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A Story of Restoration …

 

Amidst the grief and processing of losing a sweet friend, colleague, and sister yesterday (as I’m writing this Friday night), the word restoration has been at the forefront of my mind these past forty-eight hours.

Almost twenty years ago I met a young and bright Deaf Honduran teenager, Shirley Venis. We first met in Arkansas when she attended the Arkansas School for the Deaf on a one year student visa. Later in 1999, when I moved to Honduras to work with the Deaf community, Shirley was one of the first to work with us and serve within the ministry and on the Deaf leadership team.

Shirley was an obvious standout in the Deaf community and Christian Deaf community in Honduras. Her knowledge and understanding of the Word, language level, education, work ethic, artistic/creative abilities, and love for God and Deaf people were all wrapped up in this young Deaf Honduran woman. I jokingly say she was a bit of a know-it-all as well in her teenage years, like many of us were.

Within months of moving to Honduras, Shirley came to me and said “I want to be a teacher”. I had learned in my short time in the country a couple of things. First, there were no Deaf people in Honduras that had achieved a teacher’s certification. Second, K-6 certified teachers were actually high school graduates who attended a specialized teaching high school program (10th-12th grade). Shirley would need to go to this school, Escuela Normal, in order to pursue her dream of being a teacher. The school’s director initially said no stating they could not educate a Deaf student who uses sign language. It took several meetings, but the school finally accepted Shirley with a long list of conditions. Even then I knew this was a big thing happening and it was exciting.

Three years later in December of 2002, Shirley Venis became the first Deaf person in Honduras ever to achieve a teaching diploma. At the same time, I had been meeting with another talented woman, Oneyda Aguilar, about establishing a Deaf school. She would become the director and co-founder of Escuela Cristiana para Niños Sordos — Manos Felices (Happy Hands Christian School for Deaf Children). In February 2003, we opened the doors to Happy Hands and our very first teacher was Ms. Shirley! We were so excited to begin our vision for a Deaf school with such a wonderful role model for the kids, a Deaf person who loved God and who had achieved a professional position in the community.

Shirley’s walk with the Lord I believe was like many of ours, a windy path with few straightaways and more than enough valleys and turns, often very sharp turns. Shirley would agree that her life’s journey was not a perfect one. I would venture to say all of us can say the same thing.

She made some pretty big mistakes that had some difficult consequences attached. At one point, Shirley was suspended for a short time from Happy Hands. It was a gray area and legally, she could have fought this decision by the school administration. She could have blamed others, lashed out, and been angry. But instead, Shirley accepted the suspension, volunteered at another school during her time off, spent time in the Word, accepted responsibility for her part, and asked forgiveness. And restoration occurred.

A few years later, Shirley made another error in judgment with even greater consequences. Again, she accepted responsibility and sought again to make sure her life was aligned with Christ. And because our God is a gracious God, blessings also came from this time.

shirley and sherry (2)During one period of time, Shirley and her then toddler daughter lived with me for about 18 months. This was another difficult time in Shirley’s life and it was hard for me to watch. She was separated from her husband, teaching at the school, and trying to raise a spunky hearing little girl, Sherry.

Not long after her time in my home, Shirley made yet another huge mistake. Shirley and the Happy Hands administration mutually supported Shirley in resigning from her teaching position. This was a huge loss for our school. The other teachers missed her immensely. The students were missing out on a fabulous teacher. And my heart was sad on so many levels.

By this time, my patience was wearing thin and my frustration was growing by the day.

But truly friends, couldn’t this easily be each of our stories?

Life interrupted every few years (or months or days) by dumb decisions, big mistakes, huge errors in judgment followed by the after effects and consequences? It sounds a lot like my life and the lives of many around me. Perhaps not to the same degree or not in the same way, but definite turns and bends along the path of life.

But God did not leave His child’s side. He loved Shirley and was faithful to her EVERY STEP of her young life. And a beautiful story of restoration was being unwrapped but not fully visible until just recently … until Shirley’s sudden death yesterday morning.

First, Shirley’s relationship with her husband was fully restored. She was reunited with her husband and daughter under the same roof and they continued to receive Godly council from pastors at the Deaf church and seek to mutually love and respect each other as husband and wife. And little Sherry, their daughter who at such a young age had prayed for her parents to reunite, was now the happy child of two loving and committed parents.

staff with shirleySecond, Shirley returned to Happy Hands. I remember the day she walked into my office about 18 months ago. She did not ask for her job back. She didn’t state her case again and blame others who were a part of the situation as well. She came humbly asking forgiveness and restoration of a relationship with the school and staff. She accepted full responsibility once again and her desire to seek God despite all her mistakes was so evident.

We welcomed Shirley back into the Happy Hands family and under appropriate conditions, she was re-hired and restored to her position as a teacher of Deaf children. The day we told our staff and invited her to come in and share with the teachers, they cheered and celebrated her return.

Restoration … a family reunited.

Restoration … God’s career calling reestablished.

Restoration … a beautiful part of the Christian walk.

But the story continues. God’s timing.

Six months ago, Shirley’s daughter, Sherry, became ill with Hemorrhagic Dengue and the almost six year old kindergarten graduate passed away. Just like that, life was turned upside down for Shirley, her husband, and those of us close to her. It was a sad time. One thing that struck me during this time was Shirley’s strength and faith in her God and His timing. She returned to work and continued enthusiastically teaching her students at Happy Hands, students the same age as her daughter would have been.

And just a month ago, Shirley announced her pregnancy. She and her husband would have another child this fall.

I thought of young Sherry often and missed her so much. I knew God saw the big picture but in my own small lenses, I struggled with understanding the timing of her death.

And then last week I received a simple text asking for prayers for Shirley. She was ill and in the hospital. At the time it did not seem to be too serious. But over the next couple of days, concerns became greater. And then out of the blue two nights ago, the doctors informed the family she had cancer of the liver, it had already spread, and she had hours to days to live.

And just like that, Shirley left us the next morning along with her unborn baby. We were not allowed in to visit her. There were no goodbyes. No opportunities to pray by her side. No time to prepare. She was gone.

The school director and I attempted to visit her late the night before she passed. We were not permitted entrance so we wrote out letters to her on a hospital intake form and asked the nurse to deliver them. It is my hope Shirley was able to read our words and know our love for her in those last hours, her last evening this side of heaven. But if not, I am confident she has full knowledge of our love for her now!

I look back at Sherry’s death and I just have to believe God knew Shirley’s body was already being invaded with cancer even though she didn’t know it at the time. Her sister, a doctor, told some of us at the viewing that when Shirley was told she had just hours to live, she said she was ready to be with Jesus and was ready to be reunited with Sherry.

She held to this peace and trust in her Savior until she breathed her last breath.

So I sit here this evening, tears flow on and off, my mind races here and there, and I write. As I ponder the restoration work God did in Shirley’s life and the lasting impact and influence of her life in the Deaf community here and beyond, I am also reflecting on my own life.

Are there areas in my life that need restoration?

What grudges and disconnects with people am I holding onto?

Am I forgiving those who have hurt me in a healthy and discerning manner?

Am I taking a good look at myself and taking responsibility for my part?

Am I using my beliefs or God’s Word to erroneously support my emotional responses?

These are questions I want to challenge myself to answer honestly and seek God’s direction as I move forward on this life’s journey. Because we truly do not know when our last day, our last breath, here on earth will be.

Tonight I celebrate with you, Shirley, as you reunite with your precious Sherry! I celebrate your life here on earth as well … truly a life of God’s faithful restorative work as you continued to seek Him! Thank you for leaving a legacy of a life lived out for Christ and all the wonderful work you did for the Deaf community of Honduras.

I love you both. And one day my friends, I will see you once again!!!

Comments

  1. eliza gordon says:

    Thanks for sharing. I sure remember Shirley in the states visiting at my aunt Patty’s and it was wonderful to reconnect in 2009 in her country. Prayers for you all at this time.

  2. thanks Christy for taking the time to share and allow me to reflect and remember Shirley and praise God for her life and for yours.
    I love you precious one

  3. What a beautiful tribute Christy. You honored her and our Lord so very well. May we ALL live each day like its our last: full of love for God and others.

  4. Beverly Chesser says:

    Thank you, Christy for your eloquent words sharing the amazing work of God’s restoration in Shirley’s life and how He used the beauty of His restorative power in her life, marriage, family, and work to impact & challenge so many of us in our walk with the Lord. I praise God with you for Shirley and His testimony that shines through the years she lived on this earth. Just as so many of us could picture little Sherry dancing with Jesus, now Shirley has joined hands with them:)