The Color of Grace: An Excerpt from Chapter 9


I am amazed. I am bewildered. I am dizzy and I am drowning in something fathomless.

But I am not blind. I am not blind to this calling, and I will not look away.

These past few months have been an adventure, to say the least. I have traveled to three different countries that have been wounded by war: Congo, Uganda, Sudan.

The reasons for the war differ. The rebel groups that kidnap these children have different names and reputations and vary in size. Each militia group tends to have its own agenda, fueled by power, money, revenge, and evil. But I have seen two consistencies in all three of these countries: children who have lost the innocence of their youth to the desecration of war and an incongruous spiritual richness in the heart of the suffering and the impoverished. 

My mind is a spinning top. But when it settles, I return to the same spot, to the same place in the dirt. I’m looking over the shoulder of the Savior as He drew in the sand, pondering before He spoke to the stone-holding crowd that surrounded Him ( John 8:1-11). I am wondering what I should do with all I have found. What should come from all God has allowed me to witness?

As I ponder and draw in my own dirt, clarity comes. All I’ve seen build inside me like a roaring wave, and I pray for Jesus to lead me into His plan.

After my time in Congo, Sudan, and Uganda, I was not the person I used to be. I came back from those initial trips with a new perspective and spiritual clarity. Suddenly things such as cellulite, bank accounts, and letters after my name didn’t mean much. I had stepped into the pain of children who, in their slavery, had endured more horror than we can imagine in our worst nightmares. But as astounding as the extent of the horror was the resilience and strengthen their smiles. How do you dance after the LRA had forced you to kill your mother? How can you sing praises to Jesus with abandon after being tortured in captivity? I thought about a quote by Frank Warren: “It’s the children the world almost breaks who grow up to save it.”

If the world could learn forgiveness, resilience, and joy to this level, the world would change, I thought. And these young survivors could be our greatest teachers.

Who better to become leaders for peace than those children who have been wounded by war? Thinking about powerful life stories of Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr., I envisioned a new generation of leaders - once-broken children who would rise to overcome suffering and step out to lead others in peace.

During the month following my return, I began work on a new program for war-affected children. The art therapy and trauma care workshop I had used with the children was deeply healing for them, but I realized that they also needed weekly group counseling and consistent care to heal from years of war-filled memories. They needed someone to walk with them through the slow process of mending and finding their childhood again. I called the program The Hope Initiative, and it was designed to be led by local African leaders during weekly group meetings. The program would walk former child soldiers and war-affected children throughout three focus areas: (1) trauma-focused art therapy and forgiveness; (2) peace-building and conflict resolution skills; and (3) leadership skills training. My dream was that this program would one day spread through eastern and central Africa, reaching hundreds of thousands of children who had been emotionally wounded by war.

I also started doing something I never dreamed I would do: political activism. Never having had a passion for politics, this was foreign to me - and a bit uncomfortable. My only training was when I took a few policy classes in my master of social work program, but I must confess that I sometimes fell asleep in those classes, finding them quite boring. However, any intimidation I felt was quickly ousted by a laser-focused mission - to do all I could to stop the rebel group and the warlords who were enslaving, maiming, and kidnapping children. 

Before leaving Gloria and the other children, I promise myself that I would share their story of survival. The honor of hearing details that wrenched my heart also came with a responsibility. The children could not take their stories to members of the US Congress, but I could. Their stories needed to be shared with influencers who could help stop warlords responsible for torturing them. In order for the cycles of destruction to end, the voice of these survivors had to be heard. Advocacy and awareness become part of our mission. I started connecting with activists and influencers in Washington D.C, and our small team began meeting with members of Congress.

As Gary Haugen, CEO and president of International Justice Mission, stated, “History teaches that struggle for justice is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.” We were ready to run the race.

To change the course of war, I thought, we must stop the bleeding and mend the wounds of trauma. In addition to providing emotional care, we must advocate for these children in Washington D.C. Their stories must be told those with political influence, to those who can help to stop this madness.

The Color of Grace: An Excerpt from Chapter 7

Soon exile become much more than a word to me. It encapsulated the stories of hundreds of thousands of children - some who were being held captive by cruel and demanding soldiers; others who were running frantically in the bush, trying to escape their captors; and still others who lived on desolate streets yearning for a home to which they could return.

The ending of their stories can look different from the beginnings I thought. I’ve heard it said that “where there is breath, there is hope,” and they were still breathing, so I knew they were alive.

Doing nothing was no longer an option. Not because I was fearless, but because my hunger to do “something” had become stronger than my fear.

My fear told me that the problems in Congo were too massive -  that we couldn’t make a difference in the midst of a violent oppression that had gone on for decades. But my heart told me the true story: the children who had survived war across the word were deeply treasured by God. They were precious and valuable, and it was our responsibility -  my responsibility -  to make a difference.

Praying for God’s direction and reflecting on the lives I’d encounter, I felt a calling swell deep within my heart. I now know this calling was influenced by all God had walked me through: heart-ache and redemption, trauma and recovery, doubt and faith, naivete and wisdom. I could no longer turn away or pretend I had not seen what I had seen.

Mother Teresa once said, “I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God.” She was changed when she came face-to-face with the dying and the poor of Calcutta. I was changed when I looked into the eyes of children orphaned and hurt by war. I am certainly no Mother Teresa. I am simply someone who had an open heart and open hands.

Yes, God. I can be a tiny pencil. Your pencil, I thought.

The Color of Grace: An Excerpt from Chapter 6

On my way back to America, I felt trapped inside the plane, unable to get away from my thoughts. My mind was spinning as I reviewed everything I’d experienced during my first week in Congo.

I looked at my feet, still dirty from Congo’s black volcanic dust. I had not showered in a few days. I smelled bad. But I didn't care. 

Looking out the windows at the clouds, I remembered one of the last times our team debriefed together. A specific theme kept coming up among us: “It is bigger than we are. How do we even begin to help? Can we make any difference at all?”

I felt a tap on my shoulder. The soft-spoken man sitting next to me asked politely, “Would you mind if my son sat in your seat for just a few minutes? He would like to see the sunset.”

I had met them earlier. They were from Kenya. This sweet, kind boy with an autistic nature appeared to be about five years old. I was happy to be distracted from my thoughts. The boy and I switched seats, and I began to point out the shapes of the clouds to him. Smiling, he delighted in seeing the sun from so high, and I delighted in his excitement. Somehow, for a moment, I felt closer to God.

As he looked into the heavens, the boy started repeating a phrase over and over again. Quiet at first, then a bit louder.

“It is bigger than we are,” he said. “It is big. It is bigger than us.”

I stopped and looked at him. He was echoing my exact thoughts. It was as though God were speaking to me through this little boy, confirming His voice in my spirit. Yes, it is so much bigger than we are. The despair, the brutality. But it is not bigger than all of us together. It is not bigger than God. They are His children, and He loves them more than I could begin to. My eyes filled with tears as I smiled at this young, wise new friend sitting beside me.

Adjusting to life back in the Unites State was difficult. For three days after I returned home, I had no words - only heartache for what I had seen and tears for those I had left behind. It was as if God had pulled back a curtain to reveal levels of hurt and pain that I hadn’t known existed. I didn't know what to do with what He had allowed me to see. Finally, I went for a run to ease my racing mind. I felt as though I were running from something I could not get away from. Perhaps because I was not supposed to.

There is a beauty that comes from sitting with our pain - a beauty we miss if we run from it. The pain was uncomfortable and uneasy. My instinct was to distract my mind from reality I had to seen. It hurt to much to remember.

But I finally came to the conviction that God did not want me to run from my experience in Congo. He wanted me to sit with their reality, to look the darkness dead in the eyes and wrestle with it. I could not go back to “normal” and block out what I had seen and learned. I would not go back to comfort. I knew too much now.

These children are worth more than my comfort. My own journey through trauma bounded me to Congolese people. I tasted jus a tiny drop of what they were feeling, and I wanted to tell them to hold on. In one of my lowest periods of depression, I wrote a few words on a postcard and carried them with me for a year: I will not be this bad forever. Hold on. 

I read those words at least twenty times a day, willing myself to believe they were true. Because if they were not true, I did not want to live any longer. I could not keep living. But those words were true. In time, things did get better. They always do - if we hold on long enough and reach out for help.

Though I was blinded to it at the time, I now know there’s simply too much beauty in life to quit. Depression and trauma blind us from the beauty - but it is there. In truth, we are constantly surrounded by joy and wonder, but sometimes we cannot see it until the fog clears. In those times, we must choose to believe that beauty is there until we can see it with our eyes once again.

You Will Find Miracles

There are some things in this life that you are not supposed to survive but you do. Some stories are so horrific that they beg not be told but they must be. Other stories are so beautiful that they transcend human understanding and embody a redemption rarely seen this side of heaven. These stories, too, must be shared. These stories - these realities - are lived out loud, by children who have survived war and slavery and by courageous men and women who have names - names that have been changed in this book to protect their identities.
Through this journey of stories, the Lord has revealed to me the deep places of the soul and helped me find answers to my greatest questions. I have found His glory in the reflection of my own tears, as I washed the feet of a recently rescued boy soldier, as I held the hands of young girls who had been raped as a weapon of war, and as I feared the death of children I love as my own who were hiding from bombs on the other side of the world. In these pages you will find wonderment, evil, survival, dancing, torture, redemption, adventure, and grace. In these pages you will find miracles.
By telling stories and what we have learned, we step into the stories of others and give them hope for what the other side of pain can look like. In addition to the stories of the loved ones across the sea, I also tell a portion of my own story. Though it was difficult to revel my own ugly past, if even one person’s life may be altered as a result, it will be worth it. I believe that when we are courageous enough to be vulnerable we encourage others to find the intimacy and freedom that come only through being known and loved.

Excerpt from The Color of Grace

IF:Gathering A New Generation of Peace

Tell us about a time of surrender in your life for God’s glory and for the good of others.

Some tears are nameless. They are not awakened by grief or joy. They are born from the deepest part of your soul and, as they fall down your face, they take your breath away. These are the types of tears falling as I write to you, lying in bed under my mosquito net in the Congo.These tears are sacred; an outpour from a heart swollen with wonder, and they are mixed with a hope that does not come from this side of heaven. They come from holding the heart of a rescued child soldier close to my own. Bahati is a graduate of Exile International’s programs, and this was our conversation today:

“I am doing well, mum. But I need a bible.”

“What happened to your bible, Bahati?”

“I was visiting with one of the rebels and reading the bible with him. He wanted it so he could learn more about love. So I gave it to him. I am teaching the rebels about forgiveness and healing, and I am teaching them about God.”

He was beaming as he shared this news with me. A former child captive, he is now a young man sharing the hope he’s been given with the very rebel group who once kidnapped him. Distributing it like cups of water to dry bones. Pain becoming purpose.

I remember the first time I meet Bahati. At the age of 16, he had a beautiful smile and innocent look about him, but the scar on the left side of his face identified his painful past as a child soldier. He was kidnapped at 10 years old but later escaped, only to be taken again, by a different armed group, at the age of 15.

“I remember the day they took me,” Bahati said. “They told me that if I was to be a man, then I would have to learn to kill. So they trained me to kill.”

Children should be handed crayons and taught to create, not forced to hold guns and taught to kill.

Words like: Rebels. Warlords. Child Soldiers. Sex Slaves have become part of my everyday language. I guess it’s my new normal. Someone recently asked me how a small town Kentucky girl landed in the Congo doing rehabilitation work with rescued child soldiers. “I flew,” I answered, jokingly.

An even after writing an entire book about this adventure, I still don’t have a great answer. What I do know is after my first trip to the Congo, I couldn’t turn my back on what I saw. I couldn’t ignore the grave need for rescued child slaves to receive emotional healing. So I started putting one foot in front of the other to try and help in whatever way I could with everything I had (which wasn’t much).

So I guess the real answer is this:

Sometimes something touches your heart so deeply that “doing nothing” isn’t an option anymore. You become determined to make a change rather than coming up with excuses of why you can’t. Not because the fear stops lurking, but because the desire to do something is now greater.

I realized later my journey into these children’s lives was deeply connected to my own personal journey through darkness, trauma, and depression.

The journey started early. As a small town girl, I grew up making mud pies and catching fireflies on a country line road in Murray, Kentucky. But Africa was in my blood, even before I first landed there at the age of 18 for a short-term mission trip.

Not long after, I began dating a man and we were married the summer I graduated college. We became well-respected leaders in our community. I went on to obtain a Master’s Degree in Social Work and later, a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology. However, my expectations of marriage were quickly shattered and it became ten years of a hidden, volatile, and painful relationship. It ended with broken promises, trauma, humiliation, and divorce.My life had become nothing I’d anticipated it would be. Shame, comparison, and unforgiveness haunted me. My depression eventually developed into suicidal thoughts, landing me in a treatment program for PTSD.When your desperation is greater than your fear of embarrassment, then true healing can begin – and I was desperate.

After a few years of walking through this new journey of emotional healing, I boarded a plane in August 2008 for my first trip to the Congo. On that trip, former child soldiers asked me to be their mother. I listened to their stories of being kidnapped by Joseph Kony’s LRA rebels and forced to murder their parents. I met with girls as young as five years old who had been raped as a weapon of war. My heart was broken at the residue war had left on these children, and I promised myself I would not look away.

My head told me that the problem was too big, but my heart told me to begin with the smallest child, and from there, a new generation of peace leaders could rise up to change the fabric of nations destructed by war.

Exile International was founded soon after returning from that first trip to the Congo. Seven years later there are over 800 children in weekly Peace Clubs (expressive art therapy trauma-care groups) in Uganda and Congo, 156 children in our sponsorship program, and 115 youth at the Peace Lives rehabilitation center in Congo receiving holistic therapeutic care. My passion for redemption started in my own pain. And I’ve discovered grace comes full circle when our pain becomes purposeful.

In the beginning, I struggled with the question, “Where are you in all of this, God?” But I realized I was asking the wrong question. The answer lies in the mirror. The question isn’t “where is He?” The question is, “Where are we?”

Where was God calling you to risk?

God was calling me to risk everything. Literally. My financial stability. My hopes of being a mother. My very life. And I knew it. I knew that, according to western standards of ladder climbing, I was doing well as a counselor in private practice. I finally had the opportunity to settle into comfort after a decade of crying out to God. But instead of comfort, He lead me into a war zone, and it opened my spiritual eyes to everything that mattered in life.

What were your tensions/fears in that and how did you fully lean into Christ?

I remember being afraid, but I tried to choose not to live there. My passion to help child survivors of war was bigger than my fear. The year after Exile International was founded, I sitting up in bed feeling terrified.

“What are you doing?” I thought. “How are you going to fund this vision? What if you can’t do it? What if you fail?”

But quitting wasn’t an option. How do you “quit” children who have been tortured and left to care for themselves because their families were killed in war? I knew I could not do it on my own, but I also knew I wasn’t doing it on my own – I was walking in God’s shadow and He was leading me. That is still my greatest comfort.

Original post, thanks to IF:Gathering can be found here