The first time I saw Danielle I had to close my eyes for a moment. She slouched next to a rusty Plymouth sedan wearing overalls and tennis shoes, both full of holes. Strands of greasy, dishwater-blond hair trickled out from underneath a tattered denim hat. Her shoulders sagged and her head was down. Everything about her seemed faded, lifeless, used up. She looked like a barren twig that would snap at the first hint of a strong breeze.
Only her eyes offered something more. She wouldn’t look at me directly, but she stole an occasional glance at me from beneath her tattered hat. Once, her emerald eyes met mine, and I caught a glimpse of the emotions roiling inside.
She was scared.
So was I.
We were standing in the parking lot of a south side Atlanta condominium. Danielle had just driven up with every possession she owned—twelve black trash bags full of stale-smelling clothes and a puppy named Libby. At twentyfour, she was about to turn her life over to a pair of strangers.
I was one of those strangers. I had been director of women’s ministries at First Baptist Church in Peachtree City, Georgia, for ten years. During the past few months, a group of us—me and forty women with a burning desire to please God—had discovered a common passion to reach out beyond the walls of our church to try to help women in need. We decided to call our new program Wellspring, after the living water Jesus promised to the Samaritan woman at the well. I was named director. Our idea was to connect with inner city missions and other ministries. We prayed about it many times; we were sure God was behind our enterprise.
As I shivered in the parking lot that cool December afternoon, however, I wondered just what I’d gotten myself into. Danielle had been physically, verbally, and sexually abused as a little girl. As an adult, her coping methods included forays into drinking, drugs, prostitution, and the occult. Five months earlier, she’d tried to take her own life. Friends put her in touch with a woman who had escaped the sex industry, and that contact led her to us.
Danielle hardly spoke a word, but the fact she’d shown up at all conveyed the plea behind her silence: Everywhere I go, people take advantage of me. Are you the same as everybody else? Please, I need your help. I’m desperate. I just want someone to love me!
The responsibility was almost overwhelming. I was confronting the flesh-and-blood reality of our outreach, and I didn’t have a clue what to say.
“Danielle,” I stammered, my heart beating double time, “it’s so good to see you.” Gently, I put my arm around her back to give her a hug, and caught a strong scent of musk and cigarette smoke. Danielle hugged me back—just a little.
When I stepped away, I saw tears on her face. Whether they were from nervousness, excitement, relief, or a mix of all three, I couldn’t tell.
Lord, I have nothing in common with this girl, I thought. What am I going to say? I want to help, but what can I give her? Her needs are so great!
I introduced Laura, our first Wellspring staff member who would live with Danielle for the next few months as her “coach.” Slowly, measuring each step, Danielle followed us to the condominium we’d rented as her new home.
I understood her caution. She had been through so much pain. Danielle’s uncle molested her when she was four. Her father, divorced from her mother, was in jail. Her mom lived from one drink and one destructive relationship to the next. On her seventeenth birthday, Danielle had run away from her North Carolina home with a boyfriend.
But life away from home merely deepened her nightmare. Danielle moved in with her boyfriend and his parents and siblings in Kansas. The boyfriend abused her physically and sexually. For a long time, she felt she couldn’t leave because she feared the boyfriend or his brothers would hunt her down and kill her. Eventually, Danielle did escape and returned home to North Carolina—only to have her mother slam the front door in her face. Danielle relied on drinking and drugs to distract her from the pain. She had no job and no education. A “friend” lured her into an escort service; prostitution soon became her means of financial support.
Finally, while the rest of the country celebrated Independence Day, Danielle decided she’d had enough. Miserable, hopeless, and feeling like a failure, she tried to end it all by swallowing a bottle of pills. That failed too.
A few months later, Danielle was arrested for driving with a suspended license. While in jail, with nothing else to do, she picked up a Bible for the first time and started reading it. Though she didn’t understand most of the words, they had a strange impact on her. She felt a sensation she’d almost forgotten existed—a faint flicker of hope.
After Danielle was released, she asked a Christian guy she’d met if he’d take her to church with him. That evening, she cried through the entire service, even the skit about Jesus knocking on the door of unbelievers’ hearts. She wanted whatever it was these people had, something that was missing in her own life. She dared to hope.
Two days later, alone in her sister’s home, Danielle literally opened the front door to the house and said, “Okay, Jesus, You can come in now. Will You be my best friend? Will You walk with me forever?”
Now, as I watched Danielle tearfully unwrap the welcome basket Laura and I had prepared for her at the condominium, I wondered how I would ever connect with this brave, scarred, vulnerable, searching young woman. How can I relate to her, Lord? How will she ever learn to trust me?
Our backgrounds were so different. I’d grown up in a strong Christian home and attended every church activity on the calendar—choir practices, mission programs, vacation Bible schools; Danielle didn’t believe in God as a child and never set foot in a house of worship. My idyllic grade school years featured football games, fort building, and roller skating parties in the driveway with friends; Danielle spent much of her early years stuck in her bedroom listening to her mom’s drinking parties. I married my high school sweetheart in my hometown church in front of five bridesmaids and groomsmen and a packed church; Danielle snuck out of a bedroom window in the middle of the night to run off with a boyfriend who beat and raped her.
Danielle was the kind of girl that, when I was a child, I’d been taught to stay as far from as possible. She wasn’t a “nice girl.” She would only lead to trouble. She was dirty.
We led Danielle on a quick tour of the condo—two bedrooms, the bathroom, the pantry. The farther we walked, the more she seemed to shrink into herself, as if she wanted to melt right into the carpet.
Still, I thought, maybe we’re not so different.
Danielle had learned early in life how cruel the world can be. But I’d seen some of that cruelty too, like the times kids had mercilessly teased my oldest brother, Robert, calling him “retard” because he had Down’s syndrome. Once, while skipping rope on the school playground when I was in first grade, I heard one of Robert’s third-grade classmates yell that he was “dumb.” Then he pushed Robert—twice. I was too mad to be afraid. I marched over and gave that much-taller bully a bloody nose.
Then there was the fact that time and again, people close to Danielle—the people she should have been able to depend on most—had betrayed her. Her father walked out of her life. Her mother ignored her. Her uncle molested her. Her boyfriend abused her.
I also knew something about betrayal. After nine years of what I thought was a strong marriage, I discovered that my husband was having an affair. My whole world fell apart. He took her and his paid-for, fire-engine-red Ford truck and left me with house payments, car payments, two dogs, and a five-month-old baby. Only the Lord’s comforting presence got me through those dark days.
And then there was God Himself. For most of her life, Danielle had experienced an emptiness and hopelessness that seemed to stretch to the stars. But sitting in a lonely jail cell, she read for the first time about a Messiah and found a shred of hope. Now she was on a quest to find out everything she could about this amazing, loving, personal Savior named Jesus.
Yes, I had grown up in the church, read Scripture, practiced my devotions, and led women’s Bible studies for years. But I too had come to a place of frustration and emptiness. It seemed as if I and the other women in our church loved each other well, and even loved God well. But how close could we be to God’s heart if we didn’t touch the people Jesus wanted us to touch, the “least of these”? I sensed there was more to my relationship with God than what I was experiencing. I also had engaged in a quest to discover everything the Lord had in store for me—and I believed it started with reaching out to the helpless and downtrodden.
We finished our tour of the condo and sat down at the dining room table to establish rules for our new arrangement. Danielle agreed to all our conditions and signed a “contract.” She gave me another furtive glance, but this time I thought I detected the barest hint of a smile.
Just maybe, I thought, we have more in common than I realized. That first week was a hard one for Danielle. She wanted everything to fall into place. She especially wanted her family to be normal and to just love her. She asked if she could go home for Christmas; we said no. Her mother, Jackie, had already called the woman at the emergency shelter, cussed her out, and told her we were wasting our time on her daughter. I felt a home visit would be toxic for Danielle—too much, too soon.
We did agree that her mother could meet her at a restaurant a few days before Christmas. On a Saturday, I picked Danielle up at the condo and drove to a Chili’s for our appointment. We sat down in the receiving area to wait. I could see that she was excited and nervous. We’d already replaced much of her wardrobe and given her a makeover and haircut. Now she wore a stunning new black-and-red pantsuit. Already the lifeless figure I’d observed just days before was transforming into the beautiful girl within.
While we made small talk and watched the clock, Danielle repeatedly rubbed her hands together. She couldn’t sit still. As ten minutes passed—then twenty—then thirty—I had a hard time keeping still myself.
Finally, Danielle recognized a young woman walking toward us. It was her twin sister, Deanna.
“Hi, Danielle,” she said, looking me over out of the corner of her eye. “Uh, Mom got into a fight with Larry. She said she’s too upset and she can’t come.”
I turned to Danielle in time to see her face crumple. All the pent-up emotion that had been building since our arrival seemed to escape like air from a balloon. She stared at the floor.
I felt my heart breaking right along with hers.
A few minutes later I sat in a nearby booth, watching the two sisters talk, and tried to get a handle on my emotions. Lord, I prayed, I told Jackie this would be her only chance to see Danielle before Christmas. Surely she understands how much Danielle wants her to be a part of her life. Christmas is such a special time for parents and their children. How could a mother not show up to see her daughter?
I knew I couldn’t be the mother Danielle needed, but I prayed that God would show me how to help however I could.
One idea came to me a few days later. I’d had Danielle over at my home for a reunion with her Great Dane–Labrador mix, Libby. She loved that dog. Libby was probably the only creature on earth that had shown Danielle unconditional love. We’d found a couple willing to take care of Libby while Danielle stayed at Wellspring, so it was a wonderful surprise for Danielle to see her again. Libby slurped Danielle’s face so many times I thought I’d need a hose to wipe off the saliva. I snapped a picture of the two of them sitting happily in front of our Christmas tree.
On Christmas Eve, I brought Danielle over again. I knew how hard it was for her to be without family, and as much as possible, I wanted to give her a sense of belonging. She joined me and my husband, Dick, my sons, Paul and Matt, and Matt’s girlfriend on a drive through the neighborhood to look at Christmas lights. The beautiful reds, greens, blues, and whites on every house twinkled just as a certain star over Bethlehem may have on that night so many years ago. Danielle’s face glowed too as she took it all in.
Then we gathered around the kitchen table and handed out Christmas presents. We had no gold, incense, or myrrh, yet the love behind each package was just as sincere as the gifts of the Magi. When Danielle’s turn came, I watched her unwrap the photo I’d had enlarged and framed of her and Libby by the Christmas tree.
It was such a small thing, but when I saw the tears flow down her cheeks I knew it had also been the right thing. I got up and gave her a hug, my own eyes misting over. “Thank you,” she whispered, looking back and forth between the picture and me. “This is one of my best Christmas gifts ever.”
It was, I felt, one of God’s tiny miracles. Danielle was gradually opening up her heart, trusting us more and allowing us to love her.
We encountered another miracle a couple of weeks later. We’d received more calls about young women seeking to escape the sex industry and other unhealthy situations. These girls desperately needed a place to stay. We were already assisting Danielle. Now we felt the Lord leading us to establish a home for young women who needed godly support. We could be the bridge for these girls on their journey to Jesus.
Just after Christmas, I contacted a builder friend. Did he know of a place that might suit our need? It turned out that a couple was moving out of a secluded, 4,600-square-foot model home—one he’d “always thought should be used for ministry.” Before I knew it, someone was volunteering to make a first payment, and the owner was handing me the keys. We were landlords; our tenants would be the “poor and the needy and the brokenhearted” (Psalm 109:16). It was a staggering responsibility—but if God was behind it, who was I to argue?
Danielle and Laura moved into the new home in January. We invited Danielle to decorate her room however she wanted, keeping in mind that girls like herself would one day be living there. A week or so later, I was astounded to see what she’d done. The room was painted a bright purple, so that anyone staying there would “know they are royalty.” Even more significant, the walls were adorned with Bible verses, all neatly transcribed in silver.
Behind the door, I saw the verse that I knew had changed Danielle’s life: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20, NKJV). “Danielle,” I said, turning slowly to take in the full effect, “this looks fantastic.”
“These are the verses that have meant so much to me,” Danielle said. “I want to be able to lay here and see Him and hear Him. I want everyone who comes here after me to know that Jesus is here, that He’s speaking to them too.” I was so proud of her—and so grateful that Jesus was moving in her heart.
Over the next several weeks, I watched the Lord continue to work on the heart of this earnest new member of His family. Danielle struggled at times with Bible studies. She faced other struggles too. We were all baffled when she suddenly began responding to Laura’s every word and deed with hostility. This went on for weeks, until we discovered that the trigger had been a moment when Laura turned her body a certain way. Danielle didn’t realize it at the time, but it reminded her of her mother and the abuse she’d suffered. Yet through the difficulties, Danielle was clearly making progress. The reason, I had no doubt, was her determination to rely on the Lord. There was the time I showed up intending to take Danielle shopping. Laura informed me, however, that Danielle probably wouldn’t be speaking to me.
She’d decided to break her cigarette addiction by spending the day reading the Bible.
I changed my agenda, and we soon found a quiet place for Danielle to allow God’s Word to wash over her. I checked on her periodically throughout the day. I’d never seen anyone become so filled with peace and joy from reading Scripture. Danielle wasn’t just putting to death a destructive habit; she was coming back to life.
Danielle was, in fact, changing in many wonderful ways. She smiled more often. She grew more relaxed and confident. She was transforming into a strikingly beautiful girl. Best of all, she was maturing spiritually, drawing closer every day to the Lord.
The astonishing thing was that as I watched and participated in Danielle’s change, I found myself changing too. I saw how fragile life was. I started treating people with more care, more love. As my husband and I prayed together for Danielle, I felt our marriage growing stronger, our relationship going deeper.
Walking through the pain with a broken girl who had no hope, who had just wanted to die, and seeing God lead her into a life filled with joy and meaning was incredible. My faith soared into the clouds. I now saw—I felt in the depths of my soul—that God could do anything. I was privileged to watch the love of Jesus in action. I was seeing, as my husband likes to say, “God with skin on.”
The full impact of what God was doing in all our lives hit me during a Good Friday service in the same church where Danielle had cried through a skit about Jesus. Anyone who had seen her then wouldn’t have recognized her on this day. Her steps were quick and lively. Her face radiated peace.
Deanna, Danielle’s twin sister, and Deanna’s husband and four-year-old son accompanied us that evening. They’d never been in a church before. The service and worship gathered momentum. Soon we were singing “Amazing Love” at the top of our lungs while watching a video presentation of the crucifixion. Out of the corner of my eye—in the same way Danielle had once warily peered at me—I stole a glance at her standing next to me. She was singing and smiling, her arms stretched toward the rafters. A steady stream of tears flowed down her face.
What really got me, though, was seeing Deanna and her son next to Danielle. Both were watching Danielle intently. The look on Deanna’s face, a combination of surprise and envy, seemed to say, I want what she has!
The little boy had his hands in the air. He was trying to worship just like Danielle. Tears blurred my vision as I lifted my own arms higher to Him. It occurred to me that Danielle was still dangerous. But she wasn’t dangerous to me. She was a warrior for the kingdom, turning souls toward heaven simply by seeking holiness. Now she was dangerous for God.
Lord, I prayed, thank You so much—this is the greatest blessing of my life! Thank You for giving me a heart for the brokenhearted, for giving me a desire to free the prisoners and help You turn mourning into joy. Thank You for the forty sisters in Christ who share this vision and who are such an encouragement to me. Thank You for Laura, who has given so much of her time and love to Danielle these last few months. And thank You for Danielle, for leading us to each other, and for allowing me to love her. Thank You, God, that You have brought us all together—a league of dangerous women—to give all the glory to You. Amen!
In 2002, Danielle moved in with a loving host family as the first “graduate” of the Wellspring program. She married in 2004 and is completing an internship at a hair salon. She and her husband live in Atlanta with their Great Dane, Annabelle.
Danielle says she still struggles at times with issues from her past, but God is leading her through it all. “Sometimes,” she says, “I ask myself, after all the terrible things I’ve done, ‘How could God love me?’ But He’s teaching me what unconditional love is. He won’t leave, and He won’t let me pull away. I love God with all my heart. He’s the only thing I’ve found in my entire life that’s true and safe. He’s always knocking on my door.”