Gerri Healey has a lifetime of sins behind her, and it’s come time to wash them away.
She sits beside her pastor, Brian Cool, at the Harrison Gospel Chapel on an early Friday morning. In two days, she will be baptized here. She’s nervous about what’s to come, and looking for guidance.
She looks to the young cleric seated beside her, asking him questions of a higher nature – questions of God, and of rebirth. Healey wasn’t raised in a church-going family, so even at the age of 52, the idea of redemption is new to her.
“I know I’ve done wrong in my life and I want it to go away,” she explains, then turning to Cool to ask: “Is that okay?”
Of course it is, he assures her. Baptism, he tells her, is a symbolic gesture of a Christian’s love for Jesus – “an outward sign of an inward reality.”
What shows on Healey’s outside isn’t the typical churchgoer image, but one of a hard drug user, a vagabond. On the outside, Healey is a street-hardened woman who has watched good friends die. Her skin is mottled leather and her body is bound by its erratic twitching. Drug use has left her with the effects of a stroke, a diabetic and epileptic.
Her voice is thick like three-day-old coffee, with the scratch of loose gravel rolling over concrete. She knows that when strangers see her, that’s all they see. And when she takes her walks around the Harrison Lake lagoon, thinking about the last 40 years of her life, she knows why some people pass her by, not returning her sunny smiles and “good mornings!”
And she understands.
“Maybe it’s not a good morning for them,” she jokes.
Healey has been drug-free for more than two years. She’s been alcohol free. She hasn’t touched so much as a cigarette. Devil’s playthings are a thing of the past, she says. She’s moved on, and now she wants the world to know why. More than anything, she wants her story shared with the world.
“I’ve wasted so much of my life,” she says. Tears start to form as she delves into her story, tracing back from her hard beginnings to this new road to redemption. She doesn’t candy coat a thing. And when she gets to the difficult parts, she lovingly pets Squeak, a small mutt of a dog she adopted from the streets of Chilliwack – years ago, when she was still homeless and spending her days in search of crack. And through the stories, the tears and the laughter, Squeak watches the room warily, constantly keeping guard from the comfort of Healey’s lap.
Healey’s eyes are bright today, twinkling and alive. It’s something that Cool points out to her time and again. He calls her “a miracle” more than once or twice.
“People don’t come back from that type of hard drug use,” Cool says, as he smiles at her. Healey started drinking and using as a young teenager, at the same time she was learning to play guitar and sing. There were happy times at one point, but by the time she was 13, Healey left her home to get away from her stepdad and a family rife with alcoholism.
“He hated me and I hated him,” she said. Her bad habits grew stronger over the following 40 years, and eventually her life became a constant search for the next hit.
“One hit’s too many and a thousand ain’t enough,” she says.
There wasn’t much she wouldn’t do to score. And the one time she was convinced to visit a recovery house, she sat outside the building with an eight ball of cocaine getting high. And then she left.
Even a stroke, brought on by drug use, didn’t stop her.
“I had just had a stroke, and they took me back to my home, and they gave me crack,” she said of her former friends. “I went out of my mind. I didn’t pay the rent.”
She watched as women went missing, and others died.
“Those were the hardest days, watching people I knew get beaten or trunked,” she said, “and nobody doing anything to stop it.”
On one of her darkest days, Healey walked into a Chilliwack pawn shop with her father’s four war medals. She walked out with $20. Enough to buy two hits of crack, at best, she says. A 10-minute high.
“That’s something I’ve had a hard time in my heart about,” she said. “That was something special to me, and special to my poor dad.”
Healey has no family left now. Many of her close friends have also died. During one binge, coming down from one high and looking for the next, tragedy struck once again. Healey’s best friend overdosed, but she was too high to notice at first. She was too intent on heading out the door to find more crack, or maybe a bit of heroin.
She tried to wake up her dead friend, and got no response. While she’d seen others die, this time was different. This time, she sobered up.
Seeing her best friend dead brought Healey to her knees. That was the moment, she says, when God came into her life. It was her last high, and she’s never looked back. But the guilt still eats away at her, for introducing that friend to crack.
“I still walk around the lagoon, thinking ‘I shouldn’t have done that,’” she says.
But more than guilt, she is feeling freedom these days. And that freedom comes from something beyond what anyone can see. When Healey found God that fateful day in a small Fraser Valley apartment, it also brought her to husband and wife, Robert and Sam McGregor.
“They are very good church people,” she says. “They showed me the way.”
Life changed immediately for Healey. With the McGregor’s help, she had a bed to sleep in and a roof over her head.
“The first time I went to church, I cried and cried and cried,” she said.
She started attending Harrison Gospel Chapel regularly. With time, she began to think about becoming baptized. And she began to believe in redemption.
Sunday morning has come, and Healey is sitting in a pew in the Harrison Gospel Church, just a few blocks from her favourite walking place at the lagoon; just a few steps from the home she shares with Squeak. The home that now announces No Smoking at the entrance.
“My old friends say I’m so damned boring now,” she says of her new rules, her new life.
The church is packed for the service and everyone is excited for what’s about to transpire. While adult baptisms aren’t uncommon, it’s not every day there is such a story of inspiration.
Her new friends smile and hold her hand. They hug her, and welcome her with open arms. As the pastor talks about Healey’s choice to be baptised, she smiles back at him from her seat. It’s an ear to ear grin. She gives her testimony to the congregation, and the McGregors lead the church in a prayer.
While Healey had wanted to get baptised in Harrison Lake, she also didn’t want to get sick from the exposure to the cold waters. So on this day, the baptismal tub at the front of the church is filled with water. When the time comes, everyone gathers around for a closer look.
The McGregors hop in the water with Healey, holding her hand to comfort her. A prayer is said, while Healey shivers in the tub.
“In the name of Jesus Christ,” Robert McGregor says, “I baptize you a child of God.”
And in the blink of an eye, Healey is underwater, submerged just long enough to cover her head.
She emerges with a whoop, and a rock and roll verse: “I feel good! And I knew that I would! Hallelujah!”
There are tears of joy, more smiles, more love. And just minutes later, Healey is walking up the road toward her home, wrapped in a towel, her wet clothing, and a smile.
Over the last year, Healey has heard in the news of others dying from the effects of street life. Overdoses, suspicious deaths.
But she is still clean and sober. She still walks around town with her friend Squeak, smiling and greeting strangers and friends along the way. And she is still glowing from the new relationship she’s formed with a higher power.
And while some may ignore her greetings, thinking she looks like trouble on the outside, others see Gerri Healey and know that even when it seems all hope is lost, miracles can happen.