Heather Larkins and her son, Kaiden, sing a song from Sunday school with hand motions.

Grace Without Conditions

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Kim Daubenspeck’s hand shot up into the air without hesitation. Heather Larkins was returning to work and needed someone to watch her 1-month-old son Kaiden.

Yeah, that’d be OK, Brad Daubenspeck thought as he watched his wife volunteer. Don’t get too attached to this kid.

Heather started coming to the Daubenspecks’ small group in the spring of 2016, about a month before having Kaiden. George, Heather’s friend and a regular attendee of the group, invited Heather to go with him. At the time, Heather was homeless, living with George and his housemate temporarily. Two months after attending her first small group, while exchanging prayer requests one week with the group, George shared that Heather needed help with childcare. By June, Kim was watching Kaiden three to five times a week.

“Trusting someone with my newborn baby was hard,” Heather said. “Even though I asked for help, I still questioned their intentions. I didn’t know if they would try to take my son from me because I wasn’t able to [take care of Kaiden] by myself.”

Kim and Kaiden eat breakfast together as part of their daily routine. Since the addition of Kaiden and his mother, Heather, to the Daubenspeck home, Kim and Brad consider them both part of their family.

Heather and Kaiden watch as Brad (right) prepares food fresh from his garden. The Daubenspecks’ open-door hospitality makes their home a warm place for people to gather and grow in community.

Now, about four years later, Heather and Kaiden have become family to the Daubenspecks. Brad and Kim, team leaders for Cru® High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, made room for the two of them to move in, and they consider Heather their daughter and Kaiden their grandson. The road to this reality, though, hasn’t been easy.

When Brad and Kim first met Heather, her life was messy. But rather than putting conditions on her life and behavior, they freely gave Heather the love she needed. Brad and Kim trusted God with Heather’s life transformation. They didn’t expect to see the effects of their hospitality go beyond the walls of their home.

Discovering the joy of serving

Kim’s eagerness to volunteer that day during community group came as a result of what she calls her “summer of joy” in 2015.

“God was putting on my heart that I needed to give to people emotionally and allow Him to use me in that way,” Kim says. “That was really tough because I’m an introvert and I don’t like to be bothered by people, especially people who have baggage.”

Heather and Kaiden inspect the sunflower cupcakes reserved for a gathering later that day; Kaiden points to the one he thinks looks the best.

The Daubenspecks help lead Cru®’s high school ministry in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a city rich with American history.

In addition to their own four children, Kim and Brad think of Heather as another daughter and Kaiden as their grandson. Since being adopted by the Daubenspecks this way, Heather has grown to call them “Mom” and “Dad.”

But, throughout that summer, Kim discovered joy in serving her neighbors. She found herself suddenly glad to be invested in the lives of others.

“I was experiencing the joy of just walking with God,” Kim says. “I call it my summer of joy because I was giving to people in a way that I’d never experienced before; I was allowing myself to get involved in the messiness of life.”

Kim believes if she had met Heather before her experience that summer, she likely would’ve brushed off Heather’s request, thinking she had enough on her plate juggling four kids and the high school ministry. But because of what God taught Kim through her “summer of joy,” she eagerly served wherever she could.

Brad talks to Tom Fitzpatrick (center) and Alan Zimmerman (right), two friends from church, as he prepares a meal for guests. Brad and Kim’s community has been supportive of them welcoming Heather and Kaiden into their family, serving as a constant source of encouragement throughout their journey.

Kim and Heather eat lunch with Cheryl Williamson (right) and Bonnie Haus (far right). The Daubenspecks are adjusting to the new normal brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic by living out hospitality and building community in smaller groups gathering in their backyard.

As she looks back in retrospect, Kim sees just how critical that summer was for her and Heather. God prepared her to love Heather.

“OK, Lord, I can see this journey you’ve taken me on this last year of allowing myself to be open to other people’s lives and to step into their world,’” Kim said, reflecting on the time leading up to helping Heather.

After a few weeks of Kim watching Kaiden regularly, Heather called Kim one day asking for a ride to work. Kim quickly obliged. Though she didn’t know where Heather worked, she was available and willing to help. It was then that Kim learned Heather worked as a dancer at a bar.

“I dropped her off at a club,” Kim said to Brad when she came home that evening. “She must be a bartender.”

“Kim, she’s not tending a bar,” Brad replied.

The two of them pieced together what her work was and saw a clearer picture of her story.

Brad and Kim paused and asked one another, “What difference does that make?”

“None,” they decided. “We simply are called to love her.”

Heather had faced a lifetime of struggles. Her relationships with her family were strained, money was tight, and she had fought with drugs.

And the Daubenspecks didn’t run from these hardships.

Kim and Kaiden often explore the natural surroundings in their neighborhood of Levittown, Pennsylvania.

Kim still watches Kaiden every afternoon while Heather works. The two of them have no trouble finding adventure and fun close to home.

Hope found in a new home

Kim and Heather’s relationship only continued to deepen, and Kaiden won the hearts of both Brad and Kim more with each passing day. Kim drove Heather to work so often that Kim befriended other women at the bar, giving them rides as they needed.

So, when Heather told Brad and Kim that she had decided to move in with Kaiden’s father — in a town an hour and a half away — they were disheartened. Though Kaiden’s father seemed earnest in his commitment to be better for Heather and Kaiden, the reality of his past made Brad and Kim skeptical of how long this arrangement would last.

In March 2017, just three months after moving, Heather called Kim in distress. She had been in her bedroom, behind a locked door, with Kaiden for two full days. A friend came to help her move out while Kaiden’s father was at work, but she needed a place to go.

That day, in the middle of a snowstorm, Heather arrived at the Daubenspecks’ home carrying nothing but a duffel bag and a diaper bag, and Kaiden on her hip.

Brad was away on a mission trip to Eastern Europe at the time.

“When you get home, Heather’s in the back room,” Kim told Brad on the phone the next morning.

At first, this solution was temporary. Brad and Kim asked others in their community if they had room for Heather and Kaiden, but the people they approached either didn’t have the capacity or constructed a long list of challenging house rules for her. Heather actively looked for apartments in the area, but she couldn’t afford to live on her own.

Brad and Kim pursued other options for Heather for a couple of months but ultimately determined that God had led Heather into their lives and their home for a reason.

“It’s obvious, in all of this, God’s been orchestrating our connection with her,” Brad decided then. “Therefore, she’s our responsibility; she’s ours to love. We don’t need to try to find another situation; we need to figure out the situation here to accommodate her.”

Brad and Kim’s oldest son was away at college, so Heather and Kaiden moved into his room and began to call the Daubenspecks’ house their home.

With all the turbulence Heather was experiencing, she feared being alone — worried that her thoughts would spiral negatively. So, Heather followed Kim wherever she went. If Kim went to the store, Heather went to the store with her. If Kim went to an event with the high school ministry, Heather went along with her. When Kim went to church, Heather sat beside her.

Heather feels welcomed and accepted at A Church of Living Hope. Though much of her spiritual growth has come from her ministry experience with Brad and Kim, her community through this church has also played a significant role.

On a Sunday just weeks after Heather moved in, Kim turned to her after church and saw her crying.

“I need him,” Kim recalls Heather saying. Though Kim didn’t know at the time if Heather was talking about God or her boyfriend, Kim boldly pressed into a conversation about the gospel of Jesus.

“I fumbled through some of the gospel points with her,” Kim remembers, “and I thought, I have been on staff like 27 years at this point, and I can’t even remember any verses out of the Knowing God Personally booklet!

That day, Heather made the decision to trust Jesus with her life. Though her circumstances did not radically change in that moment, or even in the months following, she felt increasingly more internal conflict as she learned about God.

Learning to trust during the transition

After about four months, Heather felt a distance growing between her and her friends at the bar. She used to consider them her family.

When very few of those friends came to Kaiden’s first birthday party, Heather realized she had changed.

This life is not for me, she realized. This bar is not for me; this is not who I am anymore.

Heather saw she wasn’t connecting with her old friends anymore because she was trying to make more responsible, wise choices.

“I didn't go out after work and party,” she says. “I came straight home to my baby.”

Heather knew that she needed to leave her job at the bar, but she didn’t know how.

“Every day got harder and harder,” she says. “But I needed the money.”

When Heather finally did quit in October 2017, Brad and Kim saw quick growth in her faith as she trusted God for money, food and diapers.

“When she made that decision to leave the job,” Brad says, “she really began to lock in. She verbalized her faith and then changes started happening, not super rapidly, but just slow and steady.”

Healing through ministry

After following Kim to so many high school ministry events, Heather started interacting with students. She became a Cru volunteer and she’s been able to connect with students in a way Brad and Kim never have. Because Heather’s story is similar to many of the students’ the Daubenspecks work with, Heather’s testimony carries a powerful weight and shows students that God really can change their lives.

Brad meets with Emmanuel Exantus (center) and Ricardo Lopez, Jr., (left) for a discipleship Bible study. Emmanuel and Ricardo first met Brad when they were in high school and have continued to meet with Brad even after they’ve graduated.

Heather openly shares her story in ministry with high school and college students. She uses her testimony to illustrate forgiveness and redemption that is only possible through faith in Jesus.

Heather has connected with two high school girls in particular who are dealing with many of the same struggles she has dealt with. In telling these two student leaders about her life, Heather strengthened their faith by proving stories like theirs can be turned around by God for good.

Sharing her story with students and helping them process their own realities has helped Heather reconcile with her past. She explains how she got through difficult times but that she wasn’t able to move on from the hardships in her life until she started following Jesus.

“Now that I know Jesus and I know that He’s above all,” Heather says, “I’ve been able to get over some of these things.”

Heather describes a simple step that helped her start spiritual conversations about Jesus on a boardwalk in New Jersey.

The new normal

These days, Heather works at a local ACME grocery store and participates in ministry activities regularly. Kaiden has grown up with the Daubenspecks, affectionately calling Brad and Kim “Dig-da” and “Ba-teem.” They don’t anticipate Heather or Kaiden leaving any time soon.

“We’re very indefinite on that,” Brad says. “We want to help her get to a place of independence for her sake, but I’ve said to Kim, even when she does, this is her home.”

Whether she’s in the bakery or produce section, Heather seeks to treat her job at ACME Grocery as another place for ministry.

As a working single mom, Heather continually seeks balance in her work, ministry and personal goals.

For Kaiden, this is the only home he’s known. Early in the mornings, he will sometimes walk out to the kitchen, still sleepy as his feet pat along the floor.

Brad shouts, “Good morning, Kaiden!”

Kaiden lifts his hand and lazily waves at Brad, “No, Dig-Da, no,” he mutters.

“He’s a very precocious child, and we enjoy him to no end,” Brad says.

As with many of Cru’s ministries across the world, COVID-19 has put a pause on ministry activities for months. At the time of reporting, restrictions lightened and ministries slowly made the transition to in-person meetings and events. The Daubenspecks and Heather began hosting small groups to foster community through hospitality whenever and however they have been able.

Opening their home to Heather and Kaiden has taught Brad and Kim about hospitality, grace, and telling others about Jesus. After Heather moved in, the Daubenspecks started working on an addition to their home to make room for everyone to have their own space. Though the space isn’t finished, they painted one wall green to symbolize their home’s greenhouse effect. Brad and Kim’s open-door policy encourages high school students to come and go through their front door as they need. And students do frequently stop by the house.

“It’s been neat to experience the gospel in a very slow-cooker kind of way,” Brad says. “Here I am, 30 years in ministry [with Cru], I’ve shared my faith more times than I could ever count; and yet, in sharing my faith in life this way, at this depth, we’ve just seen how powerful life change can be for someone when you just say, ‘God called me to love you, and I’m going to do that.’”

For Kaiden, the Daubenspecks’ hospitality is normal; their home is his home. Brad and Kim, or “Dig-da” and “Ba-teem,” have always been family to him.

Sarah Wontorcik
Words by

Sarah Wontorcik

Sarah Wontorcik serves as a journalist with Cru® in Orlando. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a degree in journalism. She is inspired by stories of God moving in extraordinary ways through ordinary people.

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Ted Wilcox
Photos and video by

Ted Wilcox

Ted loves zigzagging the globe, capturing photos and stories of what God is doing. Originally from California, he serves as a missionary photojournalist with Cru® in Orlando, Florida. Ted also ministers to international scholars who come to Orlando to study.

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