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Sometimes It Takes an Army

"My mother's mental illness and drug abuse made her life—and mine—a living hell. I had given up all hope, but fortunately God hadn't … "

I drove up to the street from the dark parking garage, my eyes slowly adjusting to the starkness of the snow-filled streets of downtown. I paused at the cashier's window to hand the clerk my money.

Sometimes It Takes an Army
Jan Coates

"Ten points if you hit the bag lady," Mike, my boss, teased, as he leaned forward in the passenger seat.

"What bag lady?" I asked, unable to focus my eyes.

"That one, Jan, right in front of you." The clerk handed me my change. Tired after long client meetings, I ignored Mike, hit the gas pedal momentarily—and then slammed on the brakes.

My stomach lurched. I couldn't take my eyes off the bag lady just three feet from my car. Ducking my head, I thought, Lord, please don't let her see me.

The moment I saw her piercing blue eyes, I knew it was my mother.

She was bundled up and wore a heavy, tattered coat, two brightly coloured hats and a scarf draped around her neck and face. Each hand was protected from the blustery weather with mismatched woollen mittens. Held tightly in each hand was an overstuffed black plastic trash bag.

I recognized those trash bags; she took them with her everywhere. The coat was a bit more worn than I remembered, and the odd mittens made an interesting addition to her wardrobe.

Lord, I almost ran over my mother. Why didn't I get out of the car to see if she was all right? Why did I continue to hide from her? Why couldn't I tell my boss who it was?

My mother had been raised in a Christian environment during the Great Depression. She married at age 16 and had her first child by 17, which triggered an early onset of her mental illness. For as long as I could remember, my mother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, alcoholism and addiction to prescription drugs. Mental institutions, tranquilizers and shock treatments combined with the perils of drug and alcohol abuse made her life—and mine—a living hell. Based on past experiences, I lived in fear of what my mother might do.

She was unpredictable and often violent. Why she didn't smack my car with her fists and bags as I almost ran her over I didn't know. She kept walking as if the mishap didn't happen—how unlike her.

Later, after dropping Mike off, I sat alone in my car, consumed with guilt and a sense of urgency to do something for my mother. I felt helpless as James 1:28 came to mind with words of love to "reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight" (The Message). I then prayed: "Yes, Lord. I must care for my mother in her troubles."

I can't keep her from roaming the street during a blizzard, but I can help her stay warm, I said to myself.

I stopped by a farm supply store in the stockyard district and bought her snow boots and ski gloves. Then I drove to a nearby grocery store and purchased some staples.

"Lord, don't let her throw these things in her plastic bags and carry them around. Help me help my mother," I prayed.

Knocking on her downtown apartment door, I said," "Mom, it's me, your daughter, Jan. Open the door."

I looked around her apartment, holding back tears.

"Jan, come in," Mom answered. "I was hoping you would come visit me."

I looked around her apartment, holding back tears. As a child, I had prayed for years for a sober mother, free from drugs. When I married and became a mother, I also prayed Mom would know a peace within that comes from knowing Jesus. I guess at some point I gave up hope.

"Here, Mom, I brought you some goodies," I said. "You may have to move the beer out of the refrigerator, though, to make room for food."

"No beer, Jan. I'm not allowed to drink it anymore. It's bad for me," Mom said. "I threw out all the pills. They were making me sick."

"It's OK, Mom. You don't have to tell me stories," I said.

"I'm not telling you stories," she insisted. "I have a job. I go to work. I go to Bible study. Next summer I'm going to camp. Come with me tonight for dinner, you'll see."

I'll call her bluff, I thought. "OK, Mom, what time?"

"Oh, we're going to be late," she said, rushing around getting her winter gear together. "We need to leave now."

Mom made up some pretty big whoppers, and she was prone to sudden mood swings. I wasn't sure I believed a thing she said. But I agreed to drive her.

We headed downtown. "Tell me where to turn, OK?" I said.

"Just keep going straight. Turn right at the next street and park on the corner. Oh, that's it. We're here," she said, pointing to a weathered building.

"But Mom, this is The Salvation Army."

"Come on, I'll introduce you. I can't wait for all my friends to meet you. I've told them all about my daughter, the certified public accountant."

"Oh Mom, you didn't! I work for a computer company."

"Oh well, you know how I get things mixed up." She smiled, then gestured toward a group of people, some oddly dressed and others in military uniforms, standing around talking.

"Everyone, this is my daughter," she said. "She's an important executive at an accounting firm."

As I enjoyed dinner with Mom and her Army friends, I began to understand. I had given up hope, but the Lord had not.

I sensed an unconditional love for all people as I sat next to members of The Salvation Army. Mom, sitting to my right, elbowed me to make sure I listened and watched. She smiled and hummed. I saw peace in my mother's heart for the first time. A peace that passes understanding. A peace I had believed she would never know.

No wonder she hadn't hit my car with her fists …

No wonder she hadn't hit my car with her fists when I almost ran her over. No wonder she had given up the alcohol and drugs.

It took the Army to heal and love my mother through the power of Christ Jesus. Thanks to The Salvation Army, Mom lived the last ten years of her life in peace. She loved being a soldier for Christ. She went to every Bible study, rang the bells at the kettle at Christmas and learned to help and love others. The Army fed her nutritious food for her body and the Word of God to nourish her soul.

Thank you, Salvation Army, for providing new life to my mother, soldier Bertha Cower, through Jesus. I know for certain she's in heaven!

Coates' book serves to remind survivors that what happened to them is not their fault; and that they are valuable and worthy to call on God; to leave their past behind; and to be given a peaceful heart. It also is helpful for survivors to read about others and to know that they too can really rise up and be healed. Set Free is helpful for counsellors, pastors, friends and also family members.

Jan Coates, an author and speaker, has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Her powerful messages from the heart, draw individuals into a personal encounter with God. Jan is living proof that it doesn't matter who we were, or what we did—God wants to do something with us today. For more information, visit

Set Free!
A large percentage of abused adult women are convinced they are damaged goods. Set Free tells of women who have hit bottom and then discovered God has the power to heal their lives. It offers hope and encouragement to damaged and discouraged individuals who feel unworthy to call on God because of their past or present. This is a self-help book, not a book of stories, and includes resources for women to take "next steps" in the healing process.

Originally published in Faith and Friends, November 2004.




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