Room for Good News

A Story by Ian North//

When Evangelina was fifteen, Ruthie and I took her on weekly visits to the DeKalb County Jail to see her brother, Nick.

He sat down on the other side of the glass and looked at the three of us. His hair hung a little longer each week. He looked weary and edgy, worn by the rhythm of sunless days in his cell, unsure what would happen at his trial.

When she took up the phone, he asked how she was.

“Bored,” she answered. Her response was the same each time.

Their father was in prison in Tennessee, and Nick was having dreams where Jesus showed up and said, “Forgive your father.”

Our church had worked every angle to keep Nick from getting locked up.

Tommy coached baseball at his school and invited Nick to share a meal and play ball whenever they passed in the halls. John and Kate stopped by his family’s apartment every Sunday, inviting him to the services. He came once or twice, looking small in an oversized leather coat, leaving the room and coming back until the service was over.

I urged him to join our neighborhood soccer team, and we put him to work whenever he attended our after-school program.

None of this was enough to stop him from answering a phone call and getting in a car with two friends on the way to commit armed robbery.

We followed him to the jail. And we brought his family along in hope that love would work through the thick glass and bring Nick home.

After Nick was convicted and moved to a prison out of town, Eva moved in with her boyfriend, Walter, his daughter, and his friends. She was striking out to make a life apart from her family’s apartment, where there was doubt about the next meal and tensions that sometimes grew violent.

Living with Walter, we watched her get to a healthier weight and talk a little more confidently. We invited her to help with the after-school program, but she said, “Those kids are so annoying.”

Six months ago, we were preparing for the birth of our son and living with the feeling that people around us were generally going to do whatever they wanted. When Eva visited our house and spent the time complaining of nausea and acting like she had something to tell us, we didn’t ask any questions.

“I can’t handle anything else right now,” Ruthie told me that night from her side of the bed.

“There’s enough going on,” I agreed, staring at the roof, squinting for patterns in the dark.

We repeated this conversation through the first weeks after bringing our son, Jack, home.

Kate brought Eva over one afternoon, and Eva told Ruthie that she was expecting. She said the news was hard on her mother because her younger sister, Sarah, was pregnant at the same time. At this point, they were seventeen and fifteen years old.

We had been carving a space for this announcement in our minds for months. A new life needs to arrive to a kind welcome. Ruthie declared her love and support, and they talked together about how you reproduce what you are rather than what you hope for most of the time.

The next week, Eva showed up at our door ten minutes before the after-school program started. Miguel and I were setting out chairs and preparing snacks.

“Hey Ian.”

“Hi Eva. Ruthie’s out right now.”

“But there’s after-school program, right?”

I opened the door wider, and she stepped into the room. Later, I asked her why, after years in the neighborhood, she suddenly decided to help.

“I need to practice for patience,” she said, glancing down.

Now, three days a week, thirty kids ask Eva and Sarah for help with homework, receive meals from their hands, and learn from them. New lives are growing, and bellies are getting bigger to make space.

I talked with a few friends about Eva and Sarah’s pregnancies, and stories we were having a hard time reconciling. One asked if these girls had repented. Another suggested a public confession of sin and a communal forgiveness.

I didn’t know how to respond to either idea except to say that there was some sort of slow turn going on in their lives, and that we needed to keep them close.

When should we speak against the hold of sin, and when should we praise what is good? How can we do both in the lives that come into our home? What’s our job here? I mulled on these questions during runs through the neighborhood, wrote about them in pieces that I always abandoned halfway, and slowly turned to the idea that there’s little we can do outside of clearing space for love to work.

This coming week, if Austin is not yet born, Evangelina will knock on our door. Miguel or I will stop arranging the chairs and setting out snacks to let her in, and she will collapse on the couch in her coat, running a hand over her belly, feeling for a kick.

She’s been changing to get ready for the new life. She and Walter have cleaned and decorated their apartment. She acts like a better friend, puts her hand to the work, joins us when we go to church, and identifies with the better parts of what we do.

I see the wonder and weight of new lives writing itself on the faces of these sisters. I see them serving the younger kids and connecting with other girls their age. I wouldn’t have imagined any of these changes a year ago.

I’ll ask Eva, “How’re you feeling today?” and she will smile and say, “Ok,” then add, “Heavy,” or “Tired.”

Looking forward to the rhythm of this exchange, I think about pain and all the years we put in helping with homework, listening, and talking about God. I want to know how to picture grace, whether it’s a thing that happens or the room in which something else happens. It might seem modest, but this conversation with Evangelina is where my thoughts settle and find rest.