cut us off.

The Chicano girls started talking smack, and I strained to understand them. I shook my head, knowing by their tone the words were insults.

“You can’t even speak Spanish? You trying to be a white girl? You think you betta’ than us?”

My Catholic-girl kindness wore out when one bully pulled Judith’s hair and she began to cry a little. A girl shaped like a massive pear, with stringy black hair, shoved me, and I cut loose a slap that set the whole hoard on me like a bunch of angry hens. Somehow I herded my siblings down the street, fighting off punches and kicks, and finally home.

In junior high and high school, I swapped ball-handling practice for learning to street fight and could use my fists and feet as adeptly as I drove for a basket. Sometimes I could have avoided brawls, but somehow I enjoyed the challenge of besting a bully. After my ninth-grade year at San Bernardino High School, the bullies found easier marks, and I settled into a routine: cooking and cleaning at home, schoolwork and attending church religiously.

“Elena! Are you up?” Mom hollered.

Nancy, my best friend, blared her little car’s horn at me in the driveway, and I rolled from beneath my covers. Forty days of Lent were almost over. I hadn’t missed a single day attending morning services. I grabbed a coat, threw it on over my pajamas and slipped on my untied shoes. I rushed out the door with a hairbrush in my hand.

“We’re going to be late, Elena! Were you still sleeping?” Nancy drove like a maniac as I tried to brush snarls out of my dark hair.

Nancy and I vowed not to miss a day of morning Mass and communion on Lent each year. Duty to God consumed me, taking shape in a sterling record for attendance in church and school. If I made a commitment, I kept it. A laundry list of obligatory duties helped me maintain the Virgin Mary’s divine favor.

My 10th grade couldn’t have been better. I excelled in mathematics, and overall my grades were good. Juan fascinated me — a tall, proud Hispanic boy, who kept my father’s strict rules so he could see me. He came from a good Mexican family and worked hard after school.

“He’s here, Elena!” My little sister was as excited at seeing Juan as I was.

Mom liked him, too, but it irritated me that she refused to endorse him as “marriage material” for reasons she never put into words. In the three years before our wedding, all she would say was, “Juan’s a nice boy, but he’ll never be a good husband, Elena.”

My graduation scored higher in my young life than any basketball tournaments I had ever won. Seeing me in my cap and gown crowned a moment of achievement for my mother and father, who believed their daughter had a bright future. But for me, graduation was a marker nearer my ultimate goal: marrying Juan. My temper flared if anyone criticized my objective, and my betrothed and I set a date for a June wedding.

My parents decided to be supportive, and I picked out a wedding dress. My size three was still too baggy, and both sides had to be taken in! I picked my 12 bridesmaids, and my girlfriends decorated Our Lady of Guadalupe for a traditional Mexican wedding. My own Catholic priest performed the vows, and brilliant red roses adorned the reception hall. A Mexican band with trumpets and guitars played late into the evening, as I whirled in my billowing white dress with my father. I leaned on my husband’s broad shoulder as the band played our favorite love songs. The wine was sweet, our enchiladas, delicious.

A perfect wedding.

I snuggled close to Juan, and he stroked rice from my hair as we roared away in his ‘59 Chevy. Our three-day honeymoon was a perfect start to our lives as husband and wife.

***

“Elena, we need to talk to you.”

Just home from our honeymoon the night before, Juan’s kiss still lingered on my lips after I sent him out the door to work that morning. I studied Juan’s father and mother’s dispirited expressions curiously. His mother’s eyes were red, like she had been crying. “Our Juan is in trouble. He’s in jail.”

I dared not breathe for a moment. “What? Was he drinking? What’s going on?”

“There was a warrant for his arrest,” Juan’s father said. “But we don’t believe what the police are saying he did!”

I sat down on the couch, silent, waiting. No one spoke. I finally had to ask it. “What do they say he did?”

“Well, he’s accused of being part of a … rape.”

Dios, mio.

“When was this?” I felt tears welling up behind a dam of confusion in my heart.

“They say about six months ago. BUT WE KNOW IT’S NOT TRUE!”

When my in-laws left, I called my mother, her words ringing in my ears: “He’ll never be a good husband …” But she empathized, crying with me — and for me.

In the next few months of turmoil, I tried to piece together when my husband could have been in San Diego, where the alleged crime was committed. Where was I at the time? Planning my wedding? Choosing my wedding gown?

After making bail, he tried to tell his version of the story, but I couldn’t shake the feeling he was hiding something.

His parents never lost faith in their Juan and believed him to be innocent all through the months of trial for the gang rape of a young woman. Two men among the three alleged perpetrators invited the jury’s disgust. My Juan was called “an accomplice.”

News reporters described the crime in detail and dogged the trial daily, writing and reporting on TV with morbid fascination. Shame followed me to the grocery store, and I lay in bed at night after court, weeping like I had contracted an incurable disease. My mistake was lifelong; I would never be free of living through this humiliation, even if Juan were acquitted.

He wasn’t.

I listened to the verdicts as they were read, my fingers locked on my purse to keep from shaking, and praying to the Blessed Virgin for mercy. But the faces of the jurists told me that the mother of God had forsaken Juan and me. The two principle rapists received several years; Juan would be away for a year before receiving probation.

Officers escorted Juan out of the courtroom, and I accepted his sentence as my own. I resolutely smoothed my dress as I stood up with my mother. I was 18 years old and starting to show; my baby would be born while I visited her father in a correctional institution.

***

By the time Juan came home from prison, I had run the play a thousand times: My husband owed me, big time.

I carried his shame like an ugly tattoo on my face, and I was bitter that it wasn’t even my ink! My expectations soared high above the steel and razor wire gate as he approached our car where his baby, Julia, and I waited. I had visited him regularly, and the man strutting toward us like a bantam rooster wasn’t the man who held me in his arms at my wedding. He grabbed my baby, kissed me passionately and I felt like I had joined his chain gang.

It had been a very long, lonely year. My empathy for Juan had died along with my memories of childish confessions at Saint Vibiana. No nun or priest could help me now: This was real life — dirty, unfaithful, disloyal.

Juan immediately showed that a good Catholic girl could never fill his insatiable lust. I cried. I raged. I chased his “lovers” off like beetles on dung — but he always charmed them back.

I started using my gift for mathematics at a tax office part-time, and he sometimes stopped by with one of his women to taunt me. But I stayed married because to divorce was “immoral.” I knew from Catholic catechism that God would condemn me if I left Juan, and what could I do, anyway? My second child, Daniella, was on the way, a year after he got out of prison.

Why did Mom have those TV “Jesus preachers” blaring all day long?

Rex Humbard and Oral Roberts got on my nerves, but their message seemed to inspire my mother, even in her weak condition. Her terminal cancer tore at my emotions while my baby girl kicked my ribs. Why was God doing this to me? I felt stretched thin, like my grandmother’s silk stockings, as I prepared Mom’s meals and stayed close with Julia, her first grandbaby whom she adored. My father suffered, too, watching his beautiful wife wilt to a shell.

Mother was 37 when she died. Uncle Jimmy, my dad’s brother, jumped in to help us with funeral arrangements, and his kindness blessed me whenever he was close. A month after Mom’s colon cancer stole her from me, I had my little Daniella.

It wasn’t that I hated Juan for flaunting unfaithfulness in my face, but he never owned up to his crime — against me! He showed no remorse for misrepresenting himself to me before we were married. He hid away from friends and family in his cell, while I faced public disgrace. Now he drank and caroused away his chance to make everything right with a wife who still loved him.

D*** machismo!

Even though we battled, Juan and I got close enough to have a third child, while his growing addiction to alcohol turned him uglier toward life.             

I learned to gain the upper hand in our arguments and win, but he beat me down emotionally in the end. He just stayed out until morning, and I knew he was sleeping with someone else.

I left for Trinidad and stayed a few weeks to rethink my life. I took Julia and Daniella, while active Marie grew inside me. Grandmother’s house, where my aunts and uncles still gathered, seemed smaller. My uncles still tracked coal dust into the house after working at the mines and told their stories of the old days of strikes and wage wars. I felt safe again.

When I got back to San Bernardino, Marie, my third daughter, joined us in our tangled life, and Juan and I decided to separate. In my own apartment, I barely scraped by financially, but Dad helped us when he could. Often he came for his favorite meal, enchiladas. He prized his granddaughters like they were gems he had placed in costly settings. Precious. Beautiful. Our hearts were knit closer after Mom’s death, and it comforted me every time I heard his gentle knock at our door in the evenings.

“I’m heading for Colorado,” he said one day. Trinidad was “thinking ground” for both of us, and I was glad to see him take a vacation.

The girls were all crying at once as he hugged them and me.

“Elena. Don’t have any more kids. Okay?”

I laughed and waved him away — too embarrassed to tell him I was pregnant again. My father never made it to Trinidad. He had a heart attack that night.

Uncle Jimmy saved the day again. He chose my father’s casket and helped obtain a plot for Dad to be buried beside Mom. I barely held my life together, but I had to, for the sake of my three babies and one more on the way.

God, you could have taken a drug addict or a drunk. Why did you take my mother and father?

The good Catholic choir girl, nurtured by nuns and priests, grew angry at the vindictive Virgin Mary she had always revered.

After Juan served me with divorce papers, the courts set alimony payments, but he never paid. I struggled to keep my sanity, working a little, and finally sacrificing my pride and asking for state assistance.

That was the year my beloved Uncle Jimmy died.

Divorced. Excommunicated. Alone.

If God has forsaken me, I shall live for the devil!

***

But Katrina was my angel. She was a runaway who needed a home, and I needed a helper. Katrina loved my babies and worked cheap. In fact, I had to force her to take any money at all. She became my friend and confidante when I found employment and needed a babysitter during the day. She lived with us, which gave me freedom on some evenings.

“I’ll be back late.”

At the bathroom mirror, I lined my eyelids, applied shadow and glossed my lips a sensuous red.

“Have fun, Elena. Dance a little for me. Where you goin’ tonight?”

“Just out with some girlfriends. Baby bottles are in the fridge.”

None of the men I knew seemed any more stable than Juan. I worked with a boss at the tax office who loved to take us girls out to a local eatery and fill us all with Mai Tai cocktails. From the first taste of alcohol, I was hooked, eating little on these excursions and drinking much.

Some curses, like alcoholism, seem passed on through generations. I had no idea until years later that many of my relatives in Trinidad suffered from alcohol addiction. Even if I had known, I doubt that I would have tried to control my drinking. I yearned for peace in my life, and booze deadened my emotions for a short time every few days. It is only by God’s grace that I met a good man. Albert and I would be married for 45 years.

***

“Elena, don’t drink tonight, okay? No one wants to watch you stumbling around.”

Albert treated my kids like his own and worked hard to create a home for us. I knew he must really love me to take on my ready-made family. After a time of living together, we married.

But a quiet rage at God roiled into every nook and cranny of my mind, like coal dust from a constant breeze. Guilt and confusion hardened to hatred for my ex-husband, and I stored up old hostility as fuel to burn when Albert and I had disagreements. When he wasn’t watching, I deadened my senses with alcohol, the only sedative available for the ache in my soul.

Albert grabbed his jacket, and I put on my most dutiful face as I turned out the living room light. In the darkness, I rolled my eyes over his concerns, and he locked the front door as we left the house.

“Tonight I won’t drink. I promise,” I said.

And I didn’t touch a drop, until my aunt sent my uncle and Albert to buy some condiments for dinner. While my aunt bustled in the kitchen, I found the scotch and guzzled as much as my throat could handle. It burned in my stomach as I waited for a wave to hit my head.

Ah, there it is. I can get through the night after all …

I learned I was pregnant again, and having children with Albert seemed the last straw in my troubled life. I felt so buried in responsibility and failures. When I passed a church, the stained-glass windows reminded me of my banishment from religion. Now I could never seek reconciliation — I had remarried. According to the church, a second marriage sealed my exile from God for as long as I lived. Day by day, unrelenting guilt weakened me, like cancer growing inside.

No one wants you, a priestly voice intoned in my mind and only died away if I floated on a cloud of intoxication.

These days, my little sister, Judith, annoyed me even more than when we shared the same bedroom. And her husband, Ray, ticked me off, too. Suddenly they knew more than a priest, God’s earthly representative empowered to forgive our sins, according to the dictates of the Catholic church. They grinned and preached like crazy Rex Humbard whom I had endured on Mom’s TV while she wasted away.

What did Judith have in her life to be so d*** joyful about? Nothing had changed that I could see. I was nursing Christopher when Ray and Judith came to talk to me one Saturday afternoon.

“We’re saved, Elena,” Judith said. “Ray came back from his tour of duty overseas and told me to read the Bible. It says that I can go straight to Jesus to have my sins wiped away. Then he gave me a clean heart, and I have a relationship with him like a father. Sister, it’s true!”

I glanced at Ray, who sat at my kitchen table transfixed by Judith, like she was the Virgin Mary.

“She tried to prove me wrong,” Ray said, laughing a little. “But Jesus got to her. God reached her with his words in the Bible and caught hold of her heart. Mine, too.”

I was getting hot, and I stood up. My fifth child was playing on the floor, and my sixth child, Christopher, was nestled in my arms, needing a diaper change. I kept my voice even and decisive. “It’s too late for me. The priest says I am condemned. I have no hope. Don’t preach this stuff to me.”

“But the only true priest is JESUS! You go straight to him. He comes into your spirit and forgives you and …”

“NO! Get out! I can’t do this right now!” Something bumped against a wall in the kid’s room, and I used it as an excuse to leave. “Go. Please, go.”

I felt like two cents after they left and wondered, Who did I send away? Was it God?

Later, Ray was back at my door. “I am so sorry that I pushed my faith on you, Elena. I’ll never do it again, okay?”

“No problem,” I said, struggling to keep my composure. I reassured Ray that I didn’t hate him and closed the door. The kids were quieting down, and Albert wasn’t home from work.

I sat on my bed and marveled at Judith, as strong a Catholic as anyone I knew. Her unapologetic Christian joy glowed from her soul. Ray and Judith wanted me to have this feeling, too … I laid Christopher upon the bed, his face like a little angel, and I tried to talk to God.

“Jesus,” I prayed, “if you are real, and everything they say is right, then I want what Judith and Ray have. I need to know you, too.”

For decades, a dark vesture had insulated me from God’s forgiveness. But when I said the words, “Forgive me!” the shroud over my soul lifted. Suddenly, nothing and no one stood between God and me, and it astonished me to feel accepted and free of guilt for the first time in my life.

I looked down at my little Christopher, and I felt different. Raising him didn’t seem to be a curse anymore. When Albert got home, I felt different about him, too. I loved him more than ever for his hard work and care of our family.

Albert accepted my religious experience without condemning me and respected the lifestyle adjustments that my new faith in Christ summoned. Parts of our lives together were forever altered, like going out dancing at clubs with friends. In the beginning of my newfound faith, I was clueless about how to explain to anyone the change I felt in my heart.

I sat at Ramon and Olivia’s home, a glass of cerveza (beer) in one hand and cigarette in the other, beaming about how Jesus had changed my heart and telling them how to be saved, too. Suddenly, Ramon raised his hand, like a traffic cop.

“Elena, when you stop drinking and puffing on those cancer sticks, I might start listening to you about Jesus. Until then …” He left the room, and I jammed my cigarette butt into an ashtray, depressed.

At home that night, I prayed, “God, you’ve got to take away these addictions if you want me to share your love with people. Help me.”

For anyone who struggles with alcoholism or drugs, when I say that I was absolutely set free from the cravings — it seems unbelievable. But that’s exactly what happened.

In time, I recognized that my whole life was a message for everyone to relate to. I have followed Jesus for 43 years, and I still believe it. At 71, my grueling spiritual contest is visible for everyone to see, and God’s Spirit still calls every major play in my life. I have learned to reach deep for compassion, like I strained for the last ounce of endurance in a basketball tournament as a girl. My coach is proving just as faithful toward the end of the game as at the beginning.

Released from my sense that God was out to punish me for the slightest wrong move, and unchained from addictions, I loaded up my kids and followed Judith to a Nazarene church. I was in my 20s when we attended the Nazarene church for several months. But I felt restless in my soul.

“Pastor, I feel that I should go to a men’s halfway house and be part of the ministry there.”

Several good people did not understand my unconventional calling, and one long Nazarene pew sat empty the next Sunday. My children and I joined a motley group of rehabilitating drunks and drug addicts at a small chapel outside San Bernardino. God’s message of love in me had arrived at Victory Outreach, but again, I was clueless about my coach’s strategy.

I gathered up a few other adventurous women to fill up chairs, and I stayed at Victory Outreach until it became apparent that my children needed a Sunday school and youth program to grow strong in this faith that I had found. Judith and I, with our little brood, began attending Colton First Assembly of God, and suddenly I felt like God had placed me in the position to deliver a winning shot.

Ambition burned in my heart to take this message of love into prison chapels around San Bernardino. At Victory Outreach, I had discovered that gangbangers, prostitutes and meth addicts longed for deliverance. God’s power worked behind a razor wire fence as powerfully as inside any church.

***

“I dedicate this child to you, Lord!”

I prayed this pledge over and over for the nine months I carried Jacob, my seventh and last child. Jacob accompanied me in ministry long before I showed him off in his baby blue outfits at the Colton church. He kicked and rolled inside me, while I lived my message of God’s deliverance behind prison walls, or gave my testimony at church, or at a kitchen table with an unwed mother.

When Jacob was old enough to mull over his own future, he stated flatly: “Mom, I’m not going to be a preacher! I’m going to be what I want to be.”

“Okay, Jacob.” I chuckled to myself. Everyone bears responsibility for his or her life message. His message and future lay in God’s hands, not mine.

***

I felt squeezed between the concrete walls at the Riverside county jail, following a uniformed guard. In the narrow hallway, a row of shackled prisoners in orange jumpsuits shuffled toward me. I tried to ignore the chortling as they passed. How easily one of the prisoners might have encircled my throat with cuffed hands to choke out my life or hold me hostage. I shivered a little and kept walking.

It took several months for me to feel divinely protected in the company of murderers and drug addicts at places like Glen Halen Rehabilitation Center and California Detention Center. My faith grew stronger over the years as I became pastor to scores of inmates, a shepherd for the unwanted. I could identify with these inmates, because I had been abandoned, too!

With a microphone, amplifier and recorded music (I brought musicians when I could), I preached no frilly, happy stories — but cut to the quick with my message: “I was a complete alcoholic. I lived with guilt that ate at my soul like my mother’s cancer. God took away my guilt and shame when I said to Jesus, ‘Forgive me!’”

I affirmed my story of deliverance with God’s own words from a supernatural, historical book: the Bible. Tears flowed when God’s mercy penetrated my prison flock’s iron-clad culture of fear and abuse. Their past failures and bitter sentences were no match for the message of Jesus’ love.

I look back over my life and remember the struggle raising my children, loving my husband the right way and holding the hands of my “adopted” children locked behind bars. At the end of my “prison time,” I often hurriedly gathered up my Bible and music equipment.

“I have to pick up my kids from school! Bring a friend next week, girls …”

***

For nearly 40 years, I have loved the throw-away girls and boys in and out of prison. Within my heart, I pray for other Christians to take their message to those shackled with addictions and guilt. The long halls and many steel doors have become too hard for me to travel since my knee replacements. But my unloved girls at institutions like Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center still call to my heart.

Melita scared me.

A string of earsplitting curses spewed from her mouth, rising from the deepest part of her character. Her tirade disrupted my meeting for a time, and I left the chapel, feeling like I had accomplished little for God that day.

The next week, Melita stalked up to me and said she wanted to know Jesus! After that, her cursing continued for a while: “You f****** women, shut up! Listen to the lady! She’s taking time out of her life to help you!”

Girls poured out of their cells, and the little chapel filled up.

At Glen Helen, Sarah wanted to know about my message. She sent a request from maximum security, through another inmate, that she wanted to talk. After obtaining security clearance, I was escorted to her cell by a burly guard, and I stood at a tiny head-height door with iron mesh between us. On the other side stood a pretty dark-haired girl, accused of a gruesome murder.

“I’m innocent. They’re going to give me life in prison!”

We talked for a while, and through my memories of lies and deceit spoken by inmates over the years, I sensed a voice in my heart: Sarah is telling the truth.

“You know, I hear girls say that they are innocent every time I come to Glen Helen, Sarah, but I believe you. I’m going to pray for you — and my church, Colton Assembly, will pray, too. God is going to do a miracle in your life, and when he does, I want you to come and testify at our church about your miracle.”

I left her cell, knowing that I put God out on a limb. Sarah’s eternal life hung in the balance, too.

Months later, on Sunday, a deacon at church told me that a young woman was looking for me. In a corner of the foyer, Sarah stood shyly, her face beaming.

“Here I am! His miracle happened! I’m free!”

After preaching one evening at a maximum-security prison, a woman I didn’t recognize spoke to me. “Elena, you don’t have just seven children — I need to correct you.”

I smiled, studying her face as she continued. “Remember me? You took in my sister and me years ago! You raised us like your own. I’m your girl!”

And she was.

Over the last half-century, dozens of children have grown up with my love and encouragement, right along with my own kids. Each has made his or her own life-defining choices. Some have accepted God’s mercy, while others, to my great anguish, have battled to find their message of faith and hope.

My lovely daughter Daniella fought the demons of drugs and, not long ago, passed away from heart failure while struggling to get clean. When I was a young woman, I called my hardships “storms.” Now, my heartaches feel like “tsunamis.” It’s a mystery how God’s power guides my emotions to peace, even through these tsunamis late in my life.

And who would have believed that Jesus would ask me to climb with him to vistas above the tsunamis, at my age?

As a wronged bride, rejected and alone, a thread of indignation had tangled itself around my heart. Throughout my life, anyone who failed to express proper remorse after hurting me invited my outrage. I thought that they should feel guilty for their offenses. They owed me remorse.

In the last three years, I have embraced mercy like an old friend, freeing everyone and myself from any unforgiveness that might encumber relationships. No one owes me! No one needs to answer for or regret his or her hurtful actions for me to forgive. God has set me free — AGAIN!

In a class that I teach called Genuine Forgiveness, I never conceal the mess in my message. For 38 of my 71 years, I have lived among my precious Colton church friends, and my trials and triumphs show like a diorama for all to see: my ministry, my marriage, my children.

I know why it’s so easy to love others today. The Bible spells it out:

Those who have been forgiven much, love much.

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