Neta Jackson

Neta Jackson is the author of the popular novel series, *The Yada Yada Prayer Group*, and a spin-off series called *The Yada Yada House of Hope.* These novels were inspired by a real women's Bible study and prayer group that, as Neta says, "God has used to turn my life upside down and rightside up." Neta and her husband, Dave, are also an award-winning writing team, best known for the Trailblazer books--a forty-book series of historical fiction for young people about great Christian heroes (see The Jacksons are members of a multi-cultural church in the Chicago area, and the parents of three grown children, including a Cambodian foster daughter, all with families of their own. (For more information, go to

The Homeless Have Stories, Too

One of the advantages of using the great city of Chicago, where I live, as the setting for my novels is that I get to do “on site” research! I mean, how else could I claim my first-ever manicure and pedicure as a business expense? If one of my characters was getting her first ever “mani-and-pedi” at a black-owned beauty shop, I had to know what it was like, right?

Researching local restaurants, cafés, and coffee shops my characters frequent is a lot of fun, too. Décor, entrees, what the waitstaff wears … it all helps make my novels’ scenes come alive. (My husband really likes helping me with this research—makes for a great date night!)

Oh, the things I’ve had to do for research for my novels! Like learning how to ride a Segway along Chicago’s magnificent lakefront. Hanging out at the walk-in clinic at Cook County’s Stroger Hospital. Spending a day cheering on a cross-country meet at the local high school. Going inside the Juvenile Detention Center with my husband (he led Bible studies in one of the units) and hanging out with these young teens, all of whom treated me with utmost respect.

By far the most mind-blowing research I’ve done for the House of Hope series has been getting involved with the Joshua Center, an emergency homeless shelter for women in Chicago. At first I asked permission just to hang out, make friends with some of the women, talk to staff about resources offered, play games on Christmas day. But pretty soon “research” slid off my radar and I became a volunteer, sitting in on case management meetings. And then—joy of joys—I was asked to interview and write up the stories of some of the women who’d come off the streets through the Outreach program and made remarkable progress.

Oh. My. The stories I heard. I was surprised that some of these women talked so freely to me, a virtual stranger. But as I listened (taking notes on my laptop as fast as I could), I realized something: I never could have made this stuff up! Some of their real-life stories were truly “stranger than fiction.”

Like Sherri (not her real name), who’d been in and out of the Joshua Center for several years, two steps forward, one step back. But Sherri was finally getting her act together and was excited to tell her story. It began two decades earlier as a foster kid, bounced from one home to another in Michigan, until the state dropped her at age eighteen. She was on her own—without a high school diploma, without any ID, without any source of income to support herself. So, like so many others in her shoes, she started turning tricks to make money, just to eat.

One day, a guy in a red truck picked her up, still finishing off a six-pack of beer. He seemed nice enough, said he’d take her to his sister’s home out a ways in the country. By this time, he was a little tipsy, and when he pulled into the driveway, he said, “Wait here. I’ll see if she’s home. If not …” He leered at her. And he tottered to the door.

Leaving the keys in the car. Motor running.

Leaping into action, Sherri scooted into the driver’s seat, put the car in gear, squealed the tires as she backed out of the driveway, and shot down the country road. Had she ever driven a car before? Nope. No driver’s license, nothing. But she drove that truck clear to Chicago, abandoned it in an alley, and walked away thinking, “No one knows me here. I’m going to start over!”

I must’ve stopped typing at some point, my mouth hanging open. “You drove that truck all the way to Chicago? A teenager behind the wheel? No one stopped you? And you’d never ever driven a car before?” She nodded yes, yes, then shook her head no, no.

I started to laugh. And she started to laugh. And we both laughed until our sides ached. Incredible! Like I said, I never could have made that up.

That was the day we became friends, not just interviewer and interviewee. I was delighted to help Sherri move into her first apartment—first ever—at the age of forty-six. When I walked in the door and looked around at the one-room apartment plus bathroom—single bed in one corner; hooks for clothes; a

second-hand dresser; “kitchen” along one wall consisting of a dormitory-type fridge, hot plate, and sink; one frayed easy chair by the one window—I nearly fell over. My gut reaction: Ack! Wouldn’t want to live here!

But not Sherri. This was a home of her own, and she was so thankful to God and all the Joshua Center staff who hadn’t given up on her over the years. She couldn’t stop grinning.

And I couldn’t have made that up either, the genuine joy of having a space to call one’s own for the first time in her life.

I could tell lots of other stories, but one stands out for me: the Outreach coordinator at the Joshua Center who took me on as a volunteer. Evie (not her real name) tells other women, “Been there, done that.” Meaning she was on the streets herself at one time, doing everything—prostitution, drugs, the whole gamut.

But God used the Joshua Center to help turn her life around, and now her life’s passion is helping other women get off the streets. Just going out with Evie in the shelter’s Outreach RV, parking it in one of the rougher Chicago neighborhoods, handing out snacks and toiletries, and listening to her talk to the streetwalkers or addicts who knock on the door is an eye-opening experience. Evie is real. She talks straight. She asks the tough questions. She tells them about Jesus. She hands out her cell phone number and tells each person they can call her “twenty-four seven.” Sometimes she’ll jump out of the RV and chase down a woman she hasn’t seen for several months—or a few years—and say, “I’ve missed you! Where have you been? Come on in the RV, let’s talk. Are you ready to let us come alongside and help you get off the street?”

In my sheltered middle-class life, I never could’ve made up somebody like Evie. I simply had no idea.

What I’ve included in my novels is pretty tame compared to some of the real stories I’ve been told. But doing my “Chicago research” for the House of Hope series taught me invaluable lessons about writing fiction:

Get my hands dirty.

Talk to real people.

Sit where they sit.

Do what they do.

Hang out.

Shut up and listen.

Because truth is oftentimes much stranger than fiction—and will only make our fiction more believable.


Who Is My Shelter