by Amy Beveridge
“I’ve called, emailed, and texted almost every able-bodied woman in our church,” our youth minister said. “It’s just reaching out and showing these women there’s life beyond drug addiction. It’s just playing volleyball.”
Volleyball?! Immediately I regretted taking his call.
I had been on the volleyball team in middle school—but only so there were enough girls for a team. Most of the time I warmed the bench, where I happily engaged in my favorite sport: people watching. Plus my background is in the arts. Actually playing volleyball is not in my skill set.
“They’re only meeting two times every month,” he continued. “I have someone to cover the first meeting. Would you be willing to do the devotion at the second meeting?”
Well, if it’s only giving a devotion . . . . Reluctantly I agreed.
As the 2018 Winter Olympics had just concluded, I prepared a piece about how the Parade of Nations always reminded me of what heaven will be like one day: God’s people from every tribe and nation coming together. Nervous, I showed up at the church early. Since, to my understanding, I was only setting up chairs then watching the women play until it was time to give the devotion, I considered my outfit of jeans, a black sweater, and a leopard print scarf appropriate.
The women arrived: different races, all sizes, some tatted and pierced, some barely 19, some looking close to retirement, and some with clothes stretched so thin their underwear showed through. They were polite yet cautious. I smiled and introduced myself to each of them.
The woman who drove them thanked me. “It’s so good of you to do this!” She’d brought what looked like a large blue tennis ball. The women began batting it around.
A revelation hit me: These women won’t listen to my devotion unless I join them.
I inserted myself into the rotation on one side and proceeded to play. By “play” I mean letting the ball bounce once before hitting it or missing it completely or watching it land beside me. Some of the women would holler and curse as they hit the ball; others silently watched the ball sail toward them and then punched it away with one fist. Some didn’t try to hit the ball; others dove after the ball wherever it went.
They won’t trust me unless I keep showing up.
One of the punchers sent the ball soaring up into the rafters where it got wedged between the lights, indicating game over; it was time for the devotion.
Back at home, beyond tired, I parked my van in the garage. I didn’t get out; I stared at the wall, listening to the engine ticking down. A second revelation hit me: They won’t trust me unless I keep showing up.
So I went to the next gathering. It was a good thing, as the woman who was covering that devotion forgot. She said, “In fact, I’m not going to be able to help anymore. Would you mind doing the devotion for every meeting?”
Fortunately I came prepared, having written down some thoughts the Lord had been impressing on my heart. And I’d worn tennis shoes.
The women arrived. A few were repeats, but one was new. I introduced myself and tossed them a new volleyball the church had purchased.
By May, their numbers had dwindled. One evening the woman who drove them said, “Only one today.” We three hit the ball to each other. After my devotion, we went for ice cream.
I interpreted this wane in attendance as the beginning of the end. I was wrong. Numbers increased over the summer. There were several repeats but also new faces. I began sitting with the women outside on the sidewalk when they took their smoke break. We talked about local events, the weather, female issues.
One hot July evening, the woman who brought them asked, “Why don’t more women from your church join us?”
I shrugged and gave a noncommittal response. I didn’t want to tell her our church was in the middle of upheaval and had been hemorrhaging people since January. Still raw and reeling over a dear friend’s recent exit, I stood up, not wanting the women to see my tears.
“Why don’t more women from your church join us?”
We didn’t meet the month of August because none of the women wanted to play. I was ready to be done with volleyball. Hopeful, I called the woman who brought them. “Maybe it’s time to call it quits?”
“It’s the nature of addiction,” she explained. “These women don’t understand responsibility. I’d like to leave the door open for them to continue playing volleyball. It’s a good release. Besides, they need to be around other Christian women.”
“I understand,” I said. We set up the meeting times for the fall.
I had to have help, someone to alternate giving the devotions. I asked a newer acquaintance at church, an athletic woman a little younger than me, a teacher in the local school system.
“I’d love to!” She said.
We had the church purchase a new net that didn’t sag. We began passing out Bibles to every woman on her first visit to volleyball. Some clutched these Bibles tightly, others asked for pens and quickly wrote their names and the date on the dedication page. One woman turned down her copy. “Save it for someone else,” she said. Another saw the Bibles and looked confused. “I thought this was an AA meeting?”
“Only they can tell you about themselves.”
We asked the woman who drove them: “Where is the facility? Do all the women have children? Why do some wear ankle bracelets but not others?”
She shook her head. “I’m not allowed to say. Only they can tell you about themselves.”
So into the middle of our chair circle for devotions, we added a table. With the table for support, the women began to open up about their lives. Slowly we learned parts of their stories: almost all of the women did have children and were fighting to get back custody; almost all of the women had been exposed to drugs at a young age, some even invited to shoot up for the first time by their parents; several had parents who abandoned them for drugs.
“I wanted to see what they left me for,” one woman explained why she started using.
Another offered, “I coded four times but they brought me back.”
“My brain is stuck. I can’t think beyond a teenage level,” another admitted, shaking her head.
One mentioned an abusive boyfriend in jail, soon to be paroled. “I know I shouldn’t get back with him, but…I don’t know.”
Some women had knowledge of God; others had never heard of Jesus. “I’ll try anything,” one woman said, flipping through her Bible.
Another crossed her arms. “I pray to my dad. He’s the only one who ever loved me. The thought of praying to someone I can’t see or touch feels weird.”
It’s a new year. A woman in the church said to me, “I have a bunch of coats. Could the volleyball ladies use them?”
We watched. During a polar vortex, some women came to volleyball wearing thin hoodies. We told the woman who brings them about the coats. “Absolutely! That would be such a blessing.”
We displayed the designer coats. Some women took two or three; others needed much larger sizes and stood off to the side, aloof. “What sizes do you need?” we asked. We purchased coats their size and had them ready by the next meeting.
The woman in the church said to me, “I also have a bunch of purses. Could the volleyball ladies use them?”
We watched. We saw the women laying their cigarettes and feminine hygiene products on the table beside their water bottles and snacks.
“Absolutely! That would be such a blessing!” We say.
We filled the designer purses with personal care supplies: tiny shampoos and conditioners, soap and deodorants, hair ties and lotions.
“Can we take more than one?” one of the volleyball women asked.
I am ashamed at my privilege—my ten coats, my eight purses, and my easy ability to fill an online shopping cart. My assistant agreed.
“Help yourself,” we said.
We asked after several women who have left: “She’s back in prison.” “She’s doing really well.” “She went and got pregnant.”
“Tell them we miss them,” we said. We meant it.
Some women who have left return. “I just couldn’t hack it, you know?” “I had a job, was seeing my kids, then my boyfriend dumped me, and I just spiraled.” “I got to get this worked out.”
“You will. Keep going,” we said. We meant it.
We took prayer requests. One woman, clutching her new coat, spoke up for the first time: “I’m going to begin the process to reconcile with my family.” We added her to our list.
Another asked me, “How’s that situation of yours, you know, that guy who took your money but still says he’s fixing your house?”
I snorted. “He’s supposedly starting next week.”
The women roared.
It’s been over a year since volleyball started. I still don’t get excited about playing. On volleyball nights, I struggle to show up with a smile and a good attitude. Something usually happens to threaten my peace or my energy is low or my body somehow hurts. I bought volleyball sleeves online to try to save my red forearms, but the “sleeves” were as thin as pantyhose. I come home from volleyball too sore and exhausted to remember to leave a negative review.
“It must be Jesus.”
Now the woman who drives also brings music. We listen to ’70s rock: Aerosmith, Fleetwood Mac, the Doobie Brothers. We dance in place and play one bounce while singing along more often than we play an actual game.
“Tell them your news,” the woman who brings them says to a young woman who’s been coming to volleyball awhile.
The young woman looks confused. “Oh, yeah: I got baptized.”
“What?! This is huge news!” The woman who assists me exclaimed.
I’m blown away. “Major praise! Congratulations!”
The young woman shakes her head. “I don’t know what’s happened to me. I used to be so tough. Now women tell me their stories and I bawl. It must be Jesus.”
I know exactly what she means.
Meet the Author:
Amy Beveridge writes from a desk against her dining room window in the central highlands of Ohio. Her latest book, Touching the Table: Reflections on Communion, is available on Amazon.
posted on April 24, 2019
Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash