Walking New Paths

Margie Donaldson, Client Services Manager

God has a way of bumping us out of our routines. He writes changes into our days that create opportunities for us to choose to trust him more fully, depend upon him a little more than the day before. As a result of one of these patterns of change, I moved away from a place I called home that I dearly loved. While there, I was surrounded by woodlands with hiking trails and quiet little ponds to sit alongside. After a couple of years away, God has brought me to a new home just a little down the way. I still get to hike my old familiar trails, but when I head into the woods to sit a spell at pond’s edge, I enter from a different trailhead. It took me a few tries to find my way through from this new spot, but I eventually I did it! It isn’t a terribly long hike, but it’s enjoyable and has a lot of interesting obstacles with several stream and brook crossings, a nice big hill, and a couple old beaver dams.

Over the many journeys I’ve seen bobcat tracks, spotted a momma bear and her cubs, surprised a couple coyotes, sent deer gracefully leaping deeper into the forest, flushed out many ducks and Canada geese. I have been blessed to sit pondside and watch river otters at play and beavers anxiously slapping their tails upon the surface of the water in warning. One of the most special gifts was when I happened upon a newborn fawn!

Recently, with all of the pandemic craziness going on, I have taken to the woods more frequently than I had been able to for many years. In a strange way, the pandemic is what spurred me on to take the time to wander in the woods more often. I am one of those who needs alone time. I can get carried away by the demands of the world and toss aside my own needs for the needs, or assumed needs, of the many. This global event gave me back the solitary hikes with Jesus I so enjoy taking and desperately need.

While hiking the trails it is natural and even good to keep our eyes out for the familiar. It is good to look for that enormous white pine tree that looks like it is a family of trees all wrapped into one as it shoots off in seven different directions low in its trunk. In order to stay on course, it is necessary to look for the fallen, moss covered pine of years gone by that reminds me of a big green porcupine. Go left there. There’s the metal bridge that crosses the brook that burbles below, the winding ledge that leads you happily along the wiggly brook who shines like emeralds in the spring sun because of the algae growing on the rocks. When I see these things, I know I am on the right path.

One day last week I decided to take a new path, to venture down one of the other forks to see where it led. I was a bit nervous but not scared, and surprisingly excited for a creature of habit like me. I found myself delighting in seeing new things, and being faced with different challenges, new crossings and climbs that had me traversing ridges through stretches of hardwoods I had previously not meandered through. It was fun…and beautiful!  

God has been taking me on a spiritual journey through Exodus. He brought me back to that book of the Bible with intention. Most likely for more than I realize even now, but in these moments what I recognize is how in my faith walk I cannot keep trying to hike and re-hike the same, safe trails with any expectation of forward propulsion or growth spiritually.

I have been faced with some challenges recently that blindsided me. Thrust into a new role that was not mine to walk, or at least I didn’t think it was, and while trying to navigate the newness of it all, the pandemic hit bringing even more challenges. In the mess, I tried to find my bearings by gravitating towards the familiar. I tried to navigate new terrain with an out of date map, or more accurately, a map from another trail from another time. I found myself trying to navigate the promised land with the old mindset and tools of the slave girl my God delivered years ago.

2 Corinthians 4:16b says, that “our inner self is being renewed day by day” (ESV). In the things of faith, we will not only be faced with new challenges, but we must also seek out new challenges, or we will not continue to grow. By faith, we must always seek out the transformative and unfamiliar territory of our God and King and not the ruts of the familiar offered to us by this world. Transformation is the process of becoming something new. We cannot be made into newness without walking into and even embracing it. Paul tells us in Ephesians that we have a part to play as we are “to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:24, ESV).

Serving here at Branches has been an important part of my journey of faith. Just accepting the position of Client Services Manager was something I had to do by faith and in reliance on God. He has continually challenged me, and after going through these last few months as the acting director, through a pandemic, it was plain to see that I could not venture into new realms grounded by “old me” thinking and ways of coping. The prisoner released from her cell but bound in spirit is not free. To walk in true freedom, we must continually and consistently allow the old self to pass away making room for the transformed self, the self that is free in Christ! It is by walking new paths with a renewed mind that leads us into new growth, new strength, new dependence on Jesus, and fantastic new discoveries that fill our hearts to overflowing!

When Faith is Stronger than Fear

Gail Veenema, Parenting Instructor and Administrative Assistant

A missionary friend once said that Christians don’t retire, they just retread, so as I prepared to retire at the end of 2014, I wondered where God would lead me to serve Him in retirement.  Because family is something I am passionate about, the ministry of Branches is one that I have prayed for since it began many years ago as Lifeway.   When I received an invitation to attend a volunteer training session in March of 2015, I knew that God was leading me to take a more active part in this ministry.  Then old and familiar fears set in.  Would I be good enough?? Am I too old to connect with young moms??

My daughter has a saying on her refrigerator “God doesn’t call the equipped, He equips the called” and similarly in 1Thessalonians 5:24 Paul says “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it”.  God promised to provide all that I needed for this next chapter in my life.  The training program at Branches was thorough and prepared me to become a parenting instructor.  Before too long, I was ready to meet with a client.  This was yet another opportunity to see God use the experiences He allowed in my life to bring glory to Him.  Growing up with an alcoholic father was hard, but it provided ways to connect with the women who came into the center.  Was I scared?  Yes!  Was this new?  Yes!  Was God faithful?  Yes!  There were times when my desire to “do it right” got in the way of my trusting God to work.  Fear is a liar!  When I allow fear in, I take my eyes off of Jesus and focus on the waves and challenges before me and don’t rely on His strength. 

There was a day when a woman came in requesting a pregnancy test, an opportunity to explain her options and provide accurate information for her to make a decision about the pregnancy.  It’s not as simple as, give her the test and she gets the results.  Fear filled me and I felt inadequate—would I say the right thing…what if I messed this up?  Unfortunately, fear won and I called upon the director to assist.  In the midst of the appointment, God reminded me that I was indeed equipped for that appointment because of His faithfulness (it’s not about me, it’s all about Him). But, just as Jesus held out His hand to Peter in the waves as he began to sink, He holds His hand out to me each and every day.  I am still learning to let go and remember to trust God’s provision. 

For me personally, it’s hard to put into words what serving as a volunteer has meant to me.  One client experienced the death of her newborn and then the death of her husband soon after.  Talk about not knowing what to say or how to help.  During this time she said that she knew each of us at the center was there for her and she could stop in and talk and have us pray with her.   I have discovered that even though I may not have experienced what my clients have, God gives me the words to say as I build relationships with them.  Many of them have not had positive examples in their lives and at Branches we provide love, encouragement, support and instruction.  Whenever I have asked a client if I can pray with them, they have said yes.  I have had the privilege of sharing my story of learning to see God as a loving father—challenging because my own father did not demonstrate love towards me.  What a blessing to be able to let a woman know that she is loved and valued by God when she may never have experienced that kind of love in her life. 

When a client chooses life for her baby, we have the opportunity to talk about new life in Christ as He provides the opening.  So I find that I am not so very different from the women who come into the center.  Yes our life experiences differ greatly, but we all want to know that we are loved and valued.  We can provide hope when life seems hopeless.  I don’t have the answers to all their struggles, but I can be there for them and support them.  My life is full. 

Over these 5 years, God has grown the ministry to new levels and brought change, and I find that God’s changes are always good!  When I began, there were only 3 volunteers, now we have many more.  God provided Margie as our new Client Services Manager and I know that he will provide our next Executive Director.  God continues to grow me—so thankful for that!!  He is faithful!  I am blessed!

Branches on the Move…

Pastor Gary DeHaas, Interim Board President

I moved back to Vermont in 2017 to pastor a local congregation.  It had been 30 years since we last called Vermont home.  We noticed many changes but perhaps, not as many as other places we’ve lived.  The beauty of the landscape, the rugged individualism of the natives, and the indifference toward church attendance were much the same.  I eased back into the culture and church ministry knowing this was the place God had sent us, and we were grateful for it.  Remembering how important community is, I immediately began looking for and praying over service opportunities beyond my local church.  Reaching out with gospel-driven care for my new community was important to me.  So not long afterwards at a pastor’s gathering, I learned of a need for board members for Branches Pregnancy Resource Center.  Sensing the tug of God on my heart to help direct “…a community where women and facing pregnancy and relationship decisions are transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ and empowered to choose abundant life for themselves, their children, and their families,” I offered my service. 

As I met with then President of the Board, Ben Whittinghill, I learned of the heart and work of Branches PRC in the Brattleboro community.  I learned about the great need for supporting women who were pregnant and in need of support.  I heard about single mom’s in need of help as they raise their children.  I recognized the economic challenges they faced and the need for essential items like diapers and clothing.  I listened with interest as a ministry to men was explained as a dream for the days ahead.  To hear about the Learn to Earn program and the other mentoring opportunities driven by volunteers was exciting to me. And all of this was coming from a desire to see people transformed by the love of God through Jesus Christ. This is a ministry on the front lines of God’s kingdom work, and I wanted to be a part of it!  But, what would this look like?

Transition is dreaded by many and change is avoided at all cost.  But not me, that’s not the way God wired me.  I embrace Scriptures like James 1:3-4, “…because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” I embrace God’s Word in 2 Peter 1:5-8, “For this very reason,(participate in the divine nature and escape corruption) make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge;  and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness;  and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.  For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” You see, in life, complacency and keeping things ‘as-is’ is a sure path to mediocrity.  It leads people into a rut which, as the saying goes, is just an open-ended grave. This is especially true of our spiritual lives and our ministry for God’s kingdom.

Little did I know 3 years ago what this would look like for Branches PRC.  Consider these changes…a men’s ministry is established and is staffed by volunteers, meeting one-on-one with clients.  We have many new volunteers, many of which are younger to carry on the work for generations to come.  A new Client Service Manager has come on board and we’ve increased her hours.  The board of directors has had some turnover as God brings fresh faces and new perspectives to the center.  The job descriptions of both the Client Service Manager and Executive Director have been reworked to better serve the needs of the center now, and in the future. And we are currently searching for a new Executive Director. 

With God leading the way, this season of transition will continue but likely, at a little slower speed than recent years.  I find strength from Hebrews 12:1-3:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

I am privileged to be a part of what God is doing in and through Branches PRC.  And I am excited to see what God will do in and through Branches PRC in the days ahead.  I believe He has raised it up and uniquely formed it for ‘such a time as this.’