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Helping Ida


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I heard a knock at my door early one morning while I was reading my morning devotional. It was only 5 a.m., so I was pretty sure I’d heard the wind rattling or some sleepy child bumping around in bed upstairs.

But the knocking continued, not hard, but persistently at my back door that faces the Spokane River. No one ever comes to that door unless my husband’s locked out, but he was very soundly asleep in the other room. I opened the door to find a little girl standing there crying, asking to use my phone. She was beaten to a pulp and soaking wet. “They’re trying to kill me,” she said, looking over her shoulder at the river.

“Who’s trying to kill you?” I gasped, sharing her concern. Behind her, in the predawn light, the river rolled on — no killers in sight.

“Gang bangers,” she said, shaking uncontrollably from the cold and trauma. “They punched me all over and then tried to drown me. I have to call the police.”

Stunned, I went to get my phone and dutifully handed it to her. She clearly knew what to do and I was just catching on. I grabbed a blanket from the bedroom, waking my husband.

“There’s a little girl on our porch,” I told him incredulously.

She was speaking to someone when I returned and I covered her shaking, little grass-stained body with the blanket. Her matted, wet hair dripped onto my porch. I tucked the blanket around her as she told the 911 operator that her name was Ida, “Ida Marie Bella…” something. I missed the last name because I gasped when she said her age. The little wet urchin on my porch was only 13 years old.

I noticed her eyes, tired and bloodshot, as she mechanically told the operator about a bonfire gone bad, drunken revelers, the impulsive assault with fists and boots, the attempt to silence her by drowning, her escape down the river. Down the river and to my back door. “Am I bleeding?” she asked me at one point as she dutifully responded to one of the operator’s questions. I looked around her t-shirt and shorts but only found massive bruising, welts and scrapes. The bruises seemed to grow larger and bluer before my eyes. I felt sick to my stomach. She asked my address and said the EMT’s were coming as she hung up the phone.

My husband found her some of his flannel pajamas and I led her to my bathroom to get out of her filthy wet clothes while I made her some peppermint tea. Bananas and crackers were all I could gather by the time she padded out of the bathroom in clothes way too big for her. She was such a little thing.

“I haven’t eaten in five days,” she said when she saw the food and began crying just a little bit.

“Were you at People’s Park?” I asked, figuring she must have been a few miles up river at that hellhole of a park notorious for drug crimes and gang activity. It’s the only place near the river where a bonfire of gang-bangers could attack a little 13 year-old unimpeded. I’d heard they’d increased patrols there during the day, but obviously not at night. She nodded her head.

“You have got to stay away from there!” I pleaded in my firmest mother-voice. “Don’t ever go there again,” I said, like that was the cure to all her problems, like I was the author of the ‘just say no to drugs’ campaign and thought it really worked. “Honey, somebody’s worried about you.” I meekly added, finishing my mother-rant.

“Somebody’s worried about me?” she asked, genuinely surprised, like I knew something she didn’t.

“You’ve got a mother…or someone, somewhere, worried about where you’ve been for five days,” I said unconvincingly like I had any idea.

“Oh,” she said, finally understanding my ignorance and naivety. With words dripping of sarcasm, she huffed slightly and added, “Yeah right, my mother’s worried about me.” Daggers pierced my heart. This little girl had no one who worried about her, no own who even cared that she’d almost been killed. And then in an almost professorial tone, like she was instructing the dunce of the class, she added, “There are some problems at home.”

“Come sit down,” I said, leading her into my study that faced the street so we could see the EMTs when they got there. “I was sitting right here reading my Bible when you knocked on my door.”

“I’m sorry I woke you,” she said gobbling the banana. This bright little girl, who had just had her life threatened, was apologizing to me.

“I’m not. I’m glad you came to my door. When you’re better, I want you to come back and see me. I’ll wash your clothes for you in the mean time.” Everything inside me wanted to save this little waif.

A hook-and-ladder truck, two ambulances, and various emergency vehicles arrived within minutes spilling EMTs with medical bags and firemen with gigantic boots onto my lawn. I moved out of the way as eight huge men congregated in my little study around my big, brown chair that held Ida. She was tiny compared to these big men, but she held her own with them, answering questions confidently, calmly, as if she was a pro at this kind of thing. Obviously, she'd never had the luxury of being hysterical. Unattended children never do. Their cries go unheard so often, they stop crying. A mother somewhere should be proud of her.

Never had there been so much activity in this house. One man said she lived with one of the attackers. Another said something about foster care for runaways. Several walked in and out of my house speaking quietly into walkie-talkies. My husband offered them chairs. He and I looked at each other with shared despondency as we viewed these bizarre visitors. Ida looked dazed too, but attended to every one of their questions carefully. At times she would sigh and look away as they examined her, exhaustion settling in.

I knew that look. It reminded me of being in the ER after I was raped. People were rushing around taking care of me but I sat very still, as if slow motion would calm the raging storm. I still remember every detail of what happened in that hospital room even though I assume I looked just as inattentive as Ida. The most poignant memory of the whole ordeal was a nurse who gave me an injection of antibiotics. Before she left the room, she hugged me and whispered in my ear, “You’re going to be ok.” That tiny gesture, those few words sustained me, offering something I didn’t quite understand then. They sparked the only thing I held onto for weeks — hope.

I maneuvered my way through the thick crowd of firemen to sit down on the stool beside Ida. I stroked her hair, praying it would inspire the same hope in her. “You’re going to be ok,” I smiled with as much reassurance as I could force. It was the kind of look I’d learned to put on my face when my kids were sick or hurt and I was scared, but didn’t want them know how much. But I was scared for her. Foster care? Seriously? This little thing just spent five days in a park with a family of gang bangers and foster care is going to hold her? She needs a real family who loves her, worries about her, holds her close, and teaches her to pray to survive this big bad world. Pressing my business card into her hand I told her to find her way to Christ Kitchen and we would figure out how to keep her safe.

They all left as suddenly as they came. Ida padded down the front walk in my husband’s clothes dutifully following the EMTs to the ambulance. She looked back at my husband and I without expression. We smiled and waved like you might when a school bus takes your child off to school for the first time or to camp. But deep sorrow belied our smiles. Nothing good was going to happen at the school she was headed for. Two police cars showed up just as she was leaving. They asked a few questions with resigned disdain as if we’d all interrupted their breakfast. I doubt any gang-bangers around a cold bonfire are going to be arrested this morning. Just another Native American assault case, their bored expressions implied. Just another dumb runaway.

I burst into tears when they all were gone. “She doesn’t have a chance!” I mourned to my husband whose eyes were also filled with tears of despair. “What’s going to happen to her?”

“God brought her to our door for a purpose,” he said. In the desolate silence of the early morning dawn, we couldn't imagine what that might be. We prayed for Ida, prayed that she would follow that spark of hope, that she would make her way to Christ Kitchen or that the Lord would bring saints into her life, that the Christ on my card would sustain her. We have a big God, I kept reminding myself. He loves her more than anyone possibly can.

What do you think is going to happen to Ida? What do you see for her future? Without intervention, can you see her getting excited about math class, preparing for debate club, studying for the SATs? Can you see her explaining all this to the school counselor? Let’s see — where to begin in today’s session? Shall we discuss drunk mothers, missing fathers, or how about the time I was drown by gang bangers? How about those bootstraps? Can you see her just pulling herself up by them? Do you see a prosperous future for her? No, I don’t either. But I can see her staring off into space during social studies, apathetic about her English grade, smoking in the alley during Study Hall. I can see her slow acceptance of the policeman’s contempt; her resigned repetition of whatever started her family’s problems. It breaks my heart to think that someday she might be so overwhelmed or numb that she might not know where her own daughter is.

What should happen to Ida? Here’s what God says. “Do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother or sister. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend her whatever she needs. Give generously to her and do so without a grudging heart. There should be no poor among you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” Ida does not need money. If you read these Scriptures with eyes conformed to this world, you might fear God is telling you to give all your money to Ida. What would little thirteen year-old Ida need with money? For that matter, what good would money do for her mother, father, or attackers? They don’t need your money; they need you. “Give till the need is gone,” instructs Deuteronomy. “Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.” Giving yourself, your love, your faith to Ida is what will rectify the power imbalance that envelops her. Getting involved in her life now will prevent disastrous consequences later on that, wrongly, we would label as laziness. When we are transformed by the renewing of our minds, as it says in Romans, grace will revolutionize our relationships to possessions, power, injustice, Ida. Maybe even to those gang-bangers. For goodness sake, who is praying for them? And, bonus! “He will richly bless you if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands.” It’s a win, win, win, win.

You are what should happen to Ida.

Jan Martinez
Jan Martinez
Jan Martinez writes about poverty issues in the area.

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Daryl Geffken
Daryl Geffken
11 years ago

Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Jan. What are some of the levels of involvement that we could step into around Spokane? By this, I am trying to find out if there are varying degrees between ignoring and adopting Ida. Does that make sense?

Lindsey Treffry
Lindsey Treffry
11 years ago

WOW. Just wow. I am speechless. Jan, this is a great piece. The imagery you produce in your writing is amazing. Thanks for sharing.

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