Every saint has a past. Every sinner has a future.
“Paper or plastic?” the grocery store clerk routinely asked. I didn’t answer; I was focused on the lady in front of me. I watched as her manicured fingers slid her debit card into the neat slot of her wallet; the card sat perfectly in line with the others. She tucked her wallet into a perfectly matching purse, which coordinated perfectly with her suit, which already looked perfect with her peep-toe wedges. The shoes, of course, revealed that her pedicured toes matched her fingernails. Perfectly.
“Paper or plastic?” the clerk inquired again. I looked down at my hand to see the smudged remains of a hastily written reminder: “Wire food money to Congo for kids.” The baseball cap on my head covered my hair, which was three days unwashed. The holes in my hat matched the holes in my shoes, but any other potential for perfect matching ended there.
My interest in the perfectly matching lady had nothing to do with envy, nor did I judge her. She was simply familiar to me. She reminded me of a woman I once knew.
I finished my purchase, finally choosing paper, and went straight to wire money so our team could purchase food for the former child soldiers and orphaned children in our care at the Peace Lives Center in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). After completing the transfer, I walked to my car, praying with each step. I had spent the morning with our Exile International team discussing the need to evacuate the children at the center, knowing the rebels were moving closer to them each day. After three days of deep prayer, sleepless nights, and helpless tears, I was exhausted. I paused when I got into my car and looked at my cracked fingernails as my hands rested on the steering wheel.
That perfect lady—I used to be her.
While my wallet never remotely matched my purse—and definitely not my shoes—I had been perfect at seeming so in control, so accomplished, so spiritually on point. But my “perfection” was in truth a daily mask that I had put on like makeup to cover the scars of shameful decisions. My mask had hid a life shriveling from the cancer of comparison, a life sick from so many secrets.
How was I ever that lady?
That lady—whose life had been sick with secrets—had found the courage to walk into the truth when she met children who had lived through horrors that begged to hide in the darkness. But these children found the courage to tell the truth, and their truth opened doors of hope and healing, not only for themselves but for you and me as well. Children like Devine and Nelson.
When Devine was three years old, her mother found her bleeding in the forests of Congo after being raped by rebel soldiers. Devine’s mother scooped up her child and carried her two miles out of the forest. Unable to provide what her wounded daughter needed, she placed her in the arms of a man who took her to a care center for survivors of gender-based violence. Now a teenager, Devine is radiant. She is a leader among her peers. Her smile and song tell a story of survival. After all Devine has experienced, why is she so strong today?
Because someone believed in her. Because someone believed she was larger than her past and stronger than her greatest pain.
Nelson is a timid yet strong young man who lives in Uganda. When he was ten years old, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) brazenly stormed his village in the middle of the night. Nelson woke to the sound of gunfire and the piercing screams of the mutilated. Smashing into his family’s straw hut, soldiers jerked Nelson up from his mat on the dirt floor and screamed commands he could not comprehend. He finally understood the horrific orders as the soldiers repeatedly pointed to his parents and forced a machete into his hands. Nelson was spattered with the blood of his parents, and their screams battered his ears. His hands were tied above his head and his feet were bound with chains. For two days and nights, he was prodded by the butts of rifles and led deep into the forest.
Today I sat at his feet as he bravely shared the story of his art-therapy drawing in front of several other children who had experienced similar pain. We walked back to our huts, holding hands. During our final day together, he allowed me to wash his feet as a sign of renewal and redemption. We wept together.
Now a teenager, he dreams of caring for other orphaned children when he completes his schooling. Why is Nelson able to dream today?
Because someone believed in him. Because someone believed he was larger than his past and stronger than his greatest pain.
There is a little girl in the United States. She lives inside the body of a grown woman. A woman who, because of her past and her pain, had given up on herself and on life. But this little girl . . . this woman . . . found purpose in the story of a girl in Congo named Devine and a boy in Uganda named Nelson. Because of these children and many more, her greatest heartache turned into her greatest ministry, and grace came full circle.
Because God never stopped believing in her. Because purpose can come from pain.
I am that little girl. I am that woman.
My story led me to Devine and to Nelson, and so—as painful as my story is to tell—I begin here. For my story helped me understand theirs. And I hope it will help you understand yours. My story showed me the way to a healing that transcends culture and time. My story begins with dreams.
As a young girl, I loved life. Bubbly, imaginative, and stubborn since the day I was born, I wasn’t the easiest child to reason with; but my parents were supportive, loving, and always pointed me toward God. Overall, my childhood was full of wonderment, joy, and laughter. I played in the woods, made mud pies, hoed rows of tobacco, went hunting, and ate juicy, red watermelons from Granddaddy’s garden with my brother, sister, and cousins. As a kid, I liked my feet to be dirty and bare—I still do.
My grandparents lived next door, which in the country really means a cornfield or two away, and my cousins lived down the street. I grew up in Farmington, Kentucky, with my older sister and younger brother, who shared my same outgoing personality. We were loud and lively. My dad was kindhearted, wise, and goofy (I inherited the goofy part). He served as a minister at small Kentucky churches throughout my childhood. My mom had a nurturing, thoughtful spirit and served others by writing notes of encouragement to the hurting, making casseroles for the grieving, and hosting showers or get-togethers at church and home. We were all raised to be leaders in our communities, to honor the Bible, and to stand for what was right above all. Life was sweet and simple. My childhood was certainly not perfect, but it was wonderful.
Even as a small child, I had a unique love relationship with the Lord, and the desire of my heart was to serve Him and help others come to know Him. When missionaries came to speak at church, I sat bright-eyed in the front row, ready to hear every detail. I dreamed of serving overseas, especially in Africa. I remember asking Santa Claus for a monkey one year for Christmas—fully believing he would come through for me. To my dismay, the only animal under the tree that year was a stuffed chimp, holding a banana that fit in the premade hole in his mouth.
As a naive and giddy eighteen-year-old, I went off to a small Christian college ready to take on the world. Actively involved in campus life, I couldn’t wait to get to know everyone I could—the outgoing kids, the kids eating by themselves, and those who didn’t seem to fit in. My heart has always been pulled toward the lonely. Being an overachiever, popular, and a perfectionist, I constantly found myself striving to do and be more. I always seemed to be in charge of something, speaking at devotionals, or serving as an officer in a club.
I traveled on my first short-term mission trip to Zimbabwe, Africa, during my freshman year. It was a dream come true! I fell in love with the culture and the people I met in Africa. Every sight, smell, and story brought me life. Feeling at home there, I knew international work would somehow be part of my life. Even then, I began planning when I could return.
I hadn’t dated much in high school; I was too busy soaking up life, leading pep rallies, and spending time with friends. To say I was a social butterfly would be an understatement. During college, I met a young man who was intelligent, very involved on campus, and admired by many. Unlike me, he was pretty reserved, but became one of my closest friends, as we shared much in common spiritually and in leadership. We began dating, and he soon became the first boyfriend I’d had for more than three months (which was a big deal).
We grew closer and closer—partially from the natural rhythm of sharing life together but mostly from an unhealthy dependency that came with repeated cycles of arguing, breaking up, and then getting back together. Believing to a fault that everything would work out, I was convinced we would be fine. We were both Christians and believed divorce was not an option in marriage—somehow we thought that made up for the emotional sickness that defined much of our relationship. Neither of us knew what healthy dating looked like, so we were blind to the signs of our dysfunction. Or maybe we just covered our eyes for fear that breaking up might mean having to start over with someone else.
So despite two tumultuous years of dating, we married in 1994, when I was twenty-one. We loved God and loved each other, but we did not know how to love each other well. Sometimes two very good people can have the best intentions, but without guidance on how to walk well together and love in a healthy intentional way, they fall.
From the beginning, the marriage was difficult. Arguing was our first language, and trying to be “good enough” became my calling. Sure, we had good times. We shared laughter, good memories, and vacations. But the good times were overshadowed by a growing wall of power struggles, secrets, rageful nights, and an inability to cope with our own internal battles. One night in particular stands out in my mind—though it was not much different from many other nights. We’d both spent our days pretending to have it together, and that night a casual conversation about finances erupted into a vicious power struggle and a clash of strong wills. When we had exhausted ourselves, I stormed out of the room to sleep on the couch, slamming the door behind me.
In the midst of our pain, we both honed the skill of keeping the truth of our home life a secret. We were both climbing ladders in our professions—I was building a counseling practice and he was getting promotions in his field of education—and both of us were pursuing advanced degrees. We wanted things to be better, but we didn’t know how to find the answers. We were much better at helping others than ourselves.
We were respected, admired, and sought out in both our church and community. We led a Sunday school class together and occasionally spoke at church and community events. Women struggling in their marriages looked to me for counsel; men admired my husband for being a leader in the community and in our church. As much as it pains me to admit it, I liked the view from atop the pedestal. It was comfortable. I liked the attention and the sense of accomplishment that came from being esteemed. Though we tore each other apart when we were alone, in public we bolstered each other’s facades. If one of us fell, we would fall together, so we nodded in sympathy, dished out encouragement, smiled, and hugged. When people asked how we were, we would say, “Fine,” and go about our business. We were masters of pretending.
Slowly, but in very real ways, I began losing myself. Feeling as if I were somehow the cause of all the emotional withdrawal, unhappiness, and anger, my confidence declined. My once-passionate fire for Jesus slowly started to fade.
Yes, we went to counselors, but we weren’t completely transparent. I was fearful of openly sharing details about my husband’s battles; he was a leader, after all, and I didn’t want to shame him. These sessions gave us a sense of improvement, but the results were temporary. Previous patterns of explosiveness and withdrawal always returned.
I was on my knees regularly. I begged God to show me the answer. I placed sticky notes on my dashboard as reminders of what I needed to do to “be enough.” I deeply desired to make my husband happy but felt totally unable to do so. But somehow my hopeful heart still believed we would be okay.
“Our marriage is like a lock,” I would say to myself. “We just have to find the right combination to make it better; and when we do, we will help so many others who are struggling. God will use this for good.”
But as our fighting escalated and our secrecy simmered, we slowly became the worst versions of ourselves. We both made choices from our most broken places, and the result left gaping wounds in our hearts and in what was left of our marriage. I will not venture into great detail here. My father once told me to be wise with my words because of the power they hold to give life or death. He also told me to always tell the truth. By withholding the salacious details that contributed to the outcome, I’m attempting to be both wise and truthful.
After around seven years of marriage, we started living two separate lives. Eventually, he started living upstairs and I lived downstairs; but no one knew. I mastered the craft of making excuses for why I went to activities alone, why my eyes were swollen from crying, why there was a hole in the wall, or why we weren’t having children. I think bringing a child into that relationship was the thing I feared most; it would only amplify our issues.
Then one day I met a new friend who slowly became a confidant and support. He valued me—something I had not felt in many years. He ignited feelings within me that simultaneously excited me and terrified me. For several months I would successfully refrain from seeing him, but then I’d cave in and we’d spend time together again. In my heart I knew I should cut off all communication with him and fight off my attraction to him.
I tried, but I failed. And though I hadn’t planned it and despite my desperately trying to end it, our relationship developed into an affair. What started out as friendship led to an addictive relationship and unfaithfulness to my marriage vows. The very things I had judged others for and the very things I had brazenly claimed I would never do, I did. Repeatedly.
I had my secrets and my husband had his, and our marriage spiraled into darkness. Sin has a way of shaming us. And shame and sin both love to feast on secrets, so we were a smorgasbord—we were as sick as our secrets. I hated myself and the entanglement in which I was living.
As if it were possible, our marriage became more volatile and unstable. I ended the affair, but the shame haunted me. We couldn’t hold up the walls of our crumbling home any longer, and I confessed the truth to my husband.
It was the worst of times. Soon our secrets came spilling out to my family and our friends. Knowing that rumors were spreading in our close community, one Sunday morning, we went before our church, and I admitted my affair. I was unmasked, humiliated, and filled with shame.
Heartbroken over my actions and the hurt I had caused others, I immersed myself in guilt. There was no punishment I wouldn’t take: I endured interrogations, being followed, and being verbally and emotionally torn down. The punishments deepened my shame and the break in my spirit.
The faces of those who once respected us and came to us for guidance were now filled with pity, confusion, and disgust. It was a scandal of the worst kind. In shame and regret, I left the church we had been part of for many years. My once-perfect dream lay crumpled on the ground, and I lay beside it, lost in grief. More than anything, I grieved for the plans God had for my life that I felt I had destroyed.
I moved out of the house to find solace from the war inside. After being forced to file for legal protection, I felt safer—but still racked with guilt. Then one rainy day in Nashville, at thirty-one years of age, I sat alone in a courtroom on a wooden chair, signed the papers that finalized my divorce, and ended my ten-year marriage. I walked back to the car in the rain, feeling as if my life was over. I had never imagined that divorce would enter my life; I was everything I hated.
Dangerous things happen to our psyches and souls when we give up on ourselves and allow our spirits to be beaten down. After the divorce I became trapped in a downward spiral. I was desperate for God’s love and guidance, yet because I saw myself as damaged goods, I made even more impulsive decisions—decisions that would bring deeper trauma and regret.
A divorce is a lot like a basketball game. People think they have to choose sides and talk bad about the other team. When that happens, relationships are damaged, and you sometimes lose friends. I lost friends not only because some distanced themselves from me, but also because I isolated myself out of shame.
During those moments, I could not see that God’s mercy is great and His love is steadfast, and I certainly didn’t want to hear it from anyone who had not walked my pathway. I could only see what was right in front of me—a broken woman and a broken life.
The pages of my journal, which once held detailed dreams, were now stained with tears and ink blotches, as I cried out to a Savior whom I could not find. Depression enveloped me like a heavy cloud. I saw no way out of its shadow.
At the time, I had no idea that God was going to use the remnants of my wrecked life to point others to the redemptive hope found only through Him—and I certainly didn’t know He would turn my silent, isolated mourning into dancing in a displacement camp with children who had survived war.
But He did.
And in the process, He saved my life, and walked me into miracles and wonderment beyond my wildest dreams.
How One Woman’s Brokenness Brought Healing and Hope to Child Survivors of War
The Color of Grace
How One Woman’s Brokenness Brought Healing and Hope to Child Survivors of War
Author and psychologist Bethany Haley Williams shares how her own emotional healing led her into treacherous war zones, where she provides care to former child soldiers and young girls used as sex slaves.
Faced with her own battle with shame and a rocky journey toward healing, Bethany founded Exile International, a nonprofit that implements art/expressive therapy and long-term, rehabilitative care to restore and empower war-affected children—including children rescued from Joseph Kony’s LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army).
One of those rescued young men, Solomon, was abducted at the age of ten after being forced to watch LRA soldiers maim and murder his father and grandfather. His younger siblings were left behind, and his mother was instructed to “raise them well…for one day we’ll return to take them too.” Solomon is one of hundreds of thousands of boys and girls who have had their innocence stolen and are forced to do the unthinkable on a daily basis. But their horrific experiences are just the beginning. The real story is what happens after.
Once these children learn to face their pasts, they are given hope for a future and a vision for changing the fabric of their countries by becoming leaders for peace and advocates of the power of forgiveness.