I sit at my computer, scrolling through the “best photos” folder where I keep pictures of men and women who have lived in our New Earth Recovery community homes. I should be working on the slideshow I’m preparing for the ministry, but I find myself riveted by these faces from the past ten years. In one picture, a man smiles and points to a drug test cup—it’s clean. In another, a woman kneels in the garden with her hands in the soil, her face illuminated by the sun. The next photo features a line of guys on the porch of our men’s recovery home, their arms over each other’s shoulders. In another picture, a woman sits on the front steps of our women’s home, large sunglasses hiding her eyes, her hands crossed over her knees. A man in a tie-dyed shirt fills the frame of another photograph, his fingers upheld in a peace sign.
Which photos to include? One woman is now married and reunited with her children, five years of sobriety behind her. The man with the broad grin later died by suicide, hanging himself from the clothes bar in his closet. A former resident recently called to say he’s now living in eastern Washington, working and happy, and New Earth Recovery was the only recovery program that ever reached him. The woman in the garden photo died of an overdose. The woman on the steps just moved into our second-step house and thanks God every day for saving her from the despair of 30 years of using pills and meth.
Each photo depicts a person in mid-testimony—doing well, pursuing recovery, living in community. Hopeful, changing. None of them knew how their lives would turn out—in some cases a “success story” heralded as a sign of God’s saving power, and others meeting a tragic end that we continue to lament. These are pictures of the now-succeeding, the having-fallen, and the passed-away. Snapshots taken at a moment in time, capturing a season of God-inbreaking that was powerful and real, undiminished by what might come after. As Dan Allender, professor of counseling and psychology at the Seattle School, says, “The story that ‘I was bad and now I’m good’ is much too simplistic for the complexity of our human lives.”
Sixteen years ago, I worked at a walk-in center for immigrant farmworkers and people struggling with homelessness and drug addiction. On Sundays I attended an upper-middle-class church, and I often found myself struggling in the tension between the two worlds. At my faith community I observed people declaring the goodness of God, while also benefitting from a robust relational and financial safety net. On the streets I saw people who had no medical care, no safe community, no savings for emergencies. An uncomfortable thought arose: If God didn’t show up, couldn’t we simply fall back on our own resources? Or does God go all the way to ground zero?
That discomfort led me to the Skagit County Jail in Mount Vernon, Washington, where I began serving as a volunteer chaplain. I came to offer prayer, Scripture study, and a listening ear. But I also came with a need to reaffirm that God was real, that I hadn’t merely imagined God’s hand when it was really my affluence, connections, and privilege I leaned on. When all is stripped away, I wondered, is God there?
God was. In the stark, cinderblock multipurpose room of the jail, I saw God speak to people through Scripture, songs, and their own thoughts when they were locked in solitary confinement. God healed people of their physical pain. God calmed the racing thoughts of the mentally ill. God worked legal miracles. God delivered people from demonic oppression. God’s touch sometimes made people feel high with euphoria. The presence of God was so strong in the jail that the chaplains called it the “holy of holies” of the ministry. God entered people’s stories.
A few years later, my husband and I realized that people caught in addiction needed a safe place to recover, a long-term relapse prevention program with close pastoral accompaniment. In 2011 we opened our first recovery home, and in the next ten years, we opened four more. Some of the people we met in jail moved into our houses, failed, went to prison, and came back to try again. Some graduated, went to school, found jobs, built trusting relationships, and have not returned to drugs and alcohol. Most did well. A few died. One woman is now in ministry, citing those God encounters in jail as the event that changed her life. The stories are ongoing, still being written. I’m mindful of how often in the Gospels the story endings remain untold. What later happened to the woman at the well? The man healed at the pool at Bethesda? The rich young ruler? The man who cried out at the temple gate? Why did the storytellers leave off the endings?
Last year, I graduated from a master of fine arts program in creative writing. As a writer of literary fiction, I resonate with hanging endings. I want my stories to read like life, to paint a picture of a moment in time but without a conclusion, leaving the reader with the sense that the story continues after the final page is turned. I’m aware that some readers are not satisfied; most of us prefer certainty and closure. But I’ve come to wonder whether the story ending—the “what happened?”—doesn’t matter as much as what happened during the journey itself. Is it possible the Gospel writers, subverting our hunger for tidy, victorious conclusions, instead chose to focus on the moment of encounter with Christ, regardless of the outcome?
I remember a woman named Ellie* who lived in our women’s home for a time. Her father had determined he would never bring religion into their home, and Ellie grew up making fun of Christians. But in her 50s, she couldn’t hold life together. Alcoholism had cost her several careers and relationships with her adult children, and God was the one thing she hadn’t tried. She moved into our women’s home on a Sunday, and that night we went to church. When the worship started, Ellie began to cry. I asked her what was happening. “I hear a voice in my head,” she said. “God is saying that whatever I’ve done, it’s okay.” I’ll always recall that snapshot of Ellie in the last row in the dark, tears running down her cheeks. A testimony, a moment, a breakthrough.
Ellie relapsed twice in our program, and the second time she disappeared. Sometimes she’d call me, drunk and apologetic. “I’m still praying every day,” she said. “God is the one thing I haven’t let go of, and God hasn’t let go of me.”
One afternoon I got a call from a relative. Ellie was in a care center, dying of liver failure. Would I go see her? I drove to the next town, and an aide led me to Ellie’s bed. At first I didn’t recognize her. Her face was swollen, her skin ashen. She was unconscious, her breath rattling like water bubbles in her chest. I leaned closer. In the sound of those shuddering, watery breaths, I perceived a voice I recognized. Her roommate watched me with a disapproving eye as I pulled up a chair. I put a hand on Ellie and prayed and read from the psalms. I sat for a time in silence. She died the next day.
In a ministry like ours, there is pressure to cite statistics, as though human lives are binary—success versus failure. But our stories are messy, human, and beautiful. We go forward and back, we circle around again, and God is with us.
In our slideshow, Ellie is counted among those precious photos. She sits outside the women’s house at dusk beside a tiny pumpkin she’d carved into a lighted, grinning face. Safe for a moment in a new home, safe for eternity in a newfound love. Her story is not victorious by human standards. Instead, her story is not knowing God’s goodness, and coming to know it. A testimony of moments, over a lifetime, that matter. ▪
*not her real name