Not too far from my house, inside the city limits of Loganville, there’s a street that looks rather rundown. A mixture of houses and mobile homes line the sides of this street, and when you drive down it with someone who’s never seen it, you can almost feel the uncertainty that suddenly takes over. It’s only when you reach the end of Pecan Street that you’ll hear that first timer exhale, inhale and say something along the lines of, “Wow. I can’t believe people actually live down there. That’s scary.”
Scary. Uncertain. Uncomfortable. These are the words we reserve for the places we can’t bring ourselves to visit, those places where “normal” people just don’t go, places that frighten us into the belief that, since we can’t really affect change there, our presence isn’t required. Places light the Red Light District in Amsterdam. Or the slums of India. Or the home of a reformed prostitute looking for a new life for her and her child.
Naomi Zacharias McNeil* has made it her life’s mission to not only go into those places, but to bring them light and hope. Through the ministry of Wellspring International, a not-for-profit ministry that responds to the needs of women and children at risk, Naomi and her partners have changed countless lives in places where change was either thought impossible or of little consequence. A quick reading of the projects on the Wellspring website tells you that not only is change possible, it’s dramatic in its impact.
Naomi has chronicled her experiences with Wellspring in her first book, The Scent of Water: Grace for Every Kind of Broken (available for sale on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and CBD.com). Naomi’s distinctive voice combined with her own personal struggles have created a book that is at turns a heartbreaking and revelatory look at the damaged world we live in. Following on the heels of Mother’s Day, I thought it fitting to ask Naomi (who’s pregnant with her first child!) to share her observations on life and motherhood, brokenness and grace.
If you enjoy Naomi’s post, please consider purchasing her book or visiting the Wellspring donation page. Her work is well worth supporting with more than just words and affirmation.
*(In case you’re wondering, yes – Naomi’s dad is Ravi Zacharias. But Dr. Zacharias will tell you what Naomi is doing around the world is an original and unique ministry born of Naomi’s vision and determination.)
Naomi Zacharias McNeil
My husband and I were sitting around their table in Oxford, England, eating a home-cooked dinner with a couple who have become good friends in a short amount of time. We were sharing stories from childhood, and while many brought laughter, only one story brought tears to my eyes. Perhaps it is because I am pregnant and teary eyes have become more familiar; perhaps it is because it was such a good story. Likely it is both, and the heightened sense of emotions from my version of normal served to help me appreciate a fullness to this story.
Our friend is of full-blooded Italian heritage, born and bred in New Jersey. He has the fabulous last name and tell-tale northeast shore accent to clearly attest to both. When he was about 6 years old, he was in a neighborhood field playing soccer with boys much older, bigger, and more self-assured than he was. He tried his best to play, but their taunting soon ran him off the field- perhaps Forrest Gump style- and all the way home. His mother greeted him at the door, and as her little boy approached her with tears streaming down his cheeks, she asked what happened. “Those boys say I’m not tough enough,” he said with such a sincere sadness, trembling lip and insecure defeat it must have ripped at the core of her heart.
Placing one hand slowly on her hip, she leaned down so her face was an arm’s length from her son’s. With her other hand, she tapped her chin and said softly but defiantly, “Hit me.” His eyes widened in objection and he shook his head, absolutely no. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll be fine, I promise. Just take a swing right here,” she encouraged, she insisted. After multiple objections, her son somewhat uncertainly tried out his little right hook. She drew her hand up to rub the reddening mark on her face gently, and with a beaming smile the Italian mama said, “You’re plenty tough enough, I know you are. Go back out there and get in that game.” And off he ran. He finished that soccer game with boys who were still older and bigger, but that was all they had on him.
The point of the story is obviously not to encourage any kind of violence, and must be appreciated in its context, in its culture, and exactly for what it is – a mother’s belief in her son and her willingness to incur her own bruise in order to demonstrate to him a strength she knew he carried within himself.
I am pregnant with my first child, a son. There are many ways to experience the miraculous in life, and this is a present one for me. I marvel at what the human body has been created to do- how my baby tells me when he’s hungry, how I can make countless choices each day to provide for him before I meet him, how in this 7th month it has been explained to me that the dramatic increase in my discomfort is because the little one has received the chemical release that tells him to turn his body to prepare to enter the world; how the fact that I trip multiple times a day and have adopted a waddle I was sure I would not is because my ligaments have responded to his signal to give up their resistance, and so feel a bit more like spaghetti. All of these things are fantastically wonder-filled to me.
I haven’t met him. But I worry I will have passed on my least favorite feature to his perfect little form; whether he will like me; if I be able to soothe him when he cries; if he will be ADD in school; what I will say when he gets his heart broken for the first time; what it will feel like when I reach up on tip-toe to hug his neck; what I will do when he comes home and says the older boys said he can’t play their game.
What I do know is that I deeply want him and love him from a place so far inside I can’t point to it; that I would give any part of my body or heart to ensure his safety and happiness; that my life seems so purposeful when I eat or sleep or laugh; that we’ve had countless of conversations just between us while his little fists or tiny feet thump against my ribs and I tap back; that I hope he has his father’s perfection of face and gentle heart.
I know that new fears have introduced themselves into my heart, that my very job now seems loaded in a new way. My involvement and awareness of global pains has now heightened as I’ve got a new kind of fight, a new investment dramatically out of proportion to his three-pound weight.
I look at the overwhelming presence of billboards, commercials, images and dialogue that serve to objectify women and insidiously worm their way into the heart of men; and one day, into the heart of my son before he is even old enough to have any clue what it is they seek to compromise in him.
I know that he is entering a world where over 12 million people are currently in forced labor and forced prostitution through trafficking; where pornography is multi-billion dollar industry, and that the ticker on news channels streams consistently of another natural disaster, another civil war, terrorism, political wars, poverty, hunger, discrimination. I know that few of these things can be “fixed,” and those that can be restored take years, patience, prayer, and an act of faith and persistence. I also know every single one of those things is worthy of all that and everything more.
Since I began working with Wellspring International to respond to the needs of women and children at risk, I have to be honest in saying that life has an ever-present sadness. Oddly, what was present before wasn’t really an every-present happiness, but it was a naivete that allowed for easier living I suppose. Easier, and emptier. Yet this sadness is at times a weight that feels like it gets the best of me some days, but one that refuses to settle at the ocean floor of my being. Instead, it’s like the pendulum of a clock that keeps me working and serves to fuel the passion and calling God has given to me. It is a determination, the inability to forget and go back to simple.
And now with the miracle of a new life, a life that is part who I am in every sense, and part my husband and therein ever present reminder of my greatest gift in my life, I have a new immense responsibility and desire to protect this little human from the world itself- a world I am compelled to participate in. I want to protect him from it; I am somewhat defeated in already knowing I cannot fully do so.
As we considered his name, his baby décor, our parenting style, whether or not we agree with controversial Baby-wise methods, our mission statement for our child is to, with God’s help, raise him in a way that will break our hearts anew by opening his eyes to the world before him and teaching him the discipline, values, and strength he must find to face it.
Some days my heart will beat tears of joy as he experiences treasures of beauty from a life that takes in all the wonders- an airplane flying overhead leaving a trail of white puffy clouds behind, his fascination rather than impatience at bustling activity around him, his delightful first taste of freakishly blue ice cream, belly-shaking joy at a silly face I can make that will make him laugh over and over and over again. As he grows older, it will be in helping him to be a good friend, to learn what to defend and when to lay down his fists for the numerous fights and heartaches life will send his way from Kindergarten, Junior High, and forever onward. It will be to help him discover who he is- his talents, his uniqueness, to recognize his God-given purpose that will be different to mine in so many ways, his need to own his mistakes but overcome them. His ability to see into a person- to learn what it is that defines character; not to necessarily surround himself with those who have never fallen, but those who learned the discipline of standing back up. To instill in him his sobering yet compelling opportunity as a man in his private and public life to demonstrate a longed for and needed healing respect, protection, appreciation, and honor to women that has been lost and minimized, corrupted and excused by culture in its accepted perversions and epic global personifications. I want to try to show him what it means to love; the honor and challenge of compromising, yet not compromising yourself or an other. I pray we will show him how to look at a world far outside his own borders and experience, to participate in the injustice he sees regardless of whether he is its victim.
I say this with the beginnings of pangs of understanding- may he live a life, not that is easy or free of pain, but that is intentional, purposeful, that is full and introduces him to peace, grace, and wholeness- the wholeness of a humanity he is part of and of the Creator that brought him into being for a purpose greater than himself.
I will have opportunity, both seen and unseen, to point to my jaw and help him find his strength. Sometimes it will bruise the outside, always and to varying degrees will it bruise the inside. For I will ache at what he must see and what is my calling to try to guide him through.
I am reminded of this every day when I sit at my desk or board a plane to a new destination. Staying informed through the articles I read, exposing myself to the conversations with victims of injustice and seeking to understand a horror-filled story, trying to raise support for legitimate and urgent needs that keep me awake at night, continuing to recognize the real-life examples of a powerful grace that can heal wounds and empower wounded individuals to keep walking. It has crossed my mind to back off of it, to fill my mind with more pleasant things. Work has not been easy of late- my mind, my body, and my heart are somewhat tired inside. His presence tempts me to justify a reason to stop. But it also tells me why I cannot.
Yesterday was my first Mother’s Day. My husband gave me pink tulips, my son woke me up with a few treasured thumps in my belly. And I am aware he is already teaching me. He gives me another reason not to give up. He furthers a conviction to try to participate in something that brings healing to the countless wounds found in life- because he remind me of life, of what makes it matter, of why I agreed to venture from the safety of my mind to publication and the scrutiny of reviews, and of a world in which I long to contribute something meaningful and good.
Because, in my ever so small capacity, I want to try to introduce that healing and remarkable all-sufficient grace I know can be found; that I have experienced and witnessed through stories with happy endings we long to hear and in those with different kinds of endings- but equally powerful stories that we need to hear.
Because I want to learn the meaning and living of the very things I want to teach my son.
And because I think that doing so is one of the universally -shared callings in all of our God-scripted stories.