In the land of plenty, Laura Harper was drowning in a world of need. Her life was dark and menacing, complicated by the lack of a high-school diploma and, far worse, a reliance on crack cocaine.
"The first hit," she warned, with the conviction of a firebrand preacher from the pulpit, "is the highest you'll ever get in life. After that, it's just chasing that rock."
One bad decision followed another. Then she hit bottom.
"I was living with my cousin, but she told me I would have to leave because she wanted to find a smaller place," Harper said. Harper had nowhere to turn, so she took her meager possessions and found a spot under the bridge, along the Patuxent River, near Laurel Park racetrack. She recalled it as the most frightening experience of her life.
"It was cold, awful. I stayed to myself — you never know who might try to harm you. I'd wrap myself in a blanket and cry myself to sleep. I was pitiful looking," Harper said. Day and night, she said, she would aimlessly walk the streets. To stave off the elements, Harper, 54, would drift into the Laurel Library on Seventh Street.
"I didn't understand what I was reading, so I pretended," she remembered, her honesty crackling through the telephone line.
Harper's goal of achieving a more ordered life got a big boost after she entered a drug rehab facility in Montgomery County. The six-month program, she said, "got me off crack. You've got to put it in your mind to leave it alone. I've been clean for eight years."
In time, Harper learned about some community-based services available to her, including Elizabeth House on Gorman Avenue, where she obtained her dinner and found solace. That led to her signing up for Winter Haven, a program where participating Laurel-area houses of worship take turn opening their doors to homeless persons during the cold months, offering food and shelter.
With her survival instincts on high alert, Harper knew she had to keep moving. She hopped from church to church, praying patiently that the meaning of life would be restored.
The road to physical and spiritual discovery led her to City of Zion, a congregation off Van Dusen Road. With the help of generous members like Anthony Howard and Sheila Thompson, Harper began to reattach the pieces of her battle-scarred life.
Another Good Samaritan Harper met at Zion was Alice Doll Tyson. "Laura sat there telling her story," Tyson recounted, "how she cried, how she had no clothes. How could she have gone through something so horrific?"
Harper's new friends took hold. Howard put her to work cleaning the church on Monday mornings, vacuuming, mopping, emptying garbage, readying it for Bible study on Wednesday night. When she wasn't working at the church, Harper held down a part-time job at a car auction business in Jessup, where her hours have now expanded to full time.
Today, Harper is savoring her victories. Using the money she earns from her job, along with a monthly disability check, Harper is able to rent an apartment on Muirkirk Road. She even saved enough money to buy her own wheels, a '96 Saturn.
"It goes to show you can have hard times and bounce back," said Tyson, who is a beautician, author and TV show host. "So many people are just one paycheck away from being homeless. It gave me hope."
Harper said she knows God saved her from certain death because He had other plans for her. She was even called up to the altar by Zion's pastor, the Rev. Strong, to share her story.
"You never know what life has in store for you," Harper told worshipers. "God's ways are mysterious ways. He is worthy to be praised."
At the root of her good news story, she said, is the power of prayer. Daily, she recites her favorite Bible verse from John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten son, that no man should perish but have everlasting life."
Harper loves the Rev. Gregory O. Strong's messages, explaining, unlike others she's heard, "he preaches and teaches. He brings it down to you. And I go to church every Sunday," she said with bubbly optimism. "I pay my tithe, I dance and I wave the flags."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun