At the Well with the Loveladies
In John 4, Jesus goes out of his way to bridge the most important social, political, and religious divide of his age: the alienation between Jews and the Samaritans, the departed brethren of Israel. In his conversation with the Samaritan woman, we see Jesus and the “bad” Samaritan, who is not only a heretic but also either an adulteress or a prostitute. At the conclusion of the dialogue, the woman rushes to her village to tell her neighbors of “a man who told me everything I ever did.”
Jesus’ reordering, redeeming, and restorative work continues today in Birmingham, Alabama at the Lovelady Center, a faith-based nonprofit serving women ex-offenders, homeless, the abused, and the addicted, and frequently people who suffer from all four conditions. Under the spiritual leadership of Brenda Lovelady Spahn—Miss Brenda, to all who know her—the Lovelady Center has grown from twenty women living in her home to a ministry that provides shelter, food, healthcare, spiritual support, substance-use recovery, and just about everything else a body and soul need to more than four hundred women and children on an ongoing basis. As Miss Brenda says, what the women “need is a wholeway, not a halfway” house.
Spahn narrates the Lovelady story in Miss Brenda and the Loveladies, a 2014 book that blends charming simplicity with a sophisticated and frankly generous structure that conveys the centrality of a community anchored in love and mutual support. This is both Miss Brenda’s story and the stories of seemingly impossible redemptions, of the slow unlearning the false narratives of unworthiness that govern the lives of the poor. It is a story of recovery from addictions that range from heroin, meth, and cocaine to, in Miss Brenda’s own case, money, material possessions, and the “good life.” The book doesn’t just tell the Loveladies’ stories, it is a journal of pilgrimage toward freedom and dignity.
So many of the Loveladies’ stories involve abuse and neglect so deep, long-lasting, and searing that the wonder is not how they came to be addicts and criminals but how they could reasonably have been expected not to. “When women come in here,” Spahn tells me, “they are very bound up . . . imprisoned in their own bodies. I teach them that we’re all daughters of the King . . . they become princesses. So, we call it ‘prisoner to princess.’”
The women who join the Lovelady Center defy stereotypes; they are a mosaic of American society: middle-class suburban moms who “slip” into addiction; single mothers born of single mothers who turn to drugs to salve the scars of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; black and white, poor and rich, illiterate and well-educated. They come to Lovelady, usually by referral from local courts or Alabama’s infamous Tutwiler Prison, immersed in the upside-down of trauma and addiction.
Jeanne Sparks says that when she first arrived at the center, she believed wholeheartedly she was in a Truman Show-type simulation: “I grabbed on to the delusion that the whole world was viewing my life, and that nothing I had known was true. That everyone had lied to me.” Sparks believes God broke through that delusion when Melinda MeGahee, Spahn’s daughter and the center’s executive director, interrupted a sermon spontaneously to say, “You know what, somebody here needs to know that God does not want you to be insane.” Today, Sparks is the center’s head of communications.
The facility’s dental hygienist, Jael Wall, is another program graduate. She had fallen into drug abuse after being prescribed painkillers for a back injury. Following the accidental overdose death of her husband (“We laid down for a nap. I woke up and he didn’t.”), Wall was charged with unlawful distribution and criminally negligent homicide. She never did prison time but did spiral down into addiction, eventually losing her home, her car, and all her money, including her retirement and the life insurance she received from her husband’s death. Law enforcement eventually rearrested her for failing to adhere to reporting requirements and held her without bail for four months (“That was the best thing that ever happened to me”). The judge referred her to Lovelady for a year—and Wall knew that if she failed there, she was facing twenty years behind bars. “When I got here,” she said, “I never heard ‘I love you’ so much in my [whole] life.”
In many years of studying and visiting anti-poverty organizations, rarely have I seen a community in such dire need of what the Lovelady Center provides. Birmingham sits at a crossroads of misery where four interstate highways meet and help to make it a hub for illegal drugs and trafficking in human beings. Over one third of the 1.1 million people in the Birmingham metro area are below the poverty line. Frank Long, Lovelady’s external affairs director, who himself spent nineteen years using drugs daily while holding down senior jobs in state and local government, pointed out to me that for years, Alabama has had “more opioid prescriptions than residents, which is insane.”
The intensity of the poverty, drug use, and trafficking has inevitably spilled over into the wider community, spawning all manner of abuse, addiction, and crime. At Lovelady the overriding objective of the program is to connect women living through these depredations to belief in God and in particular Jesus Christ. Along with that ministry, participants take the forgiveness they’ve received from God, learn how to forgive themselves, and then seek the forgiveness of family and friends they wronged. Personal development sometimes begins with the most basic forms of self-care, how to sweep a floor, make their bed, and to respect themselves and others.
There are lots of hugs and words of affirmation at Lovelady but sometimes the embrace takes a sterner form. Some women, Spahn says, are “looking for an easy way out. I’ll tell them, ‘Well, go walk down these halls. That’s what you’re going to become if you don’t get it together.” If a client demonstrates a lack of commitment or appears to be gaming the system, they can be “put out.” Many of those who don’t make it the first time will try again successfully in a few months after they’ve truly “hit bottom.” Lovelady programs are anchored firmly in transcendent love that does not flinch at reality.
Lovelady is a ministry that delivers, and depends upon, miracles. In the earliest days of the program, officials at the Alabama Department of Corrections tried to sandbag Spahn, “the crazy redhead,” by sending her twenty of its hardest cases in hopes of discouraging her from helping those the system itself had given up on. When neighbors of Lovelady’s original ten-acre property discovered it via media coverage, a campaign based on fear and falsehoods nearly succeeded in shutting the program down, forcing Spahn to search for a new facility. She landed on an abandoned hospital and took on a $1.8 million mortgage that was a monthly exercise in faith to meet. When a sister from the Catholic order that held the note visited and saw the work, she forgave the debt entirely.
So, what’s the next miracle? Miss Brenda and her team know the Lovelady Center needs more mental health treatment capacity and she has her eye on nearby buildings that might serve that purpose. They also need what are essentially more “step-down” units, apartments where graduates and their families can live safe, dignified lives while they reestablish jobs and careers.
These are big needs but none is as big as the God that Brenda Spahn and the rest of the Loveladies serve. The one who, like Jesus at the well, is trying to replace the false story that we are unloved and unlovable by replacing it with the truth that God doesn’t just love us but is in love with us, as a bridegroom who loves his bride.