Story of Hope: Jennifer

by Kaylan Preuss

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.

—Isaiah 43:18-19

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Jennifer grew up in nearby Sturgis—in a middle class, safe, whole family unit, complete with a dad, mom, and younger sister. So how was it that in 2012, as a young 30-something, she was facing her third divorce? She couldn’t believe or understand it.

Family life wasn’t exactly ideal during childhood. Jennifer’s mom took her and her sister on-and-off to a nearby Catholic church—mainly for the important things like confirmation and her first communion. But at home, her dad was a functioning alcoholic.

“He wasn’t abusive at all and he was present, but I don’t have many sober memories of my dad,” she said. “He did his thing and we did ours. He was there, but he wasn’t really there.”

As for her Catholic church, she didn’t like it or understand it. So she started attending a local community church with some friends and got involved. Because it was a small group, she never found the leadership or guidance she now says she probably needed during that time.

“I remember going to church camp at 13 or 14 and being ‘saved’ there, but I didn’t even really know what that meant. I didn’t do it for the right reasons. It’s what everybody was doing and it felt right,” she said. “Looking back now, I realized I wanted God’s blessings, but I didn’t want that way of life, so my salvation didn’t stick.”

Jennifer spent a lot of her teenage and young adult years making what she calls “less than desirable decisions.” She hung out with all the wrong people and battled her own addictions—drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity.

In 1996, she found a way out. She met a guy in the Air Force, originally from New Jersey, who was stationed in Columbus. At that point, all she wanted was to get out of Mississippi and he wanted a wife before he got out of the military, so it seemed they both had a solution in marrying each other.

“We got married and I got pregnant. When we had our son, I decided I wanted to live in Mississippi to be close to my family and he wanted to go back to New Jersey. He’s a great guy and we still co-parent today, but the bottom line is this: we should’ve never gotten married. I know now it didn’t work because God wasn’t involved in that relationship,” she said.

After their divorce and a short time had passed, Jennifer met someone else. She was a single mom raising her son and he was raising his twin girls on his own. This seemed to be the perfect Brady-Brunch-blended scenario.

They married in August 1998 when Jennifer was 23 years old. By November, the whole family was active in a local church where she was baptized and started to turn things around, focusing on “living right” and reading the Bible.

Jennifer said, “Life was good for us. We were very involved in church and tried to do the right things. We even attended Mt. Vernon for a while. He was growing as a believer and so was I, so it was a shock when I found out he’d had an affair.”

In 2008, after 11 years together, the couple split and Jennifer tried to move on again with her 12-year-old son. But just one year later, carrying her own bag of self-loathing and emotional pain, another man entered Jennifer’s life, trying to buy her affections and mend the broken pieces.

“He said and did all the right things. He seemed to be the answer to everything. He’d been a Marine. He was financially stable. He had a college degree,” she said. “There was a lot of pressure from him to marry again, so I did—for a third time. I didn’t believe in anything anymore, so I fell for everything.”

Two things happened after they wed—Jennifer soon got pregnant with her second son and red flags started popping up all over the place.

She began to find out the ugly truth behind his lies: he couldn’t produce a driver’s license; he didn’t actually have a degree; he was $12,000 in child support debt; he’d begun dating someone else a month after they were married. And the biggest lie of all? Jennifer wasn’t wife #2 like he said—she was #5.

“I felt stuck. The lies were overwhelming. I had no clue whom I’d married. He turned out to be a con artist and I’d fallen for it,” she said. “For three years, I tried to make it work. But at the end of it all, he left me with $21,000 worth of debt.”

The biggest blessing out of it came in the form of her second son, Reed—plus a life change she couldn’t have predicted. In 2011, she and her boys began attending Mt. Vernon again. And this time, things were different.

“I remember sending a message to a staff member saying, ‘I’m scared to death of being judged at church.’ Church is a hard place to be when you’re divorced. I felt like I was walking in with a neon sign over my head that said, ‘Single Mom, Divorced x 3.’ I felt like it defined who I was. But when I walked through those doors, I never once felt judged or condemned. It felt like family.”

About the same time, Jennifer began working full-time from home, giving her time to reflect on her past. What she realized was her issues began as a child, more than 20 years ago, when she began searching for love and a man to fill the gap her dad never could. She didn’t realize the impact her father’s alcoholism had on her life (who is now battling the end stages of his addiction).

She’d wanted the fairytale, but it had failed every time she tried to create it on her own.

“You don’t think you’ll ever get through the pain,” she said. “I prayed so much for the ability to forgive myself and let go of the shame that was binding me. It was when I opened the Bible and met the person of Jesus that I found my fairytale and the Father I needed all along. I’d tried to fill the gap in my heart with worldly relationships, but only Jesus could do that all along. He’s the only Love I need.”

Just when she realized how much Jesus loves her, everything else also melted away—the resentment, anger, brokenness, and shame. Though she still battles the enemy for freedom, she says she now understands that Christ’s power is made perfect in her weakness.

Today, Jennifer regularly attends a life group—a place where she feels safe to share, encourage, and be encouraged. She also serves each week on the host team and with the Children’s Ministry. And to top it all off, her sons are both actively involved at Mt. Vernon.

She said, “Now, I get it—this relationship with Jesus. There’s trust there. Grace is real. Yes, my story is messy and ugly. I created that. But Jesus stepped in and made me new, healing the wounds and filling in the holes. Sometimes the best fairytales come from the rubble.”

My 10 Favorite Things About the Joy Prom

This morning there’s a few hundred Mt Vernon volunteers dragging their way to work or school today. We’re tired, but it’s a good tired. No, it’s a great tired! We just finished our 4th Annual Joy Prom, where our high school students throw a prom for the special needs community. Of all the wonderful things about Joy Prom, here are my 10 favorite:

red carpet1. The Red Carpet – This is the aspect that most people see. Our special guests and their dates (our high school students) roll up at the edge of a red carpet and walk into our church, with hundreds of people clapping and cheering for them along the way. We get to make the special needs community feel as valued as they truly are.

community2. Church uniting – It takes much more than a youth ministry to make the Joy Prom happen. People from all throughout our church get to come together and pull off this amazing event. By working together, it reminds us that generational divides don’t have to be a barrier for us doing something impactful for the Kingdom.

church3. Community coming together – Just like the Joy Prom is bigger than a youth ministry, it’s also bigger than one church. Many of our key volunteers don’t attend Mt Vernon, and a majority of our red carpet volunteers aren’t members of our church. It’s an incredible opportunity for Christians throughout the community to unite together for a common good.

21284_10155435165475034_1753351216330533605_n4. Teens learning to serve – Our students serve as dates, helping their dates with their food and of course accompanying them on the dance floor. They have real responsibility throughout the night, and they more than rise up to the occasion. It’s always encouraging to see students take such a servant’s role even at a young age.

caregivers5. Blessing the caregivers – The caregivers of these special guests are the real heroes, caring for a person with special needs day in and day out, removed from the spotlight. Joy Prom is an opportunity for us not only to give the caregivers a few hours off, but to bless them by blessing those closest to their hearts: the special needs community.
favorite dance

6. Dancing in church – Maybe it’s just the rule breaker in me. Maybe I was traumatized by Footloose. Either way, the rebellious part of me likes pushing the envelope and utilizing church space for something others might frown on and having a (clean) dance inside the four walls of a church.

dance7. High schoolers’ favorite dance – I’ve heard this every year we’ve done Joy Prom. It’s the high schoolers’ favorite dance. They don’t have to try and impress others or look cool. They just get to be themselves and have fun. Joy Prom is always their favorite dance.

serving

 

8. People are able to leverage their gifts to serve – Numerous ladies from the beauty industry volunteer their time to do hair and make up for the special guests before they walk the red carpet. Folks with classic cars donated their cars and their time to help work the red carpet. Photographers donated their evening to help capture the event. It’s great to see people leverage their natural gifts and talents for the good of others.

11174806_10155435157965034_3903874191757119572_n9. Their smiles – There’s a simple innocence and purity when someone with special needs smiles. There’s an unadulterated joy unencumbered by the weight of the world. Seeing them smile literally makes it all worthwhile. And they smile, and smile, and smile. The Joy Prom brings them joy. What other reason do we need?

blessed

 

10. It’s more blessed to give than to receive – Every person participating in the Joy Prom gets to live out these famous words from Jesus. Yes we give: our time, energy, resources, sleep, etc. But what we receive it return far exceeds anything we give up. That’s why we look forward to it year after year.

What a blessing!

 images courtesy of Chris Ellis Photography