We collected troubled teenage girls like stray puppies. As pastor and wife, we always wanted our home to be a safe haven. After all, we had raised two daughters and three girl doggies, so we were accustomed to a house full of estrogen. Sandy Stoker was the first of our “foster brood.” Her house burned down, her dad deserted the family and Sandy needed a place to park for awhile. Sixteen-year-old Sandy was 4’11” and 89 pounds soaking wet. She scarfed groceries like a trucker. When our newest family member arrived home from school, she asked, “Where’s the beef?” I joined Costco in self-defense and purchased steaks in bulk. Sandy didn’t know Jesus, and our love for her opened her heart. Our petite fireball graduated high school and attended the University of Hawaii to study marine biology. Thank God there were a lot of “fish in the sea.” We knew Sandy would be well fed.
Sandy was the first of a long line of disenfranchised adolescents who parked on our orange sectional, sucked down our Dr. Peppers, and swam in our pool. Most of them needed a happy home base and a listening ear. But a few ran into our arms for safety from abusive dads, alcoholic moms and absentee caretakers.
Sherry was one of those deeply troubled “lost sheep.” Most of her classmates assumed Sherry led a charmed life. She was blue-eyed, beautiful and brilliant. Sherry served in one of my youth mission teams. She also attended my weekly Bible study for budding young church leaders. Three months into Philippians, Sherry lingered behind the others and began to sob uncontrollably. She told us her dad was a raging alcoholic and her mom was a typical abused wife, turning a blind eye to the angry outbursts and lying words Dad doled out to the kids. After talking with her folks, we discovered her family was not quite the dysfunctional, disastrous mess Sherry made it out to be. But her Mom, in desperation, asked if we could take Sherry for awhile and see if we could help her through the “troubled waters” of hurt she experienced.
That dark, damp Sunday night, I drove Sherry home. We packed her belongings (with her mother’s blessing) and moved her into our daughter’s pink bedroom. Our youngest, Bronwyn, was studying abroad for the school year, so Sherry settled in for the spring semester. We loved having an “adopted daughter” once again! Sherry returned home from school every day about the same time I finished work at church. We plopped on Bronie’s bed, shared a brownie and talked about her day. Sherry whipped out her science exam with an A+ at the top and I’d jump for joy. Occasionally raging hormones sent Sherry into a funk, so we prayed together and hit the mall for some retail therapy.
My husband Roger played a pivotal role in Sherry’s life. Sherry never felt her dad would listen patiently and sympathetically. The two chatted for hours about the Bible, boys and her dreams for the future. I even tucked her into bed at night, feeling pleased at her progress and peace. When I chatted with Sherry’s mom, she seemed relieved that Sherry had a chance to repair some of her childhood wounds.
One spring Saturday morning, everything changed. Sherry was at soccer practice with some friends. I stumbled down the hallway with an armload of crisp, clean laundry to stuff into Sherry’s closet. I hung the freshly washed jeans and opened her lingerie drawer to stack her clean underwear. As I closed the closet door, I spied three photos on the floor by her shoes.
Sherry was nude, dancing seductively for a sea of onlookers. She looked stoned and smug. So that’s why our girl always had a little spending money…. We thought she worked at McDonald’s flipping burgers three nights a week. An embossed business card lay next to the vulgar snapshots with the name Fascination Fantasies printed on the card along with a street address and phone number.
Nauseated and heartsick, my hands trembled as I dialed the number and asked for the manager. “Hello. This is Julie Barrier,” I stammered, still choking from the shock of those images burned on my brain. “Is Sherry Smith currently in your employ? I asked, hoping the answer would be no.
“Who wants to know?” he gruffly queried.
“I am her guardian, housemother, friend….” Who was I really? Before I could answer that question, the manager chuckled, “Yep, Sherry is one of our best. She’s been at Fascination for three months. What a charmer!”
“What exactly does she do?”
The manager belly-laughed. “She makes our clients VERY happy.”
I dropped the phone and collapsed on the bed in a heap. I wept in disbelief and wanted to put my fist through the wall all at the same time. How could I have been so deceived?
Roger was mowing the grass in the backyard. I called him inside and related the sordid details of the double life Sherry was leading. Roger was speechless, and preachers seldom find themselves at a loss for words. The blow wouldn’t have been so painful if we hadn’t loved and trusted her so much.
“We have to confront her,” Roger said firmly. “How do we handle this-do we ask her to confess, to leave our home or send her to a professional counselor? Do we get her Mom involved in this process?” Before we completed our conversation, Sherry breezily burst through the front door to grab a sweater and say hello.
Before we could utter a word, Sherry saw the photos and the business card on the dresser. Her jaw dropped and she said nothing. She ran down the hall, slammed the carport door and raced to her car. Roger tried to follow her outside, but Sherry sped away, burning rubber on the driveway. We tried her cell phone. We called her Mom, her best friend, even her boss. Sherry was nowhere to be found!
Saturday evening after dinner, Roger and I left for church to make final preparations for Sunday. As we prayed in the front row of the empty sanctuary, I was furious with God and angry at Sherry. I felt duped and used. Roger tried to comfort me, but he wasn’t in the mood to be much help. Nevertheless, sick with worry, we prayed for Sherry’s safety and hoped for the best.
I returned home and headed toward the bedroom, hoping to find a contrite girl or at least a note of apology and a promise to return home soon. Instead, the room was picked clean. Sherry’s clothes and books were gone. All of my daughter Bronwyn’s jewelry and her favorite furry coat were missing. We were too traumatized to call the police. Besides, Sherry just turned eighteen and she was legally an adult.
Months passed. No word came from Sherry or her mom. Our precious “foster child” was nowhere to be found. My view of the innate goodness of man (or woman, in this case) became jaded and cynical. Roger and I stopped “adopting” stray children for a long time.
Two years later, Sherry showed up for a Sunday morning service. Roger was so shocked that he almost lost his place in his sermon notes. We hustled away from the “after church” crowd and tried to catch her. Once again, Sherry was invisible.
Three years later, Sherry walked down the aisle of the church and stretched out her hand to me. “I’m so sorry,” she confessed. “I know I hurt you, but I’ve gotten my act together. I’m clean and I’m studying pre-med at the university. Can you forgive me?”
All the Bible verses of forgiveness flooded my mind. Jesus’ parable of the ungrateful debtor, Mary Magdalene’s pardon from a checkered past, Peter’s “seventy times seven” question and Jesus’ compassionate absolution of the adulterous woman reminded me of the godly response. “Yes, of course,” I begrudgingly replied. There. I did it. I forgave her like a model pastor’s wife. But I was still steamed by her betrayal and deception.
I learned a lot about myself that sunny Sunday when Sherry reached out her hand to ask for forgiveness. I was arrogant to assume that a few months of “godly rehab” in our home would overshadow years in a dysfunctional home. I remembered that the Word of God is like a SEED. It may require years to take root and bear fruit. God alone changes our lives, and He works on His perfect timetable.
God wasn’t finished with Sherry. She was searching for direction and meaning in life. Our preschool director took Sherry under her wing and mentored her. Sherry began to teaching toddlers about Jesus. Her love for those little ones gave Sherry a brand new focus. Sherry’s faith has grown. And grown. And grown! Now Dr. Sherry stands by the bedsides of little children, prays for them and restores them to health.