Someone Fighting

Elizabeth Newsom wanted to give back. Having settled in Austin, she was looking for ways to get involved around the city. Across the street from Sno-Beach, the snow cone stand she owns, sat the Helping Hand Home for Children. Every day, Elizabeth watched as the children played outside, and she began to get curious about the home’s volunteer opportunities. Her biggest concern was attachment to the children, so she decided to take a position as a bedtime reader, thinking that it would be a “pretty safe and easy” way to get involved. However, she soon learned that even children who are supposed to be going to sleep find a way of sneaking into your heart.

It didn’t take long before Elizabeth found more ways of interacting with and serving the children. Over the course of three years, she soon found herself at the home every Friday playing games and dancing with the children.

On these nights, one young girl in particular stood out to Elizabeth.

“She was always talking about her CASA and how much she couldn’t wait to see her CASA,” Elizabeth says. “I thought, How can I be one of these people that this girl looks forward to seeing every month, and obviously plays such an important role in her life?”

A CASA volunteer, or Court Appointed Special Advocate, is appointed by judges to advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children in court and other settings.

While that little girl sparked the interest in CASA, The Austin Stone Community Church provided the opportunity. The Stone preached the Adopted series during this time, and Elizabeth, filled with curiosity, signed up for an information session on foster care and adoption.

“I decided I needed to take the next step and push my involvement to the next level,” Elizabeth explains. “The kids in the child welfare program had been weighing heavily on my heart, and I thought this was not only a good way to further my involvement, but if one day I wanted to be a foster parent, I would have another viewpoint and know what I would be getting myself into.”

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Elizabeth has now been a CASA volunteer for one and a half years, and in that time, she has served seven children from three families. As a CASA, Elizabeth gathers information about each case, gets to know the children and families involved, builds a trusting relationship between the children and their caseworkers and attorneys, and advocates for the children in court.

“You have to really know the kids so that you can go before the judge and tell him, with no doubt in your mind, what is the best thing for the kids,” she says. “The CASA volunteer is the only person on the case that isn’t being paid and really doesn’t have a dog in the fight. You’re just a member of the community looking out for the kids.”

Elizabeth is challenged by many situations as she handles her CASA cases, but finds that the most difficult part is saying goodbye.

“A lot of these kids have never had healthy goodbyes,” Elizabeth explains. “They’ve just had people come in and out of their lives and abandon them. Your role as a volunteer is to prepare the kids for the next step in life when the case ends, but it’s easier said than done. I do my best to let go in a way that they will know I’ll always be there, despite not being their CASA anymore.”

The experience has transformed Elizabeth’s perspective on life and challenged her to step outside her comfort zone in many ways—whether it’s delivering hard news to the children or having tough conversations with parents. And during the court proceedings, Elizabeth realizes that she is not working in vain.

“You’re up in front of a judge, and they’ve just finished hearing from the attorneys and turn to you and ask, ‘Well CASA, what do you think?’ It’s pretty empowering to actually have a judge listen to you report on the kid and value your opinion,” Elizabeth shares. “It makes it seem like all the time and effort you’re putting into the case really does matter.”

At the end of the day, she hopes to convince the children she serves of one thing: “As dark, desolate and hopeless as the situation may seem, there is hope and someone fighting for their best interest, because they’re worth it.”

As seen on Austin Stone Stories October 10, 2014.

Austin Stone Story Team Feature Stories

Overcomer

Rachel awoke abruptly. The clock in her room read 5:30 a.m., her husband laid asleep beside her, and the words “forgive Todd” were repeating in her head.

Forgive Todd.

How could she forgive the man who had caused her so much pain? Not knowing how to start, she went for what she knew most and grabbed her pen and notebook and began to write.

Growing up, Rachel seemed happy, but in reality she was just trying to survive. For nearly six years, she had been sexually abused by her brother’s best friend, Todd, until he acknowledged the incidents and asked her to keep quiet. “They just won’t understand,” he told her. And Rachel, in her fear, obliged.

“I was scared and felt like it was my fault for letting it happen,” Rachel said. “That’s how abuse works – you put all the guilt and shame on yourself.”

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Rachel tried to deal with these wounds by seeking healing through alcohol and relationships. After an incorrect bipolar diagnosis in college, she was prescribed several medications meant to relieve her symptoms.

However, the medication wouldn’t take away the deep pain she felt in her heart. The only way healing could happen was for her to fully give control to God. “He’s the only thing that can satisfy, and I didn’t really know that,” she said.

“I look back and see that God was in my suffering. He was in every single part, placing people and different things in my life to help me through. But I didn’t know it well enough to tell God that I give up. I wanted to keep my control.”

Rachel continued to hold on to that control until a heated argument with a boyfriend drove her to locking herself in her bathroom and overdosing on several medications. Before losing consciousness, she began to pray. “I didn’t want to die, I just wanted help,” Rachel said.

Lying on the bathroom floor, Rachel pleaded that God would restore her. Immediately, a peaceful presence fell over her. She knew that God was with her and she would be all right.

After a stay in a psychiatric hospital, Rachel found the courage to open up to her parents about the abuse she had endured. Her parents, though heartbroken for their daughter, were strong and comforting to her. Still, she hadn’t found it in herself to forgive Todd.

Yet.

Just as the sun was rising, Rachel looked at the words she had managed to write. It was a poem for Todd. In it, she forgave him for his actions, shared her source of joy and hope in Jesus, and ultimately invited him to seek a relationship with God. “The Holy Spirit spoke through me in that moment,” she said. “I can’t explain it, but it happened.”

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Feeling as though a huge weight had been lifted off of her shoulders, she hurried to wake her husband, Andrew. “She shook me awake and was so happy and bright and completely filled with the Holy Spirit,” Andrew said. “It was wild.”

Rachel began to read the poem to her husband.

By the world’s standards, you’re undeserving of my grace;

But I am a child of God, and he’s given it to me always.

I rejoice in the suffering that you put me through;

It’s brought me closer to Jesus; it’s led me to the truth.

Andrew’s eyes began to water as he saw his wife come to a place of forgiveness through the words she read. The scars from her dark past were being healed by the grace of God.

“We have a hope in Christ. I’m not a victim anymore. I’m a survivor,” Rachel said. “I suffered for a reason. I suffered so I could help other people who have no hope. These marks of abuse are marks of God’s glory, and they have allowed me to reach people in ways I never could if this hadn’t happened to me.”

While Rachel admits she still has a long way to go in her journey towards complete healing, she knows that Jesus is guiding her steps.

“The Lord has saved my life in so many ways. I am not the same person anymore,” she said. “It all goes back to the gift of grace. ‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus. It really is and I’m living proof.”

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By Jeannie L. Rodriguez
Photos by Jessica Scott

Austin Stone Story Team Feature Stories

Along For The Ride

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Julie Latcham was on the fence. There were two weeks left until spring break, and the senior at the University of Texas needed to decide whether she would join her brother on a mission trip to Memphis, Tennessee with The Austin Stone Community Church.

She had been reading about Jesus’ heart for the poor and had felt the weight of conviction to help them. In a moment of obedience and spontaneity, Julie signed up. As her bus arrived in Memphis, little did she know the trip she had just embarked on would change the course of her life.

In Memphis, Julie’s group served with Service Over Self (SOS), a Christian nonprofit organization that seeks to glorify God through urban home repair. Julie and her team worked to rebuild, repair, and restore homes for low-income families. While working on a home, the site leader began to tell Julie about the SOS Academy, a one-year internship that trains and equips young adults for work in ministry. Julie listened, but had no intention of taking him up on the offer.

“I was thinking there was no way I’d move to Memphis,” she said. “That’s just crazy.”

Julie did not give the internship another thought until the final day of her spring break trip. Chris Tomlin’s song “God of This City” played during worship as her hands began to shake. The song had never evoked a particular response from her, but as the worship leader sang the words, her heart felt heavy for Memphis.

“It was the strongest I had ever felt the Holy Spirit,” she said. “But at the same time, I was thinking I still wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t move.”

Julie filled out a survey and indicated she was willing to find out more about the internship.  One of her pastors saw what she had written and strongly encouraged her to speak to the director of the program. After a few meetings and a lot of prayer, Julie decided to leave Austin for Memphis.

“I think I really was being challenged through that trip, learning God’s heart for the poor, reading his word and being convicted that my life had very little interaction with the poor,” Julie said. “These are the people Jesus spent time with, and my life just didn’t look like that.”

After graduating from UT, Julie began her one-year internship with a partner organization, Advance Memphis. The program focused on reaching and empowering people through different classes and resources, while helping them recognize their value in Christ. Julie helped men and women with barriers to employment by participating in the coordination of a job training course and launched a GED program for those who had never received their high school diplomas. While Julie thought her time in Memphis would be short, her work turned into a career when her boss asked her to join the full-time staff of Advance Memphis.

Julie worked in that role for four years before she felt it was time to return to Austin. She had peace, but still had questions. What would she do next?

“I kept praying about it, even before I left Memphis, for the Lord to allow me to still be involved in inner-city ministry,” she said. “I was terrified of leaving Memphis without having an idea what was next.”

When Julie returned to Austin, she ran into a friend from her first Memphis mission trip with the Austin Stone. He described the work he was doing at the For the City Network with a construction company called Unison Development. Julie learned its purpose was to create jobs and they were looking to provide training for people with barriers to employment using the Jobs for Life curriculum.

“Have you heard of it?” her friend asked.

Julie could barely container her smile, “Yeah! That’s what we used in Memphis.”

Today Julie is the Marketing and Program Coordinator for Unison Development and recently helped launch its first job training class.

“God keeps challenging me by putting me in roles that I think are far above what I think I can do. I’m definitely not the most qualified,” said Julie. “But if we’re just faithful to do the things he has called us to do, then a lot of times we’ll be surprised by the story he unfolds before us.”

By Jeannie L. Rodriguez
Photo by Nijalon Dunn

Austin Stone Story Team Feature Stories

From Bases to Baptisms

After three months of working for the For The City Network, my stories are finally starting to see the light of day! I present to you my first story of the summer, From Bases to Baptisms.

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Alex Gonzalez about to be baptized by coaches Matt Price (right) and Casey Baeslack (left).

Alex Martin Gonzalez submerged himself into the pool, chest deep with a smile that could not be tamed. He looked around at his coaches, Matt Price and Casey Baeslack, who flanked his sides, and his teammates, who were watching from outside the pool. Everyone was waiting excitedly. Their eyes were focused on him, and their hands clasped ready to make a cheerful noise.

“I’m here because I believe God is our Savior, Jesus died for our sins, and I want to show the world who I am in Christ,” he said.

And with a deep breath, he went under and rose to an uproar of cheering and clapping. Gonzalez had just been baptized.  

A senior at Lanier High School, Gonzalez is a veteran baseball player with the For the City Network’s RBI Austin, a program that uses sports and mentor relationships to engage and develop the youth of inner-city Austin. He first joined RBI Austin’s Player Development Program – a mentorship group aimed to grow a player in mind, body,and spirit – in hopes of understanding the Bible. Three years later, he said it makes more sense to him now than ever, and he wanted to openly declare his faith through baptism. That’s when he went to his coaches with the idea.

“I went to [Coach] Casey and asked him what being baptized meant,” said Gonzalez. “I’m preaching the Word and sharing it with other people, but I figured I hadn’t been baptized yet so maybe I should.”

According to Price, founder and director of RBI Austin, baptism is a public declaration of a person’s faith in Jesus Christ and is symbolic of Jesus’ death and resurrection on the cross. 

After Gonzalez expressed interest in being baptized, the invitation was extended to the rest of the Lanier Vikings player development group. Teammates Divine Ntomchukwu and Robert Carlos Obando and Coach Baeslack stepped up. This was RBI Austin’s first baptism ceremony.

“These guys have already placed their faith in Christ, repented of sin in their life, and realized that they need a Savior,” Price said to the intimate gathering of parents, teammates, and friends. “They know their salvation is not going to come through works; it’s purely by the grace of God, and his forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection. That’s why we’re here tonight. These guys are ready to publicly declare their faith and commitment to Christ, and we are really, really excited.”

Obando, a sophomore, said that RBI has helped him understand what it means to be a follower of Christ over the last year, giving him confidence in his faith to share it with others. Ntomchukwu, who had been baptized as a child, said he wanted to be baptized as an adult to show his friends and family that he truly believed the Gospel.

For Coach Baeslack, this baptism was a long time coming. He said he didn’t want to be baptized by just anyone. He wanted the baptism to be with people he knew and loved – his Lanier brothers.

 “When you’re with people who care about you, and you care about them, things mean a lot more,” Baeslack said. “On top of that, you throw in the presence of God here tonight, and the symbolism of what this is, and the command that God has, it’s kind of overwhelming. You can’t put it into words.”

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Casey Baeslack shared his story and reason for his baptism before being submerged into the water.

As Coach Baeslack spoke, his eyes watered. “Austin is a town where people come and go,” he said. “Often times, more people go than they come.” To him, RBI has been a staple in an ever-changing environment of people. 

“RBI is something that God has given to me just as consistent as he has been,” he said. “RBI Austin is a godsend.” 

Coach Baeslack has been involved with RBI Austin for five years, prior to the conception of the official organization. He serves as a baseball coach and leads one of the player development groups. To Price, Coach Baeslack’s faithfulness is what makes him stand out the most.

“Sometimes you can be faithful in life and faithful in your walk with the Lord, but you don’t see the result of that immediately,” Price said. “So for me, tonight is really exciting for Casey. These guys have been discipled in the Word of God and developed in Christ by this man. I am proud and privileged to be able to baptize Casey.”

It was a night of transformation for the RBI Austin family, all because a single player had the faith and courage to step up to the plate.

Now that he has been baptized, Gonzalez said he wants to continue to share his faith and become a leader at his school, especially for those who don’t know Jesus or have the mentorship he has been blessed with.

“There are a lot of things that happen in high school that people regret,” Gonzalez said, “and I don’t want that to happen to me or to my teammates. I feel like if they had the Word of God, their lives can be impacted like mine.”

 

Austin Stone Story Team Feature Stories