Ten Lessons Learned Our First Year

By Tracy Stella, Chicago Program Director


Refuge for Women has a tradition we at our Chicago location inherited from the warriors in this freedom fight who went before us. We have a graduate photo wall. This wall showcases the beautiful faces of past Refuge graduates. The only problem? Our wall sat empty while we waited for our first precious one.  

Virtually every time I walked up the plush grey stairs to my office, it bothered me, that blank wall glaring back. White walls stark when they stare you down with their empty gaze. Waiting. Not my favorite.

There are many lessons I’ve learned in the middle of the wait.

LESSON #1:  Good things are worth the wait.

Refuge Chicago recently attained a significant milestone. We celebrated our first graduate with much fanfare! A celebration that felt like – FINALLY. Like a grade schooler wishing May would hurry up and give way to June in anticipation of summer’s freedom.

Waiting on firsts hasn’t been fun.  Firsts can feel like forever when a woman’s future is at stake. But God asks us to wait patiently as we walk alongside a woman. If we run too fast, she may not be able to keep up. We must pace ourselves, so she can catch her breath.

Our first graduate caught her breath, and then God took our breath away as we stood in awe and amazement at His good work brought to life. Literally, He saved her life. That’s worth waiting for!

LESSON #2:  Hope only happens in the wait.

Hope only happens when we’re waiting for something that is yet to come, a longing in our hearts. There’s no faith or hope required in what we already possess. While that makes perfect sense, waiting on firsts is still hard, until they finally happen. Then they are life-giving, God-glorifying, and invigorating as they fan hope into flame.

This battle for hope is hard-fought. Hope was the one thing I asked God for when He called me to this fight. I knew I couldn’t engage if He didn’t keep hope in my sight. I knew enough to know I’d encounter deeply wounded women who would be beyond healing, beyond any help I could offer, if not for the Lord’s loving intervention. He is the only One with a touch tender enough to heal deep trauma without causing additional harm.

I have seen hope. It’s sweet. Like Jesus Himself. Hope and healing is not without sweat equity from all involved.  The wait is HARD, but it is well worth it when we see women win significant victories!

LESSON #3:  It is best to be still.

For a woman who likes to be on the go and get things done, stillness has been something God needs to bring me back to.  His mantra with me the entire time I’ve been engaged in this fight: Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10). It’s plastered throughout our Chicago house as a constant reminder. I need to know – daily – this is not on my shoulders or anyone else’s for that matter. The battle is the Lord’s.  If I thought otherwise, I’d implode from too much pressure.

Along the way I’ve posed the question to God, “What should I do?”  Often, His response to me has been, “Be still.” It’s in those moments I’m reminded I don’t have to have this fight against human trafficking all figured out. Sometimes, what God needs most from me is to be present with the women we walk alongside while He ministers to their hearts in ways I can’t see. If I’m making lots of racket, how can they hear His still, small voice?

LESSON #4:  There are two primary skills to do this well. We must listen and obey.

We humans (or at least this one) like to overly complicate things. My part in God’s plan is quite simple. All I need to do is listen and obey. Those two actions keep me and those I serve in the safe place of God’s plans and purposes.

I’ve trained my staff to know listening to the Lord is the most important skill they can have in this fight. What they don’t know, God does. We need a dependency on Him. He is Teacher and will tell us what is needed. Spiritual maturity and a sweet relationship with Jesus serves our ministry well. It’s what I look for most when I make a hiring decision for our team.

We can’t plan for every contingency (even though we do plan and train). But God whispers instructions, the perfect word to say, the next right action to take.  He knows the women we serve, intimately. He helps us care for them in ways we couldn’t ever on our own.

LESSON #5:  Full surrender to the Lord is the only way to win the war.

In the wait we encounter God. He is good. He got me through every hard day. And we had more than a few of those. The battle is real. There is an enemy and he wages war as we fight in Christ’s power, fully surrendered. It’s the only way. I couldn’t do one day without Christ. The fight is too hard. The hurts we hear are more than a person can bear in her own strength.

The women I sit across from are real. It is a privilege to know each one, to hear her story even when it’s hard.  Each one’s journey toward healing is difficult, but I am blessed to see them grow.  Each woman’s healing is hard-fought, but that’s what makes the harvest worth celebrating!  I care deeply for each woman. This side of heaven she might not know how much. She is real. Fragile at first. I see her tears. I see her scars. I see her.

More importantly, God sees her. He sees her, and He’ll set her free.  That’s His specialty!

LESSON #6:  We must be gentle and patient.

These precious ones are flesh and blood, women who need hugs – sometimes not at first because that touch might be more than she can handle. We must be gentle. Go slow. Allow physical touch a chance to get redeemed over time. More patience as we wait until we sense from God that “now is the time”. She’s ready to receive something sweet, pure, innocent, untainted. She’s starting to trust.

A miracle.

She is vulnerable, but decides to take a chance. Maybe I can trust, I imagine her thinking with the faith of a mustard seed at first.

Think of the courage it takes for a woman to come to our program, or any program. I often think, I’m not sure I could do it.  Imagine people have hurt you. Badly. Some of those people too close for comfort. Not always strangers who have trafficked and traumatized. Yet still you are being asked to trust. People you don’t know. With your very life. With your safety. How does one do that when there has been abuse, neglect, and deep soul-searing trauma? Bravery beyond human comprehension, that’s how!  Make no mistake anyone who enters a residential aftercare program is extremely brave! That kind of courage can come from Christ alone.

Her bravery excites me for her, for her future, and for the future of others she may influence after she fights for her own freedom and healing.

LESSON #7:  Our power to make kingdom impact comes through prayer and vulnerability.

Sadly, not all women can handle it. Emotional healing is hard work.  It sometimes feels easier for them to go back to what they know. Sometimes it’s the result of a trauma bond.  When the pain of what they know and who mistreated them feels safer than opening up and dealing with the pain within, some leave the program. In the flight or fight response, sometimes they can’t fight.  And I hate when that happens. Those are the gut-wrenching moments. Those are the situations when I cling tightly to the fact that the Lord loves them deeply, and He won’t give up His pursuit of them for their healing.

I learned I don’t like not seeing every seed planted coming to full harvest before my eyes. But it’s where God gave me another lesson in trust. Do I trust He is good? Do I trust He will bring every good work to completion?

I do. It’s the only way to move forward when the weight of a woman’s leaving might otherwise crush my spirit. I trust the Hound of Heaven to pursue every precious woman. He pursued me after all. He’ll keep working in their heart.

It’s where intercession comes into play. I pray, and pray, and pray even as I remind myself of God’s faithfulness, so I can keep going. It’s how I continue for the next woman He brings who is ready. I need to be present and emotionally available for her. It requires a vulnerability on my part that surprised me. I can’t wall off my heart in self-preservation when the next woman needs it to be open for her.

For the brave women who stay the course, there is great hope for them and their future. I know if they can fight this battle (in the Lord’s strength), there’s no stopping them. That knowledge is what gets me up in the morning and gets me through every hard day.

LESSON #8:  We must pace ourselves.

It is a tremendous honor and privilege to be given any measure of trust by the Lord to walk alongside His precious daughters. I don’t take that responsibility lightly. I try to be careful and measured in my decision making. I may go slower than some would like, but it’s only in the stillness that I can hear the Lord. If I’m rushed and hurried and my peace is disturbed, I can’t hear with the clarity I need. So I go slow. I need to pace myself too. Burn out is a real issue in front line workers in the fight against human trafficking. I remind myself and others this is a marathon, not a sprint. If I run too fast, too hard, I won’t be of any use to anyone. Not everyone will understand my self-care decisions, but I need to make them anyhow.

Here’s what God has demonstrated to me when I’ve been able to lay aside my people pleasing nature and do what I know I need to keep engaged in what God is doing in this fight against trafficking: He can accomplish more through me when I rest in Him. He suspends time. He accelerates it too. He gives creative vision and catapults ideas, program, process, and women’s healing in ways I could never. No matter how many hours I worked. No matter how hard I tried.

LESSON #9:  Rejoice and celebrate hope.

Our wall now has hope hanging in a 5 x 7 frame. I get to see her face every day I walk up those grey plush stairs to my office. She smiles at me, and I always smile back. I’m so proud of her!  She looks different from when I first met her, because she is. She’s smiling. She’s found her voice. She fought the good fight. She’s one of the ones who made it, who makes every hard day worth it. I can tell you this, every tear I cried this year from days that felt too hard was worth it when I see her picture on the wall. She is worth it! She is worth it! She is worth it! I’d do every hard day all over again---just for her. She’s special. She always will be. She has a corner of my heart with her name on it. She was worth the wait.

Now I get to watch her fly!

LESSON #10:  I love my assignment from God even though that sometimes means I’ll have hard days.

Where else can I see God’s glory revealed every day? He’s moving mountains and making miracles happen which grows my faith. I can believe God for BIG things in my own life, because I see Him do BIG things in others’ lives. I have a front row seat to the faith-bolstering, mind blowing goodness of God.  Pull up a chair and join me in some way. It’s hard, but it’s also pretty amazing!