It’s been a few weeks since I left New York City Relief, and as I have had some time to reflect on my experience, I keep coming back to this theme: There is danger in a single story…

Let me explain.

This is not my line, but rather taken from a great Ted Talk I heard once. In case you don’t have time to watch it, I’ll sum it up for you. When we see people as only one thing – rich, poor, educated, homeless, drug addict, alcoholic, or whatever it may be – we fall into a very dangerous pattern of stereotyping and reducing people to just that one thing. And I get it. There are only twenty-four hours in a day and we can’t go around getting everyone’s story all the time. And stereotyping, although carrying the weight of some negative connotations, is usually based on a partial truth. We categorize because it’s easier. But stereotypes are just that – an incomplete story. “They make one story become the only story.”

I don’t know about you, but before I spent time with New York City Relief, I could count on one hand the number of interactions I had had with a homeless person in the States. I volunteered at a shelter one time around Christmas, but honestly, that’s about the extent of it. I’d like to think I am friendly and have at least acknowledged people on the street, but I also know that I can get inwardly focused, be on a mission, and miss a lot of the things that are happening around me.

So as I was thinking about why that might be, I kept coming back to the fact that I am so quick to stereotype, to label, to put people in a box. I mentioned in my previous posts the importance of listening, and I’m going to continue on that theme.

I had the opportunity to talk with two amazing people – Sean and Marianne – and they both had stories that challenged me to think about people in a new way. At any point on their journey, you might have met them and categorized them (as I probably would have as well) as an alcoholic, a junkie, hopeless, a lost cause. We’re talking about pretty much rock bottom. And yet…

So I want to tell you their stories, and hopefully encourage you to see people as more than a single story, to trust that there is hope beyond what may seem like a hopeless situation, and that people are worth believing in, even if on the surface they appear to be beyond saving. Because the beautiful reality is this: No one is beyond saving.

Let me introduce you to Marianne. I met Marianne on a chilly New York afternoon at the New York City Rescue Mission. She has been in charge of their women’s ward since it opened in July and my first impression of her was that she wasn’t someone you wanted to cross. Don’t get me wrong, she was immediately friendly and welcoming, but there was an “I mean business” way about her. We sat upstairs in the room where I had spent the night only a few days before. She sat across from me in a blue wing-backed chair and pushed her long black hair behind her shoulders.

“I came from a broken family,” she began. “My dad was a gambler, ran with the mob, and spent his life in and out of jail. I was quiet and naïve as a child, not like I am today!” She went on to tell me about her childhood, which was more or less a typical one. She got good grades and kept mostly to herself. Her life would change forever, though, when she met her first love at the age of eighteen and they were married two years later.

“I always said I would never marry a man like my dad, but unfortunately, that’s what he turned out to be.” Marianne started to watch her life spin out of control. “I lived in misery,” she said with a slight shake of her head.

After she caught her husband cheating, she finally had had enough, and they separated. She moved into a new house with their two young children and her hope was that she could build a better life for her small family. She still saw her husband on occasion, however, and ended up pregnant again, this time with twins. In the midst of it all, her mother, who had been her rock, passed away. ” I really couldn’t handle it. I just broke.”

That’s when the drug abuse began in Marianne’s life. “I was doing cocaine, abusing myself, smoking pot, trying to numb my pain.” This lifestyle continued for years, although she was eventually able to pull herself out of it, knowing she was doing irreparable damage to herself and her children, and was able to stay clean for two and a half years.

She ended up in another abusive relationship, which again drove her to cocaine abuse as a means of escaping the almost unbearable pain. “This time I was really out of control.” Again and again, it seemed, she was trapped in dysfunctional relationships that threatened to ruin her. It was the death of her father and her boyfriend overdosing that was the last straw. “I gave up on my life. I didn’t want to live no more. If I wasn’t high, I was working. If I wasn’t working, I was getting high.”

She became isolated, she refused to eat, and was dependent on drugs as a way to simply make it through the day. For Marianne, it seemed there was no light at the end of the tunnel.

But her family still believed enough in her to do an intervention. Despite their frustration with her, they wanted to see her turn her life around, and she was desperate not to lose her children. So she finally agreed to place herself in rehab, not knowing that that decision would alter the course of her life forever.

“When I drove into that place, I felt this overwhelming sense of peace. I’m going to be okay.” Over the course of the next twelve months, Marianne was able to work through the pain of her past. “It wasn’t easy. I had to open up old wounds and start from scratch.” But she knew that she could be more, and felt that if she could make it through, she could help other women who were trapped in similar destructive lifestyles.

In March of 2012, she met the director of New York City Rescue Mission, and he told her that he had never met anyone so vibrant and bright. Quite the change from who she had been over the course of the last decade. She pursued a position with the Rescue Mission and was hired in 2013.

“I have a passion for the homeless,” she said. “God called me here for a reason and that reason is to help women out of that dark place that I once was years ago. Today, I am unshattered.”

—-

I sat with Sean at the New York City Relief headquarters in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He’s the kind of guy you immediately feel at ease around, because he’s quick to engage, laid back, friendly, and outgoing.

Sean jumped right in to his narrative, telling me about his family and his life growing up. His home, unlike Marianne’s was stable and loving. He actually became a Christian when he was sixteen through a Young Life camp, and for the next two years was on fire for the Lord.

But as is the case for many teens, he ended up running with a crowd he wanted desperately to fit in with and it was there that his life went sideways. “I just wanted to be cool.” Can’t we all relate? “I started drinking too much; I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. I got married too young…we just settled for each other, you know? It seemed like it was good enough.”

His story seems typical to me, and one that I think we can all resonate with, at least on some level. He made a lot of poor decisions, drank himself out of multiple jobs, got two DUIs, and was careless with his marriage. “I was still fine in my head, thinking I was just a couple breaks away from figuring it all out.”

But as he waited for those breaks to come, his marriage became a sinking ship, alcohol controlled him, and he dug himself into tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt. “I had boxed myself into a small and stupid life. I thought I had all this freedom, but to say I had freedom would be like saying a fish in a fishbowl has freedom. I was wrecking everything quickly. I thought I was awesome, but my life was a mess.”

At 30, Sean was divorced, unemployed, and a slave to the bottle. He was forced to move home, and while his parents wouldn’t let him drink in the house, he drank everywhere else. The next year was spent in a hazy stupor, and finally his parents came to him and said, “We love you, but you can’t do this. You either have to get help, or you have to find somewhere else to go.”

So Sean walked out. “For a day and a half I just wandered around. I didn’t even have a car to sleep in and I didn’t have any friends reaching out to help me.” That was Sean’s rock bottom. He thought to himself, God, if you’re real and not like the Easter Bunny like people told me to keep me in line, I need you to answer me.

And God did answer. His parents helped get him into rehab and while it was a difficult and painful process, he realized the life he had been living was not the life he wanted. “I got through a third of the Bible in two months,” he said with a smile. “God and I made a new covenant.”

As Sean started to clean up his life and pick up the pieces, he had a friend who introduced him to New York City Relief. “I heard from God that I was supposed to be a life coach. I just didn’t know what that meant.” He began to volunteer and he soon discovered that his calling to be a life coach was meant to be done on the streets. He met people every day that he went out with NYCR who needed the encouragement of someone who had been in their shoes. He understood their struggles better than most, and was able to give them wisdom from his own experiences and mistakes.

“I used to be a black hole of destruction. I wasn’t trying to be in ministry. I mean, I was just a drunk bartender. But God called me out of it.”

Now Sean has been on staff with New York City Relief for two years. He is married to an amazing woman, has a baby on the way, and has worked himself out of the debt that used to have him buried.

“God is faithful to His Word,” Sean said as he leaned back in his chair. “He is restoring everything. I’m like the prodigal son. When I got close enough, God came running.”

There’s a line of a song that says, “O Wondrous Love, that will not let me go…” When I think about Sean and Marianne, I think about that. And I think about all the people who are stuck in what seems like a hopeless situation. Those are the ones who are worth fighting for. We may run across people who we think are beyond saving. But the thing is, no one is out of God’s reach. Maybe they just need some encouragement, someone to say that they are worthy of a second (or third or fourth or fifth) chance.

For me, I never want to see anyone as a single story. Some circumstances people put themselves in through their choices and others are simply the product of a deck stacked against them. Some have had it easy while some have had to fight every step of the way. But as Marianne and Sean taught me through their stories, we’ll never know the impact that a person can have if we give up on them too early. No one is a lost cause.

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About the Author: Sarah is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She has her undergraduate degree in Business Communication from Azusa Pacific University in Southern California and is currently working on her Masters degree in Organizational Leadership. Sarah recently finished a two and a half year assignment working for an anti-trafficking NGO in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she had the opportunity to mentor and lead college students in ministry abroad. She is mildly obsessed with Jeopardy, coffee, running, and the Atlanta Falcons.

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Comments

  1. Ginny said... 

    Reply

    January 28th, 2015 at 2:50 am  

    Thank you for sharing stories of these two people. It reminds me of something I used to see on. TV – by Steve Hartman I think. He discovered that ” everybody has a story” that most don’t ever know !
    God is faithful even to prodigals.

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