God, the Girl, and the Old Building
Shelley B. Brooks, Director, Bethesda Women and Children’s Mission
“For I know the plans that I have for you…” (Jeremiah 29:11)
The connection began many years ago when, as a child, I saw a couple of neighbors peeking through their screen doors. One or two even came out of their homes to witness a large moving van turning a street corner in hopes to maneuver through a small alley. I remember seeing children lined up close to this huge building on the corner and I thought, “boy this is going to be fun!” I wanted to know each of their names and I was curious if they all lived in that very, very big house. Waving and smiling, I imagined that every one of those kids would soon become my friend. (A vivid imagination for a four-year old moving into a new home and into a new neighborhood.)
Several weeks after moving into our new home, my parents presented me with a brand new red bicycle with training wheels as a 5th year birthday gift. The first thing I did (no, I wasn’t supposed to), was to ride up to that huge building where I saw the children to let them know that their new neighbor was still in town! I didn’t find ONE of the children that I had seen weeks earlier, and none of the neighbors were visible at their doors. The building on that corner that I had imagined would be a source of fun, play, and friendship looked so so big, rather eerie, and empty. I felt alone, sort of frightened and peddled home as fast as I could.
“…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future…”
Two cousins, that were later adopted by my parents, and whom I embraced as my siblings, moved into our home that same summer. Wow!! Playmates, all in the same house—all day long! My brother liked playing cowboys and army—and because I loved my brother, I soon became his pet project in dressing up like a commander in fatigues, or the best dressed cowboy on the block. This included, by the way, pinning my plaits under a camouflaged army hat, and assuring folks that my new name was JOE! Our first place to try out the new Joe was at the Harrisburg Barber School where you got a haircut and a lollipop on Saturday mornings for a quarter! Week after week, with plaits pinned, we made the trek to the very same building
that I knew would be the place to meet those new friends that I had been looking for.
The fatigues and hats came to a screeching halt one Saturday morning when a plait fell from my hat!!! Buzzing from the clippers stopped and one barber bellowed, “By golly, JOE is JOSEPHINE!!!” The story was out—I was really a girl. Sadly, I left the big building again without making new friends—I must admit, however, I was glad to ditch the fatigues and the hat—combat just wasn’t my style as a five-year-old who just liked “pretty things.”
Many years later as a young adult and a temporary employee of the Harrisburg School District, I found myself aiding students in GED studies, and English as a second language classes. You aren’t going to believe this – well, maybe you will – but the students that I was assigned to were new residents in the former Harrisburg Barber School! Alcoholic Services Inc., had opened the doors to help clients with addictions, and I had walked through their doors to assist under my real name, Shelley. I finally got to meet a lot of people in that building. I didn’t become good friends with them as students, but I was afforded the opportunity to hear their stories, their struggles, and their victories as they accepted my help through their journeys.
“…Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you…”
Married life and three awesome children later, I found myself returning to the roots of faith that were instilled in me as a small child, and renewing the relationship that I once had with my savior, Jesus Christ. I began to study, pray, and release the will of my life and my plans to Him. One day, alone in my bedroom, I had a very profound and life-changing experience that has taken me years to openly share. Engulfed in the presence of peace, the Lord told me to go to Bethesda Mission. I questioned why, at first, but the peace that had initially engulfed the room began to dissipate, and I quickly said, “YES, I‘ll go! I’ll go…I’ll go…”
I wanted to remain engulfed in the presence that I had never experienced in such a way. The presence of the I AM. Filled with anticipation I drove up to the address that was written on a piece of paper and at the front door of this old building on a corner, I said—I’m right back where I started from! Same big old building—same corner—same neighborhood. What’s up with this, God? What didn’t I learn from this building that makes you keep sending me back to it?
I began as a part-time counselor for a house that held up to 40 women and children. Some only stayed for a short time, so it felt as though we weren’t able to really get to the root of their issues—but only provide a band-aid over a problem. It was an eye-opener for me to find out there were so many homeless people in Harrisburg. It was also a shock to witness the horrific treatment that many women and children experienced throughout their lives. One of the most difficult experiences was when a woman ran to our doors late one night- she had just had acid poured over her face. I remember dousing water over her face in a utility sink until the ambulance came. I can still see the fear in her eyes. Not because of the acid, but because she didn’t know what abuse could come next. I was very thankful there was a place that she could run to. I never saw her again after that night.
My favorite experiences always include graduations from high school, GED classes, college, or kindergarten. Those days have always brought smiles, confidence and an ice cream cone. We have had many women that have completed levels of higher learning. The children were always a fun part of those earlier days. They would come home from school and plop their books and coats on the couch and head to the kitchen for a snack. There wasn’t a lot of room for them to romp and run so they made up their games of exploration throughout the building(adults were always yelling for them to get out of their way). Children needed love—lots and lots of love. Their relationships with their fathers were severed by abandonment, violence, or death. Their moms were intent on surviving but it was difficult for families to live without so much stress.
After becoming Director, a serious change in society took place. Crack cocaine began wiping out families, their homes, their employment, and their sound minds. We moved from an emergency shelter to a place that focused on addiction recovery. The children were more devastated, as well as their mothers. Mothers began losing custody of their children and began spending
more time in jail due to addictions. Housing became a long-term goal; survival was the immediate. Violence filled both mom and child’s life. Today we continue to spend a considerable amount of time on reconciliation of relationships as heroin and opioids have been included in the heinous life of addiction.
Today we find that if a woman commits herself to at least a year in our program, she has a very high possibility of never returning to the life that she had when she first came to our doors.
That was 33 pretty incredible years ago that this journey began. No longer did I have to go look for people to befriend—Jesus sent them all through the doors of Bethesda Women and Children’s Mission. There have been many lessons that I have had to learn from those who have walked through our doors; from the women, children, volunteers, donors, visitors (both friendly and unfriendly), neighbors, service personnel, staff, families, and friends. This very big and old building has provided shelter for refuge, reconciliation, restoration, and HOPE for a lot of people—including me. I think what I’ve learned is that I don’t have to go looking for much in order to enjoy the promised abundant life. Just sit still and wait upon the Lord, with faith, patience, trust, and perseverance and He will bring what is for YOU, to YOU! For me, it was to witness Jesus’ love in a very big old building that has served its community well…
“…You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you.” (Jeremiah 29:13)
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