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Okay… So, I was standing there praying for a miracle when the sound guy told me my audio set needs another battery. He meandered into a back room for a moment and came back beaming. I thought his overdone, gleeful expression was a bit much for a guy who had successfully located a battery, but before I had a chance to say a word, he blasted me.

“I just checked our streaming and we’re all set up. Hey! You know how we’re normally at around sixty thousand views for our Prophets Speak channel?”

“Uh…yeah,” I said. Actually, I didn’t have the foggiest idea how many views one of these presentations normally got, but as my thoughts were still bobbing around the emotionally bulldozing intimidation of the words “around sixty thousand,” my mouth autonomously uttered an answer without my brain’s participation or permission. The blood was already draining from my face at that number, and a gut feeling told me it was about to get worse.

It did.

“Well,” he continued, believing that what he was about to say would be an encouragement to me, “we’re expecting upwards of two million views tonight, so you will have a ton of people from all over the world hearing what you have to say! We’re at one-point-five million and counting by now, all waiting for you!”

He was still talking, but it was like one of those scenes in a Hollywood movie when the speaker’s voice trails off into the background and everything goes all slow-motion and blurry. I vaguely felt him tugging around on the wiring of my audio set as bile rose in my throat. I grabbed a decorative tree nearby—one of those pretty, lit-up trees you catch in the peripheral crowd-panning shots during Jim Bakker Show episodes—and focused every cell in my body against collapsing, or vomiting, or both. When the sound guy grabbed my arm, I snapped my attention back to him mid-sentence.

“…like you’ve seen a ghost. Are you alright, Mrs. Howell? You’re very pale all of a sudden.”

I blinked.

“You got this,” he said, realizing the effects his previous words were having on me. “Don’t worry. You’re a big deal around here! You’re gonna nail this. Everyone is gonna love you.”

I remember, as clearly as if it were yesterday, looking out at that crowd and trying to convince myself that he would be right. God had carried me the last time these people saw me at better than my best, but even in my most articulate, confident moment, I, myself, as mere Donna Howell, couldn’t compete with their expectations. They were waiting for a pulpit-on-fire, glory-hallelujah-and-amen message to detonate from the stage, fly across the room on the wings of angels, and launch a revival. They came for Popeye’s post-spinach rescue act. They were about to get a flailing Olive Oyl. When God had taken over that one time in the past, I’d had my Supergirl moment, but now I was back to being Patrick Star from SpongeBob SquarePants.

I was a freak, and nothing short of it.

I didn’t belong in this world.

Look at me, everyone, I thought to myself. Pull out your smartphones and hit record because I’m about to make history. My foolhardy performance will be remixed on YouTube for ages after this. I’ll go viral, and the world will remember this as the day Donna tried “preacher” on for size and the skin didn’t fit…not that I ever thought it would. Maybe now I can have my cave. That sounds nice… A happy little anonymous cave.

“You gonna be alright?” the sound man said, pulling me back to reality. “You need anything?”

I couldn’t bring myself to play the sweet-and-demure card, so I blurted out the truth. “I’m very sick, I haven’t slept, I forgot my notes so I’m unprepared, and I’m scared to death. These people are expecting a superstar. I can’t seem to calm down and let go of this fear.” When he hesitated, I smiled, deflecting with humor, which was my usual go-to. “Yeah, I’m gonna die up there. Does Jim have anything for that in his supplements shop?”

His first response was about what I expected to hear from any Christian. “Fear comes from the enemy.” I had, of course, been given this advice countless times in the past. But then he shifted into the best—no, the only—advice that I could have absorbed or retained in that moment. “The enemy loves it when we’re scared to do the Lord’s work. Fear is the biggest lie. By itself, it’s empty. It can’t hurt you. But when you feed it, it grows up and devours you. Your fear, Donna, has obviously been fed for a while, and it is not something you can kill in the five minutes you have before you go onstage. You shouldn’t even attempt to make it go away because that’s impossible this late in the game, and the struggle of overcoming has you freezing up. So, don’t fight the fear, use it.” I blinked, overwhelmed at the idea that fear could be “used” for something at a time like this.

“Use it? What do you mean? I don’t know what to say to them. I don’t know what they want.”

“First of all, don’t believe what fear is telling you about yourself right now. These people just want you. You don’t have to be anyone else. Second of all, you’re afraid. That’s your big issue, right? That’s your opener. People love honesty, and transparency is rare. Go up there and tell them you’re scared to be doing what you’re doing, but you’re doing it anyway because God told you to, and so can they.”

The most ironic thing about his advice was that, unbeknownst to him, the sermon I had practiced to deliver was about how we should obey God despite our feelings, using Jonah as my example. Anything less than complete obedience lands us in the mouths of fish, and when we’re spat up three days later, God tells us to get back to the job he gave us, so we don’t accomplish anything when we allow our feelings to direct us. Deep down, I knew that, by accepting the invitation to preach in the first place, I was being obedient to the Lord despite my feelings, but it took the sound guy to bring that to the forefront for me to see how relevant my personal weakness would be to my message.

It was perfect. I had a strong introduction now, and curiously, as soon as I knew what I was going to say, I calmed down, my stomach settled, the room-spinning subsided, I felt a boost of energy kick in, and the formerly dominating fear took a back seat: still present, but not driving. Five minutes later, I took the stage, got real with people, told them I was scared out of my mind, made everyone laugh, proceeded to preach a noteless sermon wherein I remembered every point I had practiced from the beginning, closed with a prayer, and then got the surprise of my life when I received a third standing ovation in the Jim Bakker studio.

Another ovation.

An ovation for the freak.

The second my shoe hit the top step of the stairs on my way down from the stage, every one of my symptoms came back. I immediately became dizzy and almost fell, and I had to steady myself once again with the tree. There was a rapid barrage of nausea, and an overwhelming wave of exhaustion. For some, this part of the story might sound like a bad thing, and although it wasn’t my favorite thing to go through at the time, it was a detail I would never forget: physically wrecked until the moment I took to the stage, perfectly fine for forty-five minutes of preaching in front of somewhere around two million people, and then physically wrecked the second I left the stage.

Sometimes it takes more faith to believe in a coincidence than it does a miracle. There was no doubt about it. God had carried me again.

Alone, this is one of my favorite stories to tell, because it went from anyone’s worst nightmare to a great success in a matter of minutes due to what could have only been an incredible act of God. But for the purposes of this work, I explained this day at Jim’s studio to show how bizarrely familiar the next scene of The Greatest Showman was between Barnum and Lettie. Only minutes after I had been told that I was the bearded lady, Lettie’s character on screen was standing just behind the curtain to the circus stage, gussied up in her circus costume, preparing to face the public for the first time. From the expression on her bearded face, it’s clear she is petrified to face the crowd with her “freak” showing. Although the words that Barnum gave her are different than the words the sound man gave me, the spirit of the advice—and the nature of the scene leading up to the advice—is almost identical.

BARNUM: Lettie, they’re waiting.

LETTIE: For what?

BARNUM: For you.

LETTIE: [Nervous and reluctant, she shakes her head.] No.

BARNUM: They don’t know it yet, but they are gonna love you. Trust me. [Singing:] I see it in your eyes, you believe that lie that you need to hide your face. Afraid to step outside, so you lock the door, but don’t you stay that way.[i]

Once Lettie steps out into the crowd, she smiles nervously but welcomingly, and to her surprise, there are those in the gathering that smile back. The camera lingers on her face, capturing her transition from fearful to hopeful. Like I said earlier on, before the curtain scene, I could already see why the Holy Spirit would present me with the bearded-lady nametag, but after seeing that her initiation onto the stage as a circus freak for the first time went down just like my initiation to the stage as the media freak, the parallel was solid as a rock. It was like God had shown me my past—summarized in the washroom scene, where Lettie reluctantly agreed to put herself out there for the world to see—and then the present “stage” Donna, which was still in the early phases of ironing out awkward wrinkles.

My popcorn was no longer a priority as I had a sneaky suspicion God was about to show me my future through this circus freak. How beautifully and humorously appropriate. The Lord was speaking a language that I had invented during private prayer time with Him to define me.



On the other hand, you can’t imagine how nerve-wracking that was for a while. I kept thinking, Okay, Lord. I’m watching. Gosh I hope her character doesn’t die or do something totally stupid… I want to be mature and tell You that I can take any reprimand or critique that You have for me through her character portrayal, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little apprehensive at this point. Will she quit the circus? And would that mean something about me quitting the formal, organized Church? Please, don’t let her be a knucklehead or get stabbed in an alleyway… Oh my gosh, what if she gets stabbed in an alleyway?! What in the world would You be trying to tell me with that?

Yeah… My brain was running on an irrational treadmill, whirling and spiraling, but not actually getting anywhere productive. But despite how thoroughly I imagined every possible scenario during this fruitless mental-cardio routine, there was no preparing me for what happened later in the story. I never could have seen it coming.

A grand concert was planned around Barnum’s latest addition to the show, Jenny Lind, a famous redhead singer from Sweden. It’s an enormous success, and afterward, Lettie and the rest of the circus freaks headed to the back of the opera house to celebrate with Barnum amidst all his elite friends as they sip wine and hobnob. Although he had never acted ashamed of his crew before this moment, when Lettie and the others were spotted at the door, Barnum quickly intervened to hide them away. A couple of times, Lettie tries to push past him, and he eventually shuts the door in her face.

The rejection is intense and personal, but the more important impression made in that exchange was that Lettie and her kind were just never going to fit in. She wasn’t going to be a part of that world. She wouldn’t fit that mold no matter how hard she tried to. Her attempt to cross the threshold into the party room with the pretty people redefined the word “misfit.” And I knew just how she felt.

The Lord tapped me on the shoulder, and a two-second conversation sped through my mind:

HOLY SPIRIT: Are you getting this?

ME: Oh yeah. Most definitely. I’ve had my share of door-slammings because I don’t conform to the expectations of many in the Church.

HOLY SPIRIT: Yes, but watch what happens next…

For a moment, Lettie was devastated. As she backed away from the door and the soundtrack cued the next big musical number, I half expected her to sing a woe-is-me piece, and of course the others would feel sorry for her or comfort her, something to that effect, and then she would find the strength to go on, etc. Sure enough, the beginning lyrics talked about how Lettie has shamefully hidden herself away from public view all her life because she is broken and valueless, and that nobody will be able to love her for what she was born to be. I thought I saw where this was going, and that I would be encouraged that I’m not alone. If that had been the whole of the message, I would have been the happiest, most touched woman in the world.

Ahem. That wasn’t the message.

From out of the blue, Lettie looks straight ahead with newfound determination, and then calls herself and every circus freak with her “glorious.”

ME: Wait a second, Lord… GLORIOUS!?

HOLY SPIRIT: Some people will never “fit” the mold. Some people break it.

I still cry to this very hour when I remember those words landing like a bomb, blowing every other thought in my head into oblivion and consuming me completely, all at the same time that Lettie sang the next unbelievable line in the song: “When the sharpest words wanna cut me down, I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out. I am brave, I am bruised, I am who I’m meant to be, this is me. Look out, ’cause here I come, and I’m marching on to the beat I drum. I’m not scared to be seen. I make no apologies. This is me.”[ii]

“Brave,” “bruised,” and “what’s meant to be”…all in the same concept. I was immediately reminded of a line I often say in radio and television interviews: “It’s not despite all your bruises, your scars, and your past that God will use you, it’s because of your bruises, your scars, and your past that you can be used!” I’ve said it for years, and here Lettie was, making no apologies for who she was. Her description of herself made the hair on my arms stand. She wasn’t attacking anyone, but she wasn’t going to be walked on, hidden away, or shamed for even another second. She was broken, but unstoppable; hurt, but stronger for it; perceived as a nuisance to the mainstream…

And then suddenly the defender of the freaks.

The newly liberated and gutsy Lettie marched straight down the hallway, every other freak trailing steadily behind her, their chins lifting a little higher with every confidence-boosting step. As they walked into an enormous ballroom filled with the rest of the privileged, aristocratic, upper-class, pinky-up, tea-drinking bluebloods, the rest of the circus group started singing her anthem alongside her. Their body language carried a strong overtone: “I don’t look like all of you, and I’m not supposed to. My value on this earth is real because I say it is and refuse to care if you don’t agree.”

By this scene, I was already a mess. I was crying so hard that my mother was getting concerned. But when Lettie led the others out of the ballroom and started marching in the middle of the street amidst the wide-eyed stares of normal people who were offended at the mere sight of them—all the while dancing the punchiest, most crisply executed, make-way-for-the-superstars choreography I’ve ever seen—I added laughing and clapping to my sobbing, arriving at a smorgasbord of irrational emotion.

How convenient that the lights were out, the scene was loud, and the movie was too captivating for others in my theater to tear away from the plot of Lettie and focus on the lunatic in the fourth row… But I digress.

Lettie wasn’t merely going to “exist as a misfit,” she was going to “own misfit,” and take the freaks with her. Because of one woman’s willingness to punch the cookie cutter in the mouth, an entire community of people was empowered to face the world with their unique gifts and talents.

The freaks became the heroes.

So, I’m not writing out this testimony today to convince any reader that I’m a hero. I have written it because I believe that you might be, and perhaps the only thing standing between you and your decision to embrace your God-given calling to the fullest fruition of His will is a Lettie—just one voice that’s willing to reassure you: “Nope. You’re not worthless. You’re incredible. Believe that you’re a misfit if you must, but never believe you’re a mistake. You are called for such a time as this.”

I’m your Lettie. God told me so. Follow me, and let’s do this dance.

UP NEXT: With Your Nose So Bright

[i] Ibid., 26:22–27:22.

[ii] Ibid., 56:59–57:35.

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