Every Thursday at 11:00 a.m., I met with a group of six girls who were students at Abilene Christian University. We talked, prayed and read scripture together as they navigated college life.
I got to know them little by little as we shared stories. Our prayers and discussions varied each week—no topic was off-limits. We prayed for good grades, a sick grandma, a job for one of the dads. We talked about changing majors, changing boyfriends and changing roommates. And we pondered scriptures ranging from peace and patience, courage and confession to fear and faith.
The journey with college students is always rich—so much happens in such a short period of time. But my journey with Ashley turned out to be more than I expected. She joined the group as a sophomore and faced the typical questions that bombard students—What do I major in? Who do I date? What is my purpose? How do I pray? For two years I watched her lean into God’s guidance as she made tough decisions.
As we talked through different issues, I slowly got to know Ashley’s family story. Her family was confusing enough that I should have drawn a line chart from the beginning.
I could never figure out how many brothers and sisters she had. And I always got confused about who she was spending a holiday with—she had four sets of parents between her adopted parents who divorced and remarried, and her birth parents that she recently reunited with who also had separate families–all spread out from California to Pennsylvania. At first I assumed that the complexity was a burden for her. But later I saw that Ashley thrived on having so many people who loved her. The more the merrier.
Our group shared prayer requests one December before the girls dispersed for the holiday break. Ashley was going to portion out the holidays between her mom and stepdad, her dad and stepmom, and finally her birth dad and his family. She asked that we pray for her while she visited his family in Portland. She just met him as a teenager and they were slowly building their new relationship.
Christmas in my household was boring compared to her travel agenda. We visited extended family at Thanksgiving, so in December we stayed home and enjoyed a simple Christmas with our kids. My husband, Gary, had the kids on the roof taking down the lights one sunny winter day while I went to Lowes to find more lights for him to put up the next year. I was scanning the picked-over decorations reduced for sale when my cell phone buzzed in my back pocket. Ashley was calling.
“Hey, Ashley! How’s your break going?”
“Great! I’ve been in Portland visiting my birth dad. He is driving me to the airport now.”
“Cool. I’m strolling through Lowes looking for a bargain on Christmas lights.” Like I said, my holidays weren’t as exciting as hers.
Ashley quickly skipped over the small talk and began firing out questions to me.
“Didn’t you go to L.S.U.? What years were you a student there? Was your last name Morris before you got married? Were your parents Ray and Sam? Did you know George and Carolyn? Where did you go to church? Did you know a guy named Matt? And his girlfriend, Margaret?”
Her rapid-fire questions nearly caused sparks when they collided with the Christmas lights and red bows that I stared at blankly. I ended up pacing in the isolated lumber aisle so I could focus on our conversation. I could barely remember what I gave the kids for Christmas the previous week, and now Ashley was asking me to remember my college days at Louisiana State University back in the 80’s.
My family lived just a few miles down Highland Road from L.S.U. in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Since I was a young girl, college students lived with our family—whether it was an international student too far from home for the holidays, a struggling sophomore who couldn’t pay the bills, an addict breaking a habit, or someone who simply needed family. Truth is, I usually didn’t even know why someone new moved in.
Our family had taken in so many people through the years that we just knew to add another place setting to the table, clean off a shelf in the bathroom and sometimes I consolidated my clothes to half the drawers. There were already four kids, so adding one or two more didn’t seem to make a big difference.
Some people lived with us for a month or two. Others lived with us for up to two years or more. Our home was a safe place that my parents shared with others going through difficult times.
So when Ashley asked if I knew Matt and Margaret, I sifted through the names of people I knew from L.S.U. as a student as well as the students who stayed at our house throughout the years.
As I stared at the stacks of lumber in Lowes, their story clicked with a little help from Ashley filling in the details. Matt, Margaret and I were part of the campus ministry in my home church, South Baton Rouge Church of Christ, while we were L.S.U. students. Towards the end of the 1985 spring semester, Margaret found out that she was pregnant–not something that she nor her family was expecting in this season of her life. When her world was spinning with chaos, my parents welcomed her to live with us while she sorted through the confusing predicament. Later she connected with a Christian adoption agency and courageously gave her baby to a couple who was eager and prepared to welcome a newborn into their family.
I was slowly putting the pieces together when Ashley exclaimed, “I’m with Matt now. He’s my Dad. I’m that baby! I’m Margaret’s baby who she gave up for adoption!”
By this time I sat down in a cold metal chair that was for sale and pressed the phone even closer to my ear to make sure that I heard Ashley correctly. She was with Matt at the airport, so she put him on the phone as if she knew that I would need some proof of the crazy coincidence. I would not believe this unlikely encounter to be possible if I were watching it in a movie, so it took me a little while to believe that it was actually happening in my life. This wasn’t Hollywood. It wasn’t even Baton Rouge, Louisiana where our journeys began. It was Abilene, Texas.
If Ashley was Margaret’s baby, my journey with her had not begun two years previously when she joined my group of Thursday girls. It began in 1985, when I cleared off a bathroom shelf for Margaret. I was with Ashley when her life was just beginning, and now twenty years later our paths crossed again, unaware that it wasn’t the first time.
I didn’t buy any Christmas lights that day. Instead I walked out of Lowes with a new treasure that I was eager to share with my husband, who also knew Matt and Margaret. I dug through old college pictures until I found one of Matt and Margaret, at Ashley’s current age, and the resemblance was striking. I called my parents next—who eventually met Ashley when they visited me in Texas. Each time I told the story it helped me believe that it was true.
We hosted Ashley’s college graduation party the following spring where all four sets of parents gathered–with grandparents too. She celebrated her college graduation, and she and her boyfriend, Casper, announced their engagement. As I prepared for the evening, I felt like I was preparing for the finale of a play when all the actors take a bow on stage for a story well told. All the major players in Ashley’s story were going to be present. It felt unreal to know that my family played a small supporting role at the beginning of her story and that we played a supporting role in her story once again.
Margaret’s mother pulled me aside that spring night as we finished the evening with strawberry shortcake. She hugged me once in appreciation for the evening, and then she gave me another hug to pass on to my parents. With tears in her eyes, she told me to thank my parents for having the courage to help Margaret at a time when she didn’t know what to do.
My parents have helped all kinds of people through the years. Sometimes they know the rest of their stories, but usually they don’t. This time, twenty years later, God blessed our family with letting us see the rest of Ashley’s story.
I recently read, “God uses chance and random happenings to communicate with us.” (Thibodeaux, God’s Voice Within). I believe it, because this “chance” meeting with Ashley has communicated a few messages with me. First of all, this “random happening” has reminded me that life is precious. When Margaret found out that she was pregnant, the popular option would have been for her to get an abortion. Instead, because of Margaret’s courage, today Ashley’s story continues to be written as it is intricately woven into the lives of many people.
This “random happening” also reminds me to keep giving. Maybe it is as little as a meaningful conversation, a special hug or sharing a meal with someone. Perhaps it’s more involved—an ongoing commitment, listening to the same problem again, giving money, or sharing one’s home. Maybe it is inconvenient, risky, uncomfortable, tiring, unrewarding, and even a little unsafe. Whatever the circumstance, Ashley reminds me to keep giving.
Usually we won’t know the rest of the story. We will have no idea what impact our obedience to give has on the life of others. And honestly, the stories don’t always have good endings. In Ashley’s case, it may have saved her life when people supported Margaret through a difficult season. In other cases an act of giving may save someone from despair, loneliness, hopelessness or just a bad day.
Ashley is now a person who gives sacrificially to others because of Margaret’s courage and because people gave to them at a vulnerable time years ago.
Our own family stories continue to be woven together–she taught two of our boys in pre-AP Chemistry and her family has met in our house for the past two years for a Sunday night church group. My husband trained Casper and Ashley’s mission team, another supporting role woven into their story. Last month they moved to South Africa, Casper’s home country, where they will share God’s love through sports ministry (check out their website at TeamSouthAfrica).
Ashley’s story has many chapters yet to be written. But I hope that this small chapter, this “chance meeting” when both of our stories intersected again, will encourage you, as it has me, to keep giving. Because life is precious.
And you never know how you will impact the rest of someone’s life story.