“He loves me; he loves me not…” I remember when I was a child, my friends and I would pull a petal off a flower and say, “He loves me,” and then pull the next petal and say, “He loves me not.” The goal was to end with a petal announcing, “He loves me.”
This game describes our relationship with one of the trafficked women in NightLight’s care. “Martha” came to us in a whirlwind of emotions starting with, “You love me not!” At other times she was on top of the world… “You love me!” The next moment would be full of accusations of neglect and her victim identity would yell, “You love me not!” Relationship with her was a roller coaster ride and if we did not wear seat belts of self-care and stay grounded in the truth, we found ourselves battered and confused.
We tried hard to understand. Her childhood of abandonment and abuse were always right there at the surface. As if a childhood of bitter disappointment was not harm enough, she then trusted a woman who trafficked her, exploited her, did witchcraft against her, and stole the little momentum she had gained to a brighter future. She came with a victim identity and trusted no one. Every disappointment turned into a lament of “No one takes care of me… you don’t love me or else you would…” She was high maintenance and often it was bedtime or on our days off the demands would cry the loudest.
We poured into Martha all we could – physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially. On good days we saw her potential, beauty, and strength. She was bitter towards God for her tragic life, but she also found her strength in God. On dark days we reminded each other of what we had seen on the good days, inspiring us to go the next mile.
Martha rightfully demanded justice. She chose the hard path of testifying against her bosses in the pre-trial hearing. She wanted them charged so they would not continue to harm others. Somewhere along the way she decided that NightLight and/or the government was withholding her compensation. She wanted it before returning home. She would not back down and the demands came daily, “Where is my money?” Then came accusations and curses, “You are hiding it! God will punish who ever took my money!”
Reason does not work in high emotional states. We listened, sympathized, prayed, offered counseling, tried confrontation, sought alternatives, set up meetings with government officials and we gave explanations. We responded in love as best we could. It was never enough to change what she believed to be the truth. She began to distance herself from us and to sabotage the relationships of love she had begun to experience.
After many long months, we took Martha to the airport to send her home. We had assisted her to receive a grant through another organization to start a small business and someone to meet with her back home. We also gave her small gift of money, which we give to all the women to help on their return. It was not the compensation money though, and she signed for it without a word. The last petal expressed there as we saw her off was negative and bitter. Her back was to us as we told her, “We love you Martha and we are proud of you.” Without turning towards us she raised her voice, “NOOO!” and she went through the security. The last petal that she picked from the flower as we said goodbye was, “You love me not.”
Being appreciated or loved in return is not our goal in assisting the women, but it weighed heavily when we had done all we could to love and she left on a bitter note. Not wanting the last word to be unloving, we sent her a message to tell her we love her and to bless her.
Martha is like a cup with leaks on the bottom and no matter how much we poured in, every time she looked in the cup she only saw empty. Nothing we said could change what she saw when she looked inside the cup. She was empty because it had all leaked out. She could not hold on to love. She longed for it, but it always leaked out and left her empty.
This case has been really difficult for my team. Martha’s verbal attacks and never-ending demands were stressful. We all loved her, fought for her, advocated for her, and provided for her. There were glimmers of hope, followed by dark shadows of despair. We wanted to see her healed and living toward her potential.
As I have reflected on our relationship with Martha, I realize that we often respond to God in similar ways. We have sunny days of joyful response to God’s faithful love, but then we have the dark days where it feels like everything has gone wrong. We have unrealistic expectations and when God does not meet our expectations, we accuse God of abandoning us, of not loving us and of being like everyone else who has let us down. God sings love songs over us daily. Sometimes we hear it clearly and our souls are at rest. Other days we drown it out in our self-pity and victim mentality and hide from God’s love or reject it because we think we have it all figured it out.
I learn a lot from the women we are privileged to love. They teach me about God’s love, of forgiveness, endurance, and of God’s faithfulness through our ups and downs. I learned from Martha the importance of loving even when the response is hostility. Love responds simply because that’s what love does. In the end love will win. It rushes at the stony walls of hearts and over time the current of that love begins to break through with hope and vision.
It did not feel like we were getting through to Martha when we saw her off at the airport. It looked like the last petal had been pulled. But then a few short messages began to appear in staff phones… “Thank you for everything. I’m sorry if I hurt you.” There was still another petal of hope for reconciliation and love and she chose to use it. Maybe she did not leave empty after all. Something got through and love began its work. Martha is on a journey to learn the true nature of love. And we are all on that journey together. “I love you” God says to our stony wounded hearts. “You love me not?” we ask from our disappointments. He has the last word, the final petal is in His hand and it always ends with a resounding, “I love you!”