A tattered, filthy couch under a crumbling concrete bridge in the middle of nowhere. An unlikely waiting room. She hears a train in the distance and moves from the couch toward the clump of trees so the conductor won’t spot her. She knows the train will slow and stop here and poises to make a run for it. There’s a spot on the porch between the train cars. The foxhole. That’s where she will hop on and hunker down for the ride. She smiles to herself, watching the miles of tracks drop away behind rhythmically. She loves being on the move, living outside. She loves being free…
“I don’t like living in one place too long. Living inside kind of freaks me out,” Rachel says softly, as she reflects on the last few months living at Life Challenge. “This is the longest I’ve stayed put in years. Except for those 90 days in jail.”
Because it was not just train-hopping that carried Rachel away from home and family, from reality and hope. It was heroin, meth, crack, drinking. That may sound like years of hard living, but Rachel is only 22. And restlessness has driven her as long as she can remember. With much older siblings and parents who divorced when she was young, she could always do her own thing. There were no restraints from her alcoholic mom. No babysitters, no rules. Rachel was always outside, in the backyard by herself, on her bike pedaling far and wide.
Her dad, a successful engineer with one of the Big Three auto companies, traveled often and Rachel never tapped into that Grosse Pointe affluence, life on the ‘right’ side of the tracks. Instead, she started drinking, smoking weed, popping pills at 12. School was not difficult for this bright girl, and in spite of frequent skipping, Rachel graduated early at 16. She relished the feeling that came with her accomplishment. She enrolled in community college, made good grades. Then, a physical and emotional shattering. Her then-boyfriend viciously assaulted her and Rachel ended up with a metal plate and screws in her face. Everything unraveled and she started using heroin more and eventually dropped out of college. Next stop was dealing drugs while still using. Manipulating people, getting money and things for free. All part of the lifestyle (deathstyle) that marked the next couple of years:
Smashing cars after falling asleep at the wheel…a domestic violence situation that landed her in jail… opiate charges, wearing a tether under house arrest…getting out of jail, squatting in a house, another bad relationship. After that it was a blur of homelessness, heroin and crack that she barely remembers. She does remember the awkwardness (shame) of seeing people she knew while panhandling off an I-94 exit in Detroit. She stayed wherever, ate whatever.
“Being outside wasn’t a struggle. The cold, the need to eat. It made things seem tangible. Real. ” Rachel says of her almost feral existence.
That’s when she met the train riders. It’s a mysterious subculture, train riding. Reckless, off the grid, fraught with drugs. Reading the sun for directions, deciphering the destination, following their own underground guide. A casual “Hey you wanna ride the trains?” turned into an unimaginable journey criss crossing the country and eventually Rachel found herself in Texas. High on meth, she called her dad and stepmom (who is a Christian). “We are praying,” they told Rachel. “And there’s nothing like a father’s prayer for his daughter.”
She left Beaumont, traveling with some guys and got off the train at a gas station truck stop and she stayed around there for five days, making a bit of cash. It was about a week later that she lost most of her gear. She had disappeared with some homeless people and when she came back her gear was gone, her train boyfriend ticked off.
That’s when the strangest thing happened. It was November and it was cold at night, even for Texas. Everyone was shivering but Rachel was sweating hot. Much later she found out that the very night she was inexplicably warmed, back home in Michigan her dad had lit a fire. “For Rachel,” he said. “I just want her to be warm.” They were praying for someone to help her, praying for her to come back home.
Then an ugly fight and split with the boyfriend, and a confused wandering–she couldn’t even find the tracks. When she finally did she couldn’t tell if it was going north or west, she just knew she had to go. Then it was San Antonio and Rachel went into survival mode in the west side gang-infested ghetto. Deep in her heart she knew she couldn’t stay, needed to call her family. But that stubborn streak in her said I’d rather walk for days than call home for help. She did, however, cry out to to God for the first time, telling Him she needed help to get out of that city.
She was eventually ready to make a call but no one would let her use the phone, and the only pay phone was broken. Just then, an older lady came out of the gas station and approached Rachel. “Hey, you need help,” the lady stated rather than asked. “Yeah, I know,” Rachel acknowledged. “I need a phone to call my real mom.”
Rachel didn’t realize it was the day before Thanksgiving until the lady mentioned the holiday. Then she invited Rachel to her home. Whenever she had called her mom before (from California or wherever) she never wanted to say I need to come home. This time, out of nowhere Rachel blurted out, “I really need help!”
She had the best night’s sleep ever at that kind lady’s home. Rachel felt somewhat ashamed to ride a bus back to Michigan but laden with days of food from that Thanksgiving dinner, she started the long 36-hour bus ride back. On the bus, she struck up a conversation with the guys in front of her. It turned out one of them had just gotten out of prison. He joked about what a mess his life was. “Well, I have nothing but the clothes on my back,” Rachel told him. “I lost everything by the train tracks. I don’t even have a book to read.” And that guy handed her a Bible, saying he had it the whole time he was in prison and now she needed it. “I believe God sent that woman and put me on that bus ride,” Rachel says, still wowed by these miracles showing His loving care.
And so Rachel started reading the Bible on that bus, and kept on reading. Her mom picked her up at the Greyhound station, but she didn’t let her dad know she was back for days. She had always felt deep wounds of rejection from her dad, especially after he cut her off in her teens because of her rebellious, self-destructive, drug-filled life. She recognizes now that much of her desire to be on her own was really the result of feeling rejected. “Selfishness,” Rachel reflects. “The fruit of rejection is actually self looking out for self.”
The first week back, Rachel was drinking and brooding–she missed being on the road, riding the trains. When she finally contacted her dad, her stepmom told about him lighting the fire for her, and they even talked about God a bit. Then it all got real the next time she was with her stepmom celebrating her birthday. It was a full-blown intervention, right down to the police escort to the hospital for detox and the security guard in case she tried to bolt (if ever there was flight risk, it was Rachel). It was then that her stepmom told her about Life Challenge. And instead of resisting, running, Rachel found herself saying, “Yeah. That’s a good idea. I need somewhere to teach me how to live.”
Three days after getting out of the hospital, she was in Life Challenge. She admits that she doesn’t remember much about her first month, as she slowly started to come out of the fog of years of addiction and being on the road. “I also went from living outdoors to showering every day,” she laughs.
There was also a dawning realization that she is loved. And that she loves in return. But it has never been easy for Rachel to express that love so she decided that, before coming into the program, she would etch it in her memory, her soul, her arm. The tattoo, carefully chosen because Rachel means lamb, is always with her. It reminds her that her dad loves her. That God loves her.
She doesn’t remember the exact moment of her commitment to Jesus Christ. She simply knows that He loves her and now that she has accepted His love and forgiveness, she loves Him. There was a Sunday she went to a rally and then had a visit from her dad and stepmom. “We came back to the house,” Rachel says with a radiant smile, “and I was on a cloud. I felt high on God! I always thought that was crap, to be honest. But I couldn’t stop smiling, I was so happy.”
Rachel is discovering it’s not just about being happy eventually in heaven, but living and enjoying life to the fullest now, and without drugs. “I never thought I wouldn’t want drugs! Now I don’t miss drugs at all. I asked God to help me hate heroin. He made that happen!”
She is part of the powerful My Truth, My Reality stories that the ladies share at rallies. Rachel admits it was hard to compose her part, to really look at herself, see what was inside, recall broken relationships. She wrote letters to everyone in her family, asking for forgiveness that they may not yet feel. “I’m a wreck,” she says. “In a good way, like where God is saying, We can change everything about you.”
There was also the rally where Pastor Jeff asked her, “Why are you smiling like that?” Her answer? “I like singing about Jesus.” That wasn’t just a feel-good answer. There are reasons Rachel wanted to be part of the choir. The train riders, they have train songs. Bands, guitars, harmonicas. They sing songs about riding, songs about heroin and crack, and they were in her head: Whisper tracks in my arms / Led to the tricks up my sleeve / They left me broke and hungry / And left me on the streets.
Rachel wanted to join the choir to sing songs about Jesus, drive the train songs out. She wanted to learn about Him and the more she sang the God songs, the cleaner she felt. Songs like I Saw The Light: I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin / I wouldn’t let my Dear Savior in / Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night / Praise the Lord I saw the light.
Her family visits every Sunday and holiday. She can tell God is working in her dad (he has started reading the Bible) and her stepmom always prays for and encourages Rachel. She also sees God doing a restoring work with her mom, her sister, and little brothers. “I have realized that the Lord didn’t save me just for me. Yes, He loves me. But he loves them (family) too. And He knew they couldn’t bear losing me.”
Now, instead of watching tracks slip away behind her, Rachel looks ahead with hopeful anticipation. If she hits the road again, it will be with God’s purpose driving her. If she is on the streets and in dark places once more, it will be to say there is hope in Jesus.
She loves being free. And who the Son sets free is free indeed.