From Mercedes Rhodes…a Camp David Mom and now one of our Board Members
“I am a registered nurse. My husband was a fireman. We would be married 12 years this year. We have two beautiful daughters that we love dearly. Our life sounded pretty great on paper…before his incarceration 2 years ago. We were both young adults building a family. We had a plan for our lives; once he became Captain, I was going to go back to school. Then this happens.
I remember it like yesterday. I remember being in the court room and hearing the sentence as my heart sank. I got sick to my stomach and remember running to the bathroom crying to God and asking Him, “What I was going to tell my girls? What was I supposed to do?” My husband wasn’t coming home. Their dad wasn’t coming home. The questions keep coming. “What about my house bills? What am I going to tell people?” Looking in the mirror (as I tried hard to stop the tears) I kept asking God, “What am I supposed to do?” In my spirit I felt God’s presence telling me to STAND. So I finally mustered up some strength to go out and face my pastor and some family members to go home.
Going home that day was the hardest thing for me because I had to face my children. I had to tell them that the man that they adored and loved was not coming home. I was so hurt and upset because I know what it feels like to have a dad incarcerated, and now here I am 28 years later having the same conversation with my daughter. We had a conversation about jail before I told her the news. I was surprised at how much she knew about incarceration. After our long talk about jail I ended with, “What if I told you that your dad was in jail?” She looked at me with this puzzled look. There was about 30 seconds of silence that felt like an eternity and then she said, “Well mom, God forgives us of our sins so we must forgive dad. When I can see him?” Wow! I fought back the tears and thought, “That was such a mature answer for an 8 year old!” From that moment I knew I had to do everything that I could make my family work.
As time went on, people started finding out about our situation. More losses occurred. We now grieved not just over a broken home but we were now grieving over being outcast-ed, losing friends and family relationships. It was a mess. My oldest daughter began to shut down. I recognized that withdrawn, sad spirit that internalized everything. She went from happy to sad to mad all in a matter of minutes and she couldn’t explain it. When I would try to talk with her and comfort her she would shut down. Little did she know that I knew exactly how she felt because I was her once. She was a happy kid before this and now she was hurting and I couldn’t fix it. I was so sad too. I started looking up resources for help in this situation and I found nothing in my area.
With a broken heart and a broken spirit, I kept trusting God and believing that he was going to make a way for us to go through this. I then received a letter from Camp David of the Ozarks inviting my daughter to a week of camp. I started to pray and do research about it. I asked our family counselor about her going and he highly recommended her to go. This would be her first trip without either of her parents for that long period of time. I was so skeptical about letting her go with knowing all that she was going through. I wanted to be there to comfort her in case she had a break down. I wanted to just shield her and protector from everything because she had already experienced enough. I prayed and asked God if I doing the right thing, and to settle my spirit. He did.
The day came for her to leave for camp. As we arrived to the pickup spot to take the campers to camp, we saw young girls running happily embracing each other as if they couldn’t wait to catch up. We got out of the car and stood quietly awaiting for directions to load the bus. While waiting, were greeted by another camper who had been previously and she greeted my daughter and said, “Is this your first time? If it is don’t worry, it is fun!” At that moment I knew it was God telling me that she was going to be.
Upon my daughter’s return I saw a whole different child who was no longer withdrawn. It was pointed out by our family councilor that she was now acknowledging that her dad was in prison. The first time in a year that she actually said the words “prison, jail and incarceration.” It was a breakthrough for her. When she described camp she said, “Mom! It was like we were all instant best friends and family; we were all in this together. I felt safe to talk and if I got sad I didn’t have to say why because they understood. We understood each other.”
Later I got a chance to experience Camp David for myself. I was invited to a Family Retreat. Although I wasn’t interested in it for myself, I saw it as another opportunity for my daughter to reconnect with friends since the first visit had made such an impact on her. When we arrived to the camp it was a large group of people cheering and welcoming us in with hugs and lots of love. My daughter ran off and fitted right in with her friends from summer camp, but I had a wall up. Nobody has embraced me like this who knew what I was going through. There was such a sweet and loving spirit at the camp, but I didn’t know how to trust.
The first night I struggled so hard trying to figure out why was these people were so nice and loving towards us. I had been so use to being treated like a criminal based on my husband’s situation. The next morning they pampered us with breakfast in bed and then we went to a session together. During my journal time the Lord spoke to me and said, “You are at the right place at the right time. Stop running.” At that time I realized that I have been running and fighting on my own for 2 years, with no one who understood and no one to talk to. I could never let my guard down. I felt like I always had to defend us and through this I grew a thick skin. I forgot about me and my feelings. I never let anyone close because of fear of them finding out and then going through the process of being judged again. I never talked about me because I had to be everything to my family, they needed me. I couldn’t be vulnerable at this time.
As I looked up from my journal and began to scan the room, tears came when I realized the Lord had sent me help. I was no longer by myself. All of those women were in the same boat as me. And as the tears began to flow I looked to my right and there was Mama Rose (Assistant Director, Grace Smith), there with a tissue and open arms. My experience at Camp David was me experiencing one of God’s secret places. Psalms 31:20 “In the secret place of Your presence You hide them from the plots and conspiracies of man. You keep them secretly in a shelter (pavilion) from the strife of tongues.” God had to take me out of the big city with all the noise and tuck me away at one of His safe houses to help heal the hurt. Psalms 46:1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. My daughter was right- it really is a safe place that embraced us with love and compassion like family.”