After leading a very conventional life, a middle-aged Val Jeal told God she was available to be used by him. Moving to an inner-city church, God opened her eyes and heart to what was happening in Bristol, and so began a remarkable rollercoaster ride of love, compassion, burnout, determination, honesty, victories and defeats.
Founding the charity One25, Val worked with the female sex workers of Bristol, offering a listening ear, acceptance, support and a safe place to stay that has changed many lives.
Val’s incredible story, as told in her new book Broken by Love, shows that it is never too late for God to work in your life and will encourage you to have the faith to step out and do what God has called you to do.
Val, why did you decide to write Broken by Love?
I was encouraged by a number of people to tell the story of my journey with Christ.
Who have you written this book for?
I originally wanted my granddaughter, Hannah, to know something of my life as I, like many others, know nothing of my grandparents’ lives. As the story developed and was shared with a few friends, I was encouraged to aim for a wider audience.
At the start of the story, you say that you were an ordinary woman leading an ordinary life – so can you just tell us a little about how you ending up working with marginalised women and changing your life so dramatically?
Six years after becoming a Christian at the age of 44, I had a real sense of a calling to work in my local inner-city community. I set up The Candle Project with The Salvation Army. This was a drop-in for homeless men and women, most of whom were abusing alcohol and Class A drugs. The work was demanding and heart breaking and continued over a 5-year period until burnout and a sabbatical leave in Chicago working with the female sex-workers. The final breaking came in Chicago where God met me and took me on a new journey with marginalised women.
This title is very personal to you and in the book you speak very honestly about your mistakes, and how you suffered burn out at various points in your work. Why was it important to include these in your story, and what do you think these experiences have taught you?
An honest story includes the hardships as well as the rewards. People need to know that working with people on the margins is very demanding. It taught me to persevere and to bring everything to God in prayer.
You gently challenge the reader by saying that ‘when God needs someone to go – let it be you.’ How can we actually do that?
Recognising that God is actually calling you is the first step. So, listen and be prepared for God to show you the direction you need to take. It is then necessary to take it to God in prayer and talk to a trusted Christian person such as your church leader to share what you feel you may be called to. Be prepared to listen to God and then to act in faith.
Can you share one story of how God has changed someone’s life that has really impacted you?
There were two close friends, C and M, living in a basement squat close to One25, together with the 3-year-old daughter of M. Both women had drug habits and were working on the street selling sex to pay for their drug habits. The women and the child often came to me in One25 in the early days of the project when I was working alone in the centre, and we shared coffee and toast together as they talked about their lives on the street.
M. shared that she had been offered a university place to study accountancy, but due to her drug problem had not been able to take it up. She spoke honestly of having messed up her own life and that of her small daughter and said that she was certain of being able to stop her drug abuse if she had something to aim for. The main issue at that time was her need to fund the first year of study at university. One25 was in no position to even consider this, and it would have been entirely inappropriate for the organisation to do so.
My husband and I talked and prayed about M. and her need. After some weeks of M. coming regularly to talk, and being convinced of her motivation to change, Cliff and I decided to offer to fund her first year at university. She enrolled for the first year and disappeared from the scene. Some years went by, and I lost touch with her.
C. continued working on the street and her drug use and lifestyle became ever more chaotic. She was a delightful woman who also had a daughter who had been removed into care. C. engaged with One25 workers over a number of years and said she was sick of her life and ready for change. She tried reducing her drug intake but struggled. Her health was very poor. With great sadness One25 received the news that C. had died. Understandably her family did not want One25 workers to attend her funeral and so we organised a memorial service in the One25 drop-in for workers and friends from the street to grieve together. And here is when the two stories came together.
During the short memorial service, the door of the drop-in opened and a very smart woman wearing a business suit walked in. She sat alone, but at the end of lighting candles for C. the woman came and spoke to me. ‘Remember me?’ she said, and it was M. – now a successful accountant and mother. Two women – two stories – two lives.
How can we pray or practically care for sex workers or other marginalised people in our society?
We need to ask God to soften our hearts and to pray for people living on the margins of our society and consider that there are often tough life experiences that have led to their hardships.
What was the most challenging element of writing the book?
It has been an emotional roller-coaster as memories of joys and disappointments, and of love and death, have been recalled and written down.
And what was the most rewarding element of writing this book?
Remembering the lives of the people I have loved along the way. It was an enormous privilege, and my life was changed for the better.
Have you learnt anything new/ been reminded afresh about God/ your faith while writing this book?
Without God there is no hope. So many of the people I have worked with had no faith and no hope.
What do you hope readers will most get out of reading this book?
I hope that at least some readers will be encouraged to listen to God and have faith and courage to act when he calls them.
In one sentence, how would you describe Broken by Love?
It is the story of my journey of faith, hope and love during which I have been challenged, broken and changed.
Is there anything we can pray for you?
Courage to face my old age!