It was mid-afternoon on Wednesday by the time we got to her place, but Nerida* had been waiting patiently for us. The afternoon temperature was soaring, the sunlight blinding as we entered her neat little room to talk.
Nerida’s home was a single room in a mud-brick building. She built a lean-to on the front, enclosing it with corrugated aluminum roofing and mosquito netting to have a kitchen. Floor-to-ceiling burgundy curtains lined the walls of her bedroom, hiding the pock-marked mud plaster behind. Stitched-together white grain sacs hung above as a sort of ceiling, painted in a cheerful design. I sat with a fellow missionary, Naomi, on the thinly carpeted floor to talk and pray with Nerida. In the dimness of the light that filtered through the curtain in the doorway, Nerida began to tell us more of her story.
Growing up in a southern village, Nerida was married at an early age to a Muslim man. She was pressured to convert to Islam but adamantly refused, choosing instead to stay with “her” God. She gave birth to two little girls, but tragedy struck when the first died at 20 months and the second at only eight months. Seeing that Nerida’s children did not survive, her husband took another wife. Life grew difficult and abusive as a rivalry escalated between the women. Finally, Nerida’s temper got the better of her. Enough was enough, and she left.
She fled to the capital city with no way to make a living and fell into the night life, selling herself to strange men. Still searching for love and belonging, Nerida eventually met a man who began to care and provide for her. He paid the rent on her room and gave her what she needed for food and clothing. They frequented bars together at night. Aware of the dangers of HIV, they got tested every so often. It was always the same: Her tests came back negative and she showed him the results. He never shared his.
It was during this time that Naomi began building a relationship with Nerida. Visiting twice a week, listening, praying, and caring for Nerida, Naomi gradually earned Nerida’s trust. Little by little, the Bible stories that Naomi shared found an opening in Nerida’s heart. A conviction grew in her heart. She wanted to change, but her knowledge of God and his character were limited. A spiritual battle raged within her, and she made some poor choices. Her heart cleaved to the sense of belonging and security that her boyfriend provided. Disillusioned with the life of prostitution, she clung to the hope of marriage.
That is, until the day a friend told her that her man was seeing other women and no longer loved her.
Nerida’s heart refused to accept it. Against all hope, she tried to believe that he would come back to her. She became seriously ill, and eventually discovered that she was HIV positive. She was devastated.
Stuffing down the grief, Nerida pulled herself together and was able to continue a job she had found serving as house help for three days a week. With her boyfriend’s support gone, she took a second job in the evenings as a waitress, working herself to exhaustion. She left that job after the manager refused to pay her, and God provided a second house cleaning job to cover the gap. Nerida saw God’s hand behind her provision. Her faith slowly grew and her heart began to heal.
Then one day Nerida got a phone call. It was her mom. She told Nerida that a “crazy” aunt told her about a time when Nerida saw an evil spirit when she was a girl. Nerida had forgotten the incident and never shared it with anyone, but the memory suddenly flooded back. She was eight years old and walking home alone by a river. She recounted how a giant had appeared before her, though she could not see his face, just his body. In fear, Nerida had cried out “Lord!” and the apparition disappeared. With tears streaming down her face, the weight of guilt came crashing down as the implications of what her aunt and mother were saying played in her mind – in her cultural understanding of it all, she was the one responsible for her own children’s deaths!
As we all sat there together on the floor in Nerida’s claustrophobic mud house, Naomi and I shared with her from God’s word. With confidence, compassion, and love, we showed her how God already knows our days before we are born. The apparition she saw, and her silence about seeing it, did not mean that she was responsible for whether her children lived or died. As believers in Jesus, one day we will see Nerida’s children! Together we prayed, first Naomi, then Nerida in her mother tongue, and finally I prayed. It is our prayer that one day Nerida’s mourning will be turned into dancing.
Nerida is still lonely, longing for the love of a faithful man, longing for her children – all God-given desires. Her story is not yet finished. What a privilege to walk the streets of poverty and pain bringing the love, hope, and acceptance of the gospel to these women. Though circumstances may not change on the outside, transformed hearts will bring about transformed lives for the here and now, the future and forever.
-Written by Anne Hoyt, TEAM missionary in Chad
-Photos by Kristin Hoyt
*Not her real name