Monday, January 23, 2006

MFP Episode One: Acceptance and Change

So, I don't do a very good job of keeping secrets about myself, particularly when I think there might be something to be learned from the experience. This has, over the past few years, led me to embarrass a few people by awkwardly telling someone something that, while not so big of a deal to me, freaked them out just a bit. It's not intentional, trust me. It's just that my experiences are, well,... just part of my life to me, and I sometimes forget that we each have our own comfort level (based on our own unique experiences) with what experiences we consider to be just a normal part of life, and which ones we consider to be pretty far out of the mainstream. But I'm rambling...

I've been thinking a bit about acceptance in how we share the love of Christ lately, and it has brought me to thinking about one of the more bizarre parts of my past that you, dear reader, may or may not really want to be privy to. So, I will start to categorize these more bizarre, possibly TMI posts under the "My Freaky Past" headings, and today, I'll start with Episode One: Acceptance and Change. Read at your own risk. :-)

The Background

There was a time, back when I was in college the first time around, when quite a few of my female friends from college decided to go get jobs as topless dancers. Over the course of a year or two, I had the chance to see how working in that kind of environment affected them emotionally, spiritually, and academically, and got more of an insight than I was ready for into what happens to girls who work in the sex industry. During that time, I had a chance to get to know several girls who worked as dancers, call girls, and porn actresses. Many of them came from rough childhoods in which a good number of them had been sexually abused, and most of them had drug and alcohol problems ranging from excessive drinking and pot smoking to doing hard drugs. And then there were a few who were really nice girls-- just very much confused and struggling with who they were. I became close friends with a couple of the nicer girls who weren't scary-- just scared, and wanted to find a way to help them out.

At the time, I was living in an apartment completely paid for by Double Agent, who was rarely ever in town. I hated living alone, and needed a roommate anyway, so I approached one of my pals who was a dancer, and made her an offer. The offer was like this: she could move into my spare bedroom, rent-free, if she wanted to quit dancing and get her life back on track. She was welcome to stay with me as long as she wanted, as long as she didn't go back to work in clubs, and didn't do drugs. She took me up on it, quit dancing, and stayed with me for almost a year before moving out to get married.

Over the next year or so, I had a small handful of girls take me up on a similar offer, and almost always had at least one roommate. Some of them left to return to dancing and partying it up, and others left to get back into college or some other form of somewhat normal life. Word spread.

The Story

One day, during one of my roommate-free phases, I got a call from a complete stranger. "Hi, Christy. You don't know me, but XXXXXXX (who used to live with you) gave me your #. I'm coming into Columbia for a photo shoot and need a place to stay. Do you mind if I crash with you for a few nights?" Being 19 years old and stupid enough to let a stranger come stay with me (I figured that since I was friends with the photographer, it couldn't be that bad), I agreed. We made plans, and a week later, A* was on my doorstep.

Now, A* was not doing a photo shoot for Good Housekeeping, and while I won't mention the specific magazine, it is one of the higher end, less-trashy, erotic magazines. And in line with what I would have expected, A* was a real party girl. But she was also a single mom with a sweet streak and big heart, who loved discussing psychology and human nature during late night heart-to-hearts, and who was open to new experiences. I didn't treat her like anything other than a true friend, and we became instant best buddies. A* invited me to go to a local bar to sing karaoke with her, and I did, and we had a blast! I invited A* to come to an Advent-wreath-making dinner at my church, and she did (even though she had to borrow some of my clothes to have something appropriate to wear). I also taught A* how to make these cute little craft wreaths out of fabric scraps and straw wreaths, and she LOVED it! I'll never forget how hard we both laughed when some guy who had gotten her number at the bar the night before called, and she told him she couldn't go out because I was teaching her how to be Martha Stewart (before the prison time) and she was having too much fun making wreaths to go party with him. I think he was more-than-a-little-bit offended.

To make a long story a little shorter, what was supposed to be a weekend visit turned into a 3 month roommate (with A* traveling home a few times over that period to spend time with her daughter). In a number of late night girl talks, A* told me that nobody had ever treated her like she was just a normal person before, and told me how nice it was to not feel judged or looked down on or stereotyped. The night before A* did finally leave to return home for good, we both sat up all night crying. All her friends back home were crazy women, strippers, and generally not very good people, she said, and she didn't know how to make real friends any more. But she went home anyway, and we stayed in touch for a few years after that. One year later, when I found out I was going to be a single mom, A*'s mother invited me to move to Tennessee to live with them, as they wanted to return the favor of kindness I had shown, but it just didn't feel like the right thing to do. A few years later, I heard she was married.

The Point

I think that most of us Christians (and other religious people, as well) insulate ourselves a little too well from those people we think are off the path, or led astray, or under the wrong influences, at the expense of truly changing people's lives. Granted, my life is different now. I have more responsibilities and a family to care for and help protect, so inviting random party people to come and live with me is not an option. As a dedicated Christian, teacher, and family person, I'm not really into the same kind of partying I used to do from time to time, back when my life was different. I might talk trash from time to time, but don't really have the interest or desire to do the kinds of things that would take me off the path. But I am still in contact with a good number of my old pals, and don't really feel that much discomfort or embarrassment about it.

See, A* was a big lesson for me on how a good number of people live according to the expectations placed upon and opportunities offered to them. Back in Tennessee, as an exotic dancer and model, A* had been a complete party girl-- living the life one would expect of someone in that position. But for the brief time she was staying with me, she actually enjoyed going to church, playing board games at the apartment, and getting to know my friends, who were all pretty mellow and straight-laced by that point in my life. She had a support system (me, Maher, and a couple of other pals of mine from Church) who encouraged her and had fun with her, all within the context of healthy friendships, complete acceptance, and good, clean fun. I didn't preach to her about the evils of her lifestyle, and she didn't complain to me about the boringness of mine; we just became part of each others' lives, took each other at face value, and accepted each other as humans. No preaching, no judging, no snobby lectures.

And that changed both of us for the better-- more so than anything else that we could have done together.

Here's the challenge, though: After A* left to go back home, she went back (at least partly) into the lifestyle from which she had come. As straight-laced and modest as she had enjoyed being while she was around me and my pals, once she was back around her old pals, she fell back in line with them.

Which brings me to the issue of acceptance. I am one person, and a flawed person at that-- insecure, hypersensitive, and moody. But I take people as people, usually treat them with respect, and am generally not very judgmental of the people who come into my life. Thinking of A*, and how being accepted changed her lifestyle and self-image a bit (even if only temporarily), I can't help but wonder how many more people's lifestyle and self-image could be changed if they truly felt accepted by those they consider to be normal, or typical, or mostly-good people. Granted, I know that only God can effect a true change in a person's heart, but how many people are closed off to even accepting the love of God in their hearts, when they don't even feel the slightest bit of that love and acceptance coming into their lives from God's people?

Those of us who are people of integrity know that we are humans-- flaky, flawed, and imperfect. But to someone who is now and has always felt like s/he has been on the outside looking in, we can seem a bit larger than life, and our judgments upon the people whose lifestyles we reject can do more to drive people away from God than we ever imagined.

But how do we show our acceptance of the people we encounter without giving a false endorsement of a lifestyle we may not like? I think we have a pretty good role model for that, and it sure isn't me. Jesus spent time with people that others in his day wouldn't go near, and the mere fact of his acceptance and friendship opened hearts, just as it continues to open hearts today. So, doesn't it make sense that we should follow that example, and somehow work to find that balance between honoring our own purity while still demonstrating the love of Christ?

I'm not a master at this, obviously, as I still have so much to learn and grow and live. But I think it's something that we should at least be discussing, thinking about, and praying about. What do you guys think?

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