Life stories starting with “she was born to a drug-addicted mother and grew up in the ‘projects’ in New York” don’t always have happy endings. But for Valerie Clemen, that is the beginning of a life story overflowing with God’s grace.
Clemen was the keynote speaker for the Woman to Woman Conference, held March 8 on the Corban campus and featuring other speakers such as Linda Trammell, Heidi Stowman and Anne Jeffers.
Drawing from her own life experience, Clemen explained the world needs to see grace demonstrated in the lives of Christians. “Grace is the father welcoming the prodigal son,” she said. “It is Jesus drawing in the dirt. It is Stephen forgiving those who were stoning him. Grace is love that reaches down.”
“I really appreciated her because she was hilarious, and she kept your attention, but she also hit on the spiritual things,” said Stephanie Schwarze, who heard Clemen speak. “She had real joy.”
Clemen urged her audience not to think grace shown through forgiveness fixes everything. Forgiveness is not a feeling, forgetting, excusing, approval, or giving in, she said. "Forgiveness is a point-in-time event, but healing can take a lifetime,” she said.
Healing and forgiveness are something Clemen knows about. As a child, her mother was both physically and emotionally abusive.
“To be a Christian means to excuse the unforgivable in others because He forgave the unforgivable in us,” she said.
She recalled one beating when her mother cut off her hair and slashed her body, requiring a trip to the hospital. “Don’t you dare bleed on my car,” her mother told her. Inadvertently blood dripped on the seat, and her mother punched her in the eye.
When they arrived at the hospital, the sign on the door read, “$35 deposit required for care.” It was then her mother looked at her and said the most hurtful words she has ever heard: “You aren’t worth $35.”
When she turned 16, Clemen left home. She married and had two children. But at 22, she divorced. “I was trying really hard to be a good girl, whatever that was, and failing miserably,” she said.
“At 27 I met the lover of my soul – Jesus Christ. He has given me dignity and honor,” she said. Two years later Clemen remarried, and she and her husband had five more children.
Now 53, Clemen has a Master of Divinity and teaches at Multnomah Seminary. She is currently on sabbatical and working on her doctorate.
Years after Clemen became a Christian, she invited her mother, who is still a drug user, to dinner. She didn’t want to invite her, but she knew the Lord was asking her to do it. The dinner went well, and as she was saying “Good-bye,” she heard the Holy Spirit saying, “Tell your mother you love her” – something she had never done before and didn’t want to do. But Clemen hugged her mother and told her she loved her, and “for one nano-second my mother felt the love of Jesus,” Clemen said.
Stories like these captured the attention of her audience. “It amazes me how, through each of those difficult situations, she overcame them by God’s grace,” said Deanna Ashbrook, who attended the conference with her mother.
“Just hearing it from her perspective – from someone who has come through what she has, but come through it with such joy – was a challenge to me,” Roni Paden said.