To the Heights with Abby
By Pete Haynes


On a rock on the hillside, Abby sat starring across the valley. A majestic mountain rose toward the sky, its sides steep and rocky, in some places virtually a cliff. As she tried to take in the whole view, a movement caught her eye. With her binoculars, the distant motion became clear as she focused upon it.

There on that mountain side was a goat traversing a virtual cliff with little effort. Abby was captivated by the sight of this animal. He moved with such ease, a study of grace in action. His feet were sure, stepping from stony ledges to what appeared to be thin air.

"How I wish I could climb like that," Abby thought as she remembered the events of the past months. "I stumble and fall so quickly, my life feels more like a study in clumsiness than in grace. Maybe if I lived amid the majesty of these mountains I could learn to climb the heights with ease."

Abby's thoughts turned back to the city. It had been her home for the past six months. After graduation from nursing school, she entered Brethren Volunteer Service. Her decision to enter BVS had been influenced by her Dad. In his own youth he had left the farm for a couple years of alternative service at a Psychiatric hospital. He told her that those years were well spent, although he was forced into them by the Selective Service System. "I learned what it was like to give myself to somebody else, who often could give nothing in return," he said. "It wasn't easy helping at that hospital, but I grew in ways I never would have at home."

Dad was such a rock in her life, someone to depend upon. Being who he was taught her volumes about her "heavenly Father." She decided to follow the call of her God, inspired by her Dad's example, and ended up at an inner city hospital in Los Angeles.

With youthful faith and ambition she arrived six months ago ready to change the world for Jesus. Unfortunately, that world was not very willing to be changed. The greatest alteration would talk place in herself. The small, struggling hospital was located in a very poor section of town, and primarily black. She was the only white person on the nursing staff. This put her at a distinct disadvantage. She could feel the distrust, even the downright hatred, of some of her co-workers. They were cold toward her, even her supervisor, Melba. Living in the nurses' quarters was like dwelling in a foreign land. The language may have been English, but sometimes she hardly understood what they were saying.

It was a different world, a separate culture. She felt stiff as she walked through it - afraid, sometimes angry. She discovered a hatred in herself she didn't think was there, an inner racism. It seemed such a violent culture. She treated so many victims of gunshot wounds. Mostly young, mostly men, mostly drug-related. She had seen more than her share of the ugliness of this world which, to her, seemed lacking in color. It was as if she were viewing everything through a black and white TV.

By her bed she kept her Bible and a few of her books. Everyday she set aside an hour to read and to pray, though some days her prayers seemed emptier than others. Her Mother had given her the book, Hind's Feet on High Places, by Hannah Hurnard, which she was trying to read. It didn't really seem to capture her imagination, though.

Eventually she was assigned to the Pediatrics ward, and this became a bright spot for her. She loved working with children. It was here she began to feel some of the love she longed for. The youngest children cared little about her color, except to compare it with their own.

She became especially attached to one child in particular. This little girl's name was "Vangel." A strange name - yes. The child's mother said that when Vangel was born, the mid-wife's name was Evangeline. This she liked, but shortened it to Vangel for her baby. "How appropriate," thought Abby. Evangeline means "bringer of good news," and certainly that little child was good news for this white woman in a black world.

Vangel was a beautiful child. Her eyes were bright. Her skin was coal black. Her hair was kinky and tight. Her face was round and when she smiled, which she did often, she could light up the room.

Abby took special pleasure in caring for Vangel. Vangel's mom came faithfully to her bedside, and spent hours there. Since her Daddy never came, Abby wondered if she had one, though she never asked. Her illness was baffling. No matter what the Doctors did Vangel was getting worse and not better. She would catch any infection that came her way and day by day she was getting visibly weaker. Her smile grew smaller. She became thinner and thinner, this good news child, and Abby feared they might lose her.

About that time, news began coming out about a disease with frightening dimensions. It rendered a person's immune system impotent, and spread quickly by sexual contact or drug injection with unsterilized needles.

When Vangel tested positive for AIDS, Abby about fainted. This poor child, a victim of a cruel circumstance. It was then Abby noticed the needle marks in the mother's arms. Had Vangel received the disease in the supposed safety of her mother's womb?

Vangel did not last long. All too quickly this good news child died. Abby was there with Vangel's mother. They cried, and in the intimacy of that moment in which they shared their tears, black and white became meaningless distinctions.

Before Vangel's mother left, Abby suggested that she get a blood test. The last words spoken between them were these: "I don't want to know." Then the young woman left.

That night Abby felt terribly alone as she lay in bed. What good was anything she did? She was a square block in a round hole. The world was a terrible place. A child could die through no fault of her own, and her killers were many and faceless. A whole system seemed conspired to make sure a good news child would not live.

Abby prayed, though her prayers seemed cold and heartless. She read her Bible. The day's reading was in Habakkuk. The words of the prophet didn't answer her question of why bad things happen. They just affirmed repeatedly that what God has in mind is becoming a reality. God is on the move, even if it doesn't feel like it. Abby read from the book her Mom gave her, feeling in the lowest spot in her life of faith she had ever been. These words popped out at her:

"Believe steadfastly in what you have seen. Even if the way up to the High Places appears to be obscured and you are led to doubt whether you are following the right path, remember the promise. 'Thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, this is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand and when ye turn to the left.' Always go forward along the path of obedience as far as you know it until I intervene, even if it seems to be leading you where you fear I could never mean you to go."  (Hind's Feet on High Places, by Hannah Hurnard, p.189)

Just then one of the other residents called out that there was a phone call for her. Her heart leapt when she heard her mother's voice, and then it sank as the words began to flow. It was a long conversation, but the gist was this: Dad had a heart attack, it was not a big one, but still...

The phone call left her exhausted and sleep was a welcome relief. Her last thoughts were of her father, how he had been such a rock in her life. The possibility of losing him was too hard to imagine. So she slept.

In the morning she went to see Melba, her supervisor. At first this black woman felt as cold as ice as Abby started to unravel the struggles of the past months. Ever so slowly, though, Abby noticed a compassion she had not seen before in Melba's eyes. As a young, white woman's words turned into tears, Melba left the chair behind her desk and sat next to Abby and shared in her frustration.

It was a long conversation for when Abby was through Melba told her story, how she came to this hospital. Abby discovered she was also a Christian and had left this community as a young woman to learn how to heal in a white, man's world. Her shared struggles were similar to Abby's, but woven amid her words was a fragile thread of hope.

It was hope that led her back home to work at healing among her own people. It was hope that helped her through the death of her mother. This hope had taken her from a street smart, but really naive and untested young girl to a mature Christian woman tested by fire. Then Melba shared by heart a favorite scripture:

"Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights."  (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Then Melba went into her purse and gave Abby some money and told her to go home for a week or two. "Your parent's need you and you need them," she said, "but come back, because we need you, also, and you need us."

Abby thought about all this as she sat and watched that graceful goat on the opposite mountainside. She had an hour to think, for another bus to replace the one that had broken down would take at least that long. Thank goodness for a kind old man who loaned her his binoculars and said he'd make sure they wouldn't leave without her.

How graceful that goat was traveling across the perilous rocks. The mountainside was reminiscent of her own life right now. She was seeking to get above her trials and not be overwhelmed by them. Stumbling against the rocks seemed the order of the day, and God seemed very absent from it all.

Yet, the more she thought about it, the more she realized that God was amid those rocks. Maybe her "heavenly Father" really was at work. Maybe there was a purpose to it all, even if she couldn't see it. Was God still in control of this crazy world? When viewed from the mountain, it seemed possible.

The scripture Melba had shared ran through her head. Abby put it into her own words. "Though everything appears wrong right now, still I will rejoice. God is savior, after all, and things will be made right when the time is right. Meanwhile, God is my strength. He makes my feet like a deer's feet ... like a goat's feet, and gets me to climb on these mountain heights."

On that hillside, Abby began to realize how God had been creating in her a sort of hind's feet to help her, like that goat, climb the rocks of her life. God was giving her the feet of a mountain goat, so to speak. She hadn't realized it. She knew she could return home to her family. They needed her. She needed them. She also knew she could return to LA to that inner-city hospital. They needed her. She needed them.

Deep within her, there was an abiding sense of joy. Her "heavenly Father" was her strength, and she could trust herself completely into his transforming hands. The path of transformation is never easy, but never is it impossible if it is traveled with the grace of these "goats" feet.

In the valley below there was the sound of a bus horn calling her back. As she walked down that hillside, you'd almost think, looking at her from a distance, that Abby had the graceful feet of a deer. Such it is for those who live by faith.

1996Peter L. Haynes

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