Lots of us want God in our lives.
None of us want to go where Rose Oakes went to find him.
She was addicted to cocaine. Convicted for selling it. Sent to a Massachusetts state prison for three years. She was broke, homeless, and separated from three children who wanted nothing to do with her anymore.
Rose’s son Anthony remembers her as groggy or passed out or leaving her kids alone to go out to sell or buy cocaine in the middle of the night. One night he insisted on going with her. “She told me to go inside of a Dunkin’ Donuts,” he remembers. “I came out and she was gone. It was like three in the morning.” So he walked home alone through a very tough neighborhood. He was 11, maybe 12.
But the story of Rose Oakes today, at 61 years old, is one of transformation. It’s living witness, as she will tell you, to the words of James 2:5: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith?”
“Sometimes I feel like the prodigal son. I used to pray to God and say, ‘Please, I can’t live Rose’s life anymore. You need to help me and guide me and take me by the hand. I need to surrender myself,’ ” she says. Then she did, admitting her total dependence on God. And now Rose Oakes says she feels that hand holding hers. “God is leading me. God is with me,” she says, with total conviction.
The paradox here is not lost on a volunteer Oakes knows from the Ignatian Spirituality Project, which helped Rose get her life back. She was able to do what many more fortunate people cannot, in part because they’re so busy with careers and family and fixing up houses or yards or wardrobe, etc. Seeking God takes second place, or no place at all.
“I sometimes feel closer to God when I’m with my homeless or formerly homeless friends” than when he’s with his middle class friends, says Ignatian volunteer Jay Burke. “In a way, the (homeless) bring God to me.”
Burke and I are in the same thoroughly middle-class prayer group studying the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. And just minutes after Burke said those words, some men and women in my group, including me, admitted we’d been so frantic during Christmas — buying, spending, wrapping, cooking, visiting, vacationing — we’d practically forgotten the point of it all.
I am sitting with Rose Oakes in the communal dining room of the apartment building where she now has a tiny studio apartment with an even tinier kitchenette. But it’s okay. She shows me her well-worn copy of “Our Daily Bread,” the free devotional that offers subscribers a daily Bible verse and reflections on it. She says she prays as much as she can. She also shows me a new picture of her with her teen-aged granddaughter. Then she starts thanking everyone who’s helped her.
The nuns at the state prison. The staff at St. Francis House, New England’s largest day shelter for the homeless, where she received medical and psychological help and temporary housing. She also thanks the Ignatian Spirituality Project. Three months after leaving prison in 2007, she went on her first Ignatian retreat, to an old convent near the ocean, with about 12 other women like her who’d been homeless, addicted, desperate.
They lit candles. They wrote in journals. They heard each other’s stories, sat in silent prayer, walked by the ocean, ate regular meals at tables set with china and silverware — experiences new to many of them. They listened to the Ignatian volunteer talk about God’s unconditional love, how he accepted them and forgave them and cherished them no matter what terrible things they’d done. And hearing that, Oakes says, was positively revolutionary.
She had grown up Catholic. “But I never really understood what religion was all about. I was just told to go to church. That was it. But the very first retreat I went on it did such a transformation in me that I wanted to do more.”
Today, Rose has done more than 20 retreats. Now she is not just a participant, but also a facilitator. Now she has not only a home, but also an administrative assistant’s job at St. Francis House, which produced a video featuring her and her son on their website. Now she volunteers to help other struggling women and speaks publicly about her journey. Once she spoke at the Massachusetts State House.
Life is not perfect, Rose will tell you. Recovery is one day at a time, she understands. “But I love my life now. I love myself now. Before I couldn’t say that,” says Oakes as she starts to cry. “I have so much love to give. My children today and myself have such a bond …
“I never thought there was a light at the end of the tunnel. But there is a light,” she says. “That light has come about for me.”