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Have Mercy!

This spring, Nancy Alcorn celebrates the 20th anniversary of Mercy Ministries, which offers God's hope and healing to girls struggling with addictions, eating disorders, unwed pregnancy, and abuse—girls not so unlike the bulimic teen she once was.

Nancy Alcorn, the 47-year-old founding director of Mercy Ministries, is sitting in her suburban Nashville office holding a framed painting—and beaming. It's a simple watercolor of a ballerina painted by a girl living in one of the Mercy homes, part of the ministry Nancy established to help girls ages 13-28 who struggle with eating disorders, abuse, addictions, and unwed pregnancy. There's something about the painting—the innocence of this young dancer, her arms reaching heavenward—that prompted Nancy to have it framed to hang in her office. Perhaps it's that this hopeful image came from the brush strokes of a teen who had been impregnated by her sexually abusive father, the same man who beat her body into aborting the baby when he discovered she was going to have his child. Despite this young woman's traumatic circumstances, through Mercy Ministries she's discovering the healing that comes through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Nancy's seen enough such stories of God's redeeming mercy to fill a hundred office walls.

But she hasn't always had the joy of seeing such hope come from such dire circumstances. Before the launch of Mercy Ministries, which celebrates its 20th anniversary of transforming young women's lives this spring, Nancy spent five years as the athletic director at a Tennessee correctional facility for juvenile delinquent girls. Following that, she supervised foster care in Nashville for three years. In these government-run programs, Nancy saw girls involved in prostitution, drug use, abuse, and crime return to their destructive patterns as soon as they were released from custody. As a Christian, Nancy knew that because she wasn't allowed by the government to offer these girls the only source of true transformation—Jesus—she couldn't get to the root cause of their illegal actions.

Tired of not being able to share the saving Truth that ended her own teenage rebellion—including a five-year battle with bulimia —Nancy left government-run services to become director of women for the Nashville branch of faith-based Teen Challenge. There she sensed God lead her to launch a ministry for young women caught in destructive habits and homes. Armed only with a $1,000 going-away gift from Teen Challenge, Nancy moved to Monroe, Louisiana, where she sensed God calling her. She was sure of four things: The ministry was to refuse government funding so she'd be free to share the gospel; she was to tithe on all contributions to the ministry; she was to take in girls free of charge so they'd know the only motivation for reaching out to them was God's unconditional love; and, somehow, God would silence skeptics by providing for Mercy Ministries' every need.

Bit by bit, Nancy saw God provide such things as the low-priced home outside city limits (away from stringent zoning laws) with lots of bedrooms; local media coverage that prompted donations; even a local doctor who gave Nancy $4,600 to pay off the remaining debt on her car. Additionally, her friends introduced her to various business and church leaders in the area who gave her money and opportunities to spread the word about Mercy Ministries. The fresh coats of paint were barely dry on the house when Nancy started receiving calls from parents of girls in desperate situations. Their first resident was 19-year-old Theresa, who was suicidal and heavily involved in drugs and alcohol. Theresa was followed by countless other hurting girls urgently in need of God's healing and hope.

Since then, the 20-bed Monroe home has been filled to capacity with a waiting list, and other Mercy homes have opened their doors. In 1990, Nancy moved back to Nashville and began planting seeds for a Mercy home that opened there in 1995. Both the Monroe and Nashville locations house an adoption agency for pregnant Mercy girls who decide to give their babies up for adoption. Since 1985, the ministry has placed hundreds of babies into loving adoptive families across the U.S. In 2000, worship leader Darlene Zschech and her husband, Mark, established Mercy Ministries of Australia and opened a Mercy home near their church in Sydney. Also that year, Joyce and Dave Meyer of Joyce Meyer Ministries deeded property to Mercy Ministries for a future St. Louis home. Funds currently are being raised for renovation costs for the facility on the St. Louis property as well as for a second home in Australia. Plans also are underway to open homes in New Zealand, the UK, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Houston.

This May Mercy Ministries will host a 20th anniversary celebration, including a banquet for graduates, adoptive couples, and financial supporters. Nancy hopes to get Theresa, the first Mercy girl, to come, as well as the first baby placed through Mercy's adoption agency. Also, this February Mercy will launch a new book series, beginning with Mercy for Eating Disorders, to help people wrestling with the various issues they treat at Mercy, as well as those who love them. These will join the other books in Mercy's library, Echoes of Mercy and Mercy Moves Mountains (available through Mercy's website, www.mercyministries.com). Last year, Nancy began speaking at Point of Grace's new Girls of Grace conferences targeted for girls ages 13-18.

As she sits in her suburban Nashville office, Nancy shares with TCW amazing accounts of God's provision for Mercy Ministries, her freedom from her eating disorder, her thoughts on being 40something and never married, and things God's taught her in two decades of reaching troubled girls with God's mercy.

What's a typical day like for girls at Mercy?

The girls get up at 7 A.M., and from 7 to 9 A.M. it's showers, breakfast, work detail, and straightening up their rooms. From 9:00 to 9:30, they gather in the classroom for Bible reading and a discussion of the day's passage.

Then after a quick restroom break, we spend 45 minutes in worship and prayer. Bible teaching is from 10:30 to 11:30, led either by me, someone on staff, or a video of a youth pastor or Bible teacher. Then we break for lunch.

In the afternoons there's free time, and on Fridays there's usually an outing to the mall. One afternoon a week, the girls have individual counseling. The pregnant girls also go to a special decision-making class to help them determine if they want to keep their baby or put their child up for adoption. Girls 13-17 participate in a "homeschool" program at Mercy in the afternoons.

We all attend a local church on Sunday mornings and evenings and on Wednesday nights. In the evenings the girls have more free time. Then quiet time begins at 10 P.M. and lights go out at 10:30.

That's pretty regimented!

Yes, but many girls come from very undisciplined backgrounds. We're trying to help them learn to establish positive habits—such as daily Bible reading and regular church attendance—that will last long after they leave Mercy. Basically the problems that bring them here are just an excuse to get them into a discipleship program where God's Spirit can move them to a place of total commitment to him.

We teach the girls forgiveness is available through Jesus for anything they've done, and we stress how important it is to forgive those who've hurt them. We also teach basic life skills, such as how to discover what they're gifted at, how to conduct themselves in a job interview, and how to stick to a budget.

How do girls get admitted to Mercy?

We have a careful intake process. Parents can't just send their daughters here; the girls have to want to come. They're given a list of the house rules and are told they'll have to work hard on their issues. The girls don't have to be Christian to get admitted, but they're told upfront this is a faith-based ministry. They're asked point-blank if they're ready to commit to this. There's also an extensive application, and state licensing requires them to have a medical examination. We give pregnant girls priority since there's a limited window of time to help them choose life—whether that's keeping their baby or putting the child up for adoption. If they choose the latter, they're given a vital role in choosing adoptive parents.

How long do girls usually stay?

The typical stay is six months. It depends on the girl—how difficult the problem is and how quickly she heals.

I wish we could find a way to call our ministry something other than a home for "troubled" girls, because we like to tell them, "Look, you're just like everybody else in the world except you were willing to admit you had a problem and then do something about it. So your problem's nothing more than an excuse to get you into an environment where you can discover God's plan for your life and learn you're not a reject or a throwaway."

Then we go through the Bible and point out all the "troubled" people God used. Look at King David; God called him a man after his own heart, yet he committed adultery, got another man's wife pregnant, then had the husband killed in a battle to try to cover his sin. Even Rahab the prostitute is in the lineage of Jesus.

We tell the girls that just because they graduate from Mercy doesn't mean they won't have problems, but it does mean they have the Overcomer living inside them. The Enemy still will tempt them, but we emphasize that the only person who can make them fail is them.

What's mercy's success rate?

About 90 percent. We have graduates who are pastors' wives, missionaries, college graduates, even Mercy Ministries staff members. Theresa, our first Mercy girl, was working as a nurse at a local hospital last time we heard from her. And I was thrilled to learn she was still following God. Part of the reason our success rate is so high is that we've never had a girl complete the program and not make a commitment to follow Jesus.

What's the most prevalent problem you see in young girls right now?

Definitely eating disorders. I think the statistic right now is that one in four girls in America wrestles with an eating disorder. This issue probably affects the church the most, because while "good girls" may not sleep around, use drugs, or get drunk (though some certainly do these things), that drive for perfection in Christian girls can be quite strong. I know—that's part of what drove me to become bulimic.

When did your eating disorder start?

Right before I became a Christian, three weeks before leaving for college. One day I ate too much and forced myself to throw up to relieve that too-full feeling. When I realized doing this would allow me to eat whatever I wanted without having to burn off the calories, I started bingeing and purging regularly. I was a perfectionist who put pressure on myself to do everything right—including looking good. Unfortunately, becoming a Christian only intensified that, as I thought I had to be perfect in order to please God. At that point, I had zeal for God, but I didn't yet understand his grace and mercy.

How did you become a Christian?

When I was growing up, I loved sports and desperately wanted to become a basketball coach. When I blew out my knee in high school, I no longer had a driving goal to give my life meaning, and I became increasingly angry. I fell into the party life and started smoking and drinking.

By the summer before college, I recognized the emptiness of this lifestyle. When my friend Cleta invited me to a revival meeting, I reluctantly went. Unbeknownst to me, Cleta had been praying I'd become a Christ-follower for three years. I'd been raised in a church-going home and even served as the president of my youth group, but it was more like a social club to me. I hadn't given my heart to Jesus—I was too busy living life my way.

At this revival meeting, however, I heard people share about their personal, day-to-day relationship with Jesus. I was especially moved by the young people who shared how Jesus filled the void in their lives, giving them purpose and direction—the very things I lacked. Several days later I called Cleta, and with her help, I prayed to become a Christian. A couple weeks later, I left for college.

Did you end your rebellious lifestyle?

I stopped smoking and drinking right away; I'd grown tired of those things anyway. But the bulimia was more difficult to shake. I was away from my family, living in an apartment with a friend, so it was easy to hide.

Back then, I didn't know there was such a thing as an eating disorder. I'd never even heard that term. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but there was no one to turn to. If I'd known someone else with an eating disorder, I would have talked to her.

What finally got you to stop?

On New Year's Eve a few years after my bulimia started, my friends and I had planned to go to a big Christian party, but I decided to stay home at the last minute. I remember being alone that night and saying to God, "I can't go into another year like this." I was tired of hiding my bulimia from my family and friends, and of feeling ashamed about this part of my life. God helped me realize how much damage I was doing to my body.

So that year I started eating only when I was hungry. Because I was overweight, I started walking several times a week. I didn't weigh myself, but focused on getting healthy. Most importantly, I paid attention to my heart's hunger and made sure I filled myself with time in prayer and in God's Word. It still took a couple years to change these habits because I didn't have anyone to help me. Through this process I learned there's nothing we can't overcome with God's help, even if it takes some time. I know if I'd had a place like Mercy to go to, my five-year battle would have been more like five months.

How does Mercy Ministries survive without any government funding?

Solely through God's provision and the faithful contributions of individuals, businesses, and churches that have caught Mercy's vision. This is no small thing considering our annual operating budget is around four million dollars, and increases with each home we open.

Although Mercy never has built up a savings account or had extra money, we never have had bills go unpaid. Sometimes it's gone down to the wire, like the day someone brought a check over just hours before we needed to pay our electric bill. Also, just after I turned down government funding, which was right when we were trying to open an unwed mothers' home in Louisiana and desperately needed money, that's when I met a man on a plane who gave us the $150,000 that made the home possible. Time and time again, God has proven himself to be Jehovah Jireh, "The Lord who provides."

So we continue to trust, even when things get tight, as they are right now. We've seen God's faithfulness, and we know this is what we're supposed to do.

One thing God hasn't provided for you is a husband. Do you still desire to be married?

Yes, but I'm not hung up on it. I was engaged once, but God showed me that wasn't the right situation. I know it will take someone special who will catch the vision for Mercy and let me do my thing here.

But in the meantime, I'm content. I have married friends and single friends, and I enjoy them all. I can go out to eat with friends and have it be just three married couples and me and still have a blast. That hasn't always been the case, but God's helped me get to that place of peace. He's also granted other desires of my heart in wonderful, unexpected ways.

Such as?

When I felt God call me down this path toward Mercy Ministries, I set aside my love of sports. But in the past several years, through Mercy, I've become good friends with several women's basketball coaches and a couple of Tennessee Titans' football coaches and their wives. I've been able to live my sports dream vicariously through them. It moves me that God loves me enough to give me back some of what I gave up to serve him in this ministry.

You also have lots of girls watching how you conduct your life as a single.

Yes, and I remind them all the time that they're complete in Christ. If you marry someone who's also complete in Christ, then it's not two completing each other, it's two complete people coming together. Two halves don't make a whole, healthy relationship.

I challenge the girls not to pine away waiting for Mr. Wonderful, but instead to get their eyes on Jesus and figure out what he's got for them to do in life.

Do you talk with them about sexual purity?

Definitely. And I tell the girls it would be unfair for me to ask them to commit to abstinence if I wasn't committed to it myself. I also let them know my boundaries in relationships, that I've decided ahead of time what I'm going to do about my commitment to sexual purity. For example, when I was dating a man who lived in another city and he'd come to visit, I wouldn't let him stay at my place and sleep on my couch. I joked with them, saying, "I may be saved, but I'm not that saved!" And then we talk about making decisions that set us up to succeed instead of fail.

What do you say to girls who've already had sex or have made other mistakes in life?

I point them to Jesus, who offers us forgiveness through his death and resurrection for our sins. I'm constantly amazed by the way God completely transforms lives with this saving truth. There's nothing better than seeing a girl who's close to death walk through our doors and watching God breathe his life and spirit into her. To watch her really get it —that she's forgiven and can have a brand new beginning—and then to watch her go out knowing who she is in Christ, ready to change other people's world as hers has been changed. That's just it for me. That's the beauty of God's mercy.

For more information on Mercy Ministries, go to www.mercyministries.com, or write them at P.O. Box 111060, Nashville, TN 37222-1060.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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