He was a “problem child” by definition. He started fights and bullied his classmates. He ignored rules and disregarded authority. He didn’t care about his work, and it didn’t seem like he cared about anyone else either.
Erin Oh looked at this eighth grader, baffled. People told her that if kids challenged her authority, she needed to respond with even harsher punishments. But she had a feeling that this particular student needed to be dealt with in a different way.
So Erin began praying for wisdom in how to move forward. And what she heard God say in response to her was, “See.” See what he’s going through. See what lie he believes about himself that causes him to behave the way he does. See what God can do in this situation.
When Erin did this, she saw that the root of her student’s behavior came down to the fear of being forgotten. His parents had abandoned him early on in his childhood, and he didn’t want it to happen again. That explained why detention would do nothing for him, yet being sent outside of the classroom would throw him into a fit of rage.
Erin started praying for him. She prayed that God would reveal to the 13-year-old that, contrary to his beliefs, his voice did matter and he was seen. Erin implemented writing assignments as a way of intervention. Through it, the student began expressing his frustration of how classmates and teachers often misinterpreted his actions. Erin would spend time with him after class, explaining why his reaction caused his classmates to make assumptions about him. “I know that’s not true,” she would tell him, “but how can you reflect what you actually mean in a better way?” And together, they would brainstorm how he could communicate more effectively to teachers and classmates alike.
Although not instantaneous, the transformation proved drastic. Within four months, the “problem child” began reaching out to other students who struggled with the same behavioral problems as he did. He hoped that, like him, they would eventually stop believing in the same lies. And without fully realizing how much redemption occurred in his life, he sought for the redemption of the other kids, too.
“Behavioral problems are not just a discipline issue,” Erin says. “It’s, a lot of times, an inner healing issue. I think that changed my style of behavioral management, to look at it from a place of inner healing rather than just being a harsh teacher who’s trying to organize my classroom.”
Erin knows how pain can mirror shackles. How unforgiveness can imprison someone. How hurt can poison. When she sees her students struggle with broken families, abandonment, the effects of gang violence and the like, her heart breaks. Teaching in Oakland, California, a city consistently labeled as one of the most dangerous in the country, means that young kids are often exposed to violence, drugs, and death much too soon.
But Erin knows that God has called her to be a light in the darkest of places, and for that, He sends her student after student, person after person, to be transformed simply through prayer.
“She goes into the darkest places but is so full of light and so full of God and the Spirit,” Erin’s husband, Joe, says of her. “And people can’t understand it. They’re like, ‘Why are you in the dark but to you, it’s not dark?’”
“My biggest impediment to Christianity was the fact that, even since I was a kid, I was very sensitive to spiritual things,” Erin says.
From an early age, Erin showed an interest in exploring different religions. Whenever she asked questions about Christianity—like “How do I know Jesus died for my sins?”—the given response was, “Because the Bible says so.” But “because the Bible says so” didn’t cut it for her. It didn’t give her enough answers. So she looked elsewhere to satisfy her hunger for spirituality.
In the thick of her teenage years, Erin explored Buddhism, Self-Realization Fellowship, and other New Age philosophy. She wanted to know why people died and what happened to them. She curiously explored the difference between positive and negative energy. And she wondered who God was and if He even existed.
All of it came to a confrontational halt one evening, when 18-year-old Erin attended a prayer meeting her friend invited her to. The pastor leading the meeting said that he felt like someone in the room wasn’t saved. Offended by the notion that people who didn’t know Jesus weren’t “saved,” Erin stormed out mid-meeting.
As she drove away, she started yelling at whoever was out there.
“I feel like I’ve done my end of the deal,” Erin yelled out, frustrated. “I’ve tried to figure out who you are. I’ve tried to engage. I’ve tried to do the right thing. But I don’t know why you make this so complicated!”
And suddenly, she felt it.
“I just remember feeling such a weight in my car all of a sudden,” Erin remembers. “I feel like it was the fear of God, so I pulled over and started repenting. And it was stuff that, honestly, if you were to ask me right then whether or not I thought it was ethically wrong, I probably would have said, ‘I don’t necessarily think it’s wrong.’ But I found myself suddenly repenting. I was like, ‘I’m sorry I drink. I’m sorry I smoke a lot of weed. I’m sorry I do all these different things.’”
Erin then found her dad’s Bible in the car. She opened it up and found the book of Philippians. She read chapter three, verses 13 and 14. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, Erin reread.
“That really spoke to me,” Erin says, “because I thought, ‘Oh, I can do that.’” And Erin gave her life to Jesus right then and there.
She started attending a church to explore this Christian thing. But the more she went, the more she couldn’t help but feel disingenuous to herself, to her friends, and even to God.
“There was a lot of tension for me because I suddenly felt like I had to fit into this very specific Christian mold,” Erin says. Contrary to what she read in Philippians, she felt like her past stayed with her.
“In college, the very conservative church I attended had such a specific view on dating, and they unintentionally said, ‘You were damaged by the things of your past,’” Erin says. “There wasn’t really an understanding of inner healing and moving past that and the redemptive qualities of who God is. It wasn’t intentional, but when things went wrong, it was really difficult.”
Erin felt like God revealed His grace to her. That her bad decisions were erased by what Jesus did on the cross. But the church telling her that her past stayed with her made her afraid of messing up.
stayed with her made her afraid of messing up.
“I wasn’t enjoying the fullness [of God],” Erin says. “So I was always pointing back to that moment in the car because I knew that was real. I was doing this church thing for a long time, but I know that [moment in the car] was real.”
Unfortunately, holding on to that moment wasn’t enough to get through life’s trials, like losing loved ones. Erin saw young individuals whose lives were taken from them by illnesses, drug overdoses, and freak accidents. And just like that, her search for who God was and a deeper pursuit of her faith came to a screeching halt. How can You be good if You let something like this happen? she asked God.
“I was kind of like, ‘I don’t really care anymore. Let me do my thing. You do Your thing because this hurts a lot,’” Erin explains. “And that was more miserable than even before I knew Jesus.”
For the next six months, Erin turned away from the decision she made that one night in the car, a time she would later describe as “a very dark period” of her life. She began pulling away from her friends, spending a lot of time by herself.
But in 2006, when Erin lost another friend in a drowning accident during a mission trip to Japan, something changed.
“It was one of those jolting moments, watching all my friends process grief in different ways,” Erin says. “Going to his memorial service and seeing people figure out things that way jolted me.”
As Erin sat amongst her friends during the memorial service, she began sobbing uncontrollably, something she wasn’t able to do for a really long time. For the last three years, Erin felt so broken by the confusion, the pain of losing loved ones, and the internal tension in her pursuit of a life with God.
losing loved ones, and the internal tension in her pursuit of a life with God.
Sitting at the memorial service, Erin cried it all out, like a daughter crying into her dad’s arms. She didn’t feel the need to put up any pretenses with God. Being vulnerable let Erin see who God really is.
And that’s when she realized: bad things happen, but You’re still good.
In 2008, a year after Erin graduated from college, she flew to South Korea for a year-long internship. One morning, she and some of her coworkers hiked to the top of a mountain. When she reached the top, she found the mountains around her covered in yellow flowers. She smiled to herself. God, You are so good. Erin remembered how much she used to appreciate yellow flowers. They were a source of comfort during the tumultuous years of losing friends and the stinging reality of death. Anytime she saw yellow flowers, she thought everything would be okay. She sometimes brushed that logic off as “silly”, but over a year later, as she looked around at the endless sea of yellow flowers surrounding her, Erin couldn’t help but feel like those flowers were for her.
“I just felt like there was such a turning point that happened around that time in Korea, where my attitude shifted away from ‘God is real so I should obey Him’ to ‘God is good,’” Erin says. “And I feel like that major mindset transition to understanding ‘God is good’ really changed my overall relationship with Him.”
A victim mentality shed off of her that morning. No longer did Erin see herself at the mercy of God’s wrath. Instead, she saw God as good. And only good.
“I think that everything else hinges off of [His goodness],” Erin explains. “There are so many things about the character of God that I still don’t understand.
understand. But being able to have that as my starting point—that He’s good—is helpful for me. Even if I don’t understand how He’s good, that understanding is something that I think I’ve really grown into in my walk.”
Understanding God’s goodness allowed Erin to courageously revisit the pains of her past, so that she could continue life in freedom, no longer bound by yesterday’s scars. But never did she imagine that her freedom would eventually bring freedom to others.
Emily*, the smaller-than-average eighth grader with glasses, silently walked up to her teacher’s desk.
“Mrs. Oh...can you talk to one of my cousins? He’s making bad choices.”
Unbeknownst to Erin, Emily's cousin was a member of a gang in Northern California. Assuming her cousin may just be another teenager smoking pot, Erin said, “Sure. Bring him by.”
The next day, as Erin was closing up her classroom, in walked a towering, bald Hispanic man in his mid-twenties covered in tattoos. A little frightened, Erin wondered if she should alert authorities...until little Emily followed behind, easing Erin’s startling rush of concern she felt at first glance.
“Mrs. Oh, this is my cousin. Can you do that thing, you know, when you pray for people?” Emily asked.
“Okay,” Erin answered.
At first, he resisted. He didn’t need prayer, he told her. Then, he asked if she did that black magic stuff.
“No, I don’t do that,” Erin explained. “Sometimes I pray for people and I just hear what God is saying, and then I share what God is saying.”
After some contemplation, he begrudgingly agreed. As soon as Erin started praying, she felt God highlighting a specific date to her, which was accompanied by a queasy feeling.
Erin said the date slowly, waiting to see if that resonated with him at all.
He began to breathe harder.
“God was there. He saw everything you did,” Erin continued. He started hyperventilating.
“God was there. He saw everything you did,” Erin repeated. “And what He wants to say to you right now is that…He loves you.”
When Erin finished her prayer and said, “Amen,” he asked if God showed her what he did on that date.
“No. God didn’t show me what you did. And don’t tell me what you did because I don’t want to know,” Erin responded. “That’s actually part of being covered in the blood of Christ. That’s His mercy to you because He didn’t show me what you did. He’s not speaking to me to expose you. He just wants to let you know He loves you.”
Upon hearing this, the gang member took off his chains to give to her. Those chains symbolized his role in the gang. Erin refused but suggested that he go to Emily's church prayer meeting that night to lay the chains at the altar.
He did just as Erin suggested. The next day, he went back to her classroom, dressed in completely different attire. Desiring to cut off his past as a gangbanger entirely, he knew that meant his clothes too. Although leaving a gang is notoriously difficult, this gang allowed members to leave for two reasons: for mom or for God. And that’s exactly what he did. He left the gang for God.
If there’s one hyphenated word that describes Erin, it’s “down-to-earth.” As she shares case after case of leading the unlikeliest people to Jesus, she seems just as shocked as the person listening to her stories. Not because she doesn’t know God can do all of that. She just can’t believe God is using her to do all of that.
Erin used to think she hated evangelism. Talking about Jesus and God to non-Christians was so uncomfortable. But that was before she understood how to do it with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit allowed Erin to tune into what God was saying about people. Particular dates, buried memories, secret insecurities...God reveals these details to Erin to get people’s attention for one purpose and one purpose only: to tell them He loves them.
“I would ask [my wife], ‘Hey, how do you do that? Why is it that all these spiritual, supernatural things seem to happen around you?’” Joe says, “And some of the practical things she would say is, ‘I’m always nervous and scared. What people don’t realize is there are so many times when it’s awkward and uncomfortable. It’s not like this power moment...there’s so many spaces in between those dramatic moments that are awkward and uncomfortable and even embarrassing at times. But I just go with it because I feel like God’s in it.’”
Going with it because God’s in it has made Erin, the down-to-earth middle school teacher, a firsthand witness of powerful transformation and inner healing among students, ex-gang members, Satanists, and spirit guides, to name a few.
name a few.
“This is Erin’s mission field,” one of Erin’s pastors, Sunhee Robinson, explains. “I feel like she is so bold that she wouldn’t allow herself to fit the mold. I think when you’re free in Christ, you can be all that you can be. And I think Erin embodies that. When she’s walking out in that freedom, it’s easy to break out of that mold.”
Erin’s biggest impediment to Christianity was her spiritual sensitivity. What people told her just didn’t equate to what she felt. But after experiencing freedom, her biggest impediment became her greatest instrument.
“I feel like God revealed Himself to [Erin] before He revealed His name, and she knew Him before she knew His name was Jesus,” Joe says of his wife. “She didn’t know the fullness, but there were parts of God that she knew and would follow and walk with before she knew it was Jesus. It’s not like, ‘Oh, she’s only been a believer since she was 18.’ Even before that—even when she was dipping into all other sorts of religions—God would meet her in the Buddhist temple. God would meet her at the realization center. And eventually, it came to a point where God revealed the fullness of who He was as Jesus.”
When God revealed the fullness of Himself to Erin, she no longer feared messing up this Christian thing. And when she no longer feared, she could finally experience the exciting, unpredictable journey God had in store for her.
Copyright © 2019 re.write magazine. All Rights Reserved.
*The name of the student has been changed for this article.
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