When Ali DiNovo walks into a fine art and antique fair, she's on a mission. She peruses antique tapestries worth thousands of dollars, and chats with the British exhibitors about other options. This is not play -- this is work.
Ali is an interior designer in Palm Beach, Fla., a place where clients want more than just a new coat of paint and some nice cushions.
On the island where the average home costs $1 million, some people want entire houses redone, with kitchens gutted and rooms made bigger. They invite Ali into their lives, explain their personal style, and expect her to tailor the house to match.
It means Ali often becomes close with her clients, and so she also lets them know about herself, especially the way her life has changed.
Ali moved to Palm Beach with her husband over 30 years ago, but when they got divorced, she began searching to fill her life in a variety of ways. She bought books on the New Age movement and practiced reading Tarot cards. At one point she decided to move from Palm Beach and leave interior design to pursue modeling full time.
But when she came back, the void in her life remained.
In Palm Beach, tall hedges surround multi-million-dollar homes, assuring that gawkers keep their distance. But these hedges, and attitudes of distrust, have helped create lives of isolation. "Community" means little more than one elite social gathering after another.
Ali could easily have remained stuck inside this world of hedges, but one Sunday she decided to attend church. After the service, someone invited her to a women's Christmas event sponsored by Priority Associates. Still searching for meaning in her life, Ali went.
That December evening, Ali heard another female executive tell about her journey to beginning a relationship with Jesus. Ali prayed and invited Christ into her heart. She began reading about Christ instead of New Age, and later threw out her old books and Tarot cards. She soon turned her attention to the spiritual desperation of other Palm Beach women.
Ali's friend Toni Lee, a real-estate agent with a dynamic personality, calls Ali her "tree frog," because of the way Ali stuck to her.
"In South America," says Toni, "there are exquisite, tiny, iridescent, green tree frogs, and they stick, almost inseparably, to whatever they put their little digits on. And so did Ali."
By coincidence, Ali would regularly bump into Toni all over town, and every time, Ali invited her to the weekly Priority Associates Bible study or to church.
Even though the two were very different (Ali was conservative, Toni was flashy with a rough edge), Ali felt like God was prompting her not to give up on Toni. Eventually Toni ran out of excuses and came with Ali to church.
"I truly don't remember what the pastor said in the service," Toni said, "but all my posturing and bravado evaporated as I heard the message of love and hope in Jesus."
In a gentle way, Ali never let go of Toni. Over the years, she has done the same with many other women in the Palm Beach area. She has a knack not only for rearranging people's homes, but also for getting women to open their hearts and allow God to do some serious remodeling.
At the home of Gail Slingluff, everything is completed but the kitchen. The bathroom is bigger, and the living room now has a Caribbean feel to it.
After the contractors leave, Ali and Gail sit down at the breakfast nook to look at a pattern for the cushions. Later, on her way out, Ali invites Gail to the Bible study, just like she does with all her clients. Gail already has plans, but with a smile Ali says, "Maybe next time."
"Maybe next time," Gail agrees.
The next morning, Ali valet parks her car at a gorgeous house not far from Donald Trump's prestigious Mar-a-Lago Club. It might seem unusual for a Bible study, but valet parking is the only option to get more than 70 women in one location on this crowded street.
Ali arrives early, and prays with several other women in the back room of the pool-house where the Bible study will take place. They pray on their knees for the women still arriving and for the speakers, asking God to use the Bible study to work in the lives of the women.
Then the prayer group joins the rest of the women, mingling over coffee and pastries.
Ali is excited to see so many women, including Palen Anderson, a new addition to the Bible study and a friend of Toni's.
"Just because Toni invited me," Palen says, "I came."
Three months before, Palen accepted Christ, and has been coming faithfully to the Bible study since then.
"I have been on a spiritual path my whole life," she says, "but I had not said 'Christ is my Savior' until I came here."
Toni had stuck to Palen just like Ali had stuck to Toni. Palen joins this spiritual family tree in Palm Beach, an unwritten record of generations, where women lead women to Jesus.
After a brief welcome and a group teaching about the Holy Spirit, the women break into groups spread throughout the property.
First-timers go to the library; second-time visitors meet in the living room. Another group collects in the pool-house bedroom to discuss the "uniqueness of Jesus," and the rest divide by last name to different rooms in the main house on the other side of the pool.
Ali's group of 9 women gather around a mirrored table in the dining room. The women study how to know God's will for their lives, and they talk about how their lives are changing.
After the Bible study, Ali joins 7 other women for lunch at the Island Palm. At a round table in a side room, they order quiche and salad, chatting easily with one another. Many of the women have been influenced by Ali, and some have influenced her life as well, like Cru staff member Sue Berlemann. Sue mentored Ali as she grew in her faith, just like Ali is now mentoring others.
Frances Morton, a retired business owner, sits to the left of Ali. Before Frances became a Christian, she had had 3 marriages and divorces, with years of depression and suicide attempts.
"When there were new beginnings, I would be up," she explained, "and when there were failures, I would be down. I was on an emotional roller coaster for most of my life, from childhood until I came to know the Lord."
Frances found stability in Christ and friendships in the Priority Associates Bible study. Now she is transitioning out of the Bible study to become more involved with her church.
The study continues to attract new women, but it is meant to be purely for new believers or for women seeking to know more about Christ. Once they have been involved a few years, they are challenged to move to a deeper study, get more involved at church or become a leader of an Executive Ministries group, like Ali.
As the women finish lunch and reapply lipstick, they continue to tell their stories. They have given more than just a glimpse beyond the hedges. These women have opened their lives to one another, and they had been changed because of it.
Ali might have helped open the doors, but God has done the remodeling.