The Miracle of Grace
I'm writing a series of articles stemming from a post I published several weeks ago, seeking to find the amazing story of the extraordinary grace of God in every day, ordinary lives. This is one of those stories.
It doesn't get any more ordinary that a thrift store.
Truckloads of towering crates filled with used clothing, aged electronics, dish sets, plastic-ware, children's toys, It's like a giant, permanent, never-ending yard sale.
Miracle Hill has thrift locations all over Greenville. Most people in the city know the name, from college students to homemakers. Young and old. Rich poor. Since Renee' started working at one of Miracle Hill's thrift locations, I've learned that it's much more than an ordinary store. You don't necessarily recognize it when walking in. It is a thrift store. Seems terrifically pedestrian. However, upon further observation, you'll find that this place is more. Much more.
There are (quite literally) signs pointing to something deeper here. The plain walls contain banners with large letters and cryptic words that say things like "Shepherds Gate" and "Renewal".
If you want to know the meaning of the simple (if not odd) signage, ask any one of the employees. If you're in the store on Pleasantburg Highway in Greenville, I recommend looking for Sarah, the store manager.
I was told she had "been through the system". I really didn't know what that meant. Her pleasant demeanor, love for Jesus and obvious professionalism would never cause one to think she has a past any different from the average someone who grew up in the Greenville/Spartanburg area.
An ordinary manager at an ordinary thrift store, you think.
Her story of grace of anything but ordinary.
The Long Slide Down
"I grew up in the church," she told me. "But I never felt more lonely than when I was there. Especially as I started high school."
She laughed at the irony of the fact that she'd grown up in the home of a police officer and that she wrote an award winning essay about the local D.A.R.E. program while in the 5th grade. A few short years later, things in Sarah's life would take 180 degree turn that would not be for the better.
The point of this article is not to paint the horror story that is drug use. If you were to talk to Sarah, she would not really dramatize that. Suffice it to say, it is a horror story. Alcohol and later meth amphetamines become Sarah's life. She eased into the water that is an addicts lifestyle, and was soon floating in the river that ends with the destruction of so many.
What does a drug dealer look like?
"I used because I wanted to have fun and get high," she quipped. "I wasn't really interested in getting into the user lifestyle. But I ended up dealing to support my own habit."
I shook my head several times in disbelief as we talked. There's no way this professional woman was a drug dealer. Sarah knew what I was thinking and smiled.
"What's a drug dealer look like? I do still have all my teeth, which is more than can be said for most who were in my place."
Excellent question, I thought. What does a drug dealer look like? TV would have us believe a dealer is a shadowy figure in a black sedan, or a person of color in a hoodie on a street corner. In this case, it's a young suburban white girl.
So much for stereotypes.
Our discussion evolved to the complexities of those who are involved in drug use right next door. It is indeed a trap and difficult to escape. Sarah's story continued to slide. Suffice it say that the slide was long and the hole was deep. She was 96 pounds, homeless and hadn't slept for fourteen days.
The Holy Spirit would not let me leave.
It was a mid-September day when she checked into Shepherd's Gate, Miracle Hill's emergency shelter for women. I asked what prompted her to make the decision to get clean. Her reply was super-matter-of-fact.
"The Holy Spirit. I really didn't have a choice. The Holy Spirit is the only one who can move anyone to get clean. I was in a car wreck from falling asleep at the wheel after being up for fourteen days. But that didn't do anything."
The Holy Spirit said it was time. And it couldn't have come at a better time.
Days after Sarah checked into Shepherd's Gate, thirty or so of the people she used to hang with were arrested in a sting. Most of them are still in prison to this day. Sarah's smile, along with her life, is a story of beautiful, matchless grace.
Of course, "checking in" is one thing. Sticking it out is another. But He who called her is He who kept her.
"The Holy Spirit would not let me leave."
Miracle Hill's recovery program has four levels. Sarah shared her experience at each one.
"At level one I complained. Most people do. Level two, counseling begins to take place and deeper issues rise to the surface. At level three, I died to myself and was completely broken." There was a thoughtful pause.
"That's when I got it. I really got it."
Brokenness changes everything. Whether it's a drug user/dealer or a self-righteous church-going moralist, brokenness is the necessary thing that God does to make his people dependent on himself.
During this time a group of church ladies visited the home where Sarah was staying. Church ladies visit this home for women all of the time. This one was somehow different from others. They were ladies from an African-American church, a very different style than most who visited.
"They came in singing songs and holding hands, and that wasn't me. But, during that time with those ladies, God allowed me to experience joy; real, unbridled joy for the first time in my life."
If you ask Sarah about her current experience, she will reply in her simple straightforward manner: "Joy. Contentment. Gratefulness."
Her cup of current experience flows over into the most unexpected of places.
An ordinary thrift store.
Level four. Out of brokenness comes leadership. She is living that out at Miracle Hill every day. Her employees speak to this. They admire her. They look up to her. They respect her. They follow her.
"Her story is such a "wow" story. She inspires me to be a better person."
That's what the cashier at Miracle Hill said about her boss and her mentor.
The young women at the store have a deep respect for Sarah and the grace of God in her life. One particularly joyful employee shared with me that they had similar pasts. She said that although they came by separate roads to the thrift store, they were parallel roads. And now they're here.
"Sarah is proof that there's newness of heart when lives are transformed by Jesus. I appreciate that. I seek out her counsel whenever I can because I value it. I value her."
Sarah plans to take further training in Biblical counseling. Seems to me that she's gone through the most important qualifying training already.
Sarah has a tattoo. It's not at all odd that she has a tattoo. In fact, given her past, it's probably odd that she only has one tattoo. It's the simple reminder of Romans 8:28, permanently etched in her skin. God is good. God is gracious. God is for us.
That extraordinary reminder is set before both the employees and the public during ordinary days in an ordinary place. He's working everything together for our good and His glory.
Grace doesn't get more amazing than that.
Miracle Hill is an upstate South Carolina ministry that exists so that homeless children and adults will receive food and shelter with compassion, hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, and move toward healthy relationships and stability. Miracle Hill is not a charity. They are truly a justice-based organization, in that they help move people who are genuinely struggling to a place of dignity. Their thrift store locations help to fund their programming. At the very least, shop there. Otherwise, I recommend just giving them a lot of money. There are more stories like Sarah's happening through their programming every day.