PUBLISHED Friday, September 5th, 2014

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Never Alone 0

      Lourdes Delacruz vividly remembers her four-year-old self, growing up in the Dominican Republic. Most days, she stayed with her mom. But other days, she got passed off to her dad. Her parents divorced early in her childhood, so Lourdes lived a back-and-forth lifestyle, going from house to house, parent to parent. And in the midst of that commotion, her stepmother often beat her. Afraid of getting in trouble, Lourdes silently hid in the corner, whispering to herself, Karenina (the name she went by as a child), you’re going to be okay. It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.
      If comparing that child in the corner to who Lourdes is today, a shocking disparity surges to the surface.
      Thirty years later, as Lourdes walks through Café de Casa, a coffee shop in Yonkers, New York, she chats up the other patrons, whom she seemingly knows from elsewhere. There’s Rhonda, the owner of the café. And that’s Carlos, who comes here to meet with his marketing clients. Oh! And this is Hector, who just started his own business a couple months ago but also organizes the open mic nights that take place at the café every other Saturday.
      “I invited him to church,” she teases as she looks at Hector from the corner of her eye, “but he has yet to come.”
      One end of the café opens up to the sidewalk, inviting the sun’s rays to the other end of the café. The copper-colored walls and high ceilings give off a relaxed, Spanish vibe, as the wicker chairs and low tables tempt passers-by to sit and, simply, enjoy.
      Hector stands next to a table with piles of fliers and business cards of local businesses.
      “I know,” he responds, smiling back at Lourdes. “I’ve been so busy…but I will. I promise.”

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      Lourdes epitomizes what one calls a “people-person.” But she wasn’t always that way. In fact, her childhood should have produced the exact opposite: an isolated individual, embittered by the wrongs against her. But therein lies the disparity. The café-mingling, hysterically-laughing Lourdes seen today fiercely refuses to let her turbulent past define her. And now, at the age of 35, she can only explain it one way: Jesus.
      Some of the following events illustrate moments in Lourdes’s life that digress from bad to ugly, from tough to worse. But the other events—the quiet, miraculous ones—explain why that disparity exists.

[A Way Out]
      After years of abuse, nine-year-old Lourdes finally confessed to her mom how her stepmother treated her whenever she stayed at her father’s house. Shocked by the news, her mother moved the two of them from their hometown, Bonao, in the Dominican Republic, to Santo Domingo, the capital. They rented out a room for a short period of time and eventually moved to Puerto Rico, where Lourdes’s mom remarried.
      But that marriage quickly ended when Lourdes’s new stepfather attempted to sexually assault the 11-year-old. When her mother found out, she packed her bags and took Lourdes to New York, where she soon remarried again.
      All of these changes provoked Lourdes to act out. As she entered her adolescent years, Lourdes began stealing money from her parents. She knew it was wrong, but stealing gave her attention. And attention—good or bad—was all she wanted. Instead, she felt the familiar sting of rejection when her mother sent her back to the Dominican Republic to stay with her father. She knows my stepmom abuses me, Lourdes thought to herself. So why is she sending me to her?

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stepmom abuses me, Lourdes thought to herself. So why is she sending me to her?
      “Every other year, I would go back to my father’s house,” Lourdes explains. “And then, I started doing the same thing in their house. [I realize now] that [stealing] was the only way I got attention…my dad and my stepmother had three kids, so I was always the middle person, [going] back and forth and back and forth. I didn’t have very much stability.”
      Lourdes alternated every year of high school between the Dominican Republic and New York. By the time her senior year rolled around, Lourdes was back in New York and talking to a man eight years her senior from the Dominican Republic over the phone.
      “I always tried to look for ways to deal with things in the best way I knew, and he came at that time,” Lourdes says.
      After graduating high school, her mom bought her a ticket to Puerto Rico, where he now lived. At 18 years old, Lourdes flew to a foreign country to be with a 24-year-old man she had yet to meet. And before she knew it, she found herself in an unhealthy and verbally abusive relationship, living in a country where she knew no one. A year later, at the age of 19, Lourdes was pregnant.

[The Mom]
      Lourdes walks to Giovanni’s IV, a pizzeria down the street from Café de Casa, with her 15-year-old daughter, Kimberly. Kimberly is about to start her afternoon shift at The Science Barge, a floating sustainable urban farm on the Hudson River that operates as an environmental education center. Lourdes wants to make sure she gets a slice of pizza in her before she goes into work. The greenhouse on the boat gets really hot during the day, she explains, so it’s important for her daughter to get her energy beforehand.
      After they grab a slice to eat on the go, the two of them walk to the floating greenhouse, which is about five blocks away. Lourdes proudly boasts about her daughter, who volunteered at The Science Barge last year and was asked to become a part of the staff shortly after.
      “Kimberly’s smart,” Lourdes says matter-of-factly. “And working here is such a blessing because she’s doing what she loves, what she’s interested in.”
      Kimberly smiles shyly. She changes the topic and begins to run down a list of things she and her mom still need to do before Kimberly’s sophomore year of high school starts next week. Still on the list? Get a student metro card, so that Kimberly can take the bus for free. Lourdes says she’ll run by the office after she drops her off at work.
      There’s no hint of teenage angst or rebellion in Kimberly. In fact, the bond Lourdes shares with her teenage daughter is surprising. Both are calm. Both are proud. And the respect is palpable.

[The First Love]
      Once Lourdes discovered she was pregnant, she convinced her boyfriend to move back to New York to be closer to her family. But moving back hardly provided a fix-all solution to their problems. He couldn’t get a job. Money began to deplete. And Lourdes’s mom, who they were staying with at the time, was losing patience. After a few short months, the boyfriend left for Massachusetts, where his family lived. Lourdes followed shortly after, hoping to create a family of her own.

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      However, Lourdes found herself in the same position she tried to leave in Puerto Rico: isolated, lonely, and trapped. He didn’t allow her to talk to anyone, go to school, work, or have any form of social life. Meanwhile, a woman from the Dominican Republic kept calling the house, wanting to speak to Lourdes’s boyfriend. When Lourdes called the woman back, she learned that her boyfriend was building a house in the Dominican Republic for the woman, whom he had another child with. And they planned to eventually move in together.
      Although Lourdes later found out that the story wasn’t entirely true, it proved to be the final straw. She wandered around the area aimlessly, looking for a way out. When she stumbled upon a college bookstore nearby, she told the manager she needed to make some money. Lourdes didn’t explain why.
      “I didn’t tell her what was going on. I was very inward,” Lourdes explains. “I used to keep things to myself. I was always okay. I was always smiling. And if you asked me [how I was], no matter how my day was going, I was always okay.”
      The manager looked at Lourdes and said, “I like you.” She grabbed an old soda crate from the back and told Lourdes to sit down. She, then, told her employees, “Lourdes is going to work here. This is her working space. If anybody lets her get up from there, they’re fired.”
      “They would pay me like $14 an hour to do that,” Lourdes says. “And [the manager] said, ‘Your job is to watch the store. If anybody comes in and tries to steal or anything, you have to watch it.’ Now that I’m a believer, I see that God watched over me, and He gave me provision to be able to do what I needed to do.”
      Lourdes saved up enough money to move back to New York. But before leaving, she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl: Kimberly.

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leaving, she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl: Kimberly.
      “Kimberly gave me so much strength as a person, and we have such a connection,” Lourdes whispers as tears fall from her face. “I saw her as someone who brought me back to life and who gave me a reason to be here. Somebody who wasn’t going to let me go because of any mistakes that I made and who wasn’t going to say, ‘You’re a burden’ or ‘You bother me’ or ‘You have to go.’ This was somebody who was going to love me no matter what. And I never had that in my life. So, my journey started with her being born.”

[The Prayer Warrior]
      Four individuals awkwardly sit at a table in an underground auditorium, where colorful book reports and posters cover the walls. They have all volunteered their afternoon with New York City Urban Project (NYCUP) to look over a manual that serves as a guide for college students who wish to start weekly prayer meetings on their campuses.
      After introductions, each person takes a moment to look over the packet. About five minutes later, a woman clears her throat and asks, “So what do you guys think?”
      It’s Lourdes. At 35 years old, she’s clearly not a college student. But the director of the program invited Lourdes to the workshop, so she thought she’d check it out. And while she may not have plans to start a prayer meeting on a college campus, Lourdes knows exactly where this manual can come in handy.
      “I have a prayer conference call on Mondays, where people can call in for prayer,” she explains to the group. “Do you guys have any prayer requests? We can go around and pray for each other right now, if you guys want.”

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      The initial awkwardness suddenly melts off, and it becomes apparent that Lourdes has done this before. As each individual shares his and her prayer requests, Lourdes takes notes on the packet in front of her. When everyone has shared, including herself, she rips off each prayer request and distributes the pieces of paper among the group, so that they will remember.
      When someone thanks Lourdes for initiating that time of prayer, she brushes it off and explains that God has been showing her how to be bolder in her prayer life. She shares an example, from the prior week, of a homeless woman who walked up to Lourdes at a park bench. Without any prompting, the woman began sharing her story. Lourdes listened intently to the woman confess that she was sexually abused. When she finished, Lourdes asked if she could pray for her. The woman said, “Yes.”
      God, heal this woman from her past hurts, from the abuse she experienced, Lourdes prayed. And let her healing bring hope for others.
      As Lourdes said, “Amen,” she opened her eyes and saw tears running down the woman’s face.
      “I go [somewhere], and God has given me the discernment of when somebody’s in need to be able to approach them and pray with them,” Lourdes says.

[A New Beginning]
      When Kimberly turned six months old, Lourdes needed to find a job. She remembered seeing school buses go by with child car seats in them. I can do that, Lourdes thought. I can work while my daughter stays with me.
      She walked into a local bus company and asked how she could become a school monitor.
      “The guy in the room said, ‘Muchachita, you look too smart. Why don’t you get your commercial driver’s license?’” Lourdes explains. “And I said, ‘How can I do that?’ And he said, ‘You have to go to [the Department of Motor Vehicles] and take a test. And then, you get the permit. And then, you come back here.’”
      After telling her this, the man left the room. Lourdes turned around and went straight to the DMV to get that permit. She took the test three times that day. Because she didn’t pass, she returned the next day and took it three more times. She passed on her last try.
      “I got the permit,” Lourdes says, “so I went back to the guy, and he was like, ‘What happened to you? I went in to get the questions so you could study them, and you left.’ I’m like, ‘I already have the permit.’ And he said, ‘See, I told you, you’re smart.’”
      Lourdes needed to take the driving test next. But the next available slot only gave Lourdes a week to practice, much too soon for her comfort. The guy at the bus company, however, told her he would help her. Still, when Friday rolled around, Lourdes walked into the DMV feeling unprepared. As her name was called, she nervously walked up to the bus, only to discover that the person administering the test happened to be the same man who gave Lourdes her driver’s license test three years prior.
      “When I’m nervous, I talk a lot,” Lourdes says, laughing at herself. “So, he remembered me, and the test lasted, like, five minutes.”
      Lourdes found the perfect job to make money and care for her daughter. As she drove students to and from a Montessori daycare in Scarsdale, New York, Kimberly sat right behind her, quietly observing the passing scenes out the window.

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window. As Kimberly got older, she began reading and playing games on her Nintendo DS...all while Lourdes drove students back and forth.
      When Kimberly approached preschool age, Lourdes knew her daughter needed to start going to school soon. But when she asked the school’s director about sending Kimberly to the school she worked for, the director said smugly, “This isn’t the place for you.” Lourdes simply said, “Okay,” and shrugged it off.
      “I didn’t feel things that much before,” Lourdes explains. “I just heard it and kept going.”
      Six months later, however, a middle-aged woman approached Lourdes in front of the school.
      “Lourdes, who is that in the bus with you all the time?” the woman asked.
      “That’s my daughter,” Lourdes responded.
      “Bring her in January when we come back from break,” the woman said.
      Confused, Lourdes asked, “Who are you?”
      “I’m the national director of the Montessori program,” the woman replied. The daycare had changed directors.
      “So she was like, ‘Bring her in January and think about how much you can pay,’” Lourdes recalls. “That was like thousands of dollars of daycare monthly for anybody. And I told her, ‘Realistically, I could pay you $100 a month,’ and she was like, ‘Do that. And when you have time, help us out. Maybe in the summertime, when you bring the kids, stay with them and you could help us.’ So Kimberly went to the Montessori daycare, which was awesome.”
      For Lourdes, this marked the beginning of a chance at stability.

[So Many People]

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      For God, though, this was just one instance in a series of many, where He dropped people into Lourdes’s life at just the right time. Just when Lourdes thought she was on her own. Just when she hit her limit. Just when she wanted to give up.
      Like the woman who cooked for Lourdes and treated her like a daughter, when she had to move temporarily into a room in the Bronx before joining her boyfriend in Massachusetts.
      Or the guy at the bus company who made it his personal goal to help Lourdes get her commercial driver’s license.
      Even the test administrator at the DMV, whom one might call “coincidence,” but really screams “God’s providence.”
      And the Montessori preschool director who let Lourdes pay a diminutive fraction of tuition to give her daughter a quality education.
      These individuals—and more—illustrate how God provided and cared for Lourdes before she even knew Him. And how an ultimate act of love gave Lourdes a chance to become a woman undefined by her past.

[The Flood and Relief]
      In 2007, Lourdes’s apartment flooded, so she went to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for help to move out. At the same time, Lourdes's bus monitor, the one who rode with her and the students, told her about the three-family house she was living in. The second floor would soon be empty, the monitor told Lourdes, and she thought Lourdes and Kimberly would be a good fit.
      “After a month of looking and thinking, I was like, 'Okay, I’m going to go see it.’

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see it.’ So when I walked in, they were renovating the apartment. And the owner says, ‘This is your apartment,’” Lourdes remembers. “I was so excited because this is a three-and-a-half bedroom apartment. We always lived in rooms and a studio then. And [here] we had a hallway! That was the most exciting thing for me to see. A hallway. When I saw the hallway, I just stood there. And [on my way out], I told [the owner], ‘John, I don’t have the money for a security deposit.’ He’s like, ‘When do you get paid?’ I’m like, ‘Every two weeks,’ [and he said], ‘Start paying me then, and pay me depending on how much you get paid.’ And then, I got some help for the apartment through an organization, and we’ve been there since 2007.”
      It took Lourdes some time to get used to the apartment. She had never been in one place for so long. Up until this point, her life consisted of running away and moving around. But as she looks back, it becomes very clear to her why they got the apartment.
       “I would say, ‘Why did I get this apartment? It’s only two people. There are people who have so many people in their families, and they need this. Why do we get this apartment?’ And then, as time went by, we would get people with needs. I notice now that I’m a believer that there was a reason why they all came into our lives. They all had the same situation [as I once had]. They lost their jobs, and they lost their apartment. And they were wanderers. We had several people in our home.”

[Finally, the Revealing]
      Although Lourdes had attended churches here and there as an adult, none proved to be the right fit. She found them to be too traditional, too judgmental, too focused on the doom and gloom of hell and Satan. But in her search, she knew she wanted to find God, wherever that may be.
      That time came in 2013, when Lourdes ran into an old friend, Ana, in front of a supermarket in Yonkers, New York. It had been years since they last saw each other, so Ana invited Lourdes and Kimberly over to her place to catch up. While they were there, one of Ana's sons headed out the door for a regular meeting he attended, which would later become Church of the Heights. He invited Lourdes and Kimberly to join him. With some slight hesitation, Lourdes decided to check it out.
      As soon as Lourdes walked in, the lead pastor, Robert Guerrero, said to her, “You’re a leader. We could use someone like you in our group.” Lourdes looked around until she realized he was talking to her.
      “She took initiative. She was an idea generator,” Pastor Robert remembers of his first impression of Lourdes. “Whenever we shared some kind of content of the Bible or anything related to life, she would take the initiative to encourage us to do something about it and give us ideas. And I noticed that she never came alone. She always had people around her. She always has people that she’s contacting. Several people from our group have been people she’s brought and people she influenced.”
      Immediately, Lourdes felt drawn to the community. She quickly became friends with other women in the group and watched them enthusiastically welcome her daughter. Lourdes found herself voluntarily committing to more meetings and attending Bible studies.
      “Before becoming a believer, I thought, ‘Why are these people reading that old book and talking about it all the time?’”
      Yet, as her pastors led a Bible study through the book of John, Lourdes became enthralled by who Christ was and more and more intrigued by “that old book.”

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became enthralled by who Christ was and more and more intrigued by “that old book.” She asked questions to her friend, Denine, never holding back her curiosity and intrigue.
      “I think how it all started was when I would go to her house and spend the night because it was just too far for me to come home,” Denine remembers. “I knew she loved God, but I got the sense that she had not yet made the commitment, and she was exploring Christianity. So I would just talk like I usually do. And then, she would start asking questions or make comments like, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t realize it was like that’ or ‘I didn’t realize that’s how God felt about it’ or ‘I didn’t realize that’s what the Bible said.’ She was always really open about what she knew and what she didn’t. And she was always really teachable.”
      Soon, Lourdes launched the prayer conference call on Monday nights to give individuals an opportunity to receive prayer. Even before she made the official decision to commit her life to God, she recognized that prayer connected her to God, and she wanted to provide that for others as well. To this day, every Monday night at 9 p.m., Lourdes waits by her cellphone, ready to answer in case a person needs prayer for something.
      “Prayer became my way of connecting with God,” Lourdes says. “So I said, ‘If this is working for me, it could work for other people to have a space where they can be themselves and, at the same time, have an opportunity to connect with God.”
      In the summer of 2013, Lourdes was finally ready. God had captured her heart through people, through His unconditional love, through His faithfulness. So, she called Denine.
      “She just called,” Denine remembers, “and I think we had been talking the other day about surrendering to God.

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other day about surrendering to God. And she said [to me], ‘You know, we were talking about that the other day, and I realize that I have never actually made that decision to surrender my life to God. And I want to do that today.’ And I was like, ‘Okay!’”
      When Lourdes made that phone call, she didn’t anticipate her entire paradigm for her past and her future shifting. But it became clear to her that all the people she had encountered in times of need, the “coincidental” moments scattered about her life, and the inexplicable strength she found in herself to keep moving forward...it was all God. It was all His provision.
      “Ever since then, my life has changed,” Lourdes says. “I have this peace in my heart and this trust that God has us in His hands, that we’re not alone. My need for a partner disappeared. I forgave everyone. And it gave me trust for my daughter, too. Now, I don’t feel like I have to create this bubble around her. God has her. God is her Father. And if God is going to send me a partner, [he’s] going to come from Him, not because I need someone or because my daughter needs a male figure.”

[The Family She Always Wanted]
      Lourdes raises her daughter as a single mom, but she hardly feels like she does it alone. With a vibrant church community and friends surrounding her, Lourdes and Kimberly know they aren’t on their own...and they never were.
      “We found friends that ended up being like family,” Lourdes’s daughter, Kimberly explains. “Every year, from when I was two to maybe 10, I’d go to the Dominican Republic and spend the whole summer there. And they’d buy me stuff, and I’d be with my family. We have this one friend, Diane, and she’s like my grandma.

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like my grandma. Her granddaughter is like my sister, and it’s like a big family. We always have holidays together and dinners. For Christmas, we [went] upstate with their family. So there were 20 of us. It didn’t ever feel like it was just the two of us.”
      God redeemed the meaning of family for Lourdes. But she never thought that could actually apply to her immediate family. Yet, a few months ago, Lourdes became the primary caretaker for her father, giving her a chance to tell him and her stepmother how some of their decisions affected her and how, despite that, she forgave them. Her stepmother apologized for the abuse, confessing that that was all she had known. And her father calls Lourdes everyday, even now, to check up on his daughter and granddaughter.
      As Lourdes shares this update, she smiles radiantly. It appears as though her four-year-old self ended up being right. Karenina, you are okay. It all turned out okay.
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