I spent the first semester of my sophomore year in Guatemala, studying abroad and serving in a girls orphanage. Second semester, I moved back home to work and save money before moving to Fresno to finish my last two years. I had a variety of part-time jobs: house cleaning, baby sitting and assisting in the county’s ESL classes. My most interesting job during those months, was working for a fascinating woman named “Deanne Delacruz” (though I’m not convinced that was her real name). Deanne owned a small women’s boutique downtown and I, along with a couple of my besties (small town perks), would take shifts manning the shop. Deanne was eclectic, confident, and British. She was certain her little shop would be a trend setter for our sleepy mountain town. Sadly, but not surprisingly, her business closed after about 12 months.
Working at “Dee’s” wasn’t risky. It was easy and brainless and entertaining. One time a young high school girl came in to buy lingerie to surprise her boyfriend. I told her I needed to see ID to finalize the purchase. “I’m sorry. I can’t sell lingerie to a minor. It’s the law.” She left confused and empty handed.
Rabbit trial. Sorry. Back to my failed risk.
One afternoon, while I was manning the shop, a woman came in and began browsing. She had a young boy with her who looked to be around 3 years old. I said “hello” and offered to help if she had any questions. As I observed her from the back of the store, I quickly realized she was not there to shop but to get out of the cold. She walked around slowly, pretending to shop, and then, after about 5 minutes, said “Thank you” and left. A few other women came in and she went out and I quickly forgot about the young mother.
She was back the next day. This time she and her son stayed longer. So long, in fact, that I invited her to sit and chat for a while. It was obvious that she was lonely and cold and since it was a slow day at the shop, I was glad for the company. She began to share a bit about her current situation and why she spent her days wandering our little city. Very early on the conversation I realized I was potentially walking into a sticky situation. Multiple times while she was speaking, her three year old son would lift up her sweater and nurse. I tried to maintain eye contact and hide my shock. Honestly, I don’t remember her exact name so for the sake of the story, I will call her “Lana.” I do, however remember her boyfriends name, “Grey Wolf.” Not joking. According to Lana, her boyfriend, and the father of her youngest child, was a professor of Native American history at a nearby college, though he was currently taking a break from teaching. He was not Native American but was really interested in the culture, particularly their medicinal practices. Do you see where this is going?
Lana shared with me some very scary things about what life was like with Grey Wolf. Things my young, sheltered, innocent ears had not heard before. As I sat in my swivel chair on one side of the counter, listening to the young mother on the other side of the counter, it was obvious to me that the best course of action was to fix this woman’s life. Sure, I was 19 and incredibly naive but I could totally rescue this woman and her two children from her abusive, psychotic, hallucinating, drug-addicted boyfriend. So I gave her my number and told her to call me if she ever felt unsafe or needed help. Lana left, grateful for my attention and phone number, and I locked up the shop.
My phone rang about 2 hours later.
Lana was panicked and scared. Grey Wolf had threatened her and told her if she left the apartment again he would blow it up with her and the kids in it. He then proceeded to show her the collection of guns and explosives he kept under their mattress. Lana said he had gone next door to shoot up with the neighbor but she was scared of what he would do when he came back.
And so, like any rational human being, I said, “I’m on my way” and drove to her apartment.
Did I mention my parents were out of town for the weekend?
Also, it was raining buckets.
I pulled up to the apartment, adrenaline surging through my body. I was going to save this family. There lives were about to change. Jesus was so proud of me. Lana opened the door, packed and ready. She had no car seats for the kids so we just put them in the back seats and buckled them in. I ran back into the apartment to grab another bag and, I kid you not, just like a scene out of a horror movie, as I turned to leave for the car, Grey Wolf was in the doorway. I thought I was going to die. I may have peed my pants. At least I was going out trying to save someone, right?
By God’s grace, the jerk was so high he had no idea I was even there. Best. Sentence. Ever. I slipped right past him and ran to my car. I drove Lana and her two kids home and set them up in our guest room for the night. I called my parents and filled them in (imagine their emotions, right?) and they instructed me to call the police. Details, details.
I called the police. Don’t freak out.
Over the next few days, Lana and her kids stayed with our family. The women’s Bible study at our church bought the family clothes and car seats and my dad arranged for Lana to move into a half-way house type program for battered women that was run by a good family friend about an hour away. We bought her and the kids bus tickets (at the the suggestion of the program director who emphasized the need for Lana to make the decision to leave on her own), and I was ready to wrap up the crazy situation with a nice bow.
Lana said she needed to get back into her apartment to get something before going to the bus station. She asked if I could drop her off their and then she and the kids would walk to the bus stop. She assured me Grey Wolf was out of town and she would be fine. We hugged, cried, prayed and promised to keep in touch.
Two days later, on my way to the shop, I passed Lana walking along the side of the road, pushing her son in the stroller we had purchased for her. I was stunned. I immediately pulled over and ran to talk to her. When asked why she was still in town, she told me that she had been calling Grey Wolf from our house and that he was so sad without her, promised to change, and so on and so on. She said couldn’t live with herself knowing she had broken his heart. I wanted to break his face. Then she said something that stung and stuck. She looked me in the eyes and said, “And, honestly, I just thought you would have done more to help me.”
I remember not being able to see through the tears that immediately filled my eyes. I also remember feeling incredibly angry. I turned, saying nothing to Lana, and walked back to my car. I cried all the way to work. I was confused and mad and heartbroken and my pride was hurt. I had risked a lot to help this young woman and she had just thrown it back in my face. My heart got a little bit harder that day.
Over the years I’ve learned a lot about loving and serving the deeply wounded and broken. At 19 my world was very black and white. I know now that there is a lot of grey and a huge need for grace to cover all of it. I still think about Lana from time to time and wonder what happened to her and her children. Taking the risk to get involved in her life and her pain and her mess was costly. It cost me hope and joy and pride and faith. But I gained something through the risk as well. I got a glimpse into a world I was very unfamiliar with. Addiction, abuse, neglect and hunger were things I had seen in Guatemala but never in my own little city. I gained experience. I learned what I’d do differently next time. I learned that I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was and that I could not save people.
Sometimes risk doesn’t produce a happy ending. Sometimes we risk and end up driving to work in tears. Sometimes we risk and our heart ends up a little harder. But we learn. We learn how to risk better next time. We learn what things are worth risking and what things aren’t. Cause some things aren’t.
But somethings are.