I met Nia (not her real name) about nine years ago on the street under an awning on Haight street, sitting with two older men. We saw her on the sidewalk for weeks. We were drawn to her. There she sat with her scruffy grey dog, her beautifully patterned, colorful clothing, crossed arms, and mistrustful eyes. In those early times, she’d greet me with a nod; she didn’t want to talk. Often, she was drunk or likely to get there soon.
Still, after we invited, she would show up to worship in the park with us each week. Even on days when she was completely inebriated, she still made it there. In those earlier days, I wasn’t sure quite what to do with this relationship, but I loved getting to know her. I prayed for her often. One day, lifting her up with the team, one team member clearly heard God tell us, “Don’t give up on her.” We didn’t.
God certainly still had eyes for Nia, sending the Spirit to draw her in. As time wore on, her interest in God shone more clearly. On one camping trip she asked, “Why do we close our eyes to pray?” and, “Why do we call God father?” This sparked a jolt of excitement within me. She was curious and questions kept coming!
Five years into knowing her, Nia found out she was pregnant. Immediately, she sought sobriety and housing. She welcomed her son shortly after, and I remember our whole team squeezing into her room for her housewarming party. It was a holy time—laughing and praying and admiring her cute son, and celebrating what she had accomplished. Then, last year, Nia stumbled. On her way home from the store, a cop caught her intoxicated with her son. Child Protective Services took her son from her custody, the police took Nia to jail, and her dog to the pound. That night at our team’s community Bible study, we wondered where Nia could be, knowing how faithfully she attended. Together, we prayed for her and whatever was happening that night that kept her from joining us.
The next morning I found her in jail. Nia was a mess, and so embarrassed. Her eyes were heavy, but determined. She hadn’t received her medications in jail and was battling intense suicidal thoughts.
I assured her that we weren’t mad at her and still loved her, and that we had found a pastor and his family who were willing to fast-track through the foster care program to take custody of her son. Nia was so relieved; she was very concerned for her son’s safety and to know that he was with a safe family was huge. I walked with Nia through her court process. God opened bureaucratic doors to get her beloved dog out of the pound, to help me get into her apartment to keep her fish alive. For a few months I met up weekly, or sometimes even twice a week, with her caseworker, CPS worker, worker from homeless prenatal, drug dependency worker, and attorney to talk about next steps.
While we worked to ease her worries outside bars, Nia still struggled behind them. During that time the only place she found relief from these overpowering negative messages was on her knees in prayer. “I can’t do this anymore,” she told God, and begged him to help her change for good. Whenever she knelt down she would experience the presence of God and feel safe, so she spent five days on her knees. Before that time in jail she knew about God; afterwards she knew God personally because he had met her in her place of need.
When Nia was released from jail the judge released her into my custody, and she moved into our InnerCHANGE house. We went on a camping trip with other Christian friends and there she express her need for Jesus and told me she wanted to be baptized. I asked if she wanted a clean start with Jesus. She looked into my eyes, dead serious. “More than anything in the world.”
Within a week she received a space in a women’s rehab a few blocks from my home, a miraculously short turn-around. Soon after, the pastor’s family who had custody of her son moved into our house.
When Nia graduated from rehab, she moved back in with us and worked to regain custody of her son. When the workers gathered at our home to visit Nia, they were amazed at how well she was doing, and how she was living with people who loved her. They asked questions about what kind of place would do something like this for her.
Nia had completed the court ordered rehab but still struggled, and relapsed once more shortly after moving in with us. She agreed to try the Christian discipleship inpatient program we recommended to her. At that point Nia came to a place of real brokenness. She finally owned her need for God to be the King of her life and handed over control to God. She had a complete shift, moving from a place of knowing God and praying all the time, to actually putting God in charge. She got out the tears, owned her own brokenness, and did a lot of inner healing work. Each time she went to drug dependency court, she would share her testimony. “Hey! God is healing me from the root problems that I had, and not just being addicted—the anger, the loneliness, the depression—the things that led me to drink in the first place.” Over and over she shocked her caseworkers with her dedication and visible change.
Still in the midst of her inpatient discipleship program, Nia has become a humble disciple, passionate about reaching others with the love of God. One time when I visited her, she shared a burden she was carrying for a friend, a heroin user that we hadn’t seen around our area (the Haight) in a long time. He was doing very poorly and Nia wanted to pray for him and desperately wanted him to know Jesus. So we prayed. On a whim I had her make a video to share with him if by some miracle we ever crossed paths. That very week he showed up in our park for pancakes after many years of absence. His jaw dropped as he watched the video from Nia, “I love you and I’m praying for you.” Then she shared with him about how God had worked in her life.
While Nia’s newfound apostleship grew, I found her story opening new doors for me to share as well. Many people in Nia’s situation don’t have a sober friend who loves them, believes in them, and advocates for them, much less someone who’s known them longer than two years. So it was always fun when people connected to her case asked how I knew her so well and why. Each time, I shared that like Nia, I love and seek to imitate Jesus—a homeless man who spent a lot of time on the street loving neighbors.
Currently, Nia is still doing great in her program and has custody of her son. She’s doing outreach as part of her discipleship program, sharing her experience with God in the nearby housing projects. Eight years ago God told us not to give up on Nia. Whereas I saw her as a sad, guarded girl in colorful array, God knew her as a grinning missionary in colorful array. As she continues to walk with her son, her dog, and her best companion Jesus, I’m thankful to know God invited me along to get to know a dear sister.
She graduates from her program in six months, and I can’t imagine what God is going to do next!
In the words of Nia: “I feel like I now have a purpose and a calling in life—the Lord really does answer prayers! Now God puts things on my heart to do—I really want to help people! Now, you all stay on the path, and he will take you where you need to go!”
From Claire Howard, InnerCHANGE, San Francisco
We're excited to share a few stories of where we've seen God on the move among our staff this year! You can learn more about the impact of our ministries around the world by downloading our 2016 Annual Ministry Report, a colorful two-page insert that shares the reach and focus of our ministries, stats on some of the results we've seen over the last year, and how we have stewarded our finances as an organization.