Written By Richard Drebert
©Good Catch Publishing
We were catching up, rapping about old friends that we had in common, as he walked me home from Jack in the Box. I hadn’t seen Rex in five years, since junior high. He seemed nice, kinda handsome, pleasant. At the door of Mama’s apartment, he had paused, and I said, “Would you like to come in for a minute?”
He hesitated, glancing past the doorway into our living room. Then he nodded, smiling.
I was about to pour Doritos into a bowl or offer Rex a Pepsi. But he didn’t flop on Mama’s couch like I expected. He flipped open a knife.
I felt the blade on my cheek, and Rex shoved me into my bedroom. If I wanted to survive, I didn’t dare fight. On the bed where I slept every night, I lay paralyzed in terror, his strong fingers around my throat. He smothered my head with my pillow, and I tried to block out his muffled threats for a few moments.
It’s happening again …
The front door slammed behind my “friend” as he left.
The police caught Rex, a known crack head with a rap sheet of violence, but the rape case never went to trial. Rex pled out and served two years.
This was the second time I had been raped; the first was when I was 14. My childhood assault had stamped a barcode upon my soul: Dirty. Nasty. Slut. My second rape deepened the brand, and I thought I would carry it as long as I lived.
After this second rape, I awoke each morning for college classes in the grip of fear. I was in the process of transferring from a community college, El Centro, to the University of North Texas in Denton, but my pregnancy stopped me dead.
Diapers or academics?
It was an easy choice for a young woman on course for an English degree. I identified with my idol, author and playwright Lorraine Hansberry, an African-American woman who achieved the impossible at an impossible time in history. She won fame with her play Raisin in the Sun and her story To Be Young, Gifted and Black.
I disposed of my little, living problem at an abortion clinic. But I could not dispose of my fear.
My sister had been born three years ahead of me, and she was different. Something in Sasha stayed innocent, childlike, as we grew up together.
My dad and mom moved us from Shreveport, Louisiana, to Dallas when I was around 3, and in the years to come, I felt like it was my responsibility to care for Sasha.
Most of my Louisiana kin on both sides of the family had settled about 30 miles outside of Shreveport. My grandma was my mother’s backup during my dad’s wandering years. Dad and Mom always seemed to be angry at each other, and I felt like extra baggage in their lives. When I was about 10, Dad let me know what he thought of me. He told me that I was a “mistake.”
Although I grew up in Dallas, Texas, I’ll never forget the times we visited Grandma in Shreveport. Her white house with faded green shutters had five small rooms and no indoor plumbing until I turned 13 or so. A rickety outhouse squatted in her backyard.
My stern little grandma never complained. On visits, we took our baths in a big tin tub, with water heated on the stove. My relationship with Grandma always seemed strained, like I stretched out for her, while she ignored me and inched away just out of reach. I got used to it. And I had to learn to love my mama from a little distance away, too. She inherited her mother’s coldness.
My mother was born in the early 30s, one of four daughters, and she grew up picking cotton to make ends meet for the family. Her dad had died when she was 5. She worked as a maid for years and later learned how to be a pastry chef. Mom’s determination and talents kept us in rent money and groceries long after she sent my dad packing.
Sometimes Mom lacked gentleness in her words, but she showed love to her family by her loyalty and steadfastness. She worked hard to provide for us.
My father convinced Mama to leave Shreveport and move to Dallas, and Mom landed a good job preparing food for airport passengers, while Dad worked wherever he could.
Mom found a retired school teacher, Miss Gracie, to babysit us while she worked. Dour Miss Gracie took Sasha and me to a Methodist church — my first taste of religion. For two little girls, the services seemed boring and starchy.
In time, my mom and dad separated, and I hungered for a mentor, a guide, who should have been my own father. My search for affection and fulfillment would lead me to heartache time and again. Mama seemed preoccupied, coping with life without Dad, working her shifts and taking care of Sasha. Everything I learned about sex came from girlfriends, and it all seemed mysterious and a little scary. I had no clue what a healthy union between a man and a woman looked like. My mother and father were my twisted role models.
For years, Sasha and I had been visiting Grandma in Shreveport every summer, often staying for weeks. On my last visit, I was a boy-crazy, mature-looking 14-year-old. Grandma kept track of us granddaughters like an old mother hen, while Mom was back in Dallas working.
But one day, a young man we all knew asked if he could take Sasha and me to a movie. Grandma, usually so strict, loosened her reins a little. Our 18-year-old family “friend” seemed so respectful that Grandma let herself be sweet-talked into letting us go with him.
“You be back here right after the show!” she warned, and Sasha and I bounded off to his car.
When we came home to Grandma’s, I was shaking, crying. Our “friend” had forced himself on me at a Shreveport park after the movie. I was bleeding, and my auntie took me to the hospital. As much pain as I was in, I knew I faced worse when I told my mama.
Without empathy, Grandma sat me down and said, “Either you tell her yourself, or I will, Sofia.”
I stalled as long as I could, and one day Mama called me. I pictured her at a familiar payphone near our house in Dallas. No need for me to explain: Grandma had told her everything.
Mom flipped out on me. It was all my fault. She was on the way to pick me up. Get Sasha ready.
My mother blamed me for my rape, and I was devastated by her coldness. About that same time, Dad disappeared for months while I pined for a daughter-to-dad conversation. He never showed up once, even when he promised to come. I was a freshman in high school, and I felt cut off from my parents. I didn’t consider myself “fine,” so in the following months, I gained a perverted self-worth from pleasing boyfriends, their ways. I was damaged goods, anyway.
At home, I withdrew into a fantasy world of Harlequin Romances, which glamorized the brief romantic encounter that “all” women craved. Mom had an eighth-grade education, so she was happy to see me with my nose in a book all the time. She never even asked what I was reading.
I was 16 when Garth strutted into my life, a real nice guy, whom I kept happy. But it wasn’t too long before an inevitable consequence began taking shape. I never mentioned to Mom I was pregnant, but my miscarriage was impossible to hide. Mom helped me take care of things but didn’t talk to me for weeks. After losing my baby, a strange, unnatural depression invaded my mind and never left.
I continued to search for love “in all the wrong places,” while a gentle, intangible force seemed to propel me toward something. I maintained honor roll and set my heart upon becoming an author someday. I certainly had a lot of passionate emotions to write about!
As for my concept of “God,” I decided that even if there was a benevolent entity, he wouldn’t want to associate with someone so tainted as me. I graduated with honors — and into party life, movies, drinking and sex. I was 18 and under no one’s thumb anymore. I had plans.
The second rape at knifepoint just before my 20th birthday provoked me. I was determined not to allow a crack addict to ruin my future. Like my deceased mentor, the author I had never known, Lorraine Hansberry, I faced the impossible at an impossible time.
Because of unrealized dreams, my inner barcode blazed brightly, and my poor choices glowed like a laser, illuminating every failure.
Lorraine Hansberry — what would she have done? Not mope. She’d work. Hard.
I found financial aid and enrolled at the University of North Texas in Denton, focusing upon a degree in English. I stayed near my campus, and my social life took a back seat to studies. I worked as a resident assistant in a dorm and riveted my efforts on graduating.
One semester I lived with Mom to regroup after a long, hard year of studying and working a warehouse job. Mom had opened her home to me, and I was resting before plowing into college again. Only nine class hours stood between me and an English degree!
On my birthday in March, a few months before graduating, my triumph was in sight. I fantasized about moving to New York to pursue a writing career or maybe finding a teaching job. With some girlfriends, I hit the Houston clubs, feeling utterly unleashed. We danced into the early morning, and I met a guy for a Harlequin-style romance.
In April, I realized I had danced with abandon a little too soon, and I got a job at a daycare center, trying to make sense of my options. In nine months, if I let it happen, I would be responsible for a new life.
“How far along are you, Sofia?”
Mom just looked at me, with her dark, accusing eyes. I hadn’t said a word about it, and she knew. “Baby, what do you want to do?”
I shook my head and didn’t answer. I was 24 and pregnant. I had failed again. My future potentially lay in shambles.
Guilt and depression saturated my thoughts when I tried to set up an appointment with an abortion clinic. Every time I called, the clinic was either booked up or closed! I hated waiting even one day; I felt my baby growing.
Finally I nailed down an appointment, but canceled again when they told me it would cost $300. I couldn’t get that much money together! Should I borrow it? I decided to wait, just a little while …
One night my child came alive inside me, and she no longer felt like my “mistake.”
“Honey, if you keep the baby, I’ll help you through this.” Mom was in it for the long haul, and I knew I could depend on her.
My mother helped me make the decision that would ultimately save my life.
In September, Delaney was born, three months premature, at 2 pounds — and I fell in love with every ounce.
Her tender beginnings were full of illnesses and extended hospital stays. She finally came home for good on Christmas Day after a bout with respiratory stress virus. Mom was in seventh heaven holding her beautiful granddaughter. We rolled Delaney’s bassinet to the foot of her bed, and Mom and I shared a common bond in Delaney that I cherish to this day.
“How’s Delaney? Do you need anything, Sofia?”
Over the weeks at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, I had spent time with Denny and Winnie, a couple with their own 2-pound preemie. I knew they were “Christian” people, but they never crammed their beliefs down my throat. They seemed to reserve a special place in their hearts for Delaney and me. It seemed incredible, since I had nothing to offer them in return, unless they wanted to share a portion of my growing angst.
Denny and Winnie kept in touch with me and even offered to babysit if I needed someone. Their own baby had healed quickly, a peculiar specimen of health, compared to all the other pink preemies in their bubble beds.
“Everything is fine,” I told my friends, “Except Mom. She’s undergoing tests. She can’t seem to kick this flu or whatever it is.”
By February, we would know that my mother’s very life hung by a thread.
“No, Sofia, it’s cancer. It has spread to her liver, from her colon.”
I was near breaking down as the doctor spoke gently about my mother. I grabbed Mom’s hand.
“How long do I have?” she asked.
“It’s hard to say. Not years. I believe probably about six months …”
I yearned for more time to be with Mama. I needed her. Delaney needed her! And Sasha!
Mom’s last two months with me were jammed full of emotional traumas for both of us.
One evening Sasha barely made it home from working her job at a fast-food restaurant.
“Mama, my back … it hurts so bad. Oh, Mama …”
Mom lay in bed, with an expression that said, Oh, God. Now what?
“Sofia, you better take her to the ER. Something’s not right. I can take care of Delaney until you get back.”
About midnight, I sat in a row of blue chairs, watching a drama on TV with no sound, when a nurse asked me to come into the exam room.
My sister was pregnant.
Really? A hopeless rage at life, at Sasha and at myself boiled inside me like a pot of greens. Then, after a few checkups, doctors discovered a tumor growing in Sasha’s womb that affected the development of her baby.
How much more could I take?
I was a 25-year-old working mother. My baby was 7 months old, and Mom needed constant care. My sister was handicapped, pregnant and needed an operation right away to save her baby.
On the day Sasha’s operation was scheduled, Mom suddenly took a turn for the worse.
Who do I choose to be with?
No one was available to care for Mom, so I called the hospital and rescheduled Sasha’s operation. The day the surgeon removed Sasha’s tumor, she went into labor in the recovery room. Sammie was born, weighing less than 2 pounds, but alive.
I was signing insurance forms downtown when my mother died. I had left her door unlocked for a social worker who had come to talk to Mom about hospice care. When I got home, a fire truck was parked outside our door.
Denny and Winnie helped me during the next week, making arrangements for a funeral. They were my big brother and sister when I needed them.
Losing my mother in just two months, rather than six, ignited a seething anger in my soul at God. Wasn’t he supposed to be in charge? Why had he stolen away my mother, just when we finally shared a beautiful common bond, our Delaney?
I muddled through the next year, caring for babies and Sasha, gaining weight and stretching Mom’s life insurance money as thinly as possible — I hated the woman I was becoming.
A writer? An English teacher? What future did I have now?
When Delaney and Sammie were old enough for daycare, I went to work at a healthcare office in Dallas, searching for a little relief in the whirlpool of drudgery I lived in. A friend at work supplied me with marijuana, and I loved the dreamy comfort I felt. But a gnawing depression always followed my highs. I couldn’t wait to gain “relief” again and again. In time, when I opened my eyes each morning, I reached for a joint. And at my lunch breaks. And to help me sleep at night.
For nearly five years, I spiraled deeper through an internal gloom, unrelenting and self-destroying. I hated people around me. I fantasized about murdering those who demeaned me or got in my space. Unforgiveness is like acid. It eats away at the soul. And as I grew older, I added people to my list to blame and despise. By the time I was 30, psychologists had prescribed antidepressants, which only enhanced my addiction to weed. My mind wandered toward ending my miserable life for good.
“I could kill myself right here.”
Every day on the way to work, I pictured myself driving off a bridge and burning to death at the bottom of a rocky ravine.
But my babies saved me. Who would take care of Delaney and Sammie if I were dead? Instead of killing myself, I numbed myself with more marijuana and pills.
I met Raymond after I landed a job at the Greyhound bus terminal. He seemed to really care about me, even though my love for him barely filled a thimble. I hoped that marriage might be the magic to make me feel safe, and it was something I had never tried. We smoked weed together, and the sex was good, so we said our vows and became acceptable to society. My daughter now had a father.
But I had married a man just like the others who had ruined my life. Safe? Raymond had hidden his cocaine addiction well. He demeaned me about my weight, and my self-worth scraped bottom to a new low. We moved to Rockwall and bought a nice house — our first home, which became a gift to my daughters, Sammie and Sasha.
God help anyone who tried to steal security away from my loved ones!
The day we signed mortgage papers, I told my husband, “Raymond, if you make us miss a single payment, I’ll put you out.”
I heard Mama’s voice speaking through me, like she had to Dad. My father hadn’t held to his commitments, either.
Raymond went on a cocaine rampage, spending $1,600 in one night, burning through our mortgage money. My husband loved cocaine more than me, and I couldn’t love him any less. We separated for good.
Life was getting tricky again. Our electric bill alone was $400, and I tried to maintain our big house with a little help from Sasha’s income. I refinanced the house. After about two years, I took on another job, but even working 80 hours per week, I couldn’t keep everything up.
My Delaney was blossoming into a beautiful young woman. She and Sammie were attending church with Sammie’s school buddy Dustin, whose mom picked them up like clockwork on Tuesday nights for youth group, Sunday mornings and even Wednesday nights. It relieved me, knowing they were in good hands. It freed me to nurse my misery with more weed.
“Mama, please come to church with me. Please? Mama, I want you to be with me.”
My daughter was as stubborn as I was. She was my little survivor, and I couldn’t deny her anything that meant so much to her. I finally gave in.
I attended one service and felt like a fish on the bank of a Texas pond. Everybody who shook my hand was scanning my “evil” barcode — I could feel it. I left the church thinking that if God really lived at Oasis, he wasn’t happy that I had come.
Delaney had been attending Oasis for the three years we lived at Rockwall, and she never stopped talking about what she learned about Jesus. I blocked it out the best I could, but something from her soul reached deep, touching mine. God really had a hold on her life, and she had a grip on him.
But I was falling to pieces. Not even weed could deaden my angst anymore. I schemed and pleaded with our bank to refinance the house again, while I was getting behind on the payments. These men in $500 suits were ready to lock us out of our safe place! I panicked.
“Mama. Please come with me …”
One morning I turned down the noise in my head and listened to my 14-year-old daughter.
“Pastor Barney, this is my mama.” I marveled at Delaney’s obvious pride in me as she introduced me to the senior pastor. It broke my heart, but I held myself stiff, like a cat in a dog kennel. Pastor Barney shook my hand.
“What does that say?” He pointed to a tattoo peeking out of my collar.
“It says survivor.”
It was my personal boast inked upon my soul. I was a survivor who always landed on my feet.
Pastor Barney smiled. “Sister, I think that should say ‘Overcomer.’”
My daughter dragged me all over the church to meet her friends, and this time, when I drove home, I felt a peculiar peace that pulled me toward Oasis like a magnet.
And Pastor Barney’s words made me think: A survivor just tried to stay alive. An overcomer had a reason to live.
What was my reason for living, anyway?
Losing my beautiful, secure home was nudging me to the edge of insanity. I dredged up every evil thing I could call myself, adding the list to my barcode. It was my fault that life had foreclosed on my family. I reached out to a psychologist for counseling, but when I opened my mouth, I just cried like a baby. I kept up my job at Greyhound and moved the kids and Sasha to a small apartment. My existence careened down a path of uncertainty.
But Delaney had confidence in her Jesus. “Mama! Now you can go to church every Sunday with Sammie and me. And Sasha, too!”
For some reason, Greyhound had shifted my schedule so that I had Sundays off. I groused about it, smoked a little weed and agreed to go.
At church on a Sunday morning, I finally met Dustin’s mom, Carla. She had been picking up Delaney and Sammie for church for three years!
Carla grabbed me and squeezed me like I was a long lost sister. I tucked in my chin and stood awkwardly, and she said, “We’ve been praying that you’d come. Delaney has the whole church praying for you, Sofia.”
I wasn’t sure exactly what to say. That Delaney!
After my visit to Oasis, I started sensing a presence wherever I went, and it caught me off guard. It seemed like some “person” was knocking at a door, waiting for me to respond. I started talking to God, telling him about myself, and I really felt like he was listening. He didn’t like my weed habit, and I tried cutting back a little, under my own power. I thought I should be a “better person” for Delaney’s sake.
Oasis began seeing a lot more of my family and me.
“How do you know that you’re really saved?” I asked the pastor’s son, Loren, one day in the church office. I was killing a few minutes waiting to pick up Sammie who spent time helping at the church sometimes.
“You mean you don’t know?” My question surprised my friend.
“I wouldn’t have asked, if I knew.” I chuckled nervously.
“Do you want to be saved?”
“Yes, I do.”
Loren led me in a prayer. I asked forgiveness from God for my anger at him. I confessed that Jesus was God’s Son and that I believed that he paid for my sins when he died on the cross. I accepted him into the depths of my soul.
But this was only the beginning of my journey out of despair.Alone with God, my ravaged soul cried out. I needed Jesus to deliver much more than a feeling. I needed a Father and Friend.
I asked God to take care of my abandoned family. I asked him to heal my desolation at being falsely accused when I was a girl. I gave up my rage at being abused by those I trusted. I told God about my murderous thoughts about those I hated, and I asked forgiveness. Every cruel act against me I chose to forgive.
Then I threw open the door of my heart for Jesus to see. I expected him to shrink back, appalled when he scanned my evil barcode — but he didn’t reprove me. Instead he simply removed the barcode completely. I should have accepted Jesus 30 years ago.
The best was yet to come. Over the next few weeks, he lifted all the guilt from my soul. On Sundays and Wednesdays, I spent time at the front of the church, praying at the altar when the service ended. I cried for my past and wept for joy about my pristine tomorrows.
Soon, my sister, Sasha, made the commitment to follow Jesus, too.
“Why don’t you come to our small group, Sofia.” Associate Pastor Shane asked me over, and I joined about 10 people who shared their lives with one another, singing praises to Jesus, giving testimonies of God’s miracles and asking for prayer. I attended this small group without fail, unless my schedule at Greyhound got in the way.
It was at these intimate meetings that I felt Jesus heal my depression and self-hatred. In time, I was able to look in the mirror again and see the woman God saw — clean, joyful and powerful.
One night, Sharon, Pastor Shane’s wife, spoke words to me that resonated in a supernatural way.
“Honey. You’re SAFE here.”
Overwhelmed with the emotions, I sat down for a few minutes to think. I really felt safe. It wasn’t a plastic feeling, like I got from weed, or like I felt in bygone days, lying in the arms of a man. And it wasn’t a feeling of “security,” like when my rent was paid up three months in advance.
Jesus was my new source of safety, now residing in the depths of my soul.
Over the months at this small group, my friends spoon-fed me God’s love, as I was able to take it in. They answered my questions and cared for me, nurturing me to spiritual health for the first time. I began to pray for God to explain what he wanted me to do next.
“Mama, I’m getting baptized.”
Pastor explained to Delaney that her baptism symbolized becoming a new person after she committed her life to Jesus. I stood, soaking in the presence of God at a Saturday prayer meeting, when the Holy Spirit touched my own heart. I couldn’t stop crying, and I knew I needed to be baptized, too.
That Sunday, Delaney, Sasha and I were dunked in the baptismal, one after the other. Sammie was baptized later on.
This was my public statement to everyone I knew that Jesus was the Lord of my life. The moment I came out of the water, a new clarity of direction took hold of me. I knew that my future belonged to God.
In the following months, I set out to change — but this time under God’s care and in his strength. This meant I chose to stop smoking weed and decided not to buy it. God helped me kick the addiction when I cut off the supply. It was like boarding a Greyhound bus: After I decided to find a seat, Jesus did the driving.
One evening at small group, Jody, one of our worship leaders, told me she had a vision about me, and I braced for God’s specific words to my soul.
“Sofia, I see you with wings, but not like an angel.” She smiled the warm smile I loved so much. “You use these strong wings to shelter people. You’re a comforter. A protector.”
It leveled me to tears. Jesus was confirming a gift he had planted in me as a little girl. I remembered what my mother had said so solemnly, as we sat on Grandma’s front porch: “Sofia, I want you to promise me — that you’ll take care of Sasha when I’m gone.” I was 9 years old then. Mom died 16 years later. She seemed to know that I had the compassion and inner strength to be responsible for her needy daughter. God had spoken through her to me.
Wiping the tears from my eyes after Jody spoke, a fog lifted from my senses. I could see God’s hand in my past life clearly, like gazing at mountains through a rain-washed sky. In every traumatic experience and every mistake, God had deposited the courage to help me hold on.
Despite living in a poor, dysfunctional family, he had supplied work and finances for me to attend a four-year college. God had intervened when, in my confusion, I considered aborting my daughter.
God had saved my Delaney to save me!
And when I needed help after Delaney and Sammie were born, God sent me a Christian couple, Denny and Winnie. They encouraged me and helped carry my load when I was desperate.
My kids and Sasha had never been homeless or gone hungry. And now, God had supplied my family with far greater “security” than any big house ever could: loving friends at Oasis!
God isn’t looking for perfect; he’s looking for those who are willing to be perfected.
As weeks turned to months, everyone marveled at the miracle. Jesus had transformed me from a pinched, unhappy woman to a joyful, expressive child of God. I joined the church, and one day Pastor Shane asked me to try out serving with the staff.
“Can you be a greeter for us?”
I hesitated. Me?
“You mean just shake hands with folks? I can do that …”
God’s love had turned my life upside down, and now I felt like the Creator of the universe was drafting me into the front lines of his service. I became one of the first faces that visitors zeroed in on as they glanced furtively through the foyer doors. This first “connection” was the experience that visitors carried throughout the worship service and back to their homes.
God knew what he was doing, because greeting people quickly “grew” me up. I couldn’t be sour, even if the kids were late getting up on Sunday morning. I had to smile sincerely, even if my finances were too short to cover my bills. And it was very likely that I shook hands with people who had worse problems than I had.
If I felt a little overwhelmed on a Sunday morning, all I had to do was remind myself of those inviting smiles the first days that I visited Oasis. Greeters in the foyer were God’s face of love to me.
Soon, my job as an Oasis greeter fulfilled me like nothing ever had.
No matter how guilty a visitor feels, no matter how “deep” their personal gutter, no matter the stench of their sinfulness — I open my arms to invite them to know Jesus.
I love the homeless man who hesitates before accepting an information packet from my hands. I love the couple who barely speaks English, but understands the universal language of a sincere smile. I love my work delegating and organizing greeters and ushers Sundays and Wednesday nights. I serve as co-leader at God’s Girls (for single women) and a class for women called “On Being a Servant.”
Jesus calls me an overcomer. No longer am I merely surviving, and God’s blessings keep multiplying! My dad has finally “come home” to me. My father is my most ardent supporter now, and his words, “I love you,” mean more to me than ever before.
At Oasis School of Ministry, I take courses after a hard day’s work, and soon I’ll be finishing up my degree. I’ve set my heart on going to Southwest Assemblies of God near Waxahachie, Texas. I believe I am called to be a Christian counselor.
I used to measure my self-worth by what others had to say:
“You’re so smart, Sofia, party with us!”
“You’re my biggest mistake.”
“You’re graduating; we’re so proud of you.”
“You’re stupid, Sofia. You should be ashamed.”
“You’re fat. No one wants you.”
“You’re so dependable, Sofia. Work with us.”
“You keep such a beautiful home.”
“You have such a nice smile; you’re so educated; so articulate; you have such a bright future …”
I’ve learned that every harsh or well-meaning sentiment in this life is like vapor in a single breath of time. Now only what God says moves me, and his words define and shape me. He tells me that I belong to him for eternity, and my purpose, day-by-day, is revealed when I read the Bible, his personal roadmap for my life.
God is showing me how to make room beneath my wings for those ravaged by hopelessness, to lead them to the only true security they’ll ever know.