She is seven years old. Her eyes shine blue beneath a swollen bruise, and dark bruises also mar her arms and legs. Guarded, even at such a young age, she smiles hesitatingly at me, glancing at the drab concrete beneath her feet.
We are outside, sitting on the cement steps in front of the PAC, a place where children who have been abused go to be assessed before being sent to various foster homes. "So why did you come to talk to me today?" I ask her gently, reaching out to put a hand on her shoulder. She cringes, so I pull away.
"What do you want to talk about?"
"I want to tell Jesus I want to go to heaven." She picks up a twig, fiddling it in her fingers. She won't look me in the eye, but a shy smile is on her face.
I question her gently. "Why can't you go to heaven on your own?"
"Because I sinned."
I smile at the girl encouragingly, getting out my Wordless Book and explaining to her how to ask Jesus to be her Savior. She is afraid to pray on her own, afraid that she will 'mess it up,' so she follows the lead of my friend Cathy, her eyes squeezed shut as she talks to Jesus. When she finishes, her eyes open, and she looks nervously into mine for the first time.
"I did it."
"That's right. You did. And do you know what that means? You are God's child now, and He is your Father, and He will always take care of you."
The mention of a father causes her eyes to drop again and then her expression changes. "God is my Father?" The thought must frighten her in a way, but give her strange assurance. Surely this Father will be a better one that however many duds she's had in the past. "God is my Father."
"That's right. You're a child of God. You're His little girl and He loves you." I read to her John 1:12 and then ask her, "Do you have a Bible of your own?"
Her face falls. "No."
Cathy runs inside the PAC and returns with a children's New Testament. The girl thumbs through it, her eyes wide with excitement, and then her face falls. "I thought it was bigger than this."
"It is bigger. This is only half of the Bible, the New Testament. Maybe when you're older you'll be able to get a full one." I wish with all my heart I could give her both testaments. The little thing she holds in her hand just doesn't seem like enough.
"Thank you," she whispers.
"You are very, very welcome. Do you have any questions or do you want to go back inside?"
"I don't have any questions." She gets up slowly, cradling the Bible in her arms. As she climbs up the concrete steps and walks out of the afternoon Texas heat and back into the air-conditioned PAC building, I reach out gently to stroke her blonde hair. This time, she does not flinch.
She finishes the Good News Club with glowing eyes. Fifteen minutes before, she had been whispering and fighting with the others... now she is listening attentively to the lesson.
I watch her as another little girl comes up to her and knocks the Bible out of her hands. It clatters to the floor. "Why do you have that?" she sneers, folding her arms across her chest.
The girl kneels to the ground, carefull picking up her Bible and stroking the cover with trembling hands. She gets to her feet and hugs the book to her chest, giving the child a firm stare. "Don't do that. It's my Bible."
"Whatever," the other girls says and flounces away.
I hold my breath, unsure if this new Christian will be able to take persecution after being saved for such a short time, but she continues rocking the Bible in her arms and watching the lesson, refusing to back down in her newfound faith. She reaches a small hand up to brush the golden hair out of her face, exposing her black eye.
I am reminded again of this little girl's dark past. What has she been through? What has she endured in her short seven years of life? Any day now, she will finish her evaluation and be sent to a foster home or to some decent relative... or if they can find no one to take her, she will be sent to a children's home.
I catch her eye from across the room and she grins, a new confidence in her face.
After class, everyone is leaving. I walk up to her and touch her shoulder. "Today's a special day. You became a child of God today."
"And on Father's Day," she says with a quiet laugh.
I smile at her encouragingly. "That's right. I'm very proud of you. Have a good day, Julie."
She looks at me, nods, and hugs the Bible closer to her chest before joining the line of children to go back to the dorms for the rest of the day.
The heavens are rejoicing right now.