carmella

I hadn’t seen her in over a year, so when our eyes met she had to dig deep to remember who I was.

“I’m Steve…my wife and I used to come over last year,” I told her.

“Steve,” she said with a smile when she finally recalled. Her eyes told the truth, though. They were dark and tear-filled. Her voice was raspy, either because she had spent the evening before yelling at a child’s sporting event or spent the cold evening outside in a car.

It turned out to be the latter.

A year ago, I met Carmella while making “follow-up” calls to Christian Service Center neighbors who indicate that they would like prayer or a Bible study. She sounded like she was full of joy and hope for the future. She told me that she had just gotten out of prison and was on the path to bettering herself. God, she said, would be what gets her through. I offered for Chrissy and I to bring dinner to her house the following Sunday, and we did. We sat around the kitchen in her tiny, dirty (but warm) house, eating, praying, reading the Word. Her fiance (who had a brain tumor) was there, along with her father, daughter, and sister.
It was encouraging.

We did this a few more Sundays, visited randomly a couple times, enjoyed her amazing tortillas, and then one day, we stopped hearing from her. We chalked it up to the geographical and cultural distance between us or busy-ness or something else.
But she came back by the Christian Service Center yesterday.

She was with a new guy, Terrace. She explained the tears in her eyes and raspy voice: She and Terrace had spent the last three nights in an abandoned car (with no windows) after being kicked out of her house by her father. Apparently, she got into a skirmish with her daughter, and the dad kicked her out. She and Terrace hadn’t eaten anything in three days, so they came to the CSC hungry. Through tears and mouths full of homemade coffee cake and Hawaiian Punch, she told me about the last year of her life.

Her ex-boyfriend (with the tumor) physically abused Carmella. Carmella’s oldest daughter came up pregnant, and the father ended up being her ex. She is now estrainged to much of her family, clinging to the only person who was still there for her, Terrace. She owns literally nothing.

Carmella has made some major negative decisions in her life. She probably still makes many of those decisions. She admits this. I’m not romanticizing the situation or placing her on a pedestal as an “innocent victim.” But how can Carmella be helped? How can she, a captive, be “set free” from the cycle of chaos and poverty that grips her? Does the gospel of Jesus alone have the power to “set a captive,” like Carmella, free?

What does “freedom” even mean to Carmella? A non-abusive relationship? Breaking free from the shackles of substance abuse? A deposit on a new apartment?
What is the Christian’s response to Carmella? Chrissy and I struggled with this last fall because as much as we tried to even the playing field in terms of discipleship, we couldn’t escape our completely obvious status as the “rich white people” in the relationship.

What are systemic implications for Carmella? What chance does she have — of getting a better job (she does work, at least part-time), of paying a deposit on an apartment, of “getting better” — with no transportation, no phone, no address, and no money?

Am I naive to think that there must be some way that we can join God in transforming Carmella holistically?

Maybe I am. But I am certain that our response cannot be indifference or ignorance — we must be “restorers of hope” to those who have none.

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