We didn’t see Annie, she saw us.
A handful of us were deep in conversation as we waited for more people to show up to a Community Bible Study. One of the men at the table, Gerard had gotten us discussing how we can better serve individuals as they re-enter from incarceration, as — because of his own incarceration experience — he had become aware of a passion growing within him to address some clear and major areas of need.
Annie wasn’t quite sure why she walked through the door — she just felt like she should — and once in she nervously hovered near the opening in case we wouldn’t receive her, which she had experienced at other churches.
“Are you here for the Bible Study? For NA?” Chris, one of the pastors, asked.
She seemed to struggle to find the words. “I just, I don’t know, I mean, I just saw Bible stuff and wanted to see if you all could pray for me.”
“Come on in!” Chris helped her find a seat. “That’s what we’re here for! You’re welcome here, we were just about to eat!”
Annie sat, seeming both nervous and distracted. “I’m sorry, y’all, I’m just a little high right now. I don’t want to interrupt, I’m sorry.”
“You’re not interrupting,” Gerard interjected. “We’re family here, you’re one of us.”
Annie seemed to relax, but was still distracted as she got her stuff settled around her. “You know, I’ve seen you all before.” She pointed at the individuals around the table. “I’ve seen you, and you, and you.” Some acknowledged they had seen her too, others seemed surprised she recognized them.
I don’t know if any of us had ever talked to her.
Chris began serving food, and Annie felt out of place. “You don’t need to serve me…”
“I’m happy to serve you! What dressing would you like?”
We began to eat, continuing our conversation on how individuals coming from prison are often neglected. Gerard began to share more of his experience and vision for ministry.
Annie interrupted. “You’ve been to prison?”
Gerard smiled. “Yes ma’am. I’ve got 25 years under me; not all at once, I did it in installments.”
“I’ve got 18 years. The longest was 8 years.” Annie didn’t hold back on her story; she shared about her history serving time, her addictions to heroin and other drugs, and her ongoing engagement with prostitution. “I mean, I know I’m doing things I shouldn’t, but, I don’t know, it’s weird, sometimes I still feel like I have some morals inside, you know? Like sometimes when I’m picked up, and I know the guy has a wife or kids, I get out of there. It just feels wrong, you know? I always look for if he has something to lose, I just don’t want to do that kind of stuff.”
She would often hang her head and talk quietly, and it was clear she thought very little of herself.
“You know what?” Chris began, “You’re talking about things you feel like you shouldn’t do; I’m a pastor, and I’m a mess. I have junk too. There’s nothing good in me, except the Jesus in me. Jesus is what gives me value, gives you value.”
Annie continued to shift between being drawn in and being distracted; it was almost as though something within her was keeping her from hearing the truth God had for her.
The conversation continued to be raw and genuine; then, suddenly, Gerard stopped everything.
“Hold up Annie. I’m going to tell you something, and I don’t want you take it the wrong way. I know you don’t think much of yourself, but just now, you were doing something with your hair, and you let it down for a second, and I thought, ‘wow, she’s beautiful.’ And that’s how God sees you, Annie; God says you are beautiful, that’s who you are.”
It was clear that the Spirit had been speaking through Gerard the entire Bible Study — he basically led it — but no moment was as clear as this one, as, with tears welling just behind his eyelids, he spoke into Annie’s identity, humbly shared hidden moments of his story, and made it absolutely clear she was loved. He leaned in and made eye contact; he saw her, and he loved her.
Annie’s eyes tried to hide the tears, and she wasn’t sure how to respond; she quickly began sharing about something else. It was clear she didn’t believe she could be loved, that she deserved love; yet, here she was, in a room full of strangers that loved her like she was family.
As things closed, Annie asked us to pray for her housing and daughter. Those around the table prayed passionately for their sister, and we found her a Bible and introduced her to the staff running NA next door.
Gerard came over and gave her a long, genuine hug, continuing to speak into her identity. She received several more hugs; the way she held each person seemed to indicate that she did not often receive genuine, loving hugs like this.
Gerard encouraged her, “Keep coming back. We’re here every week. Just get to know us and let us get to know you. I’m telling you, God can work; just a couple months ago I didn’t know any of these people, but God’s given me family. God loves you, and he can restore everything you’ve lost. He sees you, Annie.”
I was struck by the fact that Annie had seen everyone in the room in the neighborhood, but some had never seen her. This daughter of the king has spent so long being unseen by so many Christians. And yet, on this day, the Spirit, who has always seen her, led her to walk through a door, where she was seen: not as a drug addict, not as a prostitute, but as family.
And of everyone in the room, Gerard saw her best, and the Spirit spoke mostly boldly through him; Gerard, who has only been a part of the body for a few months, who has served 25 years, who has a parole officer. Gerard, whom many in our body might not have yet seen. This man — who too many Christians wouldn’t see as a spiritual leader — was who God chose to lead, who God used to love his daughter.
Do we see the leaders God is preparing for the Kingdom?
Are we creating spaces for them to lead?
In the few months he had been around, Gerard had been seen. And because he was seen, he was able to see Annie.
Who will Annie see?
Who else is God preparing around us that we need to see?
Who among our neighbors will be like the woman at the well, or the demon-possessed man, who after encountering Jesus, went back and transformed their communities?
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