"All my life my mother trusted God, and she always said that in the end those who obeyed God would be victorious." Anita Carman strolls through a quiet backyard prayer garden in a residential Houston neighborhood. The building behind her is a former residence, converted to headquarters and a spiritual oasis for Inspire Women, the ministry Anita founded to change the lives of women—and by extension the churches and communities—in her city.
"So when my mother gave up hope and took her own life, I wrestled with this: But Mom, you didn't trust him." Anita's story is painful but is also filled with joy, hope, and purpose. "God transformed her story in my life," Anita reflects. And this transformation took root when Anita began studying God's Word and listening to God's leading.
A Mother's Choices
Growing up in China, Anita's mother, Jane, had a difficult life. She was raped at 14, married at 16, and then widowed as a young woman. When she moved to Hong Kong to flee the communist regime, Jane had to leave her seven-year-old son behind. She planned to bring him to Hong Kong, but China's borders were soon closed. Jane didn't see her son again until he was 19.
Jane made a new life for herself in Hong Kong, at that time still a British colony. She married and had two daughters: Anita and Rosita. But the pain from her past never left her and, eventually, she felt she had nothing left to live for. Tragically, Jane decided to take her own life.
Anita was 17 when her mother committed suicide—and her death left a painful legacy in Anita's life. But as Anita grieved her mother's death and hopelessness, she also gained a strong sense of focus and calling. Instead of "a family legacy of quitting," she chose differently: "Where my mother failed to trust God, I will pick up that baton and keep going," Anita says. "And in understanding my mother's story, I found my own."
A Life-Changing Bible Study
Anita came to the United States at 18 to attend Mississippi University for Women. She was emotionally crippled by her mother's suicide and pushed herself to "do something" with her life, so as not to waste her mother's dreams. She completed her bachelor's degree in two years, then pursued an MBA. After graduating, Anita entered the business world in management consulting. She got married, and in 1985, her husband's job brought the couple to Houston where she got busy raising two sons and carried on with the life that kept her from facing her internal emptiness. On the outside, she looked successful, as though she had everything going for her. On the inside, however, she was papering over the sadness from her mother's abandonment and lost hope.
In 1988, Anita and her husband saw an ad in the newspaper highlighting a sermon series on godly parenting at Houston's First Baptist Church. They started attending, and soon afterward joined the church. That year, Anita attended Sunday school for the first time. The Bible study leader was a woman named Beth Moore. Anita didn't know anything about her, except that she believed what Beth taught. She began to attend faithfully and found herself healing little by little. "I felt like a wounded animal," she says. But she also felt her pain "melting away a millimeter at a time." One Sunday, Beth cast a vision for reaching women, and Anita thought of Houston's multiethnic population and the challenge of reaching women of all backgrounds. The thought piqued her interest as something she could pursue. But then she squelched it.
"I thought, Beth is perfect to do that, because she's a great teacher," Anita says. "People follow her. I never imagined that God would look my way." But look her way he did.
Beth saw Anita's leadership gift and pushed her to exercise the courage to use that gift. In the spring of 1991, she invited Anita to substitute-teach her class.
"I'd just moved into a house and found a gas leak. My son has asthma, and I was particularly sensitive to the environment and air quality. At that moment Beth Moore called to ask if I would teach her Sunday school class that Sunday. Everything in me said, Of course not! I'd just moved into the house. We were still unpacking. I'd just found a gas leak. There was no way I was going to stop everything and prepare a lesson for Sunday. But I had the presence of mind to tell her I'd pray about it," explains Anita.
The Turning Point
"I did pray and I sensed the Lord was saying, So what else are you going to do with the gas leak? I told him I needed to sit there and worry about it. I realized he was saying that when you have done everything you can do, there really isn't any reason why you can't serve him except that you're putting up some artificial limitation. So I called Beth back and said I would teach the class.
"That was a real turning point. From that moment on, God started to open doors. He refines the vessels, then he gives you hurdles and watches to see what you will do."
But "I was scared to death!" Anita says. That same year, she was invited to speak at a retreat. Beth was in the audience, and after she heard Anita speak, she told her, "I don't know how to tell you this, but I believe God has called you to be a speaker."
Anita was terrified but felt that if God had called her to be a speaker, she should get some training. She began taking classes at Dallas Theological Seminary where she eventually graduated at the top of her class.
Beth continued to see evidence of God's calling on Anita's life and told her as much. In 1998, "She told me she thought my ministry didn't fall under the umbrella of her work. She told me to trust God, to take my studies further, to become a leader in my own right."
When Anita seemed hesitant, Beth said, "You seem to think you need something from me. You don't. You have the cloak. Just dip it in the water."
"I don't know what God is calling you to, Anita," Beth told her, "but you need to respond."
A Fresh Vision
After graduation from seminary, she went on to pursue vocational ministry at the College of Biblical Studies. She spent five years as the director of women's ministry, then became the vice president of special programs and special assistant to the president.
It was there that God gave her the vision for Inspire Women. It would be a ministry to women who, like Anita's mother, needed to find their purpose and then needed empowerment to pursue it. Anita had been thinking about her mother's life. "I saw that in many ways, what my mother was missing came down to resources: spiritual, emotional, financial. I wanted to spread love to women in these tangible ways."
But taking this step was terrifying. "I wrestled—I don't want to do this with my life. This is too hard. The whole idea of going into uncharted territory was nothing I wanted to do. Coming from an immigrant background, all I wanted was roots. I wanted community. It just seemed contrary to anything that I wanted personally." Yet Anita was motivated by the possibilities and by a sense of calling: "Somehow God had given me this constant stirring and this constant sense of, You have to do this. I knew if I didn't, I'd feel the rest of my life that I missed an open door or a divine appointment. I felt like at the end of the day the most important thing is for each woman to finish what God designed her to do. I had no idea where it would go."
So in May 2003, she left the college to establish Inspire Women with nothing but a clear vision of a world where every woman is living God's purpose. She wanted Inspire Women, a Houston-based nonprofit organization, to help women across ethnicities, denominations, and economic levels find and follow God's purpose for them. It would discover and mentor women with leadership potential, fund scholarships and grants to support their ministries, and provide spiritual nourishment.
She had no office space or infrastructure, a contract with a staff she had no idea how to pay, and no money in the bank. But she knew God was leading her.
"When God first stirred in my heart, I was eager to go and do. But I quickly became frustrated because it seemed like nothing was opening, and God seemed to be delaying, and I couldn't understand why. Today I realize God's more concerned that the vessel is ready. Because if the vessel isn't ready, you can have the greatest mission in the world, and you're not going to be able to carry it through.
"Every woman should try to see if her life is moving toward more and more surrender. If you still find yourself arguing with God or wanting to take part of your life back, you aren't ready. If you want God to trust you with something he uniquely designed for you, you must be a totally surrendered vessel."
Listening to God's Call
As Anita began to build her new ministry, God began to gently draw her toward healing. Many of the women she met reminded her of her mother— women who needed to find their purpose, who lived lives of frustration and unrealized dreams. She felt a resurfacing need to make sense of her mother's story and resolve her own pain.
Anita spent some time reliving the past, reconstructing her mother's story so she could understand. She thought about her mother's positive choices and wrong ones. She decided what she would learn from, change, and repeat in her own life.
She realized her mother's brokenness didn't have to be her own-so she listened closely to what God told her about her own calling.
Anita began to find a new sense of purpose in her mother's story. "I always thought that the last thing my mother left me was a tin biscuit can she hid in the refrigerator, containing pieces of jewelry she had collected over the years. She left a note in there, saying, 'This is for you, for your future in the United States.' But God opened my eyes to see that she left me something else, which is priceless: her story." That same story motivates Anita in her ministry to women who may themselves feel hopeless and need God's purpose to anchor their lives.
Inspired by God … Inspiring Others
Today ten years later, Inspire Women has reached more than 24,000 women and raised and invested several million dollars "toward empowering women to serve at their God-given potential." They now have a headquarters and what Anita calls a "spiritual oasis" in a house in a residential Houston neighborhood, which includes a quiet backyard prayer garden.
Each year Inspire Women hosts at least two citywide events for women, reaching across ethnic groups, economic levels, and denominations. Through these events, they identify women with leadership potential, many of whom lack the resources to maximize that potential in ministry. To these women, Inspire Women becomes, in Anita's words, "a friend who invests in your purpose."
The women come from a variety of backgrounds; some have pasts darkened by prison time or addiction. For some, the investment is a second chance and an opportunity to minister to women who are still caught up in darkness.
Through donated funds, the organization matches these women leaders with the resources they need to take their next step. It may be through helping to pay for seminary education, donating money to buy snacks and supplies for fledgling ministries to atrisk youth, covering the cost of publishing books, or funding mission trips. Anita and her team evaluate each request carefully and assess what will empower each woman to pursue the ministry to which God has called her.
Inspire Women also invests in the personal and spiritual growth of these women leaders. At their spiritual oasis, Anita and other leaders host Bible studies emphasizing not just head knowledge, but also listening to God. They host Christian leadership training sessions that help women process and overcome obstacles to effective leadership—such as how to deal with emotions like loneliness, rejection, and fear. They also lead "Inner Circles"—gatherings where women in leadership challenge and listen to one another and find spiritual refreshment. They help business executives understand how God's Word relates to their lives and professional goals and encourage women to adopt a missional perspective in their professions: What does God want me to do while I'm here? And how can I best invest my talents and resources to advance God's kingdom?
"We're like a family," Anita says with a grin. "A family of lots of girls."
Many of the women who have been helped by Anita's ministry admit they were ready to quit. But Inspire Women encourages them to keep going.
"God has a unique mission for every woman," Anita says. And when those women push ahead into that mission, it changes the city and ultimately affects the world.
Anita is excited to think about how Inspire Women empowers women in their own ministries. And those ministries reflect a strong sense of personal mission, many motivated by their own suffering to ease the suffering of others. Something Anita understands personally and shares as often as she can. She recently wrote Transforming for a Purpose and a forthcoming book, Victory Song.
An Ongoing Story
Today Anita has set her sights on expanding Inspire Women to a national level. It's just one more step in Anita's courageous and missional journey. Her mother's story is part of her own, but it's not the end.
"God's a storyteller," she says, "and his stories transcend more than one generation. God has a plan for this world and somehow your story fits his. You can either box with him and decide to go write your own script, or you can join him in what he's doing and lead a life that actually has significance."
She challenges other women to do the same:
"No story was ever meant to be just for you. You can live a limited life where it's all about you, your family, your house, your car, your job. And at the end of your life that's all you have. You have this little world that you created. God has shown me that we weren't created to live in a small world. You have to step out of your own story and be part of his. That's what I want to do—and what I want to help other women do too."
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