An abridged version of this piece was first published in the Nov/Dec 2013 Issue of Converge Magazine under the title “Sanctuary for a Murderer”.
By Julia Cheung
It was a bright, crisp Sunday morning in mid-July 2011. My husband Andrew and I pulled into the church parking lot as usual, hopped out of the car and made a slightly harried beeline for the main building. James was waiting for us at the church doors. A recently backslidden, now freshly re-committed church member, he had his two-year-old son perched on his shoulders and his three-year-old son holding his hand. It made for a picturesque scene. James and his 27-year-old wife Lancy had been separated for two months. It was the first time since the separation that Lancy had entrusted James with the boys overnight. “Have you seen Lancy?” he pressed.
“No. Why would I see her? You usually drive her to church.”
His thick black bushy hair encased the top of his head like a helmet. He was tall and stocky but his narrow shoulders didn’t quite fill out his oversized polo that day. His anxious urgency belied a slightly oversized head and intelligent, searching eyes. “I’m supposed to meet her here. She’s supposed to take the boys,” he insisted. Preoccupied with Sunday school plans, I brushed off his concern.
“I’m sure she’ll turn up,” I quipped. She was probably just late and enjoying her first weekend away from her toddlers.
I confess that up until that fateful period, I had but dim impressions of Lancy and James, even though I had known them for nine years. They flitted in and out of my life like minor characters in a film. They were both tall (for being Chinese). 35-year-old James stammered his speech—it came out in staccato beats. He always seemed to be arguing a point or proving himself. That or outside smoking a cigarette. He was an ambitious and talented computer programmer. Other than their shared height and shared immigration status from China, James and Lancy had almost nothing in common. She had large doe-like eyes that took everything in with a childlike wonder. She was quiet, friendly and kind; her mouth easily relaxed into a smile. Her laughter tinkled freely.
Andrew and I had planned a camping trip immediately after church that Sunday. So after the service, we rushed off to pack and headed out to Cultus lake, assuming that Lancy had met up with James and retrieved her children. But on Monday night, Andrew received an agitated phone call from James, again asking if we had heard from Lancy. She was still missing. James had already filed a missing persons report with the police. He had to work the next day, and there was no one to watch his children.
We were stumped. We lay side by side, awake in our sleeping bags, silently staring at the tent ceiling, speculating. Where was she? It was out of character for her to not take responsibility for her children. I knew her mother’s heart. We had wept and prayed together. She would never willingly abandon her children. She loved life. Suicide was not a possibility. Then the morbid thought hit me: James. I had read a statistic somewhere...I scrounged my sleepy brain for it...Yes, a statistic….with a shockingly high percentage...If a woman is found missing or dead and if she has been in a relationship with a history of domestic violence, the abusive partner is almost always the perpetrator. No, I argued with myself. That’s impossible. Pure evil. Not James. I banished the thought.
Exactly two months earlier, I had received another agitated phone call. It was Lancy’s good friend, Soo. “Julia,” Soo’s voice had been panicky and breathless over the phone. “I feel like he is capable of anything. He’s so angry. I’m so so scared.” Lancy had run away from home. She’d left James and fled to a women’s shelter in an undisclosed location. She’d taken the boys with her. James was livid. He was at Soo’s house, hunting down his family gone MIA.
I took a few deep breaths and steeled myself to offer the strength and consolation that I didn’t feel I really had. “It’ll be okay,” I offered hollowly. “Don’t worry. God’s in control. Let’s pray”.
In those tumultuous months, that was all I could offer.
I have a vivid mental picture of Lancy huffing up my back alley with the huge, clunky, rickety double stroller that she claimed was an answer to prayer. This was before she fled to the womens’ shelter:
Dressed in a pink and white polo shirt and plain, slightly dated khakis, short hair a little mussed, sweat trickling down her forehead, glasses sliding precariously down the bridge of her nose, she arrives for parenting workshop with two adorable toddler boys in tow. The unflattering mommy clothes don’t disguise a perfectly proportioned, womanly figure. She’s determined to be a better parent. She knows she shouldn’t but she plies the children with chocolate to stop their temper tantrums, gives in to their every demand. James can’t stand to hear the boys cry, so she works tirelessly to keep all three men in her life happy. James and Lancy have been fighting a lot over how to raise the boys properly.
Andrew can offer another picture from when they were still a dating couple: James shows up at our house one day, in a dress shirt and slacks. He asks Andrew to go for coffee. Puzzled at the abruptness of the request but used to James’s idiosyncrasies, Andrew hops in the car and they drive off.
“So what’s going on?” Andrew asks once they’re on the road.
“I’m getting married. I want you to be my witness.” Andrew is speechless. His mind races. Does he offer good Christian pastorly counsel and try to stop this madness? Or does he politely go along with it and deal out the counsel later? Before he can make up his mind, they have picked up Lancy and her witness and arrived at an 80’s style townhouse in the suburbs. It’s a marriage commissioner’s house. The commissioner is a dowdy looking woman in her fifties and her house smells like mothballs and chamomile. She opens up her manual for the ceremony and begins. Halfway through, she pauses and asks the couple if they adhere to any particular faith. “We’re Christians,” James offers without missing a beat. The commissioner quickly flips to another page and continues on, now inserting the typical Christian prayer and scriptures on love and marriage.
When Andrew tells me this story later, he pauses and chuckles. “I will never forget the moment in the middle of the vows when I look over and see the marriage commissioner’s dog next to my feet licking himself.” Andrew did later officiate a ‘real’ church wedding for James and Lancy. I was the MC for that wedding. It felt normal and right, nestled in community. But the surrealness of their dodgy pre-emptive secret wedding would haunt us for years to come.
When Lancy started attending parenting workshops nine years later at my house, their then shaky marriage finally seemed to be getting better. James had turned his back on God by then. He refused to go to church, but he let Lancy go as long as she had prepared dinner beforehand and put the two toddlers down for their nap. She would then tiptoe out of the house, catch a bus and attend the afternoon service. She told me that she felt like she was getting closer to God. A Chinese pastor had counselled her to submit to her husband. He had referred her to 1 Peter 3:1 “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives…”
Lancy took his advice and was hopeful. Submission seemed to be improving their relationship. There was greater mutual understanding. They weren’t fighting as much. She was letting God fight her battles. Soo and I told her that well and good as it may be, she should still keep the battered women’s crisis hotline number on hand. Just in case.
I really wasn’t expecting it to go that far. Two years prior to all this mess, Lancy had already run, bruised and beaten to the police after one of his particularly bad outbursts. He was arrested, but she dropped the charges. James promised never to hit her again. He promised to go to counselling and they both agreed to work on their marriage.
When Lancy did make that single fateful call to the hotline, James hadn’t actually hit her.She later told me that she had phoned the hotline out of fear.
This time, James had been sitting at his laptop, disengaged from the family. Lancy had asked him several times to stop what he was doing and pay some attention to the children. She finally got fed up. She walked up and closed his laptop. He raised his fist and his voice, but the fist did not descend. Nevertheless, that was the last straw for Lancy. The next morning, she called the hotline, packed her bags and her boys, and left.
In the Lower Mainland, when a woman phones the Battered Women’s Support Services crisis and intake line, the operator will randomly connect her with one of a number of women’s shelters in undisclosed locations. Most of the shelters are not run by Christian agencies. I receive it as a pure divine intervention that Lancy was assigned to the single Christian shelter with three staff-related connections to our church.
Then followed a harrowing month. For a month was all that the shelter could give Lancy. James was first angry, then disconsolate, then ultimately shattered. His lived solely for his children. She had taken them away and he could not find them. To his self-righteous mindset, this was utterly unthinkable. Andrew and I found ourselves thrust into the role of peacemakers. I spent countless hours on the phone with Lancy, consoling, comforting, counselling. But most of all just praying. We shed many tears together over her future, her boys’ future, her family’s future. Andrew counselled James and encouraged him to be humble, seek change and repent of his anger and control issues.
By the end of the month, they had re-established communication and James had promised to rent a separate apartment for Lancy and the boys. They would slowly work toward reconciliation and rebuild trust. He promised to attend counselling and to attend church regularly with her, to support her financially and to work on their marriage for the sake of the boys. They both loved the boys dearly, fanatically, frantically.
And things started looking up. James was a different person. He came to church with Lancy and the boys every Sunday. He took them to beach outings with other church families and they even went on a family camping trip. They made memories.
James’s father later showed me an iphone video that they had taken during this time. Lancy is holding the camera and she records James, herself and the two boys singing the hokey pokey. They’re all being silly. The older son (then only 3) is dancing the hokey pokey wearing a huge paper bag mask. Laughter rings through the air. The two minute video clip oozed happy family life.
When Lancy called me to talk and pray during this tentative time of restoration, there was sometimes fear in her voice. “I’m scared,” she would tell me. “He hasn’t really changed. I can tell. But he’s their father. The boys need a father. I pray with all my heart that he has really changed. His actions show that he has changed, but I’m not convinced. I don’t see the change in his eyes.” Again, all I could offer was prayer. Lancy’s fears eerily echoed Soo’s phone call from just one short month ago when James had come pounding on her door, looking for his wife.
On the last fateful Friday night, Lancy attended womens’ Bible study at my house. At the end of the evening, we bowed our heads together in prayer. After we uttered amen, Lancy lifted her head. Her eyes were radiant and brimming with tears. “I need to spend more time with Jesus,” she murmured. Then James drove her back to her apartment. That was the last time any of us ever saw her again.
When Andrew and I returned from our camping trip, James asked us to put up missing posters where she was last seen. The church gathered and we went in teams to litter the area with posters and to go on prayer walks. We were interviewed by police officers. The case remained open and was promptly taken over by IHIT, the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team, even though no body had yet been found. We were interviewed again. Not knowing was unbearable. The detectives told us that in all likelihood she was probably dead. But we held out hope. The summer dragged on. Our entire church community was unsettled and perplexed. We cried out to God in prayer. “Bring divine intervention, God!” we pleaded. “Find her and bring divine intervention.” But God was silent. We waited.
The silence and the limbo broke with a crash at the end of summer. One sunny Saturday morning in September, Andrew received a phone call from IHIT. “Reverend Cheung, we have some bad news and some good news. The bad news is that we have found Lancy and that she is deceased. The good news is that we have arrested and charged someone for the the murder. It’s James. Would you be able to come in to the detachment to make a statement?” We were devastated.
The next twenty-four hours were encased in a desolately crushing, surreal, numbing kind of fog. When Andrew arrived at the police station, the detective who greeted him shook his hand. “Reverend Cheung, we actually had all the evidence against him, but without the body, there was no way for us to arrest him and press charges. We really believe it was divine intervention.” That divine intervention hinged on the off chance that a humble fisherman off the Fraser River in Richmond would randomly fish up a suitcase at the end of August. Inside that suitcase, contained the remnants of Lancy’s body. Dental records confirmed her identity. Our worst possible nightmare had come true.
James, single dad James, James whom we had pitied, James for whom we had prayed, James who had heroically performed the job of mother and father through the entire summer, James who had not missed a single Sunday at church since Lancy went missing, would now evaporate from our lives as quickly as Lancy had. And fittingly so, for that James had been a crafted persona, a figment of our imaginations. The flesh-and-blood James had been charged with murder. The flesh-and-blood James had been incarcerated. The waiting was over. We blindly waded through the shock of betrayal. Grief kept returning in waves.
And then came the Chinese-speaking media attacks on our church body. Culturally conservative and fearful segments of Christianity distanced themselves from us. We had unwittingly offered sanctuary to a murderer. Maybe it’s all a matter of perspective. For indeed, we had been duped. Indeed, this man lied through his teeth for months and pulled the wool over all our eyes. Does this attest more to our foolishness as a church body or to our complete and utter dependence on God? For God had answered that vital prayer for divine intervention. Justice, in this case, had been served. In the end did God let the evil man prosper? In the savageness of the nightmare, God’s grace pierced brilliantly and surely. Truth was more horrible than fiction and yet I would still choose truth.
I recount four very intense months, months littered with the uncertain, littered with prayer, littered with desperation. But I am thankful. God saw fit to sustain and to strengthen a humble little church body through a reality laced with poison and shock. Our faith grew rather than shrank. Answered prayers outnumbered unanswered ones. A year later, James pled guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 14 years. I suppose we as the body of Christ bookended their marriage. We were there to witness the beginning and the end. But as for the story in between, only God sees it all.
This is, in all its muddy glory, a story of divine intervention.