Explicit Hope: Norma’s story

Explicit Hope: Norma’s story

Community Stories

The first time I heard a piece of Norma’s story was a week after she moved into her apartment. We sat in the sun under a tall tree in the center of Homeward Bound’s new Compass Point Village. The newly renovated hotel strangely reminds me of Haywood Street in some ways—God’s beloved and too regularly overlooked, welcomed into a place where they are wanted and safe.

As we caught up before diving into her story, one of Norma’s neighbors shouted angrily at a young woman who looked to be impaired in some way, threatening her if she didn’t fix her dropping pants. The yelling went on for a couple of minutes until, when addressing the young woman by name, Norma calmly and affectionately called out, “Hey, Baby Girl. Go ‘head and pull up your pants.” Without fuss, the young woman respectfully complied, ending whatever scuffle was to ensue.

Watching this interaction, I saw clearly how the woman sitting beside me, the one who emitted unpretentious wisdom and resolute sureness, is unrecognizable from the one I met a year ago. Back then, Norma could be found curled up under a blanket in the lobby, sleeping off a high, restless night. In those days, she was unpredictable and often difficult to talk to. Apparent in the curves of her mouth and in the shadows under her eyes was a heaviness and sorrow I now understand was the result of repressing decades’ worth of pain.

Norma began her story by reflecting on the incident that led her to substance use and homelessness. “In 1992, my live-in boyfriend murdered my two-year-old daughter.” Matter-of-factly and without pause, she continued, explaining how that was when her life spiraled out of control. Overcome by grief and guilt, she distanced herself from her other children and, for the first time, turned to drugs. “All I smoked was crack,” she told me, “Because crack didn’t make me think about it. The pain that I was feeling—it numbed it.”

Mindful of how our capacity to hope seems to wane as time passes, I understand how the years of drug use and abuse might have left Norma believing that hope was just a tale from a storybook. Hearing from childhood the oft-repeated promise of life’s blessings, joys, and security given to God’s children, life frequently unravels a different reality—one burdened by death, cruelty, and relationships lacking security. When hope isn’t taught as faith-filled anticipation for what’s to come but rather as promises for  earthly gain, it will lack gravity and mutate into forsaken impossibility–into hopelessness.

And this is where Norma existed for 30 years.

Experienced in the form of violent partners, physical and sexual abuse to sustain a drug habit, and rejection and abandonment by people around her, she moved through the world, in and out of homelessness, numb and detached. It wasn’t until the discovery of a severe heart condition requiring surgery that Norma would be confronted with a decision to make. “I had a choice,” she said, “whether to live or die, and I wanted to live.” Knowing heart surgery was imminent, Norma decided to begin the grueling and nearly impossible road to recovery.

“Before I went into open heart surgery, I had a talk with my maker. I said, ‘Lord, if it’s your will for me to live, that’s what should happen. But when I wake up from this surgery, I don’t want to be the same. I want to have a smile on my face and happiness in my heart.’” Norma continued, “And well, when I woke up from surgery, I had a smile on my face, and happiness was in my heart.”

Seeing the contentment in her expression, I asked what that felt like for her. A smile appeared on Norma’s face, and she let out a little laugh. “Woah,” she said breathlessly. “It is awesome. It is…peace. It’s joy.” Then she added, “It taught me when I woke up that I loved me. I cared about what happened to me, and I cared about how people talked to me.”

Norma would go on to spend six months in Respite, where she says for the first time she experienced compassionate attentiveness, relentless acceptance, and unearned love by staff. And, although a paper trail will tell you Norma was there recovering from the heart surgery, it’s evident that Norma was also there undergoing a different kind of healing, one that would change the course of her life and the lives of everyone she would meet along the way.

 

“Being on this journey has brought tears and pain, but it’s brought more joy than anything,” she said as she handed me a cold Sprite from her refrigerator. “God has put incredible people along my path.” Norma told me she fully believes the strength she had to make that decision was due to the faithfulness and determination of two staff in particular from Haywood Street—her pastor, Katlyn, and her Respite Social Worker, Robert—who she said refused to give up on her even when she was at her lowest.

“I didn’t have a family before, but I have one now in Haywood Street Church. I love each and every person there, just like they love me,” she said. “They loved me through my good and through my bad. They loved me when I was sad and when I was happy. They showed me that there are people who absolutely love you just for who you are.” 

Coming up on eight months substance-free, Norma said there’s no turning back for her. “I’m only moving forward, and it’s only possible because God is with me.”

As I play back Norma’s story on my phone, I’m reminded that when people are cultivated with Christ-like love and held close enough to ferment and mature, hope will always have a chance. It will always peek through the cracks, shining enough light through to reveal a glimpse of what’s coming. This hope isn’t escapism trying to avoid the pres

ent, but, as Katlyn and Robert demonstrated for Norma, it’s a hope that remains present and persists amidst suffering. Found in the crucified Jesus, this hope is the invitation—the responsibility—we all have to participate in God’s now unfolding future. Just as Jurgen Moltmann wrote, “Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present. (1)”

Indeed, Norma has me convinced that Jesus-centered hope, hope too explicit for a storybook, is most apparent when discovered radiating through the fractures of our broken humanity, within individuals least likely to be seen. But I suppose this should come as no surprise because Jesus, the bearer of all the world’s hurts and offenses, has established a permanent place at the back of the line, closest to the ones who, for too long, have gone unnoticed and disregarded.