Family Photos

The Story of Victoria

Written by Ruth Ford

“I love you like a daughter.”

I wanted to believe her. After all, my sister Manuela had provided me a home. The third relative to take me in after my mother’s death, she fed and clothed me. She gave me more than I ever had before.

And then one afternoon, when I arrived home from school, she met me in the living room. Her keys dangled from her fingers, and her purse rested on her shoulder. “Go ahead and start your homework. We’re going out to get family photos taken. We’ll be back in a while.”

Before I could answer, she whisked her family out the door. I heard the engine roar and then fade as they drove away.

Manuela did not know I headed to the shower and turned on the water. She did not know I stood under the prickly stream and sobbed. I don’t fit in. I will never find my place. I. Will. Never. Belong.

“A picture’s worth a thousand words.” I learned that phrase after I came to the United States. Photos often record a person’s history, freeze-framing a moment for future reference. And sometimes the images communicate more strongly than language because of what they include or because of what they omit.

           

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The scrapbook in my mind doesn’t contain many pictures of my parents. My mom died before my seventh birthday, and within the year, my dad decided he couldn’t handle life without her. He left me with my 19-year-old sister-in-law, and then he headed for the United States.

Now that I’m an adult, I understand her age and life experience probably left her unprepared to handle the responsibility thrust upon her. I allow myself to believe that my dad assumed she would care for me, as well as her own baby. But in reality, I cared for myself. I even hauled my dirty clothes to the river in our rural area, and I scrubbed my own laundry on the rocks alongside the rushing water.

I also foraged for food to quell my relentless hunger. One incredibly clear mental snapshot shows me standing alone in my sister-in-law’s kitchen.

In the dim light, my eyes focused on a wrinkly mango, well past the state of just-picked freshness. Saliva filled my mouth as I reached for it. I held it to my face and inhaled sharply. Then I devoured that dried-up piece of fruit. That image is symbolic, like a slice of life representing my early childhood.

After a few years, an adult sister arrived from the city and said, “I wrote to Dad, and he gave me permission to come and get you. I’m going to take you home with me so I can take care of you.” My heart sang. I won’t be alone anymore. I’m going to have a family.

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My rosy image of family faded in the harsh environment of the urban apartment I shared with my sister, her alcoholic husband and her two children, including a son born from a relationship with another man before she married.

Maria’s husband would arrive home, bleary-eyed from bar-hopping. Her nagging questions brought his sharp answers. The volume of their voices would rise. And then we would hear the sharp sound of his palm on her skin. Then finally silence.

Maria blamed her son and me for her husband’s anger. I awoke each morning expecting to be beaten, and I felt relief when it finally happened. At least I was free from the anxiety of anticipation.

“You will do half of the housework,” Maria declared.

She would assign me tasks before she left for the day. When she returned, she checked all the places she had listed for me to clean.

“What is this, Victoria? Dust? You must do it all again. It’s not good enough.”

No matter how hard I tried, my work never pleased her. She always prescribed a punishment. Sometimes Maria smacked me. Other times, she humiliated me.

I remember finishing my chores and even doing extra things that weren’t on my list. As I looked around the house, I smiled. I had worked hard. I hope Maria is happy.

I didn’t know Maria had argued with her husband while she was out. Her eyes snapped with rage when she returned home.

“You ungrateful girl! You have not finished your cleaning tasks.”

She grabbed a bucket of water and set it outside the front door. Then she pushed me out the door, as well, so I stood in front of all the neighbors. I tried to resist as Maria stripped my clothing from me. “You have not showered. You are a lazy girl. Well, we will take care of that right now!”

The air was warm, but still I shivered. Maria smacked me till my skin stung. Then she scrubbed and finally dumped the water over me.

I felt the heat of my neighbors’ eyes. I bent my head as I covered my dripping body and crept back into the house.

Then one day, after I finished the tasks on my cleaning list, Maria returned home while I was getting dressed for school. “You need to iron your uniform,” she said.

“My friend’s mother does it for her.”

Maria snorted. “Well, you don’t have a mother, so you better figure out how to do it yourself.”

Still, when I walked the streets of our neighborhood, I watched for stray pieces of glass which I could turn in to receive money. I wanted to earn enough so I could buy Maria a Mother’s Day gift.

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My sister’s husband never bothered to hide his pornographic magazines. When my body began changing, I noticed he treated me differently. His glances became gazes. I fidgeted.

He looks at me like he looks at the magazines.

I tried to stay away from him, but he touched me whenever he could. His fingers lingered on my skin. My sister scowled at me.

“If I find out that you are messing around with my husband, I will kill you.” I believed her.

School provided a refuge. My teacher smiled as she held out my report card. “Your grades show that you are a very smart girl, Victoria. Keep up the good work.”

I nodded and gripped the folded paper tightly as I skipped home. Everyone treats me like I’m nothing. But at school, I’m something.

In spite of my straight A’s, my report card didn’t earn me any praise in the apartment. Instead, it proved to my sister how much I really loved school, giving her an idea for a new punishment.

“I found dust in the bedroom. You will not go to school today.”

I was about 12 when I realized I would never please Maria. The bitter taste of anger rose in my throat and exploded in a stream of words. “You found dirt, didn’t you? And it’s my fault, isn’t it?”

My sister glared at me, and I glared back.

“I already know what you will do. You will say I cannot go to school.”

Maria’s nostrils flared. “No, you will go to school today, but you will not wear your uniform.”

My sister knew the school required uniforms. If I didn’t wear one, the teacher would be forced to punish me. So I went to school. I bore the punishment. And I felt trapped.

The click of my mental camera recorded the moments when my sister taunted me. “You’re here because no one else wants you. You have nowhere to go.”

I didn’t know Maria was lying.

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Eventually, Maria moved us all to a house on the outskirts of the city. She said I should be grateful she allowed me to come, too — and thankful she supported and cared for me. “No one else wants you, so you better do what I say.”

I learned later that Manuela and Guillermo, my sister and brother who lived in the United States, sent her money on a monthly basis to provide for me. Even Padre occasionally sent a financial gift. Maria actually received more money from them than what she spent on me, so she didn’t want me to leave.

But when I was 13, Guillermo showed up at the house one day. I learned later he and Manuela had given Maria a few thousand dollars to gain my release. Maria did not resist. Guillermo collected me from her and took me to visit our old hometown. Then we headed northward to the border. Manuela and Guillermo had saved enough money to hire a person to help them sneak me across the border into the United States. He found a woman who agreed to take me across the bridge in her car.

“But the girl will need different clothes. She must not look Mexican.”

Guillermo allowed the lady to take me shopping and choose new clothes for me.

“You like cheeseburgers?”

I shrugged. “I never had one.”

Guillermo found a food stand and purchased our lunch. “You like it?”

I nodded and wiped the juice from my mouth. “Cheeseburgers are good!”

At the appointed time, we crowded into the lady’s car Guillermo and I, along with the woman and all of her own children. We drove toward the border, and just before we reached the bridge, she stopped and stared through the windshield. “It’s not going to work.”

Guillermo looked at her. “What do you mean, it’s not going to work? I paid you to do this.”

“Well, I can’t help it. It’s not going to work.”

She didn’t offer an explanation, but she did suggest a new plan. “I can fix this, but she will have to stay here for a couple of weeks with my family.”

My pulse quickened, and fear soured my stomach. I looked at Guillermo, and I’m sure my eyes widened with anxiety because he glanced at my face and whispered, “You’re scared, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “I don’t know these people. I don’t want to stay here without you.”

He exited the car. “Wait here.”

He soon returned with a coyote a man he could hire to help us cross the river. He pointed at the lady. “You meet us on the other side.”

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We waited till dark descended on the river. The coyote led us to a place where he knew the water would be relatively shallow. My eyes slowly adjusted so I could see just enough. The clear August night allowed the moon and stars to shimmer from the sky and also from the reflection on the water’s surface. The swish-swish of the current lulled me into a sense of peace, so when Guillermo asked if I was afraid, I shook my head. “No.”

My brother stripped to his underwear. “We must take off our clothes so they don’t get wet. Don’t worry it’s dark, so no one will see you.”

I stripped, as well, and Guillermo bundled our clothes and held them out to me. “You keep this.”

I clasped the bundle and walked with him to the water’s edge. Guillermo knelt in front of me. “Climb onto my shoulders.”

I straddled his neck and grabbed his forehead with one hand while I held tightly to our clothes with the other. I felt his muscles tighten, and then he rose. His hands rested on my knees, and he paused. “Are you ready?”

“Yes.”

I felt him lurch forward and heard the splash of his feet as he entered the river. He moved slowly, testing each step with his toes and then settling his feet on the river bottom so the current would not sweep us away. Each step took us deeper. Within a few moments, the water swirled around my ankles. When the water licked at my knees, I knew it had reached Guillermo’s neck.

I could hear him breathing more heavily, but he continued moving forward, and soon the water began falling away from us as he pushed toward the other side. Within a few moments, he stood in the shallows on the other side. He helped me slide from his shoulders, and I stood on the sandy riverbank. We silently put our clothes back on.

I could feel my lips curving upward as I whispered in my excitement, “We made it.”

“Yes, but we must find the woman with the car. She will help us pass through the second checkpoint.”

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We clambered up the riverbank and headed toward the spot where we expected to find the lady’s car. “She’s not here.” My brother scanned the area. “I will look for her, but I don’t want anyone to find you while I’m not here. I’m going to hide you in the dumpster. No one will look for you there.”

I pulled back in fear. “Not the dumpster.”

My brother put his hands on his hips. “What do you suggest?”

I shrugged. Finally we started walking, and we found a park. A group of men in green uniforms gathered under a light.

Guillermo nodded. “This looks like a good place.” I tried to grab his hand to keep him from leaving, but he whisked away and disappeared into the night. The men chatted around me. One sat down beside me. “You look frightened, chica. Don’t worry. I will not hurt you. I have a girl at home about your age.”

I turned my face away and gazed at the other side of the park, willing the car to appear. After what seemed like hours, I caught a glimpse of headlights in the distance. They kept coming. Then they stopped, and the front car door on the passenger side opened. My brother stood and beckoned, and I ran toward him. He stood aside while I crawled into the space between him and the driver.

The lady’s children squirmed in the back seat as we pulled up to the checkpoint.

A border guard stood beside the car. “May I see your papers?”

My brother leaned against me as he handed his papers through the window. The guard glanced into the back seat, but he never looked my way. He took a cursory look at my brother’s documents and handed them back in.

“You’re free to go.”

That cleared the way for Guillermo to deliver me to Manuela’s house.

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My sister tried to make me feel welcome, but the atmosphere in her home felt completely foreign. I struggled to figure out how I should respond to this new situation. Truly, she had helped to rescue me from intolerable living conditions. And I knew she loved me as a sister. But I saw that she treated me differently than her children, and I felt slighted.

In Mexican culture, a girl’s 15th birthday is cause for great celebration. Generally, young ladies celebrate with a big party called a quinceañera. When my 15th birthday neared, I waited for her to comment. Is she going to do anything?

An invitation arrived for my best friend’s quinceañera. I showed it to Manuela. “Hmm. That’s nice that she invited you.”

But it didn’t stir my sister to plan one for me. My birthday came and went without a party. I attended my best friend’s quinceañera, knowing there would be no party marking my 15th birthday not even an informal barbecue for a few friends. The sting returned later when Manuela hosted huge parties for each of her daughters when they turned 15.

The comparison drove me to anger. I grieved my mother’s death and blamed my father’s abandonment. If I had real parents, everything would be perfect.

In the midst of that, my mind looped old altercations with Maria. “You think you’re all that, but you’re nothing. And you’re never gonna be anything.” Maria’s words had always driven me to excel in school. My rage fueled a desire to prove her wrong. So I followed my default setting. I worked hard to achieve academic goals, and I noticed my teachers smiled when they saw me in the hallways. “Hi, Victoria. Good job on that last test!”

They wrote affirming comments on my report cards. “I can always count on Victoria to finish her assignments.”

“Her work is neat and orderly.”

“She performs extremely well on tests.”

The reactions convinced me I could earn favor, and so I looked for other places in my life where I could gain affirmation. If people like me because I’m a good student, I’ll bet they’d like me even better if I looked prettier, too. I focused on fashion, and if you were to look at my school pictures, you’d see a trim and stylish young lady. But you might not guess that I obsessed about my appearance. My anger flared when I looked in the mirror.

Getting a little chunky there, chica.

I’d head to the bathroom and force myself to throw up.

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Joshua’s brown eyes sparkled when he looked at me. His smiles eventually accompanied an invitation.

“Hey, beautiful. Will you go to the movies with me Friday night?”

I rolled my eyes. “Sorry. I’m busy.”

The following week, he was back. “Any chance you’ll go to the dance with me this weekend?”

I put my hands on my hips. “No.”

Joshua’s attention never flagged. I said no to his invitations for a full year. Still, his constant attention appealed to my hunger for a relationship that I was sure would give me a place to belong. I feel like an outsider in Manuela’s house, but Joshua makes me feel special.

I finally said yes to his invitation, and then we dated through the end of high school. I returned his kisses, and I melted when his fingers brushed my body. The pornographic images I had seen in Maria’s apartment as a child fueled my curiosity, and soon Joshua and I touched each other in increasingly intimate ways. Before long, we gave in to our desires.

Through all of that, I kept my grades up, and I also worked a part-time job. I hoped to pursue further studies in college. I soon realized college would be out of reach because I had never obtained my U.S. citizenship.

No place for me there.

The familiar sense of wrath rose in my throat, and I reached toward Joshua like he was a rescue raft on my sea of disappointment. He’ll be my family. Even if I don’t belong anywhere else, I’ll belong to him.

As it turned out, Joshua had a work permit, but he hadn’t been able to obtain additional legal documentation. I expected my relationship with him to fill that hollow place in my chest. But when I brought up the subject of marriage, his response left no room for misunderstanding.

“No way, Victoria. My dad’s trying to help me get my papers. If we get married, I risk losing even my work permit.”

I sighed. “Well, then, let’s at least move in together.”

The same week I graduated from high school, I moved into Joshua’s mobile home. I expected Joshua to make me feel worthy, beautiful and appreciated. But we were young. And my insatiable need for affirmation never subsided. In my mind, our personal family photo included only Joshua and me. His version also included his parents, his adult brothers and even some of his cousins.

Joshua invited some of that extended family to move in with us. Then his work would require him to travel for long periods of time, leaving me in the trailer with a group of men I hardly knew.

When he finally came home, I railed at him. “You don’t care about my safety! I moved in with you, and I still have to take care of myself all the time.”

His family also demanded his time. I expected a quiet evening together where I could bask in his attention. The phone rang. He chatted a bit and then came to find me. “My brother needs my help with a project.” He fled through the door and waved goodbye through his truck window.

Once, he brought home pizza. “Hey, beautiful. I knew you wouldn’t be hungry, so I just got enough for the guys.”

I expected Joshua would need me 24/7. For most of my life, rage had been familiar — like a pet I could take out of its pen when I needed to and then keep it on a leash. I could use it to fuel my performance at school. I could let it push my attempts to obliterate every negative statement ever made about me. But then, when I didn’t need it anymore, I could put it back in its crate.

Ever since I was 12, when I first responded in anger to Maria’s punishments, I had used that rage to escape my pain. But when Joshua’s responses didn’t meet my expectations, my anger escalated. When I tried to push it back into the crate, it turned on me and growled. It would no longer limit its expressions to positive performance or to negative words. Under its influence, I started throwing plates and punches.

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I’ve heard that depression can be defined as anger turned inward. I don’t know if that’s true for everyone, but I can see how it happened to me. When I could no longer control my rage, I descended into overwhelming sadness. I grew up promising myself I would never ever be like Maria. However, I regularly violated that promise.

My mind dug up pictures from my childhood. I could see my child-self sitting on a bench in a small church where Maria took us once or twice each year. A man stood behind a podium and told us about God. “Nothing will ever separate you from his love. You can trust him because he’s kind, and he’s big enough and strong enough to handle your problems.”

That image faded, and another took its place. Young Victoria, about 10 years old, holding a dust rag and kneeling beside a bed. “God, you haven’t stopped them from hurting me. I think you’re either mean, or you’re not even there.” I rose from my knees and went into the bathroom. I found samples of all the medications we had in the house. I mixed them together and swallowed them with a big gulp of water.

Then I sat and waited.

Nothing happened. Not even a stomachache.

“I’m done with you, God. From now on, I’ll take care of myself.”

That image came back with incredible focus and clarity, shedding light on the reality that my plan was failing. My depression deepened rather than lifted. I made doctor appointments, and they put me on cycles of medication. Nothing helped.

We need a baby. Then we’ll be a family.

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My pregnancy drove me deeper into depression as it messed with my body image. I’d worked hard to maintain my trim figure. When my midsection swelled, my increased size altered even simple movements. I recall a particular instance when I was about seven months into my pregnancy and Joshua drove me to the grocery store. He jumped from the driver’s side and locked his door while I struggled to step down to the parking lot. I fumbled with the lock on my side. Then I heard his voice.

“Hey, Victoria! Why do pregnant women have to walk this way?”

I whipped around to look at him. Joshua had bent his knees a bit and spread them apart. He laced his fingers in front of his abdomen, as if he was holding his belly. I fumed as he turned and lumbered toward the automatic doors at the front of the store.

Joshua never hurt me physically. He did not cheat on me. He did not habitually drink or gamble. He was physically present, even staying with me at the hospital when I delivered our daughter. But I felt like he was emotionally absent.

My inner wounds were like emotional bruises, always tender and touchy. And so, when my daughter arrived, even though I loved her dearly, I found she also did not satisfy my need to be valued and appreciated.

Through all of that, I worked as a server at a local restaurant. I actually had gotten a job there the same week I graduated from high school and moved in with Joshua. Many of the people I worked with attended a local church called Christian City Fellowship.

“I don’t like them,” I told Joshua. “They’re do-gooders, and they’re all fake.”

When the pastor of the church came in, I’d roll my eyes. “Here he comes again!” I’d convince one of the other servers to wait on him.

One day, I stayed home from work because of terrible abdominal cramping. Doctors told me I had an ovarian cyst. My phone rang.

“Hello, Victoria? I’m just calling to check on you. I heard you were sick. I wanted to find out if you need anything.”

I gritted my teeth as I recognized the woman’s voice.

“No, thank you. Everything is fine. I’ll be back in tomorrow.”

I was still “done with God,” and I determined I would not hang out with people who claimed they knew him.

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By this point, my emotions controlled me. I bounced between anger and depression. Though I loved my daughter, I sometimes heard myself saying things to her that Maria had said to me. “You spilled your juice? You’re never going to learn. Why can’t you stop doing stupid things?”

My daughter was a little older than 2 when I finally decided, If I can’t stop yelling at her and saying these horrible things, I’m going to end up really hurting her, just like Maria hurt me. I’ll hit her, or I’ll do something stupid. The only way I could think of to keep that from happening was to kill myself.

The people I worked with sometimes invited me to church, and occasionally I went, just to get them off my back. “This is Easter weekend,” one of them said. “Why don’t you come?”

I went home and told Joshua, “I’m going, just so they’ll quit nagging me.”

But inside, I knew I was giving God one last chance. If I don’t find an answer there, I’m going to end it all.

I had never seen anything like what happened that Saturday evening. I watched local people re-enact events from Jesus’ life. I watched as he was arrested and beaten. I watched soldiers put a cross on his shoulders, requiring him to carry it to the place of execution. I winced when the air rang with the clang of metal on metal, as authority figures acted out pounding nails through Jesus’ wrists and into the wooden crossbar.

Oh, Jesus! This all really happened. You did nothing wrong, and still you were rejected and treated like a criminal. I saw Jesus’ followers take his body from the cross and place it in a cave. Roman soldiers sealed the tomb and guarded it. Still, when Jesus’ followers returned to visit the grave, it was empty. Angels said Jesus came back to life. Even death could not stop him.

When the play ended, a man stood on the stage and explained that Jesus suffered that way to show us that he loved us so much, he was willing to die for us. All my life, I had wanted someone to care for me and to stand up for me. That night, I realized Jesus had done that, even when it meant suffering and death. So when the man onstage invited people to come forward if they wanted to respond to Jesus in a personal way, I stood and made my way to the front of the auditorium. The man prayed, and I repeated his words.

“Jesus, I know you’ve always loved me, and you’ve wanted to be in relationship with me. I’ve put barriers between you and me because I wanted to do things my way. Please forgive me. I want to love you in the way that you desire, and I want you to change me from the inside out.”

As the words poured from my mouth, I felt my muscles relax. Anxiety seemed to melt away, and peace took its place.

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When I left the church that night, I felt like a new person. But when I got home, everything remained the same. Joshua said something that irritated me, and I reacted in anger. That started a cycle that turned my rage inward, yielding depression. And then the dark images of suicide nibbled at the corners of my mind, trying to gain entry.

I wanted to capture what I felt at church and cling to it for the rest of the week, but I couldn’t seem to accomplish that. So I kept returning to church because it seemed to hold the deep peace I craved.

I liked the music, but I didn’t always understand what the speakers said. And then, about two months after Easter, a guest stood at the podium. I don’t remember much about his talk, but as he was wrapping up his presentation, he invited people to come to the front if they wanted to respond personally to God. I stayed in my place, staring straight ahead. And then, suddenly, I realized he was pointing at me. “Young lady?”

I looked around and then glanced back at him. He beckoned with his fingers.

I pointed at my chest and mouthed, “Me?”

He nodded and smiled. My heart pounded as I walked forward to meet him.

“God is delivering you right now from suicidal thoughts.”

He doesn’t know me! How can he know what I’m thinking?

I couldn’t explain it, but the darkness evaporated. And this time, even when I returned home, I didn’t feel the desire to end my life. I still struggled with anger and depression, but the cycle stopped there.

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At the end of that summer, someone stood up in church and said, “We’re offering some intensive mentoring for people who are serious about learning more about God and being committed to him. Anyone who is interested can call the church office and make an appointment.”

So I did. I told the secretary, “I don’t know what this mentoring stuff is, but I think I need it.” She scheduled an appointment for me with Pastor Nancy.

What should I wear? I needed to maintain my image. Never mind that I still erupted in anger and drowned in depression. Never mind that I binged on my favorite foods and then forced myself to vomit in an effort to stay thin. Never mind that I ogled pornographic magazines. No one knew all of that not even Joshua. I maintained a well-dressed façade.

So I took extra care in choosing my outfit. I walked into Pastor Nancy’s office and sat down. We chatted for a bit about the usual introductory pleasantries, and then she said, “Well, I understand you may be interested in some one-on-one mentoring.”

I looked down at my manicured fingernails. “I’m kind of confused.”

“Really? What don’t you understand?”

“Well, I know Jesus. I’m okay with him. But when I come to church, you all talk about God as a father. I’m not so good with that. I’m pretty mad at him.” I briefly shared my history and added, “I’m trying to be grateful because I feel like that’s important, but I’m actually angry at God. Why did he let all this stuff happen to me?”

Pastor Nancy didn’t wince or turn away. Her voice softened with kindness that made my eyes feel gritty. I struggled to maintain composure as she said, “Why don’t we take some time to look into the Bible and see if we can find some answers to your questions?”

That began a 14-month journey meeting with Pastor Nancy on a weekly basis. I still remember the day we read a Bible passage that came from a letter the Apostle Paul wrote to a group of Christians living in a place called Ephesus. Near the beginning of that letter, Paul wrote that God “chose us in him before the creation of the world.” Paul went on to explain that, because of his great love for us, God established a plan whereby he could adopt us as his children (Ephesians 1:4-5).

When I read that, my mind immediately focused on a picture from my past. I remembered physical education class in high school. The teacher chose two classmates as captains, and they started selecting people for their teams.

My mouth went dry, and my palms grew damp with sweat. The teams were almost complete. Only two of us remained me and a young man with an obvious physical disability.

The team captains looked us over. “It’s my turn to pick,” one said, pointing to the boy. “I’ll take him.”

A sense of shame accompanied that vivid picture. No one wants you. But in that moment, I gathered enough mental energy to weigh those words against the ones I read in the Bible: “chosen before the creation of the world.” That means someone does want me.

I didn’t hear an audible voice, but it was as if God spoke in my mind. I picked you before you were even born. There hasn’t been a single day in your entire life that I haven’t loved you. I chose you even before I created the world, before you did anything to earn my attention before you got good grades or had cute clothes. I chose you just because I loved you.

With Pastor Nancy’s help, I began to understand that I could choose which truth I wanted to focus on. The negative experiences really did happen to me. Pastor Nancy didn’t try to deny them or explain them away. But she showed me I could choose to live in the shadow of an earthly father who abandoned me and situations where I felt overlooked and left out. Or I could accept the reality that my heavenly father had always loved me, and he would never forsake me.

As I focused on God’s great love, I realized the negative mental photos that had been so clear in my mind were beginning to fade. “It’s almost like I was kidnapped and held in captivity,” I said. “Now my real father has come to rescue me. That’s my new reality.”

Pastor Nancy showed me I could ask God to help me think his thoughts, and I could trust him to help me exchange my negative thought patterns for his strong and positive ones. Over that 14-month period, my reliance on pornography stopped. My depression dissipated, and my anger disintegrated. God was changing me on the inside, and the evidence showed up in my daily choices. Some of those choices required more courage than others.

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Joshua appreciated the changes he saw in me. He encouraged me to attend church and also to take our daughter. But he resisted going himself.

In the midst of all of that, I continued pursuing my goal of becoming a U.S. citizen. My friends at work helped me file applications, but nothing moved. It seemed like I always needed to provide more money or go to another office in another location. And then I finally received a work permit. That allowed me to apply for nursing school.

It looked like positive things were finally happening for us.

So I had a joyful attitude as I attended a weekend church event designed to provide women with an opportunity to get away from their daily responsibilities and rejuvenate their spiritual relationships. I enjoyed hanging out with the other ladies, but to be honest, I thought the speaker’s presentations lacked excitement. I listened politely, but I didn’t hear anything I thought would change my life until she said, “If you’re living with a man and you’re not married, then you are building a house without a firm foundation. God can’t build a strong house on top of that.”

Her words immediately seared my heart, and the sting didn’t go away when I returned home. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I looked for an opportunity to mention this to my pastor. He listened intently, and then he helped me determine how God wanted me to respond.

I went home. “Joshua, we have to talk.”

He settled down beside me and waited.

“I want to get married.”

Joshua shook his head. “We’ve been together for years now, and it’s been fine.”

I tried to explain my desire, but he still shook his head.

“Do you realize what could happen? You just got your work papers. You’re planning to start school. Our documents don’t allow us to get married. We’d be risking everything.”

Even Manuela and Guillermo thought I had gone crazy. “Why are you doing this to him? You’re being unreasonable.”

But I couldn’t let it go. “I can’t live like this anymore. I have to obey God.” Joshua didn’t believe me until I started packing my suitcase, intending to leave. Then he relented.

“Fine, I’ll do it. But we’ll go to Mexico. It will be safer that way, except that we may have to cross the river again.”

eee

We had to wait a few weeks before we could go to Mexico. I quit my job and started school. We lived paycheck to paycheck. I had $100 in my purse when I attended church, and that represented my entire budget for the week. I heard an inner voice. I want you to give half of it.

I did some mental calculations and realized, if I shopped carefully, we could still make it. So I put $50 in the offering plate as it passed me.

I returned to church that evening, and I heard the voice again. I want you to give the other $50.

I tried to ignore the voice. Then I argued with it.

You’re crazy! That’s all my money. How will I buy gas?

I wrestled with the choice. Finally, I decided I needed to think God’s thoughts, so I gave the rest of my money.

When I turned around, the woman who directed the children’s ministry at our church stood nearby holding her wedding dress. “I think God wants me to give you this.”

Joy bubbled as I thanked her.

Then I caught my breath as I heard the pastor speaking from the front of the auditorium. “I believe God wants us to take an offering tonight. I believe he wants to bless Victoria in a special way.”

Pastor had never done that before, in the whole time I had attended Christian City Fellowship. The meeting that night drew a small crowd, yet the offering amounted to almost $4,000. Someone even donated wedding rings.

I saw that as confirmation God had seen my need and had provided extravagantly. I thanked him for the money, the dress and the rings. “But more important than all of that, God, thank you for loving me. Thank you for this tangible evidence that you have chosen me and adopted me. Thank you that I belong to you.”

I continued to be stunned by God, who I believe prepared even more surprises for me. After so many years of applying and being rejected, suddenly, within two weeks, I received my resident card from the U.S. government. Then Joshua received a permit to travel, and it covered the exact period of time we needed to go to Mexico and get married.

Incredibly, God added yet another blessing. Joshua had resisted getting married because he feared losing his work permit, which also allowed him to apply for citizenship papers through his dad. Our marriage risked all of that. I had received my citizenship, and since we were husband and wife, Joshua ended up getting his citizenship through me.

I couldn’t explain all of these events apart from God’s provision.

eee

Being part of God’s family didn’t totally insulate us from hard experiences. Joshua and I endured some difficult circumstances, but I believe God was able to use those problems to soften our hearts. Joshua eventually developed a relationship with God, and he attended church with me regularly.

About a decade after Joshua and I married, I started experiencing some unusual fatigue and pain. I went to several doctors and finally received a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. As these diseases attacked my body, they also challenged the part of me that gained affirmation through my accomplishments. It’s hard to “perform” on days when you can’t get out of bed.

This sickness took me deeper in my relationship with God, as I discovered I didn’t have to do anything to earn his love. I didn’t have to be tough. I didn’t have to be strong. His voice seemed to assure me, When you run, I’ll run with you. And when you lie down, I’ll still be beside you.

That truth penetrated my thinking processes. I stood in church listening to musicians playing and singing. As my voice mingled with theirs, I found myself calling God by a different name. “Poppa, I love you so much. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”

I realized I had never used that name for anyone else, not even for my earthly father. It was fresh and free from any taint of disappointment.

The Bible promises, “Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me” (Psalm 27:10). All of my life, I expected to find fulfillment in relationships with other people. I wanted them to measure up to my unrealistic expectations, and when they couldn’t do that, I descended into rage that fueled my negative behaviors and my depression. I didn’t realize only Poppa could fill that void. And so I’ve discovered the primary place where I fit. Poppa loves me unconditionally, and he promises to never abandon me.

My family photo is complete because Poppa stands at the center, and he makes sure there’s a place for me.

He assures me that my place is secure, not because of anything I can do, but just because Poppa says so.

Who We Are:

Great Commission Project contracts with Good Catch Publishing to produce testimony books for its client churches. We help real people share with their communities the raw, candid and inspiring true stories of how their lives changed in radical and wonderful ways after encountering the profound love of the living God.

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