I lost my dad and mom in one day. I lost my dad physically to cancer, and I lost my mom emotionally. As a 9-year-old girl, all I knew of family and community was obliterated in a split second. No more hugs, kisses, and "I love you" existed. It seemed they became extinct; it seemed I became extinct.
My mother endured abuse at the hands of an alcoholic father and violent first husband. In order to survive, she shut down emotionally. So in the wake of my father's death, my mother did the only thing she knew to do to handle the pain: shut down. As a little girl who watched the man of her dreams fade away, I needed someone to hold me and give me security. Unfortunately, my mother was unable to provide for me emotionally. This catapulted me into an emotionally chaotic world. Most 9-year-olds are planning which outfit to put on Barbie, but I was busy planning how to make people like me, notice me, and love me. This pursuit lasted almost 25 years.
Due to the lack of emotional connection with my mother, I grew up emotionally, mentally, and spiritually alone. I had so much anger toward my mother that World War III could happen between us over a mere look. It got to the point in high school that I would come home after school, make my dinner, eat it in my room, and remain there until the next morning. When holidays hit, I tried to find somewhere else to go. My mother and I simply couldn't handle each other.
I attended a local church with an active youth group, so I began to lean on my friends and mentors at church. I wondered if anyone faced the same battles I did. I desperately wanted to help others facing hardships like the ones I was facing. It was at this time that I began to feel a clear call to ministry.
A Not-So-New Start
After I graduated high school, I entered a Christian college. In my naivety, I believed leaving my home situation would immediately cure the emotional turmoil. I was excited about entering a new chapter of life. I was ready to be done with anger and bitterness.
I entered college and enjoyed everything about it. I developed relationships and had more social interaction than I had ever encountered. And I never thought about home. But I was hard to live with and be around. Why? Because I still wanted the love and care I lost at 9, and I expected these new friends at my Christian school to provide it. They did what they could, but I wore them out emotionally.
Back to the Start
Finally, God decided to change my heart. One morning, I woke with a longing, an urge to go home. I was confused, and I argued with God. But the urge never went away. Finally, I gave into the Holy Spirit's tug and went home. What I thought would be a one-time trip turned into a regular occurrence. Soon, my desire to be home outweighed my desire to be at school. I went home several weeknights and nearly every weekend. Even my mom was confused. That Thanksgiving, my mother and I talked about my father's death for the first time since it had happened. We discussed our anger and allowed peace to enter our relationship. I'm so thankful God pressed on my heart to go home because two short years later, my mother died of cancer. At 24 I again faced the feelings of my 9-year-old self.
Due to my desperate craving for love, I sought out relationships with people instead of God. I entered my first abusive relationship shortly after my mom's death. Before long, he and I got married. I chose to ignore the verbal, emotional, and mental attacks so I wouldn't be alone. I endured the marriage for one year and then found a way out—but I didn't find healing. Instead, I jumped straight into another abusive relationship. When I finally left that relationship, I decided to leave God, too.
All the pain I had faced since I was 9 years old left me lonely, angry, abused, and empty. My distorted understanding of love was projected onto God, and I didn't want any more of a God like that. I continued in my unhealthy lifestyle which led me to yet another abusive man. But after one year with him, God rescued me.
Hope for Hopelessness
I awoke one spring morning with clarity I'd never had before. I realized there was only one common denominator in these relationships: me. I realized that I needed help. So I broke up with this man and sought God's healing.
As I entered church for the first time in two years, I was very skeptical. There was no way anyone was going to accept me, and I really didn't see how God could ever use me now that I was so broken. But God gave me a solid message that Sunday morning at The Simple Church: You may be broken, but you're God's masterpiece. In that moment, I decided that I was done running. At the same time, though, I was so scared and tired of being alone. I got on my knees and prayed for friends so that I wouldn't fall back into my old lifestyle. God answered my prayer with a small group.
This group was the only one at the church that was meeting that summer, and it was about 30 minutes away from where I lived. But that didn't seem too far to go for the possibility of friendships and healing. When I started attending this group, I found myself surrounded by people who had two things on their mind: loving God and loving people. They welcomed me and my brokenness into their group. Through these relationships, I began to hear truth, understand grace, and experience both hope and unconditional love. I still had a long way to go for healing, but they helped me begin the process.
Small groups for me are not simply a place to come together and study. They are places where the broken find healing, the lost are found, and the lonely are loved. Because I experienced firsthand the awesome power of a small group, I could not help but want more people to experience the same thing. God reignited my passion for ministry as my healing began, and he placed on my heart a desire for helping people connect with others so they, too, could find hope and healing. And soon, I became the Small-Group Coordinator at The Simple Church.
I've been in my position for almost four years. Every time I connect a person with a small group, every time I lead a group, every time I'm able to invest in a new leader, I remember how much my small group changed my life. John Eldredge defines this as "redemptive remembering." It is a chance to reflect on the redemption and grace I received, and it refuels my passion for others to experience these moments of grace, redemption, hope, and healing.
Small groups brought life to my extinction. It can do the same for anyone who is hurting and feeling extinct. As people involved in small-group ministry, we have the opportunity to connect people with small groups. Don't underestimate how important it is for people to hear, "You matter, and you are loved." And small groups can give that message.
—Peri Gilbert is the Small-Group Coordinator at The Simple Church in Bossier City, Louisiana; copyright 2013 by Christianity Today.