By Tracy L Geivett (this link is now working!)
Ecumenical Chaplaincy for the Homeless
This story is told to me by my very good friend Deborah who has a heart of gold and a winning combination of tough love and compassion. May you all be so lucky to know a Deborah.
Her story takes place in The Zone in downtown Phoenix, Arizona.
The year is 2003 and having spent the better part of the day chasing and satiating her crack habit, Deborah found herself hungry and with no money. She headed towards free food with a tad bit of trepidation. Church on the Street set up a meal wagon in a dirt lot in The Zone and served up beans and hot dogs on Saturday nights. The catch? You had to sit and listen to the sermon to get your beans and franks. Deborah didn’t really want to listen to the usual Jesus freak talk but she was hungry. Having grabbed her hot dogs and beans she found a seat, however, before the sermon could even begin a woman with the organization, a lay minister, came up to her and very pointedly said “You’re not supposed to be here, God has other plans for you.” In her crack and hot dog induced haze, Deborah didn’t think much of it as she finished eating and hit the road.
The Zone was where Deborah chased her crack habit with a vengeance. Two weeks after her Church on the Street meal she found herself in front of the old building that used to house the Chaplain’s office on Jefferson Street. Not too deep into her crack created fog she noticed with some alarm the woman from the dirt lot approaching her rapidly, ‘So I see you’re still here, I told you God didn’t want you here,’ she pulled out some oil, presumably holy, and made the sign of the cross on Deborah’s forehead and told her pointedly, ‘Get ready because you’re leaving here soon.’ A bit creepy for sure but not enough to be the catalyst for change, however, the stage is set.
Weeks later, once again hanging, this time on Jackson Street, Deborah made the mistake of pointing the way to a crack dealer; her kind assistance in aiding an undercover cop found her handcuffed and taken to jail. She pauses here as she tells her story and mentions that the minute those handcuffs went on, she knew her life changed, she just didn’t realize the direction it would take her.
Finding herself in the not so luxurious surroundings of a jail cell, Deborah lay on her top bunk paging through the only reading material available, the Bible. Thumbing through and reading passages she asked God to give her a sign, ‘If you’re real, SHOW ME!’ Almost a defiant dare I’d say.
She tells how the inmates would attend jail church just to break up the monotonous routine of their days. In telling the story, she remembers jauntily entering the room where worship was held. Looking around for a seat, she settles in as a woman startles her by swiftly approaching and telling her “Hey you! God told me to tell you He’s real”. The chills I got at this point of Deborah’s story are nothing compared to the very tangible chills Deborah experienced in the jail church that day.
Deborah’s crack habit earned her 3 years in Perryville Prison for Women where she worked hard at winning the fight with her addiction and bettering herself with education. Deborah had plans, goals and the grace of God. Her life had changed.
Upon release from Perryville with no family and nowhere to go, Deborah went back to The Zone; this time to use the services meant to move her forward. She stayed at CASS, the Central Arizona Shelter Services homeless shelter located right smack in the middle of the crack cocaine highway of Phoenix. While staying at CASS for six months she rebuilt her ‘life’. She obtained her birth certificate, her social security card, her GED and her Commercial Driver’s License and more importantly she found the strength to stay clean.
She used all the services available to her and moved into her own apartment. Having procured a job driving truck she drove from Arizona to California on a daily basis. Life was so much better than she thought it ever could be but God had yet other plans for her. With the sky rocketing prices of gas Deborah was laid off from driving truck in 2008.
The search for other employment was dismal and she called on her old friend Chaplain Dave. As God had intended all along of course, there was an opening at the Chaplain’s office for an Administrative Assistant.
From one side of the desk to the other...
You see, Chaplain Dave knew Deborah for many, many years. He knew her when she was on the street feeding her habit, he saw in her at that time extraordinary riches that danced just out of reach. Deborah ponders how she ended up back in The Zone under such different circumstances; she see’s acquaintances from her days of using who are still in the haze of their own addictions. She tells how she was worried that being around the persistent demons on a daily basis would lead to again picking up the crack pipe. She shared with tears how hard it was and how she just didn’t understand what God wanted from her.
God brought Deborah back to The Zone to make a difference in people’s lives; I get to watch it every day, front row seat to miracles! I have watched this woman know instinctively what a hurting person needs, be it tough love or a kind word. She has pulled out all stops to make sure a young woman has a bed to sleep in or a young man scared to death is put into the right hands at another agency to make a difference. I’ve seen her chew out more than one person struggling with addiction who tried to tell her they couldn’t do it. Boy golly! Now that’s something to watch! Don’t tell HER you can’t do it! She will pull you right into her life story and you are ‘stick a fork in me‘ done. She understands the hardship but is a walking testimonial to overcoming and not only surviving but thriving! More than once someone has returned to the office to show her their one month chip or tell her they are working hard at turning life around, that they are clean and sober.
It’s plain to see why God wants Deborah back where she started; He worked miracles for her and now works miracles through her. I’m so lucky to have a front row seat.