Surprised by Joy

Posted: March 31, 2011 in Our work
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I always expected it to be difficult.

As soon as we decided to spend a year working with victims of sex trafficking and prostitution in Manila, I knew that while there would be good times, the work would inevitably be depressing, discouraging, and challenging. I was traveling through my own dark season of life, and I knew that if my daily American struggles of workaholism, broken relationships, and disappointed dreams could leave me feeling crushed, then the women at Samaritana would certainly feel even worse.

But the most surprising thing happened: instead of sinking into depression, I rediscovered joy. There have been days when I’ve felt discouraged, when I’ve cried because I didn’t know what else to do—but then I go to the airy, tranquil haven of Samaritana, and my spirits are almost instantly lifted. The women crack jokes and we laugh while eating meryenda (mid-morning snack); I give high fives to a few women who ran farther than they ever have before during Super Babae, our daily fitness group, and tell them how proud I am of them; they give me hugs and I tell them again and again that their brown skin is beautiful; a woman grabs my hand or my arm (an endearing cultural norm that I will definitely miss) as we walk home at the end of the day. There are far more smiles, laughter, and singing than tears or anger. The women I call friends are kind, generous, and incredibly sweet—but it’s not just that. They overflow with joy that I’ve only occasionally experienced in my own life.

I’ve puzzled over this again and again. How can it be that women who have experienced some of the most awful things imaginable radiate pure, unadulterated joy? I have seen them, on occasion, mourn the things they have lost and that have been done to them. But sorrow doesn’t sink them, and hope is never far off.

I think that unlike me–most of the time–these women really understand grace.

I think Samaritana is Christianity the way Jesus meant it to be: full of love and acceptance, but not without a call to something better. The women here are cherished just as they are—even if they choose to stay at the bars—and also challenged and encouraged to start anew. The amazing thing is that it actually works. Every day at Samaritana, the women have love heaped on them, and are shown again and again how special and precious they are. It’s not just through the quiet, contemplative moments of morning prayer, or the validating livelihood training that allows them to make more money than their daily allowance if they are diligent and excellent in their work, or even the counseling administered by staff and volunteers who are at Samaritana for the sole reason that they love the women. God’s love seeps through the walls and circulates in the air in this place. Even short-term visitors can’t help but feel it. No wonder these women have such joy; they’re the recipients of deep, untainted love and grace, and they know it.

I knew that this year would change me, but I never expected that I would receive so much by the very women I came to help.  We  recently booked our return tickets, and are startled to realize that in spite of the many things we love about our life in Oakland, we are sad–really sad–to know that on July 23, we will be leaving these women.

They challenge me to be brave, to stand strong no matter what life throws at me. They remind me of how beautifully resilient the human spirit is, and how my past mistakes or regrets need not define me. I think it’s God’s grace and love that allows them to heal–but what I hope to communicate to them in our remaining time here is how much God has used them to heal me.


  1. says:

    I love this. Isaiah 58 (if you seek justice, your healing will quickly appear) is so true. Will pray that you get all you were meant to get there before you leave, and give all you were meant to give. As my friend crassly but aptly put it recently “love the shit out of” those beautiful faces!!!

    • freeisaverb says:

      Thanks, HD. We need all the prayers we can get. And yes, we are loving them like crazy. I make a point to give as many of them hugs every day as I can–and then I give them more for N (since it’s not culturally appropriate for him to hug them in this context). We comment regularly that if we could take every single one of them home with us, we would. Maybe we are getting a taste of what parents must feel for their children.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Beautiful post Laura! You remain in our prayers, and we look forward to having you back and learning from you guys and figuring out how we can be more involved. Peace, JS

    • freeisaverb says:

      Thanks for helping make it possible for us to be here doing this work, Jonathan! We miss our Christ Church community, but have felt incredibly loved from afar. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  3. Anne says:

    Beautiful writing, beautiful blessings! My heart and prayers are with you! Keep up your wonderful work!!

    • freeisaverb says:

      Thanks so much, Anne, and thanks for reading and commenting! It’s hard to overstate how much it means to know that there are people back home and around the world supporting us in this work.

  4. jen says:

    Girl, I’m definitely saving this one. What warmth and encouragement your writing brought to my spirit, and how awesome to see God’s love and presence made so real to you and to the women at Samaritana. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your heart with us.

    • freeisaverb says:

      Thanks, buddy. You’ve been to the Philippines, so we know you understand in a way that many peopel don’t, and we’re excited that this experience will probably mean being even closer to you. Thanks for being so invested in what we’re doing, for praying, and for continuing to be a great friend.

  5. Jennifer Rolander says:


    I am speechless and am wiping away the tears as I finish reading your latest post. Thank you sooooo much for sharing the pictures of these women who have not only found love, but safety and courage and self-esteem and a sense of what a real life can be like without the depression, anger, thoughtlessness and tragedy that so many of them and even some of us have endured in our lives. These women sound so inspiring while probably not even realizing it. Here’s to channeling more love and joy in all our lives!

    • freeisaverb says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, Jennifer! I’ve often thought that real change starts when people let their hearts get broken; we’re incredibly blessed by your tears and your heart. Thanks for helping us do the work we’re doing here, and taking such an active interest in it all.

  6. Denver says:

    So much joy wells up in me because of the joy that has come to you guys. There’s so much profundity at so many levels related to so many aspects of your life over there that not only is it overwhelming, but ridiculous to try to express in words. I am so proud of what you guys are doing, so overjoyed at where you are now, and so thankful for what God has done.

    Also: can’t wait to see you. Layover in Boston? 🙂

    • freeisaverb says:

      Thanks, Denver! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, and for helping make it possible for us to be here! We’re flying the wrong way around the world to stop over in Boston, but we do hope to get there sometime soon! We’ll keep you posted.

  7. Addy Hallen says:

    Laura, you remain and inspiration to lead a life that gives more to others and to the glory of God. Thanks for your meaningful post and for the moving letter you sent. I hope to write you back soon. We think of you often and send lots of love and prayer for the remaining time you guys have. Love you! -Addy

    • freeisaverb says:

      Thanks, Addy! Your encouragement means so much. Thanks for taking the time to read even with your busy life of coaching and being a wife and mom of two little ones. We hope to get to Minnesota sooner rather than later when we get back!

  8. […] bounty at the swipe of a credit card, eating repetitive fare like this gives one pause. And yet, as Laura commented before, the Samaritana women–some of the most joyful, life-giving people we know–have been […]

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