Being a student at MVNU has afforded me many life-changing experiences, but what I lived this past week has to be my favorite of them all. For those who don’t know, MVNU students have to obtain what we call a “crossing cultures credit” in order to graduate. While most students will choose to take a trip, some students do take a class that qualifies for the credit. I decided to go on a trip with the school to Lower Lights Ministries in Franklinton, Columbus.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of it all, know that I had no idea what I was getting myself into and this trip radically changed my life. Pretty much every assumption I had about this trip was wrong and I couldn’t be more grateful. But also know, I’m going to talk a lot about addiction, drugs/alcohol, homelessness, poverty, prostitution, sex trafficking and so much more. If this may trigger you in anyway, please feel free to not read on. But, if those words scare you or make you uncomfortable, please give this a go. I pray it gives you just a glimpse of what I saw this week.
When we arrived in Franklinton I thought to myself, “this is the exact type of place my dad has always told me to stay away from.” But, I knew from the get-go that this is where God wanted me for the week and His will would be done.
Day 1: Saturday
We had a free community meal at the church and at dinner I was able to talk to two different women. In this conversation I started to realize just how privileged of a life I get to live. When I told her I was a senior in college she asked, “well, what does that mean?” In a world where I say that I’m a senior on a daily basis, I never considered that there are adults who don’t understand that language. I’m not sure if she graduated high school, but the other woman at the table graduated high school, had a child and then had two more after that. From the sounds of it, they are all in foster care. I can’t imagine the pain there, but I just wanted to give her a hug and let her know that I loved her.
Day 2: Sunday
On Sunday I had the chance to go to a Celebrate Recovery based Sunday school class. As I sat in the class, God broke down walls in my own life. I went in with my brother, Jason, in mind. I went in thinking, “these people aren’t going to talk, they’re addicts, they don’t even know who Jesus is.” How wrong of me to think that. The people that met around the table on Sunday know Jesus. They know Him as friend. They know Him as Savior, Redeemer and giver of grace. Honestly, they know parts of Jesus that I’ll never know in the same way. I came in thinking I had something to offer these individuals and in all reality, I had nothing to give them. They had a heck of a lot to give to me, though.
Then came church. Now, I’ve always been a part of big churches. Churches with fancy lights, hired worship pastors, loud music, the list goes on. Lower Lights isn’t that. It’s a humble and quaint little building on a street corner in Columbus. The members of the congregation sing worship karaoke style with YouTube videos on the screen. At first, it was weird. It was uncomfortable. But then something happened, and I can’t explain it. All I know is, the people in that room meant the words they were singing. They sang of freedom in knowing what chains and captivity feel like. They sang of grace from a place of knowing that had nothing to offer Jesus but their lives. They sang of redemption in the rawest and purest way I’ve ever heard and witnessed. They sang of Jesus overcoming death having seen death in the most personal ways.
The people at church on Sunday have lived lives I will likely never live. They have seen things I will likely never see. They taught me more about the grace of God on one Sunday morning than I have learned in 10 years of following Jesus. Which is funny, because that’s the exact thing God has been leading me through lately. I’ve been asking the question of, “how do I actively live within the grace of God?” The people at Lower Lights showed me. You show up knowing full well that all you can offer Jesus is your life and you give Him all you’ve got. That’s it. That’s all we can do.
After this, we were able to eat lunch with the girls from Rachel’s House (those transitioning from prison to every day life) and the girls from the Recovery Houses. I wasn’t prepared for what was going to happen in my heart during this lunch and I’m still not sure I have digested it all. We got to hear stories from these women and how God has worked in their lives. We got to hear what they wished people knew about addicts and them battling through addiction. One thing in particular that someone said was, “know that telling us, ‘if you loved us you would stop’ is one of the worst things you can say.” My heart sunk in that moment because I know I’ve said that to my own brother. They went on to say that they really just wished they had known they were loved in the midst of their addictions. Personally, I don’t know the last time I told my brother I loved him. I haven’t talked to my brother in 8 years. They wanted us to know that they didn’t mean to become addicts. They didn’t just wake up one day and say, “I’m going to start doing drugs.” Yet another one of my thoughts of addicts just being torn to shreds. My heart broke because I knew that I had judged people just like them instead of taking the time to listen to them, love them and show them just how much Jesus had for them.
Day 3: Monday
On Monday we heard a lot about poverty and then we did a $2 food challenge for lunch. We were put into groups of 4 people and we each were given $2 for lunch. We could only shop at a corner market within walking distance and all we had to cook it was a microwave, a Keurig and a coffee pot. While we could use this money individually, we decided to combine it together. With our $8, we came back with a dozen eggs, 4 packs of Ramen, 2 apples and a bell pepper. This really was our lunch that day. This gave us a good lesson both in how people living in poverty survive as far as food is concerned as well as living in a food desert. A food desert is an area that does not have fresh produce within a 1 mile distance. Most people who live in poverty also live in food deserts and do not have access to a car. All in all, this was an eye opening experience.
After this, we volunteered at Franklinton Farms doing various tasks. Emily and I picked up trash around the block for nearly 3 hours. This was an eye opening experience in that many of the items we picked up were dirty needles, as well as used condoms and rubber gloves. Truthfully, I came to the point that I was just thankful people were actually using condoms and gloves.
Monday night we had the chance to go over to the other Rachel’s House for dinner with the two women staying there as one of them was celebrating her 60th birthday. I’m still blown away by the fact that these two women invited 12 strangers over for dinner. Why? Because that’s just what community does. We managed to squeeze 15 people around the table for dinner and it is a dinner I won’t soon forget. Actually, I wish every dinner I ever ate could be just like that one.
Day 4: Tuesday
Tuesday brought a world of challenges. We visited the Mount Carmel ER, the Lower Lights Health Clinic, the Van Buren Women and Family Shelter, heard about Bright Light Kids and visited the Center for Healthy Living. After this we took the COTA bus to dinner at Hot Chicken Takeover in downtown Clintonville.
If I’m being honest, this was the hardest day of the trip. Visiting the Family Shelter permanently burned an image in my head that I never wanted to see. As we walked through, all I could think was that this place looked like prison. Even so, the people staying here are “free.” They squeeze people in every nook and cranny that they can. They’ll throw mattresses on a cafeteria floor and give people chairs to sleep in for the night. They have a “hot room” that people put their things in to kill off any bedbugs that may be lingering. They have “family dorm rooms” for families to stay in that consist of two bunk beds and a crate smashed into a room smaller than my bathroom. And the reality is, while I would never wish this on my worst enemy, there are people on a daily basis thanking God for the chance to stay there. For hundreds of people every night, this is the blessing they’ve received from God that day. If nothing else happened through that tour, I’ll remember the smell that made me nauseous and will open my home the second anyone tells me that their only option is going to a shelter. If I can’t open my home, I’ll open my wallet and pay for a hotel. I’ll do anything in my power to keep people out of shelters because of what I witnessed that day.
The bus was actually a really fun experience and something I enjoyed, but I’m glad I don’t have to rely on it for transportation on a daily basis. Hot Chicken Takeover was phenomenal and I would highly recommend. They are also a Fair Chance Employer which I totally love.
Day 5: Wednesday
On Wednesday we went to LifeCare Alliance and had the chance to work with their Meals on Wheels and Groceries 2 Go programs. I worked with two other girls on the trip in the Groceries 2 Go program which is for patients who are actively battling cancer. We worked with Betty, who was a volunteer there. She heard about it because her son is in the program. Getting to talk to her really changed my perspective on how good I have it (yet again). Her son was diagnosed with leukemia at 19 months old. He had a spleen and kidney infection and ended up breaking both of his legs due to the breakdown in bone density because of the medication he was on. Yet she looked at us and said, “we were so lucky.” I couldn’t imagine saying I was lucky to go through something like that but she followed it up with, “when Liam went into the hospital two other children went in as well. Liam is the only one still alive.” We all have pain and we all have trauma, but some of it is worse than others.
After this, we had lunch and were able to hear from Micayla from GraceHaven. This is a home for girls who are exiting sex trafficking. Yet again, this was a painful talk to sit through and listen to. Hearing that parents traffic their 5 year old children, that the average age for sex trafficking in Ohio is 10-13 years old, to hear about survival sex, it all broke me. Survival sex hurt me most of all because I know of a girl who is in that very situation right now. She is having sex with a man who claims to love her just so she can have food to eat and a roof over her head. That man doesn’t love her… but she is convinced he does.
On Wednesday night we had another service at the church for Ash Wednesday which was very similar to what we experienced on Sunday. It was raw, it was real, and I knew Jesus was present in that place. After this, we attended their Celebrate Recovery meeting and got to celebrate with those celebrating milestones in their addiction recovery.
In other words, we did A LOT. I didn’t even mention it all. But in the midst of all that we did, God was stirring my heart. Just a few weeks ago I looked up the poverty line in Ohio. When I looked it up, I learned that I grew up well below the poverty line. I never knew that, I just knew money was tight growing up, but somehow my dad always made it work. Somehow I never wondered where the next meal came from.
I took the Adverse Childhood Experience quiz that was mentioned at one point in the week. We talked about how people always say, “I don’t have trauma” and I thought the same thing. Yet, I took this quiz and I scored a 6. The average at Lower Lights is a 6.8. I fit in there. But I don’t have trauma? I grew up in a single parent home because my mom died. I grew up below the poverty line. I grew up with a brother in prison. I grew up with a brother who was an addict. I grew up surrounded by alcoholics. My mom had a drug dealer before she died of disease (not addiction).
So I sat at Lower Lights all week thinking I was better than these people when really, I’m not at all. I very well could have been the addict. I shouldn’t have graduated high school. I should be a criminal. I likely should’ve fallen into sex trafficking. According to the statistics, I shouldn’t be graduating from college in two months… but I am.
Talk about experiencing the grace of God. It’s been around me my entire life, protecting me, keeping me safe and free from harm, but I totally missed it.
In the matter of 5 days God healed me from something I didn’t know was broken. God showed me that I am the least of these. He showed me that I’m no better than the folks in Franklinton or anywhere else on the globe. At the end of the day, I’m nothing. Without Christ, I am truly nothing. I’m not qualified, I’m not worthy, I’m just a broken and messy sinner. But with Christ, I’m redeemed. I’m set free. I’m made new. And I’m so very privileged.
I still don’t know what to do with all of this but I know that it’s time I use my privilege for good. It’s time that I start telling the people on street corners that Jesus loves them just the same that He loves me. It’s time that I start giving often and abundantly. And it’s certainly time that I admit I’m not qualified and I’m not worthy.
I went to Franklinton thinking I would teach people about the love of Christ and I left knowing they taught it to me. I know Jesus better because of the people of Franklinton.
Thank you to Olivia Vollmar who wrote this article. It is a wonderful insight into her life-changing experiences at Lower Lights. Originally posted on her blog.