NEWPORT NEWS, Va. —Debbie Mitchell was homeless, living on the streets in Indianapolis. She drank too much and cared too little.
"My life was totally broke," she says.
That was 2008 — and not today.
Now, she lives in Hampton, Va., with a son and stays involved with the sisterhood she's found through God's Girls Ministry, a nonprofit, nondenominational group that helps women connect, heal and restore.
"I found this group and they loved me through it," says Mitchell. She also went through the organization's yearlong internship that ministered to her particular needs so she came out a stronger person.
"When I had downtime, they were uplifting. I haven't had a drink since I left that city."
The ministry functions out of a storefront called The Circuit in Hidenwood Shopping Center in Newport News, Va. By day, the site is a free wi-fi cafe with complimentary coffee, tea or hot chocolate and snacks and sodas with a suggested $1 donation. By night, it hosts evening programs such as women's Bible study on Mondays, men's religious study on Tuesdays, an AA meeting on Thursdays and family music and fellowship on Fridays.
The Circuit is not a program, and it's not a church, according to founder Lesa Ankney, 52, an ordained minister and small business owner.
"We see ourselves as the church outside the walls of the church," she says.
"We have a great relationship with many of the area's churches."
God's Girls Ministry started in 2005, when Ankney decided she wanted something more than the university housing job she was doing at Christopher Newport University in Newport News.
The Lord called her to start a cleaning company, she says.
Sozo Clean LLC was formed to provide residential and commercial cleaning services, with an emphasis on green products and recycling. More importantly, the for-profit business raises money to support a lot of what God's Girl Ministry does.
"I saw women that from all outward appearances were doing OK," Ankney.
"I saw young, old, black, white, professionals and stay-at-home moms, single women, rich and those just making it. I saw these women who were doing everything to keep it together on the outside but were dying on the inside.
"They needed a safe place to be real about what was going on inside of them, and there wasn't that place.
"They were hiding in their jobs, in their homes and even in their churches, trying to be and do what was expected of them.
"God's Girls Ministry was birthed for those women."
During a recent Monday night Bible study, about 40 women fill the room furnished with small dining tables and chairs. As they enter, they hug and smile at each other. Some bring a Bible, some just a handbag and maybe a notebook. Some are quiet during the program, listening and soaking it all in. Some are animated, raising their hands in praise and saying quiet "amens" throughout the evening. They range in age from 20 to 50ish, and most are white women.
Once the women are settled, beverages in hand, Deanna Snead of Newport News sings "How Great Is Our God" by Chris Tomlin. Snead attends Victory Life Church in Hampton, Va. As she nears the end of the song, she continues a refrain, inviting the women to join in, which they do reverently.
Missy Smith, 28, a member of Empowered Believers Christian Learning Center in Hampton, gives an hour-long program on five women in Christ's genealogy — Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary. \The women listen intently to the story that proves as interesting as any tale of modern-day women facing obstacles and struggles in their lives.
"It's not who you are that holds you back but who you think you're not," says Smith.
"These women were murderers, prostitutes, adulterers and liars. These women suffered their time, their worlds. They were women with a past whom God gave a future."
Once Smith finishes, Ankney makes some announcements.
She encourages the women to attend "The Gathering: Women Helping Women Across the World," a March 5 event at the Hilton Garden Inn in Suffolk, Va., when Rosemary Trible, wife of Christopher Newport's president, gives the keynote talk. Trible's book, "From Fear to Freedom," details with how she healed and overcame the trauma of a rape she experienced at gunpoint as a young woman.
"Who has finished their 100 dreams to accomplish in life list?" she asks. Several raise their hands. To those who have not finished their list, she says: "Don't ask, 'Why me?' Ask, 'Why not me?' "
Although this night focuses on women, The Circuit wants to benefit everyone's life.
"Our desire is to take Jesus to the marketplace," says Ankney.
"We sponsor less fortunate families for Christmas, help pay utility bills or rent when people run a little short. We hope one day to have a 'necessities' closet that will be available to those needing diapers or toothpaste this month.
"Not your typical handout place but a place that a single mom can come and get diapers for a $3 donation instead of the $13 cost in the store, or a young family can pick up toilet paper this month because they didn't have quite enough after the bills were paid.
"We want people to come and go with their dignity intact."