I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. John 8:12
Last Saturday, Marti and I drove down the wide street of a quiet, middle class neighborhood in Los Angeles that appeared like any other except for the bars over the windows and doors. On nearby Central Avenue, there were businesses that bore the name “Watts,” a reminder that we were around the corner from the scene of the 1965 race riots that killed 34 and injured over a thousand people. Those were incredibly dark days for L.A. and the country, but today, the bright sun shone on a small crowd of people brightly dressed in Christmas colors, Santa hats and fuzzy reindeer antlers.
As we joined the Christmas party in front of one of the homes, we were met by a smiling African American woman who placed a red glowing heart necklace over our heads and hugged us as if we were receiving leis in Hawaii. She was one of the residents of this house or one of the other five houses operated by Susan Burton, an incredible woman whose vision created these homes for rehabilitating women coming out of prison.
Through these homes, Susan Burton is recreating an experience for many that turned her life around and stopped the perpetual cycle of returning back to prison after serving each sentence because there were no resources and no support for any other life than the living darkness that put her there in the first place. These women have a place to stay, food to eat, counseling to overturn wrong thinking, the inspiration of others who are finding what Susan calls a new way of life, and most of all, love. It’s a model that has been so successful, plans are being made to replicate it in cities around the country.
At the right moment, I snuck into the bathroom in the house, donned my Santa suit, and ho-ho-ho’d my way through the crowd handing out the presents you provided to all of the New Way of Life residents by name. It was a joyful moment but almost overwhelming to one in particular who had just gotten out of prison three days earlier. Annie is 87, and she had been in prison for 42 years. Susan had gotten to know Annie while she was incarcerated, and you can believe, she had a room waiting for her as soon as she got out.
Which is really the way to think about this unique work of love. Like Jesus is preparing a place for us in eternity, Susan and those working with her in New Way of Life have gone to prepare a place for women exiting prison who would otherwise have nowhere to go other than right back into the environment that started them down a dark road.
Later, as we all gathered in the living room around the Christmas tree, we sang Christmas songs and carols and heard amazing stories from the residents about how their lives had literally been turned from darkness to light. And every one of them gave credit to God’s love, His forgiveness and His grace.
For Susan, who received that grace by way of a number of women who chose to provide her with the help and resources she needed to get out of her darkness, there is no better illustration of grace turned outward than the 600 women who have received that grace so far through what she has accomplished.
I was amazed at how freely the women shared their stories, but the most touching was the one who didn’t talk too much; she just told us this was the first Christmas tree she’d ever had.
A big thanks to all of you who participated in making sure we had gifts for everyone. Santa thanks you too!