Her halfway house ministry helps heal women’s physical, mental scars
Like so many runaways struggling to survive any way they could, Luann became entangled in a web of prostitution and drug use.
For years, one fed upon the other until she spent her late 20s serving a five-year prison sentence.
Now, the 37-year-old doesn‘t recognize the person staring back at her in her mug shot. “My eyes looked so empty, like there was nothing there,” she says.
While in prison, Luann met chaplain Robbie Holsberg of the interfaith Good News Jail and Prison Ministry, who helped Luann see that the emptiness in her heart was one that only Jesus could fill. Holsberg took Luann into her home after Luann was released from prison.
But life on the streets was the only life Luann knew. Starting over wasn’t going to be easy.
“When I think of a 10-year-old, I think of Barbie dolls and dreams, not someone supporting themselves,” Holsberg says. “Women who find themselves in situations like Luann’s have no self-worth, no self-image. They don’t know what love is. They’ve been taken advantage of and people have turned against them.”
Sadly, assimilation into a church was not easy for Luann after she was released from prison. Luann was unsure of herself -- how to act, how to dress, whether to cover up tattoos -- and people seemed unsure what to make of her, as well.
“It was hard at first because I felt I didn’t fit in at any church I went to,” Luann recalls.
“I felt like people were looking down their noses at me. Maybe that was because that’s how I felt inside, but the result was still the same -- I didn’t go back.”
Luann knew she did not want to go back to life on the streets, but if she could not turn to the church, who could she turn to?
Scared about what this meant, she noticed a Bible. She read about Jesus’ love for sinners and found hope.
Luann, now a member of North Park Baptist Church in Orlando, directs a halfway house for women known as Restoration House. The house gives women coming off the streets or out of prison a place to stay while they seek job training.
“No one says, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a prostitute, a drug addict, to live in an abandoned building,’” Luann notes. “These women are angry, scared, distrustful and mentally as well as physically scarred.”
She added most women coming off the streets need dental care to replace teeth that have been knocked out.
Luann often speaks to church groups about the nonprofit Restoration House ministry, encouraging them to become more open to reaching the down-and-out in their communities.
After Sam Braswell, pastor of North Park Baptist Church, heard Luann’s testimony, he was moved to help her develop her vision for the halfway house. He invited Luann to speak to the congregation. Subsequently, she joined the church and Braswell became a member of Restoration House’s advisory board.
When people enter the jail system, Braswell said, they often come in with other problems, such as drug use or bad choices, that make it hard for them to accept Christ. If they do, it’s actually easier for them to be Christians in jail, where they don’t have access to all their old habits.
“We want to be a means of support to help them break the cycle,” he said. “We see this ministry as an opportunity to disciple new Christians, not only giving them spiritual tools but also the social tools they need to totally get away from their old way of life.
“This type of ministry is so needed,” he said, “but most churches are unaware of the need or don’t know how to minister to someone who has come out of jail. In turn, it’s very difficult for these people to be ministered to, because they think they will not be understood or accepted.
“But who knows who we will help that will become a great leader?” Braswell asked. “Luann has. We need more stories like hers.”
Women coming off of the streets or out of jail need help in learning how to leave their past behind them, Luann says, including how to walk, talk and dress differently.
“They don’t need to hear, ‘Just give your life to the Lord and it will be all right,’” she reflects. “What they want to say back is, ‘Will you show me how to be a Christian?’”
Luann does just that, though she may not look like a typical Sunday morning churchgoer. She kept her tattoos, which she says gives her credibility on the streets to tell her story of redemption.
Her demeanor has changed so drastically in the two years since she has accepted Christ, old friends have changed her street name from “Jersey” -- her home state -- to “New Jersey.”
Luann says she is learning how to pass “fruit inspections” she used to conduct on Christians who tried to convert her. “You have to back up your words with actions. You have to keep it real -- that’s the only way people are going to know that the change you are experiencing is real.”