The Hug Doctor
The young Italian woman was in her early twenties, neatly dressed, walking alone down the cobbled street. It was her facial expression that caught the attention of Rachel Sawyerr, a 57-year-old African-American grandmother visiting Italy from Chicago, out for a morning stroll on the same street.
A haunting sadness, “like something terrible had happened to her,” Sawyerr says, recalling the woman’s appearance that day. The two strangers passed each other on the street, without a word, until Sawyerr felt compelled to turn around.
“Can I hug you?” Sawyerr asked boldly, arms extended as she caught up to the woman.
Within moments, the woman moved toward Sawyerr, fell into her arms and began to weep - deep, painful sobs. Holding on tightly, Sawyerr began to pray. The language barrier meant there were no introductions or explanations given that day. And Sawyerr still doesn’t know what became of the young woman after their brief encounter on the street. But in that moment Sawyerr was living out the mission that gets her out of bed each day:
“I just pray when I wake up in the morning that God would lead me to the people He wants me to minister to,” Sawyerr explains.
She’s affectionately known as “The Hug Doctor.” It’s written on the license plate of her black Nissan Sentra and woven into everything she does. From her ministry to the homeless, to her visits to nursing homes and hospitals, Sawyerr looks for the overlooked. She’s drawn to the hopeless and the hurting. She gives the kind of hugs she was desperate to receive when she was all of the above.
Born on the south side of Chicago in 1961, Sawyer grew up in the church - literally. Her family started the Bethel House of Prayer and converted the basement of their Morgan Park home into the church sanctuary. She fondly recalls hours-long prayer meetings with church members scattered in rooms all over the house.
Her tight-knit family of eight ministered mainly to the youth in the neighborhood, providing Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, and a safe place to hang out. They bussed in a group of students from Altgeld Gardens, one of the city’s oldest housing projects.
“All the kids in the neighborhood were at our house all day every day,” Sawyerr recalls. “It was the “kool-aid house,” the house in the neighborhood where everyone wanted to be.
Sawyerr accepted Jesus Christ as her Savior at age 4. It wasn’t long before she was teaching her own Sunday School and Vacation Bible School classes and helping minister to the people who came to the altar for prayer or salvation. At age 11, she saved up her money to buy her own Bible, and read it from start to finish that same year.
“We had the best life,” Sawyerr says, her smooth skin crinkling in laughter. “We thought we were rich but looking back, we weren’t hardly rich!”
As comfortable as she was doing ministry, Sawyerr says she was naturally shy; a wallflower who struggled to fit in. Her affinity for hugs started as a way to express her love for people and make them feel welcomed when the words wouldn’t come.
“I really just didn’t know what to say,” Sawyerr explained. “I had no life experience other than that I was madly in love with Jesus.”
Sawyerr can’t help but to laugh at the irony. She had no way of knowing in those early years, how much “life experience” was yet to come. Or how much pain she’d endure as a result.
Sawyerr married at age 18 and dreamed of traveling the world as a full time missionary, just like her aunt, a missionary to war-torn Liberia. Driven by her conviction that “If I’m not doing something that’s changing lives, why am I here?” Sawyerr wanted nothing more than to live a life fully devoted to loving God and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations.
But an unwanted divorce put those plans on hold. Sawyerr says her husband walked out a few years into their marriage, leaving her alone to care for their two young daughters. A shaken but determined Sawyerr went back to college and found work in a struggling school in the Chicago Public School District. She spent the next 25 years in jobs ranging from choir director to preschool teacher to truancy officer.
Sawyerr says her daughters were her “running buddies,” accompanying her on short-term ministry trips across the U.S. and overseas. Back home in her Chicago neighborhood, she devoted her time to jail ministry, serving the homeless and ministering to people on the street - always giving out hope and her signature hug, in spite of the pain that often surrounded her.
Sawyerr was once caught in the crossfire of a gun battle. She’s been beaten up. She’s had things stolen from her and was homeless for a six month stretch. She’s also a survivor of domestic violence and rape.
But none of it rocked her like her second marriage, a step of faith she took 25 years after her first marriage ended. Sawyerr takes a long pause as she attempts to describe some of the darkest years of her life.
She’d met him for the first time on a short-term missions trip. He wasn’t really her type, but she felt the Lord leading her to marry him. In 2006, after a quick courtship, Sawyerr became a wife again.
But the unraveling of her marriage was as swift as it was devastating. Sawyerr says her new husband was not at all what he seemed to be. Despite her attempts to salvage the marriage, Sawyerr says her then-husband made some decisions that ultimately led to him being deported. After two years the marriage was over, leaving Sawyerr financially ruined, utterly heartbroken, and furious with God.
“I surrendered my whole life to you, and look what you’ve done,” she recalls crying out to God in her pain. “Everything I have is gone.”
Sawyerr says she was “a mess” and spent the next two years battling major depression. The emotional trauma and stress wreaked havoc on her physical health, to the point of her body nearly shutting down. She visited a psychologist, who remarked that in all his years he’d never heard of any situation as extreme as Sawyerr’s. “I can’t counsel you,” Sawyerr remembers him telling her. “Actually I’m scared for your life.”
Sawyerr found little comfort in the people around her. Not knowing what to say to her, most said nothing at all.
“I’d come in the room and they’d turn their back and pretend I wasn’t there,” Sawyerr remembers. “I used to say ‘I would pay any price just to have someone hug me.’”
Sawyerr’s life was crumbling. She could no longer afford to pay her mortgage or her car payment, and she was forced to retire early due to declining health. She couldn’t understand how a God who promised to work all things together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28), could bring any good from her pain..
Bleak as the days were, she says Jesus was still her best friend and the only One she had. So she pressed on in ministry, spending hours in prayer, teaching the Word of God in church and passing out gospel tracts on the streets.
Slowly, and in ways she can’t fully explain, God began a work of emotional and physical healing. It came in the form of truth from the Bible, song lyrics, and a new church home where Sawyerr fell in love with the Tuesday night prayer meeting. Then there was a series of divine interventions that saved her home from foreclosure, and the unexpected blessing of a new car - tangible reminders of God’s faithfulness. Most of all, Sawyerr says God began to heal her by allowing her to meet people whose pain mirrored her own.
“Gradually God was bringing people into my life to minister to, and who I could share my testimony and journey with and to sympathize with them,” Sawyerr says. “I started to say ‘ok God. I’m beginning to see how you can get honor and glory from this.’”
Sawyerr started her own ministry called Hugs from Heaven, where she combines education, the arts, and hug therapy, to minister “wherever people are lost or hurting.” She completed her doctorate in Christian Education in 2015 and seeks to educate people on the healing benefits of healthy physical touch.
Sawyerr’s hugs are full-on squeezes, air-tight, held a few seconds longer than you expect. She gives so many on Sundays as a church usher, that her elbow sometimes gets sore.
“All I can say is, it’s from the heart,” Sawyerr says of her hugs. “I just really, really love people. I want them to experience the love of God.”
No longer the girl who hugs because she doesn’t know what to say, Sawyerr is now a woman who hugs because she knows that sometimes the hurt of life is too deep for words.
Any fear of what might happen to her, or concern over being accepted, have long melted away. Sawyerr jokingly describes herself as “the free-est person on the planet.” She’s ready for the day God calls her to pack a bag and go into all the world to preach the gospel full-time.
“I’ve had it all. I’ve lost it all. I’ve been through some crazy stuff,” Sawyerr says. “But it’s drawn me closer to him. It’s let me know that I can survive it and that there’s nothing that I can go through that God will not get the glory from. I know that God can change your heart and love you and prove Himself to you in spite of the terrible things you’re going through.”
Sometimes it starts with a hug.
Click here for more on my interview with Rachel Sawyerr.