Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Exchanging My Ashes for His Beauty: The Fire (Part 1)

When Burke Community Church extends its invitation for membership, the leadership talks about an individual joining his or her story to the stories of everyone else in the Body of Christ here in this location. The idea is that the smaller individual stories fit together in this larger epic work that God is writing here with these lives. In October of 2005, my husband and I “joined” our life stories with the community of believers here, and that’s been a good thing. Recently, however, God has been telling me that I haven’t been totally honest because I haven’t really shared my story.

In Isaiah 61: 3 & 4, the Lord makes a proclamation: “To all who mourn in Israel, He will give beauty for ashes, joy instead of mourning, praise instead of despair. For the LORD has planted them like strong and graceful oaks for his own glory. They will rebuild the ancient ruins, repairing cities long ago destroyed. They will revive them, though they have been empty for many generations.” In the Breaking Free Bible study, Beth Moore says, “God never allows or appoints a fire unless He can bring beauty from the ashes.” I’ve had many fires in my life: codependency, struggles with singleness, infertility, extended illness, and bouts with severe depression. God has brought beauty from them all.

The fire I tell you about today is one I’m still in the midst of. For you to understand the glimpses of beauty I’ve been seeing, you have to first understand the fire. This fire has come through my sister. Her name is Sarah.

I grew up in the seemingly perfect family. My parents are still married after 42 years. I was raised in the church. I asked Jesus to come live in my heart when I was four years old. As I grew up, I learned what being Jesus’ disciple really looks like. I’m still learning. But I have no doubt that my salvation and relationship with Jesus was sealed that day when I was four.

I have been blessed with a legacy of faith. My dad was a music minister. There are pastors, ministers, and gospel singers on both sides of my family. My faith never wavered. Neither was it really tested.

During my college years, I moved away from home and the safety bubble. I realized co-dependency, rage, and cycles of verbal abuse in my family. I remember praying over and over, “God, please fix my family.” He gave me promises from Isaiah then, too: “Don’t be afraid; I’ve redeemed you. I’ve called you by name: You are Mine. I’ll make streams in the desert and the crooked places will be made straight. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; the waves will not overcome you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flames burn you.” I believed God.

In 1988, I was living as roommates with my sister Sarah in North Carolina. We had a great relationship, and we made really great roommates. That year, Sarah met Aziz Safouane. He had come to the United States on a student visa from Morocco, and he didn’t want to meet me.

That summer and in the following year, Sarah’s unwed pregnancy shattered my perfect family. For the first six months, Sarah and baby Michel lived with my parents and me in Florida. We all pitched in to take care of each other. Then Aziz moved to Florida. Everything turned to chaos. Aziz turned out to be an abuser, and Sarah turned into a stranger. I remember one night when things were really bad, I ran to my room crying out to God, “What am I supposed to do?”

God said, “Love them.”

I said, “No, that’s asking too much.” And I closed my heart.

Sarah, Aziz, and the baby disappeared in June of 1989. We didn’t hear from them until Christmas. After that, the relationship consisted of sporadic phone calls at 2 a.m. when they wanted to discuss religion, philosophy, and the failings of the American government. Sarah had four more babies in the next five years. Aziz told my dad he was trying to make his own “tribe.”

Sometime in that season, Sarah converted from Christianity to Islam. Most of her phone calls would end with Sarah saying, “I’m pregnant,” and my dad having chest pains. For several years after that, holidays were painful. Sarah being gone left a huge hole in my family. I asked God over and over to bring her home, but without Aziz.

In 1994, Aziz murdered my youngest nephew for rolling up his Muslim prayer rug incorrectly. Sarah chose to stay with Aziz and let the State of Washington’s social services take her four surviving children away. She refused family counseling and psychological testing and visits with her children. Although Aziz was charged with Murder 2 with special circumstances, the criminal case was dismissed when my then 5-year-old nephew couldn’t bear to testify against his father in open court. Sarah and Aziz hired a medical expert who was prepared to testify that the toddler’s injuries could have been caused by his oldest brother running into him with a bicycle. My oldest nephew was the only eyewitness to his little brother’s death.

Although the mostly circumstantial evidence was not enough to convict Aziz in criminal court, it was enough to convince the family court that Sarah and Aziz were a danger to their living children and any future children they might have. Sarah bore Aziz three more children, and children and family services took them all into custody, two babies directly from the hospital nursery when they were born. All seven surviving siblings were placed in Muslim foster families with the hope of adoption by these families as the deciding factor for placement. In 2003, the United States Supreme Court of Appeals closed the book on any further appeals from Aziz and Sarah Safouane regarding the termination of their parental rights. The Court ruled that Aziz and Sarah can no longer even submit appeals for the Court’s review. There is a published opinion on file that is now used for quoting precedent in other legal cases.

I haven’t seen Sarah since 1994. I haven’t spoken to her since 1999.

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