When Love Fails
I’ve been told, “Love always wins.” I’ve read over and over 1 Corinthians 13, “Love is patient, love is kind…love never fails.” But what happens if it does? Or when it does? What happens when love really isn’t enough?
Living alongside these girls in their daily joys and struggles is truly an incredible experience. Obviously, growth is a process, healing is a process, and it all cannot be achieved at once. Yet, I still maintain high standards for my children, just ask my past students, especially the ones I’ve coached. One of the girls in our home, who has been a particular struggle for me, came into my room one night to talk. “I know I’m not perfect, Mama Kate,” she began. “But it’s like you expect us to be.” It was the beginning to a very healthy conversation for the both of us, and since then, she has been nothing but a joy instead of a burden. Understandably, when I hold high standards for myself and others it’s easier to be let down or feel like love isn’t enough to help them reach their potential. So, with a massive let down over the past week, it has got me wondering, “Am I expecting too much? Are my standards too high? Is love enough?”
For six years, I’ve loved and pursued Tenele as my child. Out of the six years, the past three months have been both the best and most difficult with her. Perhaps I judged her growth too quickly and she really wasn’t set free or washed anew. For, over the past two weeks, there has been a devastating retreat of growth and character. Just as I was able to judge her state of mind based on how she was properly and wonderfully mothering her kids, I could tell something was wrong when she resulted to beating them again and talking about them in frustration. “Cedric can just take them!” she said angrily one night. “I’ve had enough. I can’t do it anymore. It’s his turn to take the kids.” What I thought had been a healthy conversation where she shared her frustrations eventually festered into more anger and bitterness on her part. She didn’t like coming to the girls home anymore, and I figured out later it was because it was extremely hard on her to come and see me giving all of my attention to the other girls, tutoring them in their school work while she had none. She loved school but now that was no longer an option for her, and that began to eat at her. She felt she had no future and blamed it on her children. More and more voices filled her with doubt and fear. You are nothing, you never were and never will be, they told her. And she began to believe them. After I intervened on numerous occasions of beating her children, I warned Tenele if she ever abused her kids again or I ever found marks on them again I would not support her any longer because I could not continue supporting someone who abuses their children. She understood and promised she wouldn’t abuse them anymore.
A few days later, I went to visit Tenele and the kids. I had already disciplined Tenele for some other things that I had actually had a dream about before it happened (crazy how my dreams here give me a little hint of things to come sometimes). I was getting so frustrated with her because she was taking massive steps backwards and there was nothing I could do about it. When I checked on her that day, Lucia was playing and part of her shirt came up in the back. I grabbed her in haste, lifted her shirt and quickly put it down, horrified by the marks I saw. Tenele’s face immediately dropped in fear and shame. I didn’t even say a word. I was so furious I was shaking. I was so disgusted I started crying. How can she do this to her girl? It was the worst I had seen. And it wasn’t only on her back. I marched away immediately, awash with emotions I couldn’t handle. “I’m done,” I said to myself over and over. “I am so done with her. Six years…six years! And she’s still like this? I can’t do it anymore. I’m done.” I walked the entire hour back to the girls home, uphill, and in 98 degree weather. But I didn’t care. The exercise helped me breathe and think as every part of my heart sank. “Lord, what am I supposed to do? Haven’t I given her enough? Haven’t I taught her enough? Haven’t I prayed for and encouraged her enough? Haven’t I loved her enough?” I squinted my eyes shut behind my sunglasses, trying to take away the sting of hot tears. “Haven’t I forgiven her enough?” Frustration flushed my already reddened face and a gentle voice in my head echoed the bible verse, “’How many times must I forgive him?’ ’70 times 7.’” I definitely wasn’t there yet. As I walked I talked and argued with God, and finally I listened. It was clear that two things were demanded from me for Tenele: 1) discipline and 2) grace. Yes, still grace. She desperately still needed grace. As for discipline, I had already warned her of the consequences of continuing to abuse her children, and that was to remove my financial support for her future. It was time to let go.
Devastated at my news of discipline the next day, Tenele hung her head and held back her tears. “You have proven to me again, that you cannot be trusted alone.” I told her I was taking her children away from her for the time being until she could prove to me that she could be trusted. I told her I had forgiven her but that there were still consequences. I explained that consequences and true discipline is difficult but meant for growth even if you can’t see it in the moment. I told her that she could no longer depend solely on me; it was time for testing, time for her to depend on the Lord and not man. I told her she still had options, she still had many people who could help her through anything she needed, including Marcia, Musa, Rachel, and Kiley. But I told her because of her choices, I had no choice but to let her go.
Let go. It was confirmed through Rachel as she encouraged me with Scripture in Acts. It was confirmed in prayer and then confirmed in a song: You Can Have Me. “If I saw You on the street, and you said, ‘Come and follow me,’ but I had to give up everything, would my love be enough to let go?” Did I love Tenele enough to let her go, to let her go through a period of pain and suffering, and hopefully so that she can find her out in the end? Moreover, did I love and trust God enough to let her go into His hands? It was a time of testing for both of us. Would Tenele choose hope in the darkness or go back to a life she once lived? Would I, gripped by the fear that she might choose her old life, renounce my discipline and let her lean on me. I had to let her choose.
The following Saturday, Nonhlanhla went to visit Tenele as had been previously arranged. Instead, she sat with the pastor for nearly three hours, waiting for Tenele to return as the pastor had told Nonhlanhla that Tenele had left earlier that morning. Nonhlanhla returned home; Tenele didn’t return at all.
The next morning, Sunday, I was woken up by a call from the pastor. He said, “Tenele just came in this morning. She’s weeping and needs to be tended to.”
When I got to the house that morning, I walked down the hall towards her bedroom door, which is almost always shut, but I found it partway open. She was lying on her mattress, which was on the floor, with her legs hanging off the side. She was wearing shoes, her skirt, and a jacket with the hood up. She looked up when I walked in and just groaned with sad eyes. I looked around the very tidy, small room. Two toddler chairs were stacked on each other and a suitcase lay by the door, packed full.
“Where have you been?” I said unsympathetically, already knowing there was no other place she would’ve stayed the night other than Mangwaneni. She slowly sat up and made space for me on the mattress. “Where were you?” I asked again.
“I went to Khanyi’s mom’s place,” she said quietly. “I asked if I could live with her.”
I cringed. Khanyi’s mom’s place is where she stayed when she first became a prostitute. Later, it was a place where she tried escaping to once Cedric held her captive, but he came after the mom and beat her up, leaving her no decision but to tell Tenele she couldn’t live there. Now, several years later, Tenele thinks that’s her only option—to go back.
“So, where are you going?” I asked, but she didn’t answer. “Tenele,” I pointed to the suitcase, “Where are you going?”
“Khanyi’s mom said I could live with her,” she choked down the tears.
“No, where are you going?” I asked again, emphasizing the deeper meaning to my question.
Tenele couldn’t look at me as I gazed firmly at her. She began crying as I questioned her. “Do you really think that’s the right choice right now? Do you really think that’s the only option you have? Why would choose that?”
“B-because, y-you s-said you w-w-wouldn’t s-support…” she started shaking in sobs.
“I wouldn’t support you anymore?” I finished for her. She nodded yes and cried uncontrollably. I hugged her towards me and let her cry on shoulder. “Tenele, is that really the life you want to go back to? Do you really want to go back to selling your body again?” She violently shook her head no. “I’m not abandoning you,” I clarified. “I’m not like your real mom. I will always be here, I will always love you. That love can never go away because it is not my own, it’s the Lord’s. But your choices have prevented me from helping you as I desired. But I’m still here, look at us,” she nodded as she still cried. “There’s no reason to make these desperate choices you are making now. There is no one chasing you from this place or kicking you out of the pastor’s house. You can’t give in to the lies and fears that fill your head.”
Eventually, she stopped crying and sat upright. We sat in silence for a few minutes before I checked my watch. It was nearly time for mass. “Do you want to walk with me to Cathedral?” To my surprise, she said yes. So we went to mass together, and it was beautiful. It was the SiSwati service, so I didn’t understand much content, but during the responsorial psalm, Tenele eagerly grabbed my hand and whispered, “It’s Psalm23!” That is our Psalm. That is the Psalm that has captivated Tenele; that is the Psalm that defined her two years ago, the psalm that she read in Timbutini church one day and pointed to the verse about restoring her soul and said, “That’s me!” What a beautiful reminder that even though I gave up on Tenele, God hadn’t. God was reminding me that He was still working, that Tenele was not a lost cause and never will be. God was answering me, “Love always wins. Mylove is always enough. My love never fails.”