A woman discovers the Lord’s guidance along an often difficult road.
Ann M. Ponath and Vanessa Woods
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”
Vanessa Woods’ favorite section of Scripture is Psalm 23.* As she considers her life’s journey, the words of verse 3 are especially meaningful: “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” As Woods puts it, her life has been “a long road behind.”
Following other paths
Woods was born in Santa Rosa, California, and raised in the San Francisco Bay area until she was six. Her family eventually settled in Redding, California, where her parents continue to live. Woods was a baptized and confirmed member of the Church of Christ. The church only allowed unaccompanied singing in their services. Woods plays guitar and a little piano but was not allowed to play during services.
Fast forward several years. Woods married. Her husband was also a Church of Christ member, and “things were fine until, after many years of physical and mental abuse, I had to leave him,” says Woods.
Woods took a job as a live-in nanny with a man who had custody of his developmentally disabled daughter but worked full time. The church told Woods that this was a sinful situation and “ordered me to go back to my abusive husband or face excommunication.” Woods refused and was banned from the church. “I vowed never to go to church again and for years questioned the existence of God at all,” says Woods. “I followed other paths.”
One of these paths was called Red Path. Woods is Native American of Chockta and Cherokee descent. Woods says Red Path is “Native American spiritualism, a very nature-based belief system that is based on a great spirit who made and owns everything. It allowed me to see God in everything and to be closer to God than I had ever felt.” Woods was part of Red Path for 15 years. “I felt satisfied in the presence of God. I began to believe he was real again, without the confines of church-based rules and ceremonies,” she says. But she was still missing something.
Seeing God’s care
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Things got very difficult. Woods moved to Oregon and says she lost connection with those of Native American descent and floundered, although she kept praying. “As things unfolded in my life, it got hard,” she says. She was plagued with arthritis and bursitis in hips and shoulders, and depression, among other things. She had remarried, and her new husband took care of household expenses, but Woods was a smoker. She tried quitting “but to no avail.” They had no money to spend on her habit, so she decided to collect cans to make money, but because of her disabilities, she could not physically do the collecting. “I got a little cart, put a sign on it that read: ‘Clean out your cars. Give me your cans and bottles,’ and sat in a small shopping center,” says Woods.
It was a hard time, but Woods started reading the Bible again while sitting by her cart for hours. Daily she prayed. Every day she made enough to get the things she needed. Woods says, “I realized God was listening to me, knew what I needed, and made sure it was there. I quit worrying about my day-to-day existence. . . . I may have forgotten about God for a time, but the Father did not forget me.”
Finding a church
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
After three years, Woods was able to stop collecting cans. “I had made a promise to God that when things got better, I would go in search of a place of worship,” she says. “Problem was, I was picky. Finding a church that was Bible-based was difficult.”
Woods’ youngest brother was actually married for a time. Woods and her former sister-in-law, Laura, remained friends. For years, Laura had been asking Woods to go to church, and, finally, around Christmas, Woods attended Mount Calvary, Redding, Calif., with Laura. “The message was full of hope, not the gloom and doom that I had always encountered before,” says Woods. “Here was a place that followed what the Bible taught and focused on Christ’s love and forgiveness for all.”
After the service, Woods was “so impressed with the message” that she asked the pastor if there was a WELS church near her home in Oregon. He gave her the address. She began regularly attending Trinity in Eugene, Oregon; took Bible information classes; and, less than a year later, became a confirmed member. “I am happy in my new home. God is a central part of my life, and I keep seeing his influence,” says Woods. “Even though I had no church, he watched over me, taught me, comforted me all along the way. I have been blessed.”
Woods’ long road has also been a blessing to others. Even during her tough years in the shopping center, Woods says she got to know many homeless people and grew to understand them. “Just because someone is dressed shabby and dirty—they have souls too,” she says. “I met some very intelligent people and made friends with many of them. I started preaching God to them too.”
Another person blessed by Woods’ faith is her young pastor. Ben Zuberbier was installed as Trinity’s pastor just weeks after Woods’ confirmation. He says, “It’s a blessing to have Vanessa in our Sunday morning Bible study. She has a good working knowledge of the Word. Not only is she well-versed in the pages of Scripture, but through these God has worked a faith in her Savior that has carried her through many difficult times. As a young pastor who’s been out of the seminary less than two years, I’ve learned what sections of Scripture you can use to comfort people who are facing different types of adversity. When I talk to Vanessa, she shares exactly how those sections of Scripture have given her comfort and hope through the years. What an encouragement that is to me and the members of Trinity! It regularly reminds us that the Word God gives us is living and active, powerful and efficacious. It gives new life and new hope. Praise God that he has promised to preserve it for us into eternity.”
Woods encourages all Christians when she says, “Never give up. Learn something new about the Lord every day, and be glad that someday we will all meet in heaven.”
The psalmist puts it this way: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Ann Ponath is a member at Christ, North Saint Paul, Minnesota. Vanessa Woods is a member at Trinity, Eugene, Oregon.
*Verses from Psalm 23 are using the English Standard Version translation.
Do you have a manuscript, idea, or story from your own life you’d like to share for use in Forward in Christ or on wels.net? Use our online form to share it to our editorial office for consideration.
Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.
Author: Ann Ponath
Volume 104, Number 2
Issue: February 2017
Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us