Shame and helplessness were among the emotions Lisa Anderson fought when she fell pregnant at 17-years-old.
Prior to her pregnancy, she had had a rough few years, starting with her mom leaving the family when she was just 15. Her mom’s departure led to a breakdown in her relationship with God. “Back then, I thought He would make everything OK, and He didn’t. I thought life would be happy because He is good,” Lisa says. “I was really struggling because the foundation that I had didn’t measure up to my expectations.”
But when she fell pregnant, Lisa found herself drawn back to God, although her relationship with Him was a tricky one. On the one hand, she was “crying out to Him and asking Him to be with me”. On the other hand, she was mad at Him that her life wasn’t going the way she thought it should.
Lisa also struggled with a lack of support from her son’s father, who had trouble dealing with the pregnancy, and was not very involved with the child.
It was in her father’s home that Lisa sought refuge, but this too fell apart when he asked her to move out when her son was just two-years-old. So Lisa, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, found herself having to navigate life with her toddler, with hardly any money in her pocket, and moving from flat to flat in search for an affordable home.
She ended up couch-surfing at a friend’s place, and it was in that moment that she realized how incredibly lonely she felt.
Her experiences, along with the relationships she later formed, would play a crucial part in Lisa’s decision to start Grace’s Table, an organization to educate and equip teen moms for motherhood.
A recent photo of Lisa and her son, Neil.
“There is no easy way for me to say this . . . I’m pregnant”
But the journey there was difficult. One of the hardest things for Lisa to hear was that her father was disappointed in her—on the day that she plucked up courage to break the news to him.
“I really value my dad’s opinion. I wanted to honor him, and I knew this wasn’t going to be honoring him, or shining him in a good light. There were so many competing thoughts coming in at that moment.”
And then there was the awkward responses that came from within the Christian community. Friends were torn between wanting to celebrate the new life Lisa was nurturing, and being careful not to applaud Lisa for having sex before marriage.
“It was weird. I think friends try to be supportive, but no one really knew how to respond. It’s not like there was any training in church on how you can support this young girl.”
Nothing to be Ashamed of
Lisa grappled with loneliness as she was confronted with these responses from those close to her. At the same time, there was also no charity or organizations for teen moms that Lisa could rely on. But she saw God’s grace towards her in the form of a few individuals who were there for her.
One of them was a childhood friend’s mom whom Lisa visited every now and then to have her nails done. Her friend’s mom would simply ask Lisa how she was doing, and just listen to what Lisa had to say.
“It was nothing major, but it contributed a lot to the way I walk alongside moms today. These girls are trying to figure things out, and it’s about recognizing their value hasn’t changed.”
The fact that her pregnancy hadn’t changed her value as a person was brought home to her again through her former manager at a Christian daycare center. Not wanting to tarnish the center’s reputation and testimony, Lisa informed her manager that she wanted to leave.
To her surprise, her manager told her: “Oh, I don’t accept your resignation. Because what the body of Christ does is we come around to people, and we walk them through things. We all make mistakes, but you don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”
Then there was also the woman at the pregnancy crisis center who patiently sat next to Lisa as she processed the fact that she was pregnant. Roiling in uncertainties, Lisa cried for two hours when her test results came back positive.
“She just sat and listened. My whole world was shifting, and I didn’t know what the outcome would be,” she says.
These people were the ones who helped Lisa see how important it is to have someone walk alongside other teen moms in the midst of their struggles.
The Birth of Grace’s Table
The idea for Grace’s Table was birthed from Lisa’s experience working at a non-profit organization for teen moms.
While she enjoyed working there, Lisa saw a need for a more holistic approach in helping these young moms navigate their future. For her, it was important that the teen moms’ spiritual, physical, and mental needs were met.
“This demographic has a lot of needs, beginning with the most basic: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. This is why we start with a meal and basic needs [such as diapers and baby formula]. In each and every area, we can communicate the love of God, not just through the Bible,” Lisa says.
But while she had a heart for starting her own non-profit to help teen girls, Lisa wrestled with giving up her corporate career, along with its attractive salary and perks.
Nevertheless, Lisa took the leap of faith and opened her home in December 2013. At that point, Grace’s Table was yet to be registered as a non-profit, so it was primarily funded with Lisa’s salary from her full-time work.
But it soon became clear that God was going to make Lisa choose between continuing in her banking role or giving it up to be with Grace’s Table full-time.
Choosing to give up her secure job didn’t come without any fears. For Lisa, she feared “leaving what felt like safety for me.” But God used the book of Joshua, which she had been studying during her quiet time, and the repeated verses of “do not fear” to give Lisa strength to resign from her job in 2017.
Grace’s Table was incorporated as a non-profit in 2014, and now relies on donors to keep its cogs spinning.
The moms and kids gathering at Grace’s Table for food and fellowship.
Creating A Space of Belonging
Today, the organization still operates out of Lisa’s two-story suburban home. Lisa and her son live on the top story, while the bottom has been converted into a welcome space for teen moms to gather with their children for food and fellowship.
After dinner and clean-up, the children would head off to play rooms, while Lisa and her group of dedicated volunteers talk, pray, and problem-solve with these young moms. Each girl is paired with a mentor, giving them the opportunity to build healthy relationships with adults who can provide practical guidance, and at the same time, show them the love of Jesus on their journey to find hope.
Linsey was one of the many girls who flourished at Grace’s Table, and it was there that she found a family she never had who supported her and loved her. When she had to serve a jail term for a traffic offense, Linsey was surprised when her mentor, who’s married with three kids, stepped in to look after her child.
She likens Grace’s Table to a “five-layer cake”, and the food and support she received was just the icing on the cake.
Besides providing for their basic needs, Grace’s Table aims to equip the girls spiritually through Bible study, practically through imparting skills on parenting and discipleship, and socially through opportunities to form meaningful friendships with like-minded peers.
The uncertainties that Lisa faced as a teenage mom when she had to put a pause to her personal development to focus on taking care of her baby also helped Lisa see the importance of education and career planning. Grace’s Table helps the girls prepare for their General Education Development (GED) to ensure they’re able to attend college, and furnishes them with the necessary skills to get a job.
After four years at Grace’s Table, Linsey has since passed her GEDs, and will be pursuing a degree in public relations, the first person in her family to attend college.
Lisa believes in keeping the life-skills classes free of any spiritual component because not every young mom who comes to Grace’s Table is accepting of the Christian faith, and Lisa wants to ensure that none of them feel excluded.
At the same time, Lisa tries to find opportunities to share the gospel in a non-threatening way. One young woman who came through the doors of Grace’s Table was initially resistant to the idea of learning anything about God. But it didn’t stop Lisa from inviting her to the Bible study class because she was interested in hearing the girl’s thoughts, and open the opportunity to discuss her viewpoint further.
The girl now has a “blooming relationship” with God. “She had a place where she felt she could be heard. We give young moms a place to belong before they believe,” Lisa says.
Lisa’s two-story suburban home which Grace’s Table operates from.
Growing Grace’s Table
Grace’s Table has come a long way since its inception in 2014, with three part-time staff now compared to the earlier days when it was just Lisa and a group of dedicated volunteers.
Lisa and her team are also in the process of identifying a space for residential care for moms to live on site for 12-18 months rent-free. Lisa hopes the residential care will come into fruition over the next year or two, and the initial home will accommodate four to five moms.
While the stigma surrounding teen pregnancy has changed over the years, Lisa believes there is still room for the church to grow in the way they relate to young mothers.“The church can listen, build relationships, and walk with them. They are not a project, but a human who has a lot to process. Be silent. Listen. Give them space.”
Lisa ventured into motherhood as a frightened and vulnerable teenager. But she is determined that the young moms that come into Grace’s Table will not have to go through what she did.
“This is what I needed when I was 17. I needed someone who was 40 to turn around, and say ‘you got this. You feel like you don’t, but we can talk about it. You don’t know how to pray, we will pray for you,’” Lisa says.
Ultimately, Lisa wants these girls to know that their worth is unchanged in God’s eyes, and that the Creator of the Universe loves them with an unending love.
“If that’s one thing they can take away, then it’s huge. I want them to know who they are in Christ, that’s the ultimate goal.”
Watch Lisa share more about her story and Grace’s Table here: