It's taken many years, but Lara Love says she is finally learning to walk by faith.
After a traumatic childhood and struggles with anorexia, alcoholism, self-mutilation and depression, the local woman has found healing through her faith in Jesus Christ. And she's found inspiration from the people and animals she helps.
Love has more than 20 years of experience writing and editing for national, international and regional publications, and almost 15 years rescuing animals. She said she had no idea at the time, but God was preparing her all along for something bigger. He was getting her ready to launch a unique kind of ministry involving inspirational writing, homeless dogs and people in need.
Love said she was never really a "dog person" until the day she found a dog in the middle of the road after he had been hit by a car. She took him to the vet and soon found a home for the animal. She later helped start the nonprofit group now known as the Spay/Neuter Alliance and Clinic. Located in Ridgeland, the organization offers low-cost spays and neuters in an effort to decrease pet overpopulation and avoid euthanasia of healthy, adoptable animals.
"Over time, the Lord made it very clear that he was calling me into ministry," Love said.
About two years ago she founded a nonprofit organization called Walk by Faith Ministry based in Bluffton. The ministry involves Love and a board of directors, but Love is most active in the ministry's work. The mission of Walk by Faith, Love said, is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and minister to the hurting people and dogs of the world. Love does that by telling others what God has done in her life, praying with them and helping however else she can.
Love also ministers to people through her work with dogs. She is networked with organizations that contact her when they find dogs in need. People also contact her through her website, www.walkbyfaithministry.com. And she sometimes finds the dogs on her own.
Some of the dogs are missing legs. Some are blind. And some are healthy but have no home. Love said she can't always explain how the dogs come to her, just that "God sends them."
She said she has no agenda with her ministry, other than to do what God leads her to do. She prays and does her best to follow him.
A DOG'S TALE
With tears in her eyes, Love told the story of her beloved German shepherd, who she took home from an animal shelter about six years ago. A shelter worker had found the dog malnourished and almost completely hairless on the side of the road. The shelter manager insisted the dog needed to be euthanized, but Love felt strongly that it wasn't his time to go. She said God told her to lay her hands on the dog and pray, and she did. She told the shelter workers she was taking the dog home.
Later that day, Love and the dog were standing on a sidewalk in Savannah when a homeless man approached them. They started talking about the dog, and the man told her that he used to rescue dogs, too. She decided to name the dog "Red" after this man. She invited him to her church that evening and was pleasantly surprised when he showed up.
Outside the church that night, Red told Love that he had planned earlier that day to kill himself. But because she showed up with the dog, he changed his mind. He once again had hope.
Red the dog is doing much better these days. Love said he is a healthy, happy dog with a lot of energy.
"He's gotten a whole new life -- just like me," she said. "The world could've given up on me. I was really hopeless. ... When the world gives up, Walk by Faith Ministry steps in."
And Love has many other dogs and stories similar to Red's -- stories of dogs she rescued that ended up making a huge difference in people's lives.
Walk by Faith fosters 10-15 dogs at a time. Love keeps some of the dogs at her home, while others are fostered in homes throughout Beaufort and Jasper counties. There is no public facility or shelter for the ministry. The organization currently has 13 dogs -- including a one-legged dog, a dog with only two paws, and a blind and deaf dog -- but not all are up for adoption.
The most recent addition to the pack is Joshua, an older dog who was flown to Hilton Head Island last week from Greenville. Covered in tumors, the dog was dropped off at a shelter, where he was scheduled to be euthanized. When Love heard about Joshua through her connections in the animal rescue community, she did what she said God led her to do -- she offered to take care of him.
She said while most rescue groups would be angry at the family for abandoning Joshua, she sees this as an opportunity to pray for people who are going through a difficult time.
"This is how we are not a rescue group," Love said. "I have prayed for the family that left him at the shelter. ... (God) uses the dogs to bring me into the lives of people who are in need, and he uses people to bring me into the lives of dogs that are in need. The ministry specializes in helping the people and dogs that the world has given up on."
Another important part of Love's ministry is her writing. She recently completed a book called "Slow Dance with Jesus," in which she shares her journey from a life of pain to a life of peace in Christ. The book is available for purchase on her website. She also writes inspirational messages that can be read on her blog.
Bluffton resident Page Wiedeman said Love and her ministry have been a huge blessing to her over the past few months.
Wiedeman and her husband, Dirk, met Love and a few of her dogs last October at the Bluffton Seafood Festival. As Love said is often the case, the dogs, wearing their orange "Adopt Me" vests, attracted attention. Love told the Wiedemans about the ministry and directed them to her website for more information.
Wiedeman said Love's writings have encouraged her a great deal, especially in the past few weeks. The Wiedemans' 13-year-old dog, Katie, recently died, and Love wrote something special for the couple on her blog.
"That gift was what God had to share for me through Lara," Page said. "And the fact that she's so in tune with God to know how to help the right person at the right time is amazing."