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  • Tara Crutchfield

Lorree

The Light in a Dark Place

Lorree’s faith is a gleam of sunlight hitting the water and reflecting in a million directions. Bright enough to catch and hold your attention. Brilliant enough with its aqua echoes to make you want to go for a swim. There’s just something compelling about this woman. She threads wisdom and tenderness throughout each sentence, sewing together the narrative of her life – a tapestry of good times and hard ones. Her’s is the story of a life lived in quiet reverberation – resonance of grace and grace and grace. “I am a little nervous, but the humbleness that I have in my spirit for all that He’s done for me in 59 years. I have no one to praise and give the honor to but Him,” she said.


A prayer and a song – that’s how Gospel Village resident Lorree began. Her eyes glinted like polished pearls as tears welled, and she sang softly, “He’s been my fourth man in the fire, time after time.”


“I just wanted to put that in the atmosphere because that’s where I am right now,” she said of the hymn.


She’d been up cooking the night before for a weekly feeding at church. If she was tired, it didn’t show. “The joy of doing that and seeing their expressions of thankfulness is just beyond words,” she said.


Lorree grew up in North Carolina during the 1960s. Her first memories are of being on the swings, making up songs, and singing to God. “Good memories,” she said.


Another good memory was at her father’s and uncle’s convenience store. She’d ask her Uncle Stanley for a Coca-Cola. She remembers the Coke-themed bottle opener on the wall. The top would pop off, “To hear the ‘chhhh’ and my daddy is standing on the corner with a cigar, half smoked.”


The only girl of three children, Lorree was spoiled by her father, and she watched her mother with curious eyes. Her father was born in 1919, and her mother in 1929, “They were products of the Great Depression, so they both were very frugal,” she said.


Lorree learned how to make jellies and jams and to can vegetables. Her neighbor across the street taught the little girl how to crochet, which she still does today. “That’s my glass of wine, once or twice a week,” she said.


Her love of sewing stems from her mother, who made most of her clothes until high school. “The last thing she did make for me was my debutant gown.” It was made of white taffeta with a netted underskirt. It had lace and sparkles around the top with mid-length sleeves. Escorted by a cousin, Lorree was the belle of the ball, no doubt.


During a Home Ec class in high school, Lorree remembers, with a smile, making a halter top that turned out too long on one side.


“I heard many stories of my grandmother sewing by candlelight, her doing a lot of hand stitching,” Lorree said. Her grandmother made an apron out of old tobacco bags and twine, which she’d wear over one of her only two dresses working in the fields during the week.


In 2018, Lorree was called to Florida with a group of people. “They were instruments for me to get out of that state.” She lived with several families, totaling five folks, in one mobile home. On Christmas Eve of the same year, they kicked Lorree out.


With nowhere else to turn, she lived out of her SUV from December through April. “My grandmother was the only child out of three in the late 1800s that went to finishing school, and that was unheard of then. That was post-slavery. The values that she instilled in us were to be very independent. It was very difficult for me to let my family know that I lived in my vehicle.”


“Fear was the first emotion I felt,” she said. “At that time, I lived in my vehicle, I felt that was pivotal because it showed me how to really trust God. I remember so many mornings I woke up singing the song “Hallelujah” because I knew he kept me safe. [...] I might hear something in my sleep, and I might open my eyes, and I would hear the peace of God saying, ‘It’s okay, I’ve got you.’”


When her car broke down at the Lakeland Public Library, she caught the bus to the Talbot House. Her first night there she met two women who told her about Gospel Inc. and their women’s program, Repurpose Art Studio. Gospel Inc. is a Lakeland nonprofit that provides resources, fosters community, and helps find purposeful employment for homeless folks across the city.


“The first morning I went there, Miss Connie said, ‘Lorree, you’re really serious about doing better.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’” Within that week, she was accepted into the Gospel Inc. sewing internship. It was a 16-week beginner’s course, at the end of which students received their own sewing machine. On Sundays, she would go home with one of the church moms and fix desserts to bring to the sewing program every Monday


During the program, Lorree was hit by an SUV while crossing the street. After getting out of the hospital, she stayed with a church sister. Though she couldn’t finish the program because of the accident, Gospel Inc. still awarded her a KitchenAid mixer. “God worked it out,” she said.


Post-accident, Lorree earned a dignified income working ten hours for Gospel Inc. each week. She worked mainly in the outreach center on Plum Street, writing ‘thank you’ cards, helping with payroll, miscellaneous office tasks, and daily devotionals.


Eventually, Lorree got a spot at Gospel Village, a sustainable and affordable long-term housing community for the chronically homeless. On her first night in her own space, Lorree felt slightly nervous but excited.


“Homelessness is like an oak tree. It has many, many branches and many, many roots. The branches we can see,” she said. Those could be mental, emotional, or physical issues. “As far out as the branches go, there are taproots that go out just as far under the ground.” That could be a trauma from childhood, loss of family, or a series of unforeseen events.


Someone may not look clean and be carrying four or five bags, but “if you could see the heart of that person, it would really make this world different,” she said.


Lorree says kindness to those who are currently without a place to live can look like asking if you can take them out for a meal or buying them a new pair of shoes. “I’ve had times in the last month that I see people on the bus, and I hear the Holy Spirit say, ‘Give them what you bought for yourself because you can make something when you get home.’”


The Gospel Village resident has plenty of plans for the future. She’d like to get her driver’s license, get involved with the children’s ministry at church, and perfect her trade of sewing – venturing out into more clothing.


But what does Lorree’s ideal life look like? “What it is now.”


“I feel like that God puts us all on this Earth for a specific thing,” she said. “He means for us to use those [talents] to help one another but having Him at the center of everything. […] I am a part of light that’s in a dark place.”


Speaking to the unhoused community, Lorree said, “Keep pushing forward. Change the people that you’re around. Make sure that they’re positive and that they want to do better for themselves. [...] I’m promising that it will not be easy — rest assured. But it is so worth it.”


Photography by Amy Sexson

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