Not long ago, I had a conversation with one of the most incredible people I've ever had the privilege of meeting. Garnett Jones left me a voicemail one afternoon in August of this year wondering if the new campus that our church was launching would be interested in helping meet some of the needs in a local trailer park. By 10:00 the next morning she had called twice more and left another message.
"The woman is persistent, I'll give her that," I thought, tapping her number into my phone. She answered, and I introduced myself.
"Oh, thank you for calling me!" she said, excitedly. From there, Garnett jumped without hesitation onto her soapbox and for the next seven or eight minutes proceeded to tell stories, cast vision, and plead for help in her work. Unable to fully process all that she was saying at the time, and hesitant to commit too much assistance without properly assessing the real needs, I placated her with the promise to meet soon, face to face.
For the last eleven years, Garnett has been investing all of her waking energy into a trailer park community on the outskirts of town. This particular neighborhood is one of the largest communities in our county, with a high population of hispanic families. Many of the children there speak English as a second language. Some don't speak it all. Poverty is high, literacy is low. These kids face an almost insurmountable uphill battle, but it is one that Garnett is willing to fight on their behalf.
She has organized cookouts, recruited people for Trunk-or-Treat events, and orchestrated outdoor movie nights. Firmly and steadily pressing on the park management, she acquired donated lots on which to build a playground and soccer field. With the same determination, she rallied support from the YMCA to donate cleats, balls, and jerseys to help build a soccer league. She even managed to recruit some volunteer coaches for the in-park teams and scheduled matches against other local Rec teams.
But that is just the beginning of Garnett's vision. Soccer is a way in, but it is not a way out. She is in talks to receive - free of charge, of course - a trailer home and a lot on which to place it. With some financial assistance (that's where we come in), she hopes to remodel the trailer as a multi-purpose facility in the middle of this community. She envisions free health screenings, immigration assistance, tutoring, English lessons, Bible studies, and so much more. If a few people - one church, perhaps - could come along side her and join this work, Garnett truly believes that this community can be transformed.
Oh, and by the way, Garnett is 84-years-old.
My friend, Janelle, and I met up with Garnett a few weeks ago over lunch, as promised. Garnett rattled off these possibilities, and many more, barely pausing to sip from her tomato soup; Janelle and I listened in quiet awe. Occasionally she and I would glance at each other with wide-eyed wonder at the energy, determination, and unshakable compassion that this woman, well into her "retirement years," poured out each and every day, without ceasing, on behalf of those in need of an advocate.
After casting vision and listing projects for well over forty minutes, Garnett spoke for the first time about herself. "I'm glad that you want to help," she said, "because I'm running out of time."
"Of course you're running out of time," I thought to myself. "You're 84!"
"My doctor told me I have arteriosclerosis," she continued. "The arteries in my heart are hardening, and he said I can't keep doing what I'm doing for much longer." As with everything, she spoke these words matter-of-factly. It wasn't an emotional revelation for her; it simply was what it was.
I walked away from that conversation both encouraged and humbled. It certainly was no surprise that someone of her age would eventually need to slow down, but the irony of Garnett's condition struck me. Here is a woman who has seen the needs of others and has responded with vigor and compassion. How unfitting it is that this person who has loved so tangibly and sacrificially would be slowed, and perhaps eventually stopped, by the hardening of her heart.
In the Bible, we are told on a number of occasions that God hardened the heart of specific people (i.e. Exodus 4:20, Deuteronomy 2:30, John 12:39-40). Theologically, this is tough concept for us to fully wrap our minds around, as our perception of free-will doesn't play well with the idea that God might be interfering with our ability to choose things for ourselves. In the end, though, these passages of Scripture force us to relinquish control and trust that God's ways are higher and greater than our ways, and that in His sovereignty He is working things out for good. And that's truly what we find when we understand this concept in light of all of Scripture and eternity: when God hardens a heart it is ultimately for His glory. Every time, for all eternity.
Truly, this is the case with Garnett. The most incredible thing about her life is not what she has been able to accomplish in a trailer park in Central Kentucky; it is the work of salvation and regeneration that God has accomplished in her that will stand out for all eternity. If/When her heart stops functioning and she passes from this life into the next, God will receive the glory for a dead soul that was made alive in Him. As she works feverishly and without ceasing, children and families are being transformed and shown the love of Christ; when she takes her final breath and enters into her Rest, all of heaven will celebrate, thanking God for His grace and mercy. Glory to God on both accounts!
Epilogue: I happened to run into Janelle yesterday, less than 12 hours after writing an initial draft of this post. "How's Garnett?" I asked. "Have you heard from her lately?"
"Get this," Janelle smiled. "She called me the other day. Actually, her call went straight to voicemail because she was calling at 8:00am on Saturday morning and I was still in bed." Typical Garnett. "Hey, Janelle," she said. "I just wanted to let you know that I have more time. My doctor told me that my arteries are just fine right now. The hardening seems to have stopped. It looks like we can keep going for a while longer. Okay, call me back."
To God be the glory.