What one sees on Loni Sojack's face, after they notice her smile, is the tremendous scar over her left eye. What one doesn't see until they visit with her for just 15 minutes is the healing of a very scarred heart.
Loni dropped out of high school after her parents' divorce. She lived "on the streets on and off for eight years." She sums up her life: "I was looking for love in all the wrong places after my dad moved out.
"My risky behavior — my defying the rules — I excused by telling myself my mom had hurt me and I was willing to do anything to hurt her," she added.
Where did the attitude take her? While bagging groceries and doling out seafood at the Hen House in North Kansas City, Loni was befriended by a 30-year-old, recently divorced young man, who had already broken most of the rules. Her "road to nowhere" took Loni to Kansas City's streets, on both the Kansas and Missouri sides. How did she survive living on the streets? "Food pantries — you can't starve in Kansas City. And panhandling — you can make about $100 in two hours on a good street corner," she replied.
Loni's lifestyle took her to City Union Mission 10 times in a six-year period. On that 10th visit, her caseworker was Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary student Andy Peck. Loni admits City Union Mission kept extending grace and mercy to her. "That's the kind of people they are."
Once when Peck randomly asked, "What church do you go to?" Loni responded, "I'm not going to any structured church where I'm not going to be accepted!" After being involved with both alcohol and drugs since before she became a dropout, "church people" would not extend any welcome, Loni believed.
At Peck's invitation, she attended First Baptist Church of North Kansas City. "I'd been in four drug rehabs and there was always something missing," she said, until Pastor Tiger Pennington introduced what to her was a new concept — faith.
She remembers hearing him say, "People can't change themselves; ask the One who is in the changing business and see what happens." Loni started listening in May 2010, but she waited until September after leaving City Union Mission before allowing God control of her heart.
"I broke down and realized my life was a mess; for instance, I was praying for an apartment, knowing I had six evictions," she said. "An overwhelming sense came over me that God cares for me — Loni Sojack — even with all my sins." Three Sundays later, she was baptized.
"It was then that I went cold turkey — no more smoking, illicit sex, alcohol or drugs," she explained. She has relapsed only once.
In the year since she decided to follow Christ, Loni has completed a GED, spent a month in Joplin through Wildwood Baptist Church to assist with tornado recovery and gone to Juarez, Mexico, with a team to build a house through the Casas por Cristo program.
But one of her largest life changes has been to enroll at Midwestern to work on an undergraduate degree.
Several women at FBC-NKC have befriended Loni to offer encouragement and to challenge her to "stay the course." Associate Pastor Mike Parrett's closet door has become what Loni calls her "refrigerator door" on which she hangs every graded paper and test. She still spends at least an hour each week with Pennington to discuss choices and learn the Word.
Loni admits that everything in life isn't "wonderful." Some_times loneliness overwhelms her, and she leaves her apartment and heads to church to read, study and prepare for classes. Best of all, she exclaimed, "I have the most beautiful sense of being free. I was told during the dark days I'd never change — I was in too deep."
She challenges herself, though, to make a difference. "I'm driven to go back where I've been to share the Good News that has saved my life."