Zelda Tiemann | photo by Lynn Anselmi

NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT PURSUING A VOCATION. My early years were marked by chaos, and no one talked to me about getting an education or finding my life’s purpose. The notion of one’s life calling grows out of so many things: a family legacy, spiritual influences, the needs of the world around them, or even the trauma someone experiences.

If I had followed in my mother’s footsteps, I would have become a field worker. My mother was an undocumented migrant worker who was ineligible for social services. In desperation, she turned to men for assistance. Growing up, I witnessed my mother being physically beaten, and
I was molested by one of her boyfriends.

“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”

Children of single parents are more apt to experience poverty and violence, according to social science research. They are more likely to be physically, emotionally, and sexually abused. Those placed in foster care have higher dropout rates, incarceration rates, incidences of mental illness, problems with addiction, and struggles maintaining relationships and employment.

Unfortunately, all of these things describe my childhood and experiences in my young adult life. By the time I was 15, I fled from home, believing my very survival depended on leaving. Without an education, I headed down the road of self-destruction. I resorted to shoplifting for food and clothes and breaking into apartment laundry rooms for a place to sleep when I was homeless.

I was 47 when I was sentenced to the Washington Correction Center for Women (WCCW). I had reached the lowest point in my life, and I had nothing to do but reflect on what brought me there.

One afternoon, an older woman named Peg walked into the unit where I was housed and asked if anyone wanted to go to the correctional center’s chapel to do arts and crafts. I immediately raised my hand just for the chance to get outside.

While she handed out art supplies, Peg began to tell everyone the story of Jesus, a person I hadn’t heard about before. I pretended not to listen until she started talking about forgiveness. I told Peg I wanted to know more about forgiveness, and she became my spiritual mentor and advisor.

“Stepping out in faith was like being a skydiver in a free fall, believing your parachute will open.” — Zelda Tiemann

Peg visited once a week and took me under her wing. She helped me study the Bible, and she showed me Scripture verses where God said I could become a new creation and have a second chance at life:

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18, NRSV)

I was at a crossroads. I could take the victim’s path and blame everyone who had wronged me. I could wallow in self-pity and continue down the path of further self-destruction by holding on to the belief that I was “damaged goods.” Or, I could choose the path of survivor and follow God and his promises to redeem me.

I chose to take a chance for a better life. Stepping out in faith was like being a skydiver in a free fall, believing your parachute will open.

Peg suggested I sign up for a GED certificate since I had not earned a high school diploma. Once I completed the online GED exams, I requested to take college courses. The custody counselor told me only 300 slots were available for the 1,500 women at the WCCW.

Peg and I prayed for a spot for me. Two weeks later, I received notice that I could start my college courses. I was scared because I wasn’t sure I would measure up since I had dropped out in the ninth grade. When I finished my first courses in web design and interactive media, my professor informed me I had completed them with a 4.0 GPA.

I asked him what that meant.

“That is a perfect score, Ms. Tiemann,” he told me. “I encourage you to pursue a college career when you are released.”

I walked back to my unit feeling like this was a turning point. I was intelligent and worthy of an education. I could do something and maybe even make a difference in the world. When Peg took the time to guide me and “speak life” into me, a new identity began to emerge.

I had the opportunity to be a contributing member of society, with the purpose of my life to glorify God. Peg helped me see the trauma I had experienced could be a tool to reach others who have suffered similar things.

In 2014, I was released from the WCCW and accepted into Hope Place for Women, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission’s facility that specializes in a 12-month transition and reentry program for women starting over after homelessness, domestic violence, addiction, and incarceration.

Hope Place provided each of us with a caseworker to help us with legal identification, health benefits, job searches, transportation, mental health services, and transitional housing. We also took classes to help us heal from past traumas and gain skills to help us recognize and avoid bad influences.

Leaders at Hope Place told me I exhibited leadership skills and encouraged me to lead small groups and share my story in churches, jails, and prisons. One speech turned into ten speeches. Soon, I was speaking at symposiums in front of lawmakers, and I was invited to serve on a “Building Bridges from Prison to College” committee for Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

I was on the path to becoming a professional public speaker, but I needed to learn more and establish my credentials. I dreamed of attending Seattle Pacific University where I could take public speaking classes and earn a bachelor’s degree in communication, but I initially was too intimidated to apply.

When I finally applied and was accepted with academic scholarships, I knew God had made a way. The communication classes built my confidence, but I was surprised by how much I gained from a course, “Foundations for Educational Ministry.” I began to think my calling was to reach people in transition by sharing my victories and by inspiring them to believe in a better life for themselves. God once again made a way for me with a job offer from Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission where I work today.

The global pandemic put many public speaking events on hold, so I had to pivot. I spent time creating a workbook detailing the steps I took to transition my own life into something with purpose and meaning.

I consider it an honor and a privilege to have had the opportunity to attend Seattle Pacific, a prestigious, private university that offered me the education I sought. And every day, God reminds me he made a way for me when I believed there was none.

Photo by Lynn Anselmi

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