Cook: A different sort of nativity

Cook: A different sort of nativity

December 25th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Perhaps the Virgin Mary felt the same things.

The looks from strangers. The no-money desperation. A shuddering dread that something bad is close on her heels and getting closer.

"I cry most every day," said Tracia Shoulders, 18.

She's a teenage mom. Her son Tre'yon is 1. Like many teen moms, Shoulders is traveling through her own personal nativity scene, a rough landscape where doors slam shut before she can knock twice. Can't get a job. A pantry that runs empty too quick. The last diaper. The weight of the world on such young shoulders.

"If I got nobody else, I got my son," Shoulders said.

Yet within every nativity scene, there is always a star, some light rising out of the deep darkness, some stranger who comes bearing gifts more precious than gold.

"I believe very firmly in the impact of one person walking into someone's life and to let them know they are loved, right where they are, just for who they are," said Ruth Ann Steen.

Steen -- or "Mrs. Ruth Ann" -- runs Young Lives, a program that supports, befriends and encourages teen moms in Hamilton County. Young Lives is an offshoot of the national Young Life program, but most days, it's Steen, her Honda Pilot, cellphone and a collection of other women across Chattanooga who have built a beautiful and fragile safety net around our city's most vulnerable: teens and their babies.

"One girl I know goes to school all day, gets home at 4, goes to work at 5 until 1 in the morning. Her baby gets up in the middle of the night. And she's so tired," Steen said. "But she's doing it."

Steen works closely with counselors at The Howard School and co-teaches a life skills class there. She's involved in other high schools, and has built up relationships with 30 or so teen moms. She drives them to job interviews and the pediatrician. Helps them find food stamps when someone in their family sells them for drugs. Teaches them how to install a child's car seat. Explains why formula is better than Fanta.

They'll call and text her during the day and well into the night. Steen and other women host dinners for the moms and babies, and in the summers pay for their way to go to summer camp.

Sometimes, when they have nowhere else to go, Steen will bring them to her own home, blending them into her family of three kids (Sam, Sadie and Vanessa) and supportive husband (Hayne).

"She made me feel like there are other people in the world that care and love you and don't judge you," said Andrea Pritchett.

Pritchett is 19; Jordyn is 7 months. Pritchett, who graduated from Howard, wants to become a nurse. She said she quit work when Jordyn's father got arrested in the federal roundup of 32 area men. Sometimes, she dreams about getting on a bus with Jordyn and riding to the ends of the earth to find a place so unlike this one.

"No jail. No shootings. No robberies," she said.

Several days ago, we all ate breakfast together: Steen, Pritchett and Jordyn, Shoulders and Tre'yon, and a third teen mom: Aisha Jordan, who ordered pancakes for her 2-year-old daughter Londyn.

Jordan gave birth to Londyn when she was 13. Today, she's making good grades -- "A's and B's," she said -- while working part time at Captain D's. She's making down payments on a car. Not long ago, Londyn's father was killed in a robbery gone bad.

She met Ruth Ann this past summer.

"Being with Young Lives let me know there are other people in the world that care about you," she said.

During breakfast, we ate slowly, and talked a lot. The moms seemed so strong, so much older than 16 or 18 or 19. Such good moms: attentive, cuddling their kids, speaking in soft voices. But then, so quickly, it crashed like a drawbridge coming down. Maybe it was a poorly worded question. Maybe just plain tiredness. Maybe it was their child knocking the spoon to the floor for what seemed like the 100th time.

One by one, they hung their heads and began to weep these quiet tears. Mary, it seems, was not the only teen mom to cry out to God. Theirs, just a magnificence of a different sort.

"I pray every day," said Pritchett.

The Christmas story is one of surprise and mystery. A teenage mom on the run, sheltered down in a muddy barn, the most unlikely of places. And there, against all odds, God appears.

Two thousand years ago, and again today.

"There is a huge connection. Mary was a teen mom," Steen said. "She had so many things against her. I talk to the girls about how strong Mary was in having this baby. So many of them are so strong, too."

To get involved, email Ruth Ann Steen at YoungLivesChattanooga@gmail.com.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.