The first time I saw Dawn*, she was drinking beer on a dilapidated porch with a couple of men. Dawn was an expressive fast-talker in her fifties. She was missing a number of teeth, her hair was askew, and it visibly pained her to get up or walk.
It was clear that her life had been difficult, but she cracked jokes and shared openly about herself with my friend Peter and me—strangers who had walked up to her porch.
About three years earlier, Peter and I had decided to start spending time ministering to people who lived in a low-income neighborhood nearby. We started by walking the streets in pairs, introducing ourselves to people. Some people were receptive, while others were not. We encountered lonely folks who enjoyed having visitors, shut-ins who needed a ride to Mass, and neighbors who were happy to do Bible studies with us. We also ran into plenty of people whose lives were messy and broken—inwardly and outwardly. When we met Dawn, she was somewhere in the middle: eager to talk about God, but struggling with drug and alcohol abuse.
During our first encounter, Dawn was open and welcoming. She thanked God aloud for “sending us to her porch.” We prayed together, and she asked us to come back soon. Little did I know what a slow, winding road I was about to embark upon.
Words of Hope. Over the course of the next months, Peter and I visited Dawn regularly. Sometimes she was animated and eager to talk. Sometimes she grumbled and grimaced her way through her hip pain but still invited us into her house. Other days, when she was high or drunk, she would wave us away. “Today’s not a good day,” she would yell. “Come back another time.”
Those days were discouraging—two steps forward and then two steps back. Sometimes I wondered if it was worth visiting Dawn at all when other people in the neighborhood were always happy to see us. But as I prayed about it, I thought God was asking us to continue visiting her. I remembered too that on those days when Dawn did allow us inside, she was always touched by what we had to say. Often she would ask, “What’s the word today?” Then we would share whatever God had put on our hearts to tell her. One day it was the parable of the prodigal son; another day it was that nothing could separate her from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). There were so many positive encounters that we decided to keep visiting.
The Seed That Chokes. As much as anything else, Dawn’s living situation was holding her back. Drug dealers came by her house every day. Her relationship with her live-in boyfriend was dysfunctional and joyless. Dawn knew she needed to move out if she wanted to move forward in her life. She told us that the local YWCA could house her and treat her drug addiction. All she had to do was pick up the phone. But that initial step turned out to be a big hurdle for Dawn.
We encouraged her in every way to try to make the move, but to no avail. We gave her packing boxes, and I shared my telephone number, promising to store her possessions until she found an alternative to the YWCA. Half a dozen times or more, Dawn told me she would call soon. But she never did, and as often as not, she shooed us away when we came to visit. Even though she did so out of shame, not anger, it was hard not to feel rejected. Nothing seemed to be changing, and our time and love seemed to be in vain. I felt like the sower in the parable whose seed was cast on thorny ground (Matthew 13:3-8). Is the seed of your love choking? I asked God with frustration.
Not Choking—Just Underground. Unbeknownst to me, during the months that we were out of touch, Dawn had begun contacting churchgoing family members. One of them offered to take her in once she finished drug treatment. At the same time, she began cutting ties with many of the people who had been bad influences. She started packing the boxes we had given her. Beneath the surface, God was helping the seed to grow.
You can imagine my surprise when Dawn called out of the blue to say she had moved out of her house and into the YWCA! This was several months ago. Now she has completed her rehab program, has become drug free and has started attending church—not just once, but twice, a week. With her drug habit gone, also gone is the shame that prevented Dawn from attending church. Her next step is hip replacement surgery, then a search for a job.
Every positive step that Dawn took was like the fulfillment of a dream I had long held for her. I expected that her story would end differently—more tragically, in fact. What a relief it was to see that her transformation didn’t depend on my wavering faith, but on God’s abundant grace instead.
Trusting “The Slow Work of God.” My years knowing Dawn have been a lesson in following the motto of the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. “Above all else,” he said, “trust in the slow work of God.” What seemed to me like a never-ending cycle of backsliding was actually God’s slow work of making Dawn his disciple. I helped plant the seeds, but God was the one who made them sprout over time.
Paul hints at this process when he writes, “What you sow is not the body that is to be but a bare kernel of wheat. . . . God gives it a body as he chooses” (1 Corinthians 15:37, 38). I do not know the end of Dawn’s story, or mine for that matter. But by trusting God even when it seems fruitless, I’m beginning to see that no work of mercy is ever in vain.
Michael Busk lives in South Bend, Indiana.
* Name changed to protect privacy.