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Whiter than a Smile

Sylvia Vasquez’s story by Kale Kiaunis

Sylvia could feel her chest tighten as soon as the words left Pastor Randy’s mouth: “During your Rooted experience, you’ll have a chance to share your story.” She scanned the gymnasium for a place to exit and chided herself for having sat in the middle of the row. Though everyone at work knew her as “The Smiley Lady,” and someone who was quick to share encouragement to others, there was one thing with which she was much more guarded—her past.

In the weeks leading up to her opportunity to share with her small group about how God had worked so masterfully in her life, Sylvia continued to feel that weight of uncertainty. How could people possibly understand where she had been?

 

Childhood had not been an easy time for Sylvia. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother, though loving, was unable to give her the support she needed. But things didn’t really start falling apart until around the age of 25. Shortly after her marriage, looking for adventure, Sylvia decided to leave her first husband for a man she thought would bring her joy and fulfillment. However, they soon started down a path of alcoholism that eventually lead to years of drug abuse and addiction.

What would others think of the life she used to live? Could she even put into words what she had been through? Apprehension weighed heavily, paralyzing her to the point she didn’t think it was possible to open up and share these experiences openly. But when she sought counsel from her boss, a senior executive, he mentioned that their company had access to presentation coaches for learning the art of storytelling, and that he would be happy to help her craft her story as a part of this practice. When she sat down with the coach in the ornate conference room, she started from the only place that she could—the beginning.

Recounting the memories in that pristine office space was painful; glimpses of the desperation, the paranoia, the pain, reminded her of the darkness that accompanied that season of abuse she was trapped in. She recalls hearing God tell her to leave, but could never find the strength to obey. It seemed like nothing would change, until one bleak and seemingly hopeless moment.

Pushed into a glass mirror with enough force to shatter it, she remembers hearing the shards of jagged material falling around her. All she could do was cry out in desperation, one simple word: “Jesus.”

The first thing that surprised her was the pain…or more accurately, the lack of it. She put her trembling hand to the back of her head, expecting to feel blood from the numerous cuts. But there was nothing. Even in his rage, the man in front of her was caught off guard. A sense of peace descended on Sylvia. Somebody was there with her. The very next day, she walked out the door of that broken house and never looked back.

Silence. The executive coach stared at her across the table, tears in his eyes. “What happened next?” “

It wasn’t easy to start over on my own,” explained Sylvia. But as she began desperately saturating herself in the Word of God, a path began to take shape. Hoping to help others who were trapped in abusive and life-threatening situations, Sylvia began volunteering as a victim advocate for women in domestic abuse situations for the Washington County District Attorney’s office. Two years later, she left with glowing recommendations from the DA for her next job – an executive assistant for a fortune 500 company. A former drug addict was given a wholehearted endorsement from a district attorney.

Sylvia couldn’t hold back her beaming smile as she recalled this particular passage of her journey. Her infectious joy spread across the table to the executive coach.

“You have such a powerful story,” he exclaimed. “It is going to impact the people that you share it with. My challenge to you is to find a way to end it as powerfully as it began.”

It was only a week until her scheduled time to share with the group. They had begun as strangers, but through the process of sharing their stories, community was built. The trials, triumphs, and moments of God’s grace shared in vulnerability had the powerful effect of bringing people together. Determined that she would share her story well at the appointed time, Sylvia began practicing with any co-workers or family members who would listen. And each time she did, the weight of doubt fell from her shoulders in joyful increments.

Dread gave way to hope. Sylvia reflected on all that God had done in transforming her story. It wasn’t just the emotional or the spiritual. There were even instances of literal physical renewal in her as well.

One memory stood out in particular. A number of years after her radical transformation, Sylvia found herself reclining in a dentist’s office chair. Years of neglect had left her teeth yellowed, and though she began earnestly working to correct the damage, it still was an unfortunate burden from her past. She was ashamed to share that smile. But on that particular visit, the dentist shared something with her that left her with a renewed sense of gratefulness for God’s work in her life:

“Sylvia, I’m noticing an old filling that you had done here, and something stands out about it. When we do a filling, we try to match the color to the surrounding teeth so it doesn’t stand out. This old filling is a yellowish color because of what you used to have around it. However, now it stands out, because the teeth around it are now white and clean.”

The dentist didn’t know that one of the secret hopes that Sylvia had always had was to have a bright and beautiful smile. Because of her past, she didn’t think it would ever be possible, but God had noticed even that small, seemingly insignificant desire. He had taken something tarnished and discolored and turned it into something that was even better than the original. Thus the “Smiley Lady” was given her name.

Sylvia’s Rooted group listened with barely contained astonishment at her story. How could the smiling, bright, joyful woman in front of them have endured so much yet still be so alive and enthusiastic? As she neared the conclusion of her story she pulled out a plain, white sheet of paper.

“As I think about my journey and the past, there are so many things that I used to be ashamed of. But in the process of healing and seeking God, he spoke something very clearly to me: ‘Because of your new life in me, your identity gets to be just like this white sheet of paper – without blemish and completely new.’”

“I used to be afraid to tell my story, but now I see it for what it really is – a beautiful piece of the redemptive story of God. And there is no story that I want to tell more.”

The circle erupted with applause, hugs, and happy tears. Sylvia treasured this moment and praised her miracle working God. For he had redeemed the two things in life she had determined were dead and buried — her story and her smile.

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