A Pied Piper for Jesus
Spend much time around 81-year-old Oak Lawn resident Rita Stober and chances are good you’ll hear her sing. It’s a little startling, truth be told. People don’t usually just burst into joyful song. But Rita does. Waiting in a long line at Aldi’s. Sitting here between activities at The Salvation Army’s Seniors Camp.
When you hear Rita’s gut-wrenching story, her impromptu singing goes from startling to astonishing. And beautiful.
Years of Invisibility and Pain
“I was invisible, nothing,” she said of her childhood. From a young age, Rita knew she was illegitimate. One of eight kids raised in deep poverty, Rita says she was more her mom’s Girl Friday, helping take care of the household and her siblings, than her daughter. “I didn’t really know her,” Rita said. “But I loved her.” Rita wouldn’t feel loved herself for a long time.
Receiving only a 9th-grade education, Rita did her best to keep her head down and remain invisible. She says she had such low self-esteem that she didn’t know to wish for anything more.
As a young teen, Rita was raped by a family friend who offered her a ride home one day. She got pregnant and married him to “make things right.” Over the next 18 years they had 9 children while Rita endured physical abuse and her husband’s multiple affairs. All these decades later, tears still well up at the memories.
Still, when they divorced, she felt like a failure. “I cried for a year,” she said.
During those years when her life was in shambles, God was leaving a breadcrumb trail to Himself.
“I didn’t know God, but I knew He was important,” Rita said. During her limited education, she’d spent three months at a Catholic school, where she learned the Our Father prayer, the words of which moved her.
She was invited to a Bible study, and in a silent prayer time she told God he was “a real dirty rat” for letting such bad things happen to her. Still, the conversation was started.
Years later, after her divorce, someone gave Rita her own Bible. Flipping through the fragile pages, she happened upon Psalm 34:4, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.”
“Finally, my tears stopped,” Rita said. “I realized I wasn’t alone anymore. God knew me. So I wasn’t a nobody.”
Me and Jesus
Over the years, Rita cleaned bathrooms at a local tavern to help support her family. One day a patron gave her a quarter and told her to pick a song. Scanning the titles, she was intrigued by one called “Me and Jesus.” She picked that one, not yet knowing it would become her life’s theme song.
Once she embarked on a “me and Jesus” relationship of her own, she started attending a Salvation Army church in her neighborhood. “I’m so happy with Him. I’m so in love with Him,” she said, her face then turning wistful. “I know what life is like without Him.”
Today, despite the fact that both of her knees and both of her shoulders are artificial, just some of the physical ailments she contends with, Rita volunteers at her church three days a week and calls bingo at the local senior center.
She loves every chance she gets to share about Jesus and His life-changing love, often with a hymn or a heartfelt rendition of “Me and Jesus.” “I’m a pied piper for Jesus,” she said.
Fifteen years ago, a friend she’s known since first grade invited her to the Army’s Seniors Camp. She’s been coming ever since. “God gathers the wounded, weak, beaten down, lonely and lost in this little chapel, this holy place,” she said of Seniors Camp.
“Coming here is like a reward from Jesus,” she said, calling it a rest from dealing with her many physical challenges and family issues. “I wish you could bottle this joy and share it.”
All traces of the once-invisible girl are gone now. “You’ll never find a more joy-filled, Jesus-filled woman,” she said. “You’ve now met the richest lady you’re ever going to meet.”
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