“Keep me as the apple of your eye…”
“Now I can see…”
“I came from darkness but now I’m in His light…”
“I let satan have control but never again…”
“I was nothing, but now I’m something…”
“I know I can be a good mom…”
“I should forgive my mother…”
She wrote numerous statements like these that filled pages and pages in her journal, six weeks’ worth of pages to be exact.
After not seeing or hearing from Tenele at all in six weeks, I was a little anxious for our reunion. Did she think I had forgotten about her? Did she think I didn’t love her? Is she being a rebel? Is she coping? Is she growing? Or is the darkness and loneliness too much for her? Will she make it? Although the questions swirled about me, I had an overwhelming peace, knowing God was surely making himself known to her.
“Make Thobile,” the director of Teen Challenge where Tenele stays, messaged me some good news: “Tenele has passed the induction phase. You may now visit her on Saturday between the hours of 12-5. She is doing well. I am very proud of her.” I was thrilled with the good news and on Saturday we loaded up the car with her kiddos who also hadn’t seen or heard from her in six weeks.
As we pulled into the gate and parked, Tenele saw our car from her room and started screaming and jumping up and down. She wasn’t allowed to come out and greet us, though, until the staff member checked me in and called Tenele to us. We could still see Tenele through the window of her room where she and five other young women stayed. When Lucia got out of the car, Tenele started crying and had a difficult time waiting to embrace her daughter. The reunion was nothing short of beautiful and joyful. Hugs, kisses, and chocolate were shared among the three, Tenele, Lucia, and Bhuti. Then it was my time alone with T-Belle as Rachel, Kiley, and Alex entertained the kids outside.
“It’s so hard…” came Tenele’s first words to me. “But I’m learning about God and…” she burst into tears and couldn’t talk
“Oh honey,” I put my arm around her.
“At first I thought you didn’t love me anymore,” she continued in sniffles. “I thought you wanted me here because you didn’t want me or love me.”
I waited for her to continue. This had been my fear. But it was something I also prayed a lot about. I prayed specifically that God would let Tenele know I still love her. So I waited for Tenele to continue, and she did.
“But now…” she choked back her coming tears. She wiped her eyes and looked at me briefly. “Now I know I’m here because you love me. You want a future for me even when I didn’t.”
Tears pressed forth in my own eyes as she was speaking an answered prayer!
“Before I came here, I was nothing. Now I will be something.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Six weeks is a long time to go without seeing or talking to you child, but six weeks is a very short time in terms of emotional and spiritual growth. Yet, here Tenele was quoting Scripture to me as we talked and sharing how difficult life is for her at Teen Challenge but how committed she is to finishing the program. “I want to make your proud, mama. I will finish and graduate next November, no matter how many times I want to leave.”
“Now I know who Jesus is. Before I was a pretending to know, but I didn’t know at all. I’m learning a lot.”
She went on to tell me about “Make Thobile,” the program director and all that she has been learning through her. “Make Thobile, when she preaches…wow, it’s meant for me. And when I get angry she tells me to go to the garage and pray. She gives me Scripture to read and asks me to tell her what it means to me and how it can help my anger.”
Indeed, Thobile had also mentioned to me how impressed she’s been with Tenele’s growth.
“When she works or does extra chores, she never complains, which is so rare in our girls here! She’s very open about how she feels, and that helps us help her, too. She’s still very naughty,” she said seriously but light-heartedly. “But when she told me about her life and past abuse, she said she still struggles with so much anger. She’s working on it, though. Actually,” she paused and looked at me. “I haven’t told Tenele this, but when I was praying for her the other day, I had this vision of her directing a program like this one day. It was like God had elevated her to be the leader.”
I was so happy I nearly squealed. “That’s the SAME feeling and vision I have for her, too!”
“Wow, really?” she was surprised. “Let’s keep praying for that then.”
Among Tenele’s many victories so far, one very significant one is that she was already asked to share her testimony at a small gathering at the program on Friday. As Tenele recounted for me how it went, she explained, “Eish, I was so nervous!” And she put her arm over her eyes again, as if she was nervous now just thinking about it. She continued recounting how she started her testimony. “I greet you in the name of Jesus Christ. My name is Tenele Nhlengetfwa, I’m 19 years old, and I have two children. I am here because I used to abuse my life. I was drinking and smoking and sleeping with boys.” She shifted uncomfortably and summarized, “I told them all the darkness of my life, but that God had given me the Martin family to show me a way out. Now I’m living in the light!”
What a miracle. What an amazing story God is continuing to write with this woman’s life. We, too, are nothing apart from Christ. We deserve nothing, yet by his grace we are giving everything so we can be something.
What a redemption story and grace for all of us. She has changed my life. And God will use her, like Thobile’s vision, to change this nation, too.