An exciting car chase with hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage and death-defying turns and stops can take our thoughts far from the reality of hurting children. The action series – Fast and Furious- is reportedly Universal’s biggest franchise of all time, earning almost 4 billion dollars worldwide. Video game spin offs, RadioShack toys, representative rides at theme parks, and a host of other products bring in even more money. It is largely about illegal street racing, car heists, and terribly good-looking protagonists. Some people wait a few years for the next movie in the series to re-experience that massive adrenaline rush;. nothing in the months of that dull interval between installments matches it.
But imagine being behind the wheel in those reckless car chases yourself, on a regular basis. Picture yourself working for a gang, stealing cars for your livelihood. You wouldn’t need to go to a theater to experience a thrilling rush.
That was Maria’s life. She was a member of a Southern California gang. When the gang needed parts to a Honda Accord, they would send her out to steal one. Often she was successful. Evading the police at high speeds on the southern California freeways made her quite the adrenaline junkie. She recalls overhearing police communications that the suspect had escaped, and she knew she had won again. The reward in the neurotransmitter bang matched the money and drugs she was soon to receive as her prize.
But sometimes she did not win the game. Prison was then her reward. So, how did a young girl find herself on such a dangerous career track? The smug Christian response: She obviously made some very poor choices and richly deserved whatever negative consequences result.
Maria was raised by a drug cook, whose specialty was methamphetamine. She and her siblings helped their father with his business. She started using when she was twelve. In her bubble, everybody used drugs. Doctors and police officers frequently came to their home to purchase her father’s work. They might command her respect on the streets, but she knew better. “You think I need to respect you?” she asked one officer. “You need to go pay my father!” But ç
Maria appealed to her boyfriend’s father who was in a heroin stupor in another part of the house: “If you don’t help me now, he will kill me.” The father drove her to safety and to her friend Melissa’s home. Melissa’s mother wept to see Maria’s battered body, but she steadied herself and drove her to the ER. Her tormentor was shot in the head three weeks later in an attempt to rob a drug house.
How does someone in such degraded circumstances – someone so seemingly far from God – become a house mother at Mujeres Nuevo Comienzo?
Maria left the father of her four youngest children in 2013, as he too was abusing her (She had two older sons with another man). The abusive boyfriend directed her to an abortion clinic in the third month of her last pregnancy; fortunately, the test failed and falsely read that she was not pregnant.
Just prior to this, they had a Child Protective Services (CPS) case closing with their four children. Maria had been to a rehab center because she was weary of the cycle of abuse and drug use. She and her boyfriend signed a contract with their social worker that Maria would return to his home, so that she could help take care of the kids, and so that he could help her get back on her feet. They were no longer going to be partners; he had a girlfriend in Los Angeles, whom he would visit on weekends. He would leave food and money for the children and Maria. Maria liked the arrangement.
However, when he returned from his girlfriend, he began to pressure Maria to resume their sexual relationship. She did not want to betray another woman. She had felt that same dreadful pain too many times herself and could not inflict it on someone else. She took a firm, principled stand. On her sixth refusal, he threw her out of the house.
Maria could have fought this; after all, he was the one who violated the contract signed with the social worker. But her emotions were overpowering, and she ran from them as she had done so many times. She left their home and got high to bury the anger and hurt. She became addicted again and lost her children. The boyfriend later added to her pain with the stinging insult, “The kids are better off without you. You are nothing. You’ve tried to get clean many times, but you always give up and give in.” She became dangerously depressed – too depressed to even turn to drugs. She just wanted to sleep all day long. She woke up just long enough to purchase a nine-millimeter handgun with the plan to put a bullet in her head. She was about to execute her plan when her cell phone buzzed. The simple text read, “How are you?” It was from her brother, Neri, who at the time ran a daycare/housing program in Baja closely tied to Mujeres Nuevo Comienzo; he now is the pastor of Calvary Chapel in Vicente Guerrero. Maria tearfully texted back that she could not take it any longer. She had lost her children, was beyond exasperated by her bondage to drugs, and did not want to live anymore. The siblings had been far apart for many years. Neri had traveled a similar path of gangs and drugs, but Maria was vaguely aware that he had “turned his life over to God.”
He begged her to give life one more chance, to come to Mexico to see what God had done with his life. “If you don’t like what He has done with me, you can leave and do whatever you want.”
Out of options, Maria agreed to immigrate to Baja. She arrived at Mujeres Nuevo Comienzo on June 21, 2014. Dorothy held her and asserted that she had been praying for her for seven years. Dorothy also shared that lately, she had been praying that Maria would join them at the new home. Maria’s response was “That old lady is full of it.
In the coming weeks, Dorothy consistently told Maria, “You are amazing! God has great plans for you! You have wonderful gifts! Look how well you did that!” Maria did not initially soak up the encouraging words. They were strange and foreign. She had always heard from every conceivable direction, “You are a piece of crap. You are never going to amount to anything. You were raped? Well, we know you asked for that.”
Maria is not a meek, tentative woman. She would respond to Dorothy’s strange words with a coarse “Whatever!” or a fierce “Oh, shut up!” She did not know how to accept the praise.
“You hear so many bad things about yourself over the years from your parents, from your boyfriends, from the CPS reports, from disgusted prison guards – you begin to believe it all. It took a good six or seven months at Mujeres Nuevo Comienzo before I could begin to hear what Dorothy was telling me. But Dorothy’s encouragement, Neri’s wise counsel, and the strong and previously inexperienced support of her new sisters at the home became tools for God to work his magic.
When Maria arrived at the home she was entrapped in a cement block of anger. She blamed her children’s father for taking them from her. Neri counseled her, “He did not take them; you lost them. When you accept that, you will be OK.” Maria asserts that God started doing things in her life when she got past that major block. “I called their father in California and apologized with my whole heart. I confessed that I was not a good girlfriend. I confessed that I was not a good mother. I forgave him for all the mistakes he made in our six years together.”
Did you catch that? The lady who was victimized by a boyfriend breaking a CPS contract forgave him. The lady who was thrown out after taking a principled stand for another woman forgave her abuser. She didn’t deny any of his mistakes and treachery. She modeled how to move past such mistakes, by taking responsibility for the ones she made herself.
Her former boyfriend didn’t know what to say. He was stunned. He didn’t apologize in return, but since then he has opened up phone and physical contacts with the children and has begun to speak only positively of their mother to them.
Of Dorothy, Maria says, “Grandma, I love her. She has been my angel. Though we have had our differences, I have learned what friendship is from her. In my past, whenever I had a disagreement with another person, I felt a terrible tension. When I first felt that tension with Grandma, she explained that one of the beautiful things about friendship is that we don’t always have to agree. She taught me that I do not need to fall into resentment when someone disagrees with me.”
Of the other ladies at Mujeres Nuevo Comienzo, Maria asserts, “They just loved on me. I have never had friends like that. When I got depressed, they didn’t judge me for coming out of my room with my hair all messed up or getting out of bed late. They were gentle and understanding. I’m in love with these girls here.
Maria left Mujeres Nuevo Comienzo for a short time to live on her own in a trailer and to work at a local home for the elderly, but found that she was not ready for all that time alone. Dorothy called her and asked her to return for a brief term as house mother. Maria agreed to do so.
After a year of sobriety and growth at the shelter, Maria decided to visit her children in California. While there, she determined that she was strong enough to be around old friends and bad influences. “I got big-headed and fell. In just four days everything fell apart. I started using and didn’t sleep for days.”
Missy, a coworker of Neri’s at the daycare program, contacted her through social media and arranged for a couple to pick her up at the front door of the drug house. They took her home for six days to detox. Now that is was clear she still needed the structure and support of Mujeres Nuevo Comienzo, Maria feared that Dorothy would not take her back. She had never before experienced grace after even a small mistake. How could someone forgive such a huge collapse? But when they spoke on the phone, Dorothy simply said, “Just come home.” There was no denunciation, no lectures. So Maria returned home and resumed the difficult but wonderful process of self-examination and spiritual growth.
Recently her world was rocked by a new challenge. “I have never had a healthy relationship with a man in my whole life and I want one real bad.” Every lover had beaten her, or worse, except for the father of her two oldest sons. He had repeatedly asked her to marry him over their seven years together; although he was good to her, she always refused. Why? “Hello! I’m a drug addict. I can’t be a good wife, let alone a good mother.” She had a sense that marriage was sacred and that she did not deserve it.
After discovering that God wants good things for her, she met a young man she found attractive. But leadership counseled her that she was moving too fast. He was not an addict, but he did use and could threaten her sobriety. She gave up the relationship, but it was a terrible struggle. “Jesus has shown me my worth. He has shown me that I can’t settle for scraps anymore. I know this, but I get lonely and disappointed. It is such a struggle to keep those feelings from taking me where they used to take me.”
When Dorothy first asked her the question, “What do you want to do?” it was earthshaking for Maria. Nobody had bothered to ask her before. Nobody had explained that she had a right to dream. She still doesn’t have a full answer to the question – but she is learning. She can’t quite answer the question, “Who am I?” But she is learning. When I asked her how she could ever replace the great rush she got from outflanking the police in a one-hundred-mile-per-hour car chase, she immediately answered that the new rush is in service to women. She asserts that this high is far better. She confirms the truth expressed by William Wordsworth in the chapter’s opening quote.
She hopes that a beautiful marriage is in her future, one like her brother Neri has with his good wife. But she now knows that God’s definition of a good man is far different from her old definition. She didn’t think a man loved her unless he was insanely jealous and hit her. Around the clock, desperate phone calls were not viewed as insecurity, but instead as love and passion. She used to look for those green eyes, tattoos, and swagger. Now, she is trying to let God do the looking as He sees better qualities that she may miss.
When asked about the most important things she has learned at Mujeres Nuevo Comienzo, Maria is quick to point to her new mastery over anger and her fresh ability to make and keep friendships. “I learned that I could let go of anger – that I do not have to stay angry all the time.” When new children in the home touch her stuff, she can calmly set a limit and let it go. “I learned that I don’t have to get upset when one of my sisters is angry. It usually has nothing to do with me. I used to think that everything had to do with me.” While unaware of it, Maria perfectly demonstrates the power of cognitive therapy and the importance of “taking every thought captive” (2 Cor. 10:5).
“I also learned here that I can have friends. In the past, somebody always wanted something from me, and I wanted something from them. We used each other. We would always say, ‘I’m down with you,” but you always go to jail by yourself. Now, I know that I can be a good friend and genuinely love people. At the end of the day, I thank God for this place. There is nothing I would not do for this place or for Grandma.”