"Most of the time, I stand in front of the children -- giving them a word of encouragement, leading a time of group counseling, or reading and acting out a Bible story. But this day was different.
This day the children asked me to sit. Andrew, who had been in the Congo program for years, spoke for the group: “Momma Bethany, we have drawn our stories of pain and dreams before, but today we have decided to share our stories in a drama.”
Walking out of the tent, about twenty boys soon returned with AK-47s made of corn shuck and bamboo, and with walkie-talkies they had carved out of wood. They had bandaged their heads with cloth as if they were injured, spattered red paint on their bandages to represent blood spots, and rolled small pieces of paper to mimic cigarettes. In minutes, as they reenacted they nightmares, their horror came to life. Some boys played the roles of rebel leaders and some played the roles of children. In drama, they acted out being at school and being abducted, then went on to reenact being beaten, captured, taken to training camp, and taught to use guns for the first time. Next, the commander taught the boys how to kill someone with a machete.
“Now you are man!” the rebel commander shouted.
When the boys reenacted an ambush, the designate abductors shot imaginary guns -- and the abductees dodged bullets, hid behind trees, or acted out being killed. It was so real that, at one moment, I found myself hiding behind a bench in the tent! I felt as though I were in the middle of the Congolese bush, and in those few minutes I tasted a tiny fraction of the world from which they had been saved. Finally, they reenacted being rescued by MONUSCO and being taken back to safety. Everyone cheered and clapped.
After they finished, they sat down, and a young man named Shalom stood before the group. “I want to give God glory today,” he said.
He told a story about the rebel commanders getting on the backs of the child soldiers to cross a river because it was too deep for these men to cross by themselves. The commanders rode on the young boys’ back until they got close enough to the other side that they could swim to land. But, in the process, many boys drowned under the weight of the commanders. He finished with these words: “And I give glory to God for saving me until this day. Even me. I did not drown with the others, and I thank Jesus for saving my life.”
Shalom. His name fits him perfectly. His smile is bold, but his spirit is gentle. Two years after he said these words, he graduated from secondary school and finished the Young Peacemaker program at the Peace Lives Center. At the center, we do not call the boys and girls “former child soldiers.” They are given a new name: “young peacemaker.” They love their new identity and live it out each day. Using expressive art, song and dramas, Exile’s counselor at the center leads the children through the Hope Initiative program twice a week, where they process their trauma, learn the power of forgiveness, and are taught conflict resolution and leadership skills. The change we see in these children is remarkable -- especially in Shalom.
When the time came for Shalom to return home, all the children and youths gathered outside the center and formed a circle -- singing for their brave brother, praying for him, dancing together, rejoicing as a family over what God had done in his life. Shalom’ s dream had been return to his village and begin the first Village Peace Club, taking the tools he had been given involving trauma healing, forgiveness, and conflict resolution and sharing them with his peers back home. Once a boy soldier, he was now a young peacemaker returning to the village from which he had been kidnapped. Now reintegrated into his community, he is teaching his peers and a younger generation about peace, forgiveness, and a new way of life following Christ. After a year of leading the Village Peace Club, investing life and hope in his peers, working and saving money for school, Shalom will begin university next month, as of this writing.
Sitting beside him as we drove into the mountains to his home was one of the greatest honors of my life. Not being used to riding in a car, he became carsick, so we stopped a few times along the way. He took this opportunity to show us where he once fought as a boy soldier. Sharing these stories was healing for him. With each one, the sense of freedom he seemed to feel in his heart became stronger and stronger as he released memories of a past life and an old identity. After getting as close as possible by car, we began the walk toward his home, with Shalom carrying a pack on his back and a new mattress on his head.
“It is just there,” he said with a radiant smile. “My home is right around the corner!”
He was filled with joy, and I was beaming as I thought of this boy soldier whom we had watched grow into a young man of peace. We arrived at his small home and shared hugs with his family and village chief. We ate with them, laughed with them, and finally, played with them. Before leaving, I looked down at my right hand to see the bracelet I was wearing -- a simple cord with a metal circle attached. I remembered that Exile International had begun using the bracelets as reminders that” when your greatest heartache become your greatest ministry, grace comes full circle.” I smiled.
Yes, he should have it, I thought.
“Shalom, I want to tell you that meaning of this bracelet,” I said. “ It is a circle and it represents redemption in Christ.”
Explaining the saying, I told him, “Today your greatest heartache is becoming your greatest gift to others. You are taking the healing you received back to your community, to your people, to your country. The very thing that caused you the most pain in life has been turned into strength, and because of that pain you have grown to be a great leader. I have watched you grow into a strong and capable man of God, and I am so vey proud of you!”
I put the bracelet on his wrist. Almost before I could place it there, he gave me a huge bear hug, exclaiming with joy, “I will never take it off of my wrist, Mum. I will never take it off!”
Walking out to the van, his last words to me were, “Greet the people in your village. Tell them thank you for praying for me all these years.” Assuming the “people in the village” were my friends, family, and Exile prayer supporters, I gladly passed along his request.
A few days later, I asked the children a big question: “If you could write a letter to the world, what would it say?” There were many answers.
“We would tell them to love each other and forgive their neighbor.”
“I would ask them to come and dance with us!”
Through this journey, God has granted me the opportunity to be in the presence of children who teach me the greatest lessons in life. Much of the time, I feel I am in the presence of prophets. The truths these children believe and embody astound me, and I long for my country and other developed nations to pull back its curtain of plenty and glimpse the reality of their world. A sacred beauty resides in the heart of these children who courageously impart wisdom to their elders. To me. They teach us of forgiveness, reconciliation, faith, hope and healing. I am in awe."