Two sisters' love for each other and for God triumphs over a lifetime of abuse and horror.
Singing gospel and telling their story, the two sisters chime in together and look into each other's faces lovingly. Their voices fill with surrender, release and joy. Both in their early forties, Lionese is tall with smooth brown skin and upright posture, a past Miss Texas International beauty pageant winner; Wynonia is squatter, with quick movements and rougher veneer.
"Mama always sung gospel," but secretly. Daddy, a college graduate and 25 year Army veteran, was an atheist and against their going to church. Mama did not speak up, even for her children's sake. "Mama knew that Daddy was making us drink, making us sit on soldiers' laps, their hands between our thighs." He would bring Wynonia to the woods to drink bootleg liquor and wager $200 his 9 year old daughter could outdrink any man, and Wynonia did not let him down. Daddy beat his children and his wife. Both sisters describe their mother as a good woman who did what she believed to be best for her children despite the drinking and incest, as a woman who thought she was being obedient to God by staying with her children's father.
Wynonia entered a marriage as chaotic and violent as her parents' home. Wynonia was once declared dead after her husband kicked her through the wall with his cowboy boot to her chest. Another time he "busted" her in the eye, nearly blinding her. She in turn clobbered him with a fry pan, burned and stabbed him.
Wynonia started using drugs with a man she met while her husband was incarcerated for burglary. As the years passed, Wynonia sank deep into addiction, wandered in and out of shelters, treatment centers - where she was diagnosed as psychotic - and prisons. In prison, tossing 100 pound sacks of pecans, Wynonia found comfort singing gospel, while cows at the fence mooed in tune. When she was in her thirties, a mother of three and grandmother of two, Wynonia fled to the streets.
In contrast, Lionese married a man who treated her like a queen. They owned houses and condos, expensive jewelry, antique cars and trucks, nightclubs. Their daughter had a pet pit bull with diamond studded teeth. He was a dealer, and Lionese felt lucky to reap the benefits. She had dabbled in drugs in high school. Married, she drank heavily, downed pills, and snorted cocaine daily, all the time keeping her office job, modeling, and looking great. When she discovered two women were pregnant by her husband she shot herself.
Lionese's husband became increasingly strung out and turned violent. He was convicted of three murders. "Out of sick love," Lionese sold everything for his defense. For a while Lionese stayed clean, read the Bible, struggled to make ends meet and raise her children. But the craving called and soon she too left three children with her mother and was on the streets. She would return to her parents' home shaking and trembling from several nights' using and tricking.
Heart grows as hard as the jailhouse bars
Lionese always felt nervous on the streets. Even at the point when she no longer cared "how dirty the men were, how nasty their drawers were, if they stunk like hell," she felt ashamed and scared. Wynonia, on the other hand, became hard. She retaliated. She was raped and robbed and saw the brutalized bodies of two girlfriends murdered on the streets. She beat men up; she jumped from trees on men passing by. She slept in abandoned buildings. "My heart was as hard as the jailhouse bars."
Once a man robbed Wynonia and held a pistol to her head. Lionese pleaded with him to spare her sister. Wynonia turned to her, "What you crying for? You need to shut up," and said boldly to her assailant, "You go ahead and use that pistol or you give me back my stuff. You can't kill me because I am already dead."
Wynonia knew her sister's fear made her vulnerable. Wynonia lured her away from dope houses. She often took the rap in Lionese's place. She taught her to stop trading sex for drugs, that she could make hard cold cash and buy her own drugs. Wynonia's goal was to shelter Lionese from hardness.
Lionese talks about how difficult it was for her to confess, once in treatment, all that she had allowed her younger sister "to take up for her." With tears on her cheek Wynonia insists, "It was my choice, Lionese. I did it because I love you. All I wanted was for you to get well."
"God did for me what I could not do for myself."
Wynonia always felt Lionese would find the way for them both. Lionese was in fact the first to enter Star of Hope's full year drug treatment and transitional living programs. Meanwhile, Wynonia's son found Wynonia on the streets and begged her to stop. She continued using but quit tricking for two years and worked construction. Then for her 39th birthday she decided to give herself "the gift of life."
When Wynonia first arrived at Star of Hope "They let me skip, jump, hop and run, for the kid life I never had". Then she started the painful work of reviewing her past, examining her actions and responsibility. Before, both sisters felt things just happened to them. In the program, they learn to "watch what you think and choose, reject what may harm you, apply Scripture to daily life." Wynonia is finding deep relation to the12 - Step affirmations, "God did for me what I could not do for myself, " and "Restore me to sanity."
The program teaches healthy ways to relate, set boundaries, trust, be a parent, have clean fun. For the first time they went to museums, Astros games. Lionese explains that her transformation entailed "unlearning everything from the beginning of remembering," and "leaving the comfort zone" of a lifestyle repeated for generations in her family. At Star of Hope Lionese and Wynonia found "peacefulness" and God's presence.
With God's grace the sisters start over
As an exercise, when all alone, Wynonia was asked to look at herself in the mirror and say, "I love you." She could not. She did not like the "gangster self" she saw. Then she heard a voice say, "I love you." "My face peeled off its ugliness and I looked pretty to myself." She cries, "I am a child of God, saved by His grace."
Equipped with new job and personal skills and modest stipend, Lionese completed the programs and has been living independently almost three years. Her children are with her and for the first time Lionese feels good as a mother. She is working and saving money and reaching many of her goals. She visits Wynonia often at Star of Hope. Wynonia takes heart, "I'm walking in her footsteps."
The loving sisters talk, go for a ride, grab a burger, laugh and sing together. "Tell our story. We want people to know there is hope. No matter how bad your past has been, God's grace allows you to start over."
Star of Hope Mission
- Provides shelter and recovery services in a Christian environment for homeless individuals and families.
- Two emergency shelters - one for men and one for women and children - provide temporary lodging, meals and medical care.
- A transitional living center for women and children offers structured programs for spiritual growth, education, employment, life management and substance abuse recovery.
- Began in 1907. Currently serves over 700 homeless people per day.
- Thirty per cent of support comes from United Way and government funding; the majority comes from private donations.