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NEW YORK MODEL IN CAPE TOWN: HOW MY LIFE TURNED AROUND

Former New York model VICTORIA SORENSEN spent nearly four years in Cape Town as a missionary, moving between Pollsmoor Prison (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for six years) and a ladies’ bible study in the leafy suburb of Constantia. Here she shares her story of finding her faith and how it brought her through divorce, put her in exciting and challenging circumstances, and even changed her attitude to her own body…

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‘I was born in Kentucky in 1960 and raised in a middle-class neighbourhood. My great grandparents had been missionaries in the Congo and I was always taught godly values. Both my parents were deacons in the church, I sang in the choir, collected money for the poor and had a wonderful social life based around the church.

However, I think subliminally I felt Christianity was mainly about doing good works. I don’t think I had really given God control of my life or really understood what He had done for me by dying on the cross. When I was 15, I responded to a call at the church for people to stand up and ‘give their life to the Lord.’ I stood up but looking back, I think it may have been from the terror of not going to heaven rather than a true response from my heart. During university – I did an undergraduate degree in political science and law, then a BA in communications – I started to go my own way and became more focused on academics and my social life than Jesus!

I got married straight out of university and that marriage was pretty much over in the first year. There was a lot wrong with it. I discovered my husband had deceived me even before we got married. I was left working long hours for a subsidiary of IBM trying to open a new business. I thought the exciting work would bring happiness but I felt so empty inside. I had a void in my heart, a longing.

I did modelling photo shoots. Then I won a competition and an agency asked me to move to New York City. I knew modelling could help pay the bills and might help me to achieve my desire to be an actress. So I left my solid job for New York. It was a very lonely time. I remember sitting in empty churches and crying out to God, ‘If you are really out there, please help me, please help me.’ I got jobs acting in soap operas and started mixing with the acting community, dating famous people. I thought the money, the parties, the yacht trips would make me happy.

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Victoria, Peter and their young family when they were living in Cape Town: from left, Grace, Peter, Christine and Luke.

pride

But I started to realise these stars were some of the loneliest people I knew. I shared a dressing room with an actress who said she had a relationship with Jesus. I said, ‘Well my great grandparents were missionaries, my grandfather was a minister,’ believing this meant I too was a Christian! Looking back I see it was a kind of religious pride. She told me about her relationship with Christ and invited me to a group called Models for Christ. I’d been going to a church from time to time but knew it wasn’t reaching me deep down, and would pray from time to time, ‘Lord, please give me comfort.’ But when I got this invitation I was so stubborn. I was afraid my longing for God would be disappointed again because I had ‘tried religion’ and it didn’t work for me. I was sceptical that it would be any different to any other church experience I’d had in the past. And I was also a little scared it was a cult.

But amazingly, I bumped into her one day in that huge city. She said, ‘You’ve got to go.’ That night – November 16th 1986 – I felt something compelling me to go. It was dark, it was rainy, but I forced myself onto a night bus. I got chatting with a woman who was also on her way to Models for Christ. The whole bus ride she talked to me about how Christianity was not a religion but a personal relationship with Christ. She said God was interested in the personal areas of our lives, and that I had a choice either to continue living my life being in charge, or to humble myself and accept God’s way. When we got there, a girl from TV spoke again about this relationship with God that she had. A leader then offered a prayer to ask God to come into my life and I repeated it in my heart. It went something like, ‘I’m sorry I’ve been going my own way, please forgive my sins and come into my heart.’

I remember feeling great peace and at that moment I believe God clearly showed me that He was not on the throne of my life, it was I who was controlling my life. At that moment I gave control of my life to God, my plans, my future. As I was heading out the back, a woman gave me a bible. I’d always been around bibles but suddenly I couldn’t wait to read it. Instead of going clubbing I would stay in and read my bible!

prison makeovers

I think I became a new believer at that point. It was so refreshing to know I could carry God’s presence with me throughout the day, whether I was at home or the supermarket, so freeing to know that I could communicate with Him at any time.

I had no financial security. I was renting a little apartment. No home, no insurance policy, no man… but I had never been happier! I wanted to give God everything. Models for Christ did outreach projects in homeless shelters and prisons, even doing makeovers on the inmates. I remember hearing a lady on death row singing Amazing Grace and was overawed to see what happened when the truth of the gospel entered the place. I think God laid the seeds for my African prison work in my heart then, not that I realised it at the time.

The Holy Spirit started teaching me things. I realised I was far too impressed by fame and famous people and in fact many were so broken and need ministering to. I started doing that. I had also been struggling with eating issues because you had to be so skinny in my world. I remember a guy in the business once saying to me, ‘You are disgusting, how could you let your hips get so big?’ even though I was underweight. But I felt God telling me never to go on a diet or worry about my weight again, that it had been an idol. To this day I’ll never get on a scale!

A guy I had dated in the past told my family I was in a cult. I had my sister on the phone crying, ‘How can you do this?’ Her husband, with whom I had a great relationship, said ‘I never want to hear you say the name of Jesus in my house again.’ My mother was so worried. But much later she found God herself and could finally understand my passion.

I met my husband Peter at a bible study but we connected for the first time at a party. I think God knitted our hearts together and within the year we were married. For the first time I saw what it was like to be in a godly marriage, in a kind of triangle with Jesus at the top.

But there were tough times ahead. We both had wounds from our past, we both came from broken homes and I also had many wounds from my first marriage. We moved outside New York City and I was quite isolated. It was like God had given me a cushy time and now He was taking away my crutches to see if I would rely on Him.

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Victoria and Peter felt a call to work in African prisons.

tough times

I developed a horrible stomach condition for years which caused a lot of pain and it was a really tough time. Peter had a very stressful job on Wall Street and was getting up at 4am and coming back at 9pm. But this was all good for me. God showed me I was trying to make Peter my god and get him to meet all my needs. I joined a group of mature Christian ladies, sat at their feet and let them build into my life. It was such an invaluable time, it made me realise the responsibility more mature Christians have to disciple newer ones. You can’t leave a spiritual newborn babe to feed itself! Now I know God put Peter and me together to form a ministry, to heal the wounds of our past and to refine each other.

We were very blessed to have three children, Christine, Grace and Luke. Peter’s Wall Street job was going well, we were involved in our church, enjoying a comfy American lifestyle. Peter’s mother was a medical missionary in West Africa and had just started to be allowed to go into prisons. We heard about the conditions in them: there was rampant sickness and prisoners were sleeping in shifts because cells were too full for everyone to lie down. Some were naked because their clothes had disintegrated, others got transferred without warning, lost all contact with their families and starved to death. The majority had been awaiting trial for years.

Peter had a dream of staging ‘prodigal son banquets’ in African prisons, slaughtering cows and feeding people a feast as well as feeding them with the gospel. He flew over to help his mother to give a talk about God in one prison. He was a little germ-phobic and warned her, ‘I’m not going to shake hands with anyone.’ But he felt God saying, ‘You must.’ He started shaking hands and felt God saying, ‘This is your life calling.’

We had done years of ministry to the extremely wealthy of America, who had everything of the world but a void inside. Now we set up a non-profit ministry called African Prison Ministries and organised prodigal son banquets in Togo, Zambia, Nigeria, South Africa, Malawi: anywhere God opened up a door. The first African prison I went into was in Nigeria. It was old and dark with gallows hanging at the back! In addition to spiritual needs, we addressed physical needs with our partner Pro-Health, taking medical teams in mobile operating rooms in trucks into the prisons. I would help with triage, sorting out which prisoner needed which kind of doctor. I developed a real passion for it.

We were still living in America. But one summer we went as a family to a Christian camp and one day at a talk, we both heard God clearly saying to us, ‘Move to Africa.’ Then a speaker got up and spoke about sowing seeds in Africa which confirmed it to us.

It was a big deal. I hate change. My dad had left home when I was young and it really traumatised me. The kids were devastated about moving away from family, friends and their country. But we felt it was God’s calling so we got people to pray and fast for us and the name of Cape Town kept coming up, and Peter and I both heard it separately too. We knew nothing about Cape Town – that in fact it was one of the easier African cities to live in! Times Square Church, a large church in New York City, asked us to be their missionaries and it was great to have their people praying for us.

sleeping pills and the safest place to be

When we arrived in Cape Town, I was very concerned about security. Back in America, we didn’t even own a front door key. Here, I would hear house alarms going off at night and people told me all about crime. Working in Pollsmoor Prison, I heard about the awful crimes people committed. I was too scared to drive at night and ended up on sleeping pills for several months. Later I came to realise that the safest place to be is in the centre of God’s will. If He wanted us to be here, He would protect us.

All of a sudden, I was a part of two worlds. The dark world of Pollsmoor where desperate women are packed into cells and then a Constantia bible study – beautiful and comfortable with women who have all the trappings.

In Pollsmoor I went in alongside Hope Ministries, trying to spread God’s love and hope and help the women grow. I helped in weekly bible studies, trying especially to help the non-English speakers. Most of the women are very open because they know their life hasn’t worked this far. It’s different in the outside world where people have lots of crutches and can often buy their way out of pain. They hide behind big walls and it can be hard for them to let God take control of their lives.

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Victoria also helped out with bible studies in the leafier parts of Cape Town.

true beauty

Restorative Justice, one of the programmes we were involved in, tries to heal the wounds that caused the crime and prevent inmates from going on to commit worse crimes on release. I felt so intensely happy seeing the glory of God come down to a place with bars. He showed up time and time again! You saw some women in dire condition, sick, with missing teeth and scars from abuse, but they radiated Christ to the extent that they became utterly beautiful to me. It was an absolute privilege to see God at work in their lives and learn more about Him through them. It never felt like a sacrifice of my time at all.

In the Constantia bible study I saw marriages healed, the women becoming more patient with their children, ministering to each other and becoming hungry for God’s word. Some people might imagine if you live somewhere likeCape Town’s wealthy southern suburbs your life is trouble-free, but I believe that everyone has a God-shaped vacuum only He can fill. And God loves those women just as much as He loves the prisoners. One particular joy for me was watching these women move out of their comfort zone to care for the hurting. Some even assisted with the prison work, providing meals, clothing and support for the inmates in prison and on their release. And the women prisoners reciprocated by regularly praying for the Constantia women.Elsewhere in Africa we had miracles. We saw families restored, medical miracles, lives totally changed.

Then God took us back to Virginia. We felt called to go and base our ministry in the States so that we could be with our extended families who had suffered various medical challenges while we were away. I had no idea what the next step was bringing, it was a little scary. I was nervous about the challenges that lay ahead and about starting all over again in an area we’d never lived in, but I knew enough of God’s character to know that He would provide, and equip us to carry out His plans through us. He already had it figured out. I didn’t need to do that.

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The Sorensens (minus Peter) back in the USA today.

up-and-outers

More than eight years later, we’re so grateful to be spending time with our ageing parents and the children are doing really well – both my girls have even followed in my footsteps and done some modelling since our return! Christine is studying fashion at Liberty University, Grace attends Virginia Tech with an interest in medicine and Luke is enjoying his High School sport, particularly lacrosse which he wouldn’t have discovered if we were still in South Africa! We’ve also celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary and renewed our vows, surrounded by family and friends.

A specific ministry unfolded for us when we got back. Building on my experience with the ladies in the South African bible studies, we’ve reached out to those we call ‘the up-and-outers’. In the States, many people are not going to church anymore so we established two Faith Forums, one for women and one for men, and meet in places where people are more comfortable. We hold breakfasts or luncheons in country clubs with amazing speakers and have found people keen to go back to church to the extent that at City Church in Charlottesville we’ve had to move our services out of the church buildings and into the local Performing Arts Centre.A newly formed ministry in which I serve as a spiritual advisor is called High5Give5. This ministry seeks to engage the younger generation in giving to worthy causes and so far projects are being run in Kenya, Syria, Italy, and beyond. Peter serves on the boards of several organisations, including Global Leadership and Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.

We still have an office in Cape Town where we support and lend office space to Hope Prison Ministries, which serves Pollsmoor and surrounding prisons.In the US we have had the privilege of being involved in several outreaches in Angola prison, the once-notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Closer to home, I’m a volunteer counsellor at the local pregnancy centre, a pro-life organisation which helps women in crisis keep their babies or connect with those who want to adopt. Our clients are high school and university students, homeless families, and those who are new to the area without resources.I’m also a patient advocate in the local hospital’s ICU and Oncology Departments, where our team tries to ensure that patients have a seamless stay, with coordinated care, as we help them to navigate the complicated medical system.

The thing I have learnt above almost everything else is summed up in Proverbs 3 verse 5: ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Don’t lean on your own understanding.’ I believe God wants every single part of us to surrender. It may not be easy, we may have to go places we don’t want to. But I believe He gives us supernatural peace in the midst of chaos.

I always knew about the cross but only in 1986 did I accept that it’s nothing to do with me trying to be good, it’s all about God. Just before Jesus died, he said ‘It is finished.’ He did the work, I don’t have to. Whatever we’ve done, he still loves us. And the Bible promises us that nothing can separate us from God’s love. That’s such a joy and comfort.’

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Surrounded by family and friends, Victoria and Peter renewed their marriage vows on their 25th wedding anniversary.

Victoria’s thoughts

On parenting and performance

‘So often our pride gets in and we want our children to be top of the class, the best athlete. But the most important thing is to build into them the truth. Growing up I was an overachiever. I was valedictorian in my school, cheerleader, an honours graduate. Performance was my drug of choice! I thought if I performed or looked a certain way, it was me achieving, not God. One of my daughters hasn’t found school easy and I felt that almost as a shame, that I didn’t help her enough. It was all about me. But God has taught me maybe she won’t be the top of the class, but look how she spent two hours baking bread for her teacher before her exams! Look how she spoke to thousands at a missionary conference at Times Square Church. Look how she can give her peers an amazing talk! God’s taught me to see things through His eyes, not the eyes of the world.Conversely, my other daughter found academics very easy and I need to make sure there’s no pride involved and that she sees everything as a gift from God.’

On judging others

‘God has taught me not to judge people by how they look or are doing financially. This person really is not better because they look a certain way. That’s a big deal for someone who was a model in New York City where you find the cream of the world’s crop!’

On God and the little things

‘God’s a very practical God. I believe He wants to be involved in the small details of our lives. I pray to Him before my children’s tests, that they would have His peace and remember what they’ve learnt, I pray about what holiday to go on or house to buy, how He wants me to spend my time.’

On hard times

‘When life is tough – and it will be, Romans 8 verse 28 talks about when not if! – I always remember the Bible says He will never leave me or forsake me. He’ll even work bad stuff for good. Has God ever let me down? No. In fact I have to thank Him for not giving me my way. If He had let me become the famous actress I wanted to be at one stage it would have been a very difficult field to be in.’

On what she finds most exciting about God

‘It’s His faithfulness to me. He is who He says He is, and His word is true. As a child I always craved purpose: I thought that longing would be filled by having my name in lights, or money, or a romantic relationship, or work, family, academic success. But I had that and none of it worked. Only God can fill that hole. I want to shout this to the rooftops: This is real! Jesus is real!’

 
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