Updated: Feb 25, 2018

I never realized how closely my ties were to my culture until I left the only place I had ever called home.

Although I was not born in Puerto Rico, I moved there at the age of four. All of who I am is Puerto Rican. The music, the food, the people, and the feelings, all shaped me into the person I am today.

Then when I was thirteen, my family and I moved to Florida. The culture shock was so strong I felt the waves hit me for months. Kids at school wondered if I could speak English (despite having no accent and, if you know me, my appearance would never give away my ethnicity). My teachers thought I would be behind educationally because of where I came from.

Most of my eighth grade year was spent sitting alone in a cafeteria table eating an Otis Spunker chocolate chip cookie. I'd cut it up into little pieces and eat slowly, just to make the time go by faster. 

One day a girl named Molly came and sat with me. We bonded over how strange middle school was and we started hanging out after school, once we discovered we lived in the same neighborhood. It was the first time I felt welcome. It was the first time I felt that maybe living in the United States wouldn't be so bad. 

It's been almost two decades since I sat with Molly at a lunch table, but I still find myself telling that story often.

Although Molly and I bonded over cookies and middle school stories, we both had crazy things happening in our lives during that season. During the first year I lived in Florida, my neighbor committed suicide, 9/11 happened in New York, and my sister was diagnosed with cancer. Molly's friendship and school became my safe place. The only four walls that gave me stability was the predictability of homework assignments, seating arrangements, and cookies. Everything else in my life was on a string.

When I look back at my rough beginning, my confusing middle, and my T.B.D. future, I wonder whether people ever think Well, she's a walking miracle! I am, but I can't take the credit. So much of my heart was restored when I surrendered all my "crazy" to the only person willing to take it, Jesus. When I first started to hear about an all loving God, I was intrigued, but not hopeful. Through Jesus, I knew that love was real and tangible for anyone who was willing to accept it.

I'm still trying to figure out so much, but over the past decade of choosing Jesus, I have found that he is all those things the Bible says he is: faithful, true, and life giving. 

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By Candace Rink

At the age of seventeen,

I had developed lofty goals for myself. The goals included me being wealthy, owning a large home and working as an attorney. With the exception of a small pet, I did not envision any relationships or friendships.

To me, life was better lived alone and without love. Besides, love didn’t exist anyway.

You may wonder why I had such a bleak outlook on life. I can say this: I did not arrive at this lonely existence on my own. Growing up I witnessed a multitude of broken, unhealthy relationships. I cannot think of a single relationship from my childhood or teenage years that was not destructive. I watched people I loved tear down one another. My mother had been married three times by the time I was 19, a pattern that was passed down from her mother. I spent most my high school days wishing my dad loved me and looking for the love he should have shown me, in other places. I spent my senior year dreaming of how I’d spend the money I’d make on myself and enjoy a simple life, full of luxuries.

Fortunately for me, God had other plans. Plans that included love, friendship and even a family. Before these changes took place, God had to interrupt my daydreams to rework my twisted reality.

You see, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to believe in love. In fact, my heart longed for love so deeply. But, since I had never seen, or experienced it, I concluded that it must not exist; at least not for me. It just wasn’t in the cards. So, I withdrew from it completely.

Love had harmed me, robbed me, and wounded me, why would I want something like that in my life?

While I was busy forming my opinions, my mother took notice to me withdrawing. She was worried and gave me two choices: church or counseling. She thought I needed something to fix what was going on with me. I chose church and rolled my eyes the entire way.

I hated being at church. Everyone was so dang cheery and they would not stop inviting me places. I didn’t want to be invited; I wanted to be invisible. I wanted to be left alone to pursue my dreams. I had been approached by a pastor at the church who offered me an all-expense-paid-trip-to-a-youth-conference. You can imagine my enthusiasm for the “opportunity.” Begrudgingly, I agreed (on account that my mother had counseling hanging over my head). It was on that trip that my life and plans were interrupted. I didn’t know it, but the course of my life would be changed for forever.

I will spare you the messy details of my come to Jesus moment. It involved a lot of ugly crying, snot and grabbing on to a stranger so I didn’t fall over. It was intense to say the least. What was most incredible about that moment was the love I felt. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

The God of the universe reached down into my messed up heart and allowed me to feel love. It had no conditions, or hoops to jump through.

There were no obligations or limitations. This love did not pretend just to get what it wanted, nor did it look at all the hate that filled my heart. In that moment, I realized that every dream I had ever had for my life was empty; meaningless. I spent my entire life protecting myself from love because the only love I had ever known, had harmed me. Which I learned, over time, really wasn’t love at all.

Sometimes, when we are hurt, we put protective walls around us. We make promises to ourselves like, “I will never be that vulnerable ever again..,” or “No one will ever take advantage of me like that..”

We begin self-protecting and rejecting even the good in our lives to avoid pain. These walls harden and change us into people we never thought we’d become.

When I was seventeen years old I asked God’s love to fill my life and to tear down the walls that I had built around years of bitterness and heartache. And you know what? He did. From that day forward God began to soften the hardness in my heart. He exchanged my lonely daydreams for a life filled with teaching teenagers that are just as broken and messed up as I use to be. He showed me that the love I had experienced was broken and flawed.

When we measure God’s love for us against any love that can be found in the world, we come up short. Nothing can compare to the love God offers us. While we cannot compare it, we can allow His love into our lives. For his love changes, heals and restores the broken-hearted.

He did it in my life and today I can say that I know that, without a doubt, love exists.

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