Words by Cara D. Clark
Photos by Chris Koelle
Rachel McCool Helton is adamant that angels are among us. Her angel, the irrepressible Meredith Rabalais, sought her out in the unlikeliest of places: a seedy strip club in Atlanta. Without the light that Meredith shined into the darkness of her life, Rachel is emphatic she wouldn’t be here today as a survivor of sexual abuse and drug addiction.
Rachel and Meredith share their story of hope and redemption as often as they can. Rachel’s side of the story, as summarized by Meredith, is that “There’s nothing you can do, no depth to which you can go that God won’t go and get you. He is not afraid to pluck you right out of the darkest, most evil place.”
These women crossed paths because of Meredith’s involvement in a church ministry program wherein she and other women would visit strip clubs once a month to offer aid and assistance.
“God wanted me to be on the front lines and go into dark places,” Meredith said. “In the darkness, a light shines so much brighter. I didn’t want to stay in a church bubble. I wanted to go into places I don’t normally go into, places where people face such sadness and oppression.”
Determined to make a difference, she would waddle into the clubs at nine months pregnant. At times, the church ladies were welcomed. At others, the atmosphere was uncomfortable, even threatening; bouncers at several clubs violently threatened to remove them.
But something called Meredith to Rachel’s club. “God prepared the hearts of the girls considering other alternatives,” Meredith says,. “Rachel didn’t know he prepared her life for change. She had been planning to take her own life that night.”
Rachel had seen Meredith and her cohorts in the club and assiduously avoided the “church ladies” when she’d seen them. That night, overcome by the will to die, Rachel let down her guard when Meredith approached her.
Rachel recalls, “I was trying to find God through everything but the right way. On November 9, 2012, I contemplated suicide, and that’s the day I met Jesus and met Meredith.”
The night she saw Rachel for the first time, Meredith could tell something traumatic had happened to her; she eavesdropped on Rachel and a friend.
From the conversation, Meredith learned that someone had stolen Rachel’s money. “The girl patted her on the back and said she had her back, then she walked away. I could see on Rachel’s face she wanted something more. I asked her to tell me what happened. I listened and tried not to make her feel judged. She started crying. She had had a really rough couple of months.”
“She was bold and able to love me and listen to me when I needed it most,” Rachel says, describing Meredith as “very perky” compared to her own distraught state, a kind of fugue resulting from drug withdrawal and despair. After the exchange in the club, Rachel followed up on her promise to call, and the pair continued their conversation through the weekend. They agreed to meet the following Monday.
“I had sent her a text that said I felt as if she were my angel, and my life was about to change,” Rachel said. And change it did. Meredith got Rachel into Well Spring, a haven for survivors of childhood sexual abuse and exploitation that empowers domestic sex-trafficking victims.
The program takes traumatized women through focused lessons that are directed at different areas of hurt that typically bind victims to their past. “Those unhealthy ties were things she had to go through and release to God,” Meredith says.
Part of that was releasing the sexual abuse from her past, bringing to light buried memories of trauma and trafficking. “I had been sexually abused for ten years in different ways,” Rachel recalled. “I had been trafficked on multiple occasions and been in dangerous situations. It was like a brothel where I worked. With all of the abuse I had been through, I didn’t realize how bad it was until I was removed from it.”
Rachel grew up in rural Georgia in a toxic home environment. Her limited opportunities led to addiction at 14, a pregnancy at 18, and being a single mom at 19. With the birth of her son, Rachel tried to fight the only life she knew how to live, but she ended up back with the same bad crowd. Rachel looks back on Meredith’s intervention in her life as her salvation and path to Christianity, while Meredith sees a miraculous metamorphosis through God’s work.
“Throughout that year, she learned a lot about the impact her past had on her decision making,” Meredith says. Rachel was 25 when she graduated the program in August 2013. Her son moved back in with her a year later. When she tells her story today, she’s so far removed from the person she once was that it feels as if she’s speaking of a stranger.
“I was an empty shell of a person,” she says. “I had no boundaries, no morals, nothing to live for. It took a team of people to get me to where I am today.”
The tip of the spear on that team was Meredith. “We went in knowing there was nothing we could do to change these girls,” Meredith says. “We were being the hands and feet of Jesus. We could plead or beg, but it had to be the work of God in their heart to make a difference.” Meredith has now turned to new challenges as she follows a higher calling for her life.
“I realized Rachel was the reason God had called me to that,” Meredith said. “God did as much for me in this whole process as he did for her. What he has done over the past five years in her life, and continues to do, is one of the most faith-building things I have experienced.”
Her latest ministry with her husband has been helping start a new school in Atlanta. “God uses people who make themselves available,” Meredith says. “Whenever he uses you to be part of someone’s miracle, it ends up being your miracle too. I want to live expecting miracles like Rachel. They are all around us. It’s about keeping your eyes open and being available.”