The following is from Lee Anna Stoker, First Fruit Ministries’ Executive Director and co-founder. She works with the residents of Wilmington Dream Center, a transitional housing program of First Fruit Ministries. Please be warned that her words are disturbing:Some things hurt so much to hear we almost can’t bear them. The stories of women who apply for First Fruit Ministries’ transitional housing program, Wilmington Dream Center, can haunt me for days.
For all their chaos, they bring into context the irresponsible choices or self-destructive behaviors that baffle me. Upon closer inspection, I have realized life can make us all irrational at times. We all have our stories. What makes these stories extraordinary is the depth of the trauma and unimaginable cruelty suffered. More than 90% of all the women who have taken refuge at First Fruit Ministries are victims of human trafficking, sexual assault, physical abuse; they come from broken homes of addiction and dysfunction without a compass to go forward.
One story stands out to me as an example of why the work at First Fruit Ministries is so important. Honestly, if it had happened to me I don’t believe I could have survived, much less considered how to move forward in my life. I will say her name is Leah. Walking down the sidewalk one day a van pulls over to ask for directions. As Leah raises one arm to point down the street, in a kind gesture to strangers, the side of the van opens. Two men grab her and haul her inside. There are six of them altogether. They take her to a secret location and brutalize her, uninterrupted, for three days. Leah fights and struggles, finally giving in to unconsciousness as they torture her.
After three days they drive her to another section of town and push her out of the moving van onto a sidewalk. Someone finds her and she is taken to the local hospital where she is in a coma for weeks. After six months and multiple surgeries she is released from the hospital. Her soul is cracked. Emotionally she is shattered. Her life has been stolen. She drifts into substance abuse to hide from the memories and the faces she sees in her mind. From there it is a short distance to human trafficking. A new abuser takes charge of Leah’s life, holding her by the throat as others pay to use his merchandise. This continues until Leah finally escapes, again.
In a state of brokenness and desperation Leah calls me one day. She found First Fruit Ministries while looking online for some kind of help. Can she come here? Will she be safe here? She’ll do anything from scrubbing floors to obeying every rule if I’ll just let her have a bed. We talk over the next few weeks as she gets into a rehabilitation center and tries to find some thread of life she can hold on to. Promising not to “let me down,” Leah is invited to be the newest member of our community. We make up a bed with new sheets. Put together a welcome basket of little comforts. Someone finds a robe that was donated. My six-year old daughter makes a welcome home card for when she arrives. The bus from “rehab” gets delayed, so I go pick her up in the dark of night. Her journey has brought her to the first safe place she has known.
When you have no family where do you go? When no one has any idea how to help you from the things you’ve suffered, where can you begin to heal? After opening in June of 2000, Wilmington Dream Center has been home to almost 400 women and families. You have an opportunity to be the family for Leah. If you want to be part of a community doing things that really matter, please consider a gift to First Fruit Ministries this season. Let the kindness in you be a comfort to ones like Leah. Stories like hers are not unusual here.
Patty describes the person she was when she came into First Fruit Ministries as totally closed off, angry at the world, a “thug” who’d been dealing drugs, running from herself, keeping the hood up and never smiling. “I was the scariest person who ever walked through the doors,” she said, “not trusting anyone or anything.” She hadn’t had a home in years. Living in a temporary shelter she knew she needed to make a change. In fact, she reports thinking at her first (of three!) interviews, that First Fruit Ministries was some kind of cult; she was so used to there being ‘strings attached’ or a ‘catch’ when someone offered help.
She’s a far different person these days: a woman of grace. One who is peaceful, patient and considerate, joyful, and wise. When you ask her how she got from one extreme to the other she talks about the love she receives here. Love first from Lee Anna and Rick that taught her about God’s love for her. Eventually love for herself. Lastly, the love that she now freely gives away to others. “Love given without any expectation of something in return,” Patty talks about what forms the basis of what she describes as a solid, firm foundation beneath those changes.
Patty has accomplished a great deal while at First Fruit Ministries. In Wilmington Dream Center she is in a position of responsibility and mentors new residents. She went back to school at Cape Fear Community College, simultaneously studying for and being awarded her GED and a Certified Nursing Assistant certificate. She talks about the constant reassurance and encouragement she has received from staff throughout as being responsible for her academic success. “Every time I’d hit a stumbling block, wanted to quit, just wanted to put that hood back on and walk out, they wouldn’t let me. They told me I was worth fighting for and that they loved me.”
Patty looks forward these days to passing her CNA state boards and going to work helping others and speaks of doing volunteer work with women who are caught up in the same cycle she has broken free of, sharing the lessons she has learned at First Fruit Ministries, and most importantly, passing the love on.
Outside in the cold of winter is not the most ideal place for eating your evening meal. But no matter the weather, there is always a crowd when the “chicken bus” shows up. The “chicken bus” is the affectionate nickname given us by the local homeless. Just like the chicken bus, you can always count on Robert to be there. Even if you don’t see him, you know he’s close by when you see that bundle of bags he carries on his back; his only possessions which he takes everywhere. Never much for talking, at least in front of other people, in the beginning he always waited for others to eat before getting his plate, not out of respect necessarily but because of feeling like an outcast. He was always the last person to leave, staying to clean up the paper cups that others left behind. As we began to get to know him and he learned to trust us, he started staying later and later.
For a while we had to refer to him by his full name, Robert Leon Davidson. He would remind us when we didn’t. We discovered he had a love for the beach and the water. However, when offered a jeep ride on the beach, he politely refused. A life on the streets can make a person wary of others. A life on the streets can hinder your ability to relate to others.It wasn’t always this way for Robert, as far as we know. He had a job; he had a vision for the future; he had goals he was working toward. Something happened in his life to bring him to the streets. We do not know the details, only that he was falsely accused of something he did not do. Because of that act he lost everything and found himself homeless. A life he had never imagined.One day Ron, the Outreach Director at First Fruit Ministries, was talking to some of the guys about an experience he had with Jesus. The Lord showed up in his boat one night while he was fishing and danced with him. Robert exclaimed, “You dance with Jesus? When God touches you, you know you’ve been touched!” He got it. He knew that the Lord can change a life; he saw Him in the teams that reach out on the streets at night. We realized in that moment that we were in God’s classroom learning a lesson from one of the “lowly” about the nature of God. That all it takes is honest love and relationship to open someone’s heart.
As time passed and as we were consistent in our relationship with him, he let us use just his first name. He no longer waits until everyone has gone through to get his plate. He trusts us enough to come and use our laundry facility and take a shower. We are building a relationship with him, not for some end result, but because that is our honor. We are called to the lowly and the broken, to the poor and the captive. (Isaiah 61:1-3) Very often on the street we find, like that classroom, the roles switched; we are the students and the ones we serve are the teachers. In giving we always receive more than we share. Be blessed. Share what you have. Love with the love you have been given. Amen.
“I felt like I had my world ripped out from under me; I was devastated, empty, and lonely.” This is how Sue described her feelings after losing custody of her toddler, Adam. Adam’s father was in a life of substance abuse and the family was barely housed. Living from here to there, things had deteriorated and the relationship had gotten ugly. Adam’s father and Sue had gotten into a heated argument. She threw something at the father and, by mistake, hit her son instead. At the hospital, they told the doctor the truth about how the accident occurred. Department of Social Services was called. A DSS worker came and immediately removed Adam from his parent’s care. Thankfully, Sue’s mother was able to take the baby into her home.
At first, as Sue attended classes and kept her appointments, she was allowed supervised visits with Adam at her mother’s house a few days a week. Several months of classes and appointments later, Sue’s DSS worker allowed her to have Adam three overnights a week. Arrangements were made for Adam to move in and they transitioned from the single women’s residence hall to the family hall. In addition to what she was learning through counseling and anger management classes, First Fruit Ministries was teaching her, “structure; how to live a healthier life; how to accomplish goals; how to communicate better with other people.”
Sue was picking up life tools; learning how to manage herself.
In order to regain custody, Sue had to meet a list of requirements, one that included separation from Adam’s father, counseling, working a 12-step program, attending anger management classes, mental-health treatment, and finally, stable housing. Lacking support from Adam’s father, unable to stay with family, with no money and no job, Sue called First Fruit Ministries. “I would’ve been at a homeless shelter [instead of a home.] DSS wouldn’t consider that stable housing,” Sue said as she talked about how she ended up at First Fruit Ministries’ transitional housing program: Wilmington Dream Center. Sue needed more than a home, she needed a safe place to learn and grow while she did the work she needed to do; she was determined that nothing like this would ever happen again.
Currently, Sue has unsupervised care of Adam on a full time basis. They have a lovely room in the family center of the Ministry campus where Adam can play on the swings and run in the backyard. She expects to go back to court in a few months, at which time she hopes to regain full legal custody of him. “I’ve realized that I can be a single mother,” she says, looking forward to “taking on full responsibility” for her son’s welfare. Sue says she also realizes she needs to continue to work on herself while she makes plans for her and Adam’s future. She is grateful to First Fruit Ministries for making possible everything that has happened and that will happen.Adam is in a safe home tonight because of the support of First Fruit’s donors. Thank you from Sue and Adam for all you do to build healthy families!
The New York Times published an article recently that found, “people are happier when they spend money on others rather than on themselves.” (July 8, 2012, New York ed., headline: Don’t Indulge. Be Happy.) The point was that more money will not bring you joy, but sharing with others certainly will. We would like to thank all of our donors and volunteers for making this year so full of joy. It has truly been an amazing time of community, service, and love. The following is from Joshua Shiver, a regular volunteer with First Fruit Ministries’ Street Outreach. Thank you Josh for all you do. May the Lord continue to change your life as you serve!
“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”-James 2:14-17 I had always thought that feeding the hungry and serving the poor was a novel idea. It was something that all Christians should aspire to do. I was always too busy though: too wrapped up in Bible studies, prayer meetings, and recreational activities to actually do my part to fill the empty stomachs of society’s castoffs. The problem of homelessness was always very cerebral to me: some people make good choices, while some people make bad choices. Those who made bad choices, of course, ended up on the streets.
Everything is cerebral until your own world collapses. When mine collapsed a year ago, God showed me the great disconnect between my faith and my works. I was so adept at leading Bible studies, preaching, and teaching, that I neglected the weightier matters of “justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).One day at work, I got on my computer and searched for local homeless ministries to volunteer with. It wasn’t long before I stumbled across First Fruit Ministries. As I read about the programs offered and as I heard the stories of those who have been changed by God’s work through First Fruit, I knew that this ministry was different.