A Christian Liberal Arts University, Est. 1846

Discipled through Chaos

  • By: Meredith Sell
  • Published: Sep 8, 2015 4:15PM
Kara Diemer: granddaughter, intern, disciple

It was about nine at night outside a grocery store in Colorado, blocks away from a jail, as pre-teen Kara Diemer helped her mother load groceries into the car. The sun had set, leaving the parking lot in patches of light and shadow.

“This man came up to us, and I got in the car, ‘cause I was a little nervous,” Kara, now a junior at Taylor, remembers, “but the man, he was really nice.”

He told her mother he’d just gotten out of jail and was on his own for the first night. Did she have any money he could have? Then he stopped, interrupted himself, and asked, “Do I know you?”

“He was talking to my mom,” Kara said, “and my mom’s like, ‘Well, I do work at the shelter.’ . . . I will always remember that. This man walks out of jail and recognizes my mother.”

Kara and her mother joke that Kara grew up in a homeless shelter, because for about four years of her life—between ages 9 and 13—her mother worked at one.

“She would take me all the time,” Kara said. “I would go in the office . . . and I would serve dinner a lot of nights.”

To Kara, the homeless population has never been a set of statistics that, when seen up close, make her stiffen or feel pity.

“I’m more comfortable with the homeless population than others [are], because . . . I’ve seen that there are a lot of things going on in their lives that they can’t control,” she said.

That’s part of why Kara chose to major in public health. It’s also why, when a ministry representative at Taylor’s annual World Opportunities Week offered to connect Kara with the intern director at the Denver Rescue Mission, she agreed.

Her mother had moved to Denver only three years earlier, after Kara had graduated from high school and deferred her enrollment at Taylor to spend a gap year volunteering with a church in Japan. Her grandparents also lived in Denver. It would be good to spend an entire summer close to them.

That was Kara’s thought back in December when she emailed the Mission’s intern director. When she accepted the internship at the Mission’s Champa House, she stepped into a future of unknown possibilities.

A renovated home in a historic neighborhood two Light Rail stops outside of downtown Denver, Champa House is a transitional housing program for single mothers and their kids. Women participate in a five-phase program involving academics, vocational training, Bible studies, and counseling. Kara’s responsibilities would range from leading morning devotions to teaching computer skills classes to entering data.

Day one was set for June 1, giving Kara more than a week to transition from spring semester finals in Upland to summer in the Mile-High City. But her first stop wasn’t a Colorado Rockies baseball game or a favorite trail.

“The first weekend I was back from school, my grandpa was in the hospital,” Kara said.

He had been struggling with cancer for more than five years and now it was taking an even greater toll. That weekend, Kara went with her mother to visit him in the hospital. Not long after, he was allowed to go home, but the future didn’t look bright.

When Kara’s internship at Champa House began, so did a routine of visiting her grandparents, helping her grandmother, and soaking up as much of her grandfather as she could.

Any morning before this summer, you could count on finding Kara eating breakfast and reading her Bible.

“This summer, that . . . went to chaos,” she said, “between having to get up early and get on the train and go to work and . . . get off work and go to my grandparents’ house, and we’re there ‘til nine o’clock at night . . . and I go home and get sleep and try to do it all over again.”

The closest she had to quiet time was her daily train ride through the city, observing people as they geared up for the day, watching suited professionals filter out through downtown and those less well off, a rougher crowd, a homeless person here and there, fill the car as it neared Champa House.

“I use that time a lot for prayer,” Kara said toward the end of the summer. “I pray for people that I see and I read my Bible and I pray through things that are happening in my life.”

After getting off at 25th and Welton, Kara would walk three blocks from the station to Champa House, past a church, past homes in various stages of renovation and disrepair, past a small park. Champa House is unmarked for safety reasons, but step through the front door, wander around, and it’s clear that it’s more than a big house.

The first floor houses the program’s facilities—staff offices, education area equipped with computers, counseling office—along with a shared kitchen and living room area. The second floor houses the women and their children in nine efficiency apartments. Framed photos of past participants hang in a hallway on the first floor.

Entering Champa House that first day brought Kara into a world different from the one she’s known at Taylor and her childhood experiences of the homeless shelter.

She witnessed powerful transformations—a prime example, the former stripper she accompanied to a professional job fair—but she was also forced to grapple with the fact that, unlike the shelter where her mother had worked, Champa House could only serve nine women at a time. And only if those women complied with the ministry’s rules.

“In my mind and my heart, I just want to help however many women I can,” Kara said. “I would make all sorts of exceptions if I was the director, because I just want to see people—I want to help them succeed. But it’s important for me to understand that sometimes helping them succeed means having these rules.”

This was especially challenging when Kara began leading Champa House’s weekly informational meetings. All kinds of women attended and Kara was excited about the potential impact the program could have on their lives, but not every woman would fit the program.

“It would end up dragging the other women down if a woman came in who was very low functioning and extra undisciplined,” said Kara, so she had to make sure she presented the program as strict, requiring a lot of hard work. “I’ve had to learn to be more selective, because our program has to be selective to work.”

As the summer continued, she developed relationships with the women at Champa House, leading devotions that challenged her as much as the participants. Kara modeled her approach after what she’d learned from Taylor’s Director of Public Health, Dr. Bob Aronson, and focused on humility and genuine connection. Soon, she found herself learning with and from the women.

“I began to really identify with the participants and the way they . . . were trying to sort out issues from their past,” Kara recently wrote in an email. “I was really inspired by the courage the women had to face their pasts, and it gave me courage to do the same.”

Their courage also helped her face the present. All summer, Kara watched her grandfather deteriorate, this man whose life stories she loved hearing over and over again—from his childhood on a farm in Indiana to his time in the Navy, so much life, so many experiences.

Two worlds, one Kara. She took the train from one to the other and back every day. Through the busyness and difficulty, she wrestled with how her relationship with God worked into life outside of morning devotions, and she found that God was present in everything.

When her grandfather died on a Wednesday in July, Kara was at work.

“I had taken the previous Friday and Monday off, because we were sure he was going to pass over the weekend. He didn’t. He kept going . . . so I went back to work Tuesday and Wednesday morning, because, you know,” she said, quietly, “life has to go on.”

Kara got back from lunch; her mother was at Champa House waiting for her. A word to Kara’s boss let her leave for the day.

“My grandpa and I were pretty close, so it’s been . . .” She gathered her thoughts. “I think a lot of Christians—and I definitely have been in this camp—they kind of ignore their feelings. . . God’s really been challenging me to not push those away and, instead, identify those [emotions] and sit with them a while and then go to God with them and [tell Him], ‘God, this is what I’m feeling.’”

Kara returned to work the day after her grandfather died. She rode the trains through Denver, got off at 25th and Welton, walked the blocks to Champa House, that place where homeless single mothers can rebuild a life that may have fallen apart by no fault of their own.

Only one other person was there that morning, so the house was quiet. Kara worked, took a break in the backyard, reflected. Thought about her grandfather and God and what all of this meant.

In a few short weeks, she’d be coming back to Taylor—early, to prepare for her second year as a discipleship assistant (DA) on her floor in Gerig Hall. She remembered learning about discipleship at the church in Japan and in her first year as DA. Now, this summer:

“I’ve learned that I can still be a disciple, even when I can’t control my life,” Kara said. “I used to think that discipleship came through these certain different patterns—having quiet time, having a mentor, and mentoring other people—but being a disciple of Christ happens even when you don’t have those normal things going on. Being a disciple happens constantly.”

It happens when emotions overwhelm you, when life knocks you down, when the world throws you on the street. We see most clearly from our knees, but sometimes we need help lowering ourselves to the ground.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 2 Corinthians 12:9