Sometimes something touches your heart so deeply that “doing nothing” isn’t an option anymore. It becomes more about finding a way to make a change than it is about finding excuses. Not because the fear goes away, but because the hunger to do Something is deeper than being afraid. That’s how Exile International was born. It was born from a belief that rescued child soldiers could find healing and become leaders in their countries – that children orphaned by war could teach the world about peace. It was also born out of a passion for hope found in my personal journey through darkness, trauma and depression – the very journey that led me into the hearts of some of the world’s most traumatized children. I realized that when our greatest heartache becomes our greatest ministry grace comes full circle.
The story really starts when I was a child. I am a small town girl who grew up making mud pies and catching fireflies on a country line road in Farmington, Kentucky. Much of my family grew up on the same road, and my grandparents lived just a cornfield away. I loved God deeply, even at an early age, and I knew I wanted be involved in international mission work. Africa was in my blood, even before I first landed on the fresh dirt at the age of 18 on my first short-term mission trip. As a kid I would watch Save the Children commercials consistently, and I hurt deeply for children I had never met.
Life was “normal” at that point in my life. I went to a small Christian college, majored in social work and minored in psychology. I was a leader on campus – involved in everything possible while still meeting the goals of an over-achiever with a high GPA. I began dating and got married the summer following my college graduation. I went on to obtain a master’s degree in social work and, later, a Ph.D. in counseling psychology. I was well on my way to meet the goals I had created for my life.
My self-created expectations of marriage quickly shattered and were replaced by ten years of a hidden, volatile and painful relationship that ended with wounds of trauma, humiliation and divorce. My life was nothing I anticipated it would be. Shame, the cancer of comparison, and unforgiveness haunted me. The depression eventually developed into unanticipated suicidal thoughts that landed me in a treatment program for PTSD.
When your level of desperateness is greater than your fear of embarrassment, then true healing can begin – and I was desperate. I had spent years hiding behind masks and being placed on pedestals, but now my pride was replaced by humility.
The last Sunday before returning home to Nashville from the treatment program in Dallas, I walked to the nearest church for worship. I had sold my car to pay for treatment, so I was on foot. There was a man speaking who had survived the Rwandan genocide. He founded an organization that provided reconciliation training and trauma care to vulnerable people in Central and East Africa. I felt passion jump in my chest for the first time in many months.
We met the following day and began discussing the great need for trauma care for the children in these areas. I started to realize that perhaps my own journey through darkness, mixed with my counseling skills, could help bring hope and light to children living in pain.
After walking through the journey of emotional healing for a few years, in August of 2008 I went on my first trip to DR Congo. On that trip, rescued child soldiers asked me to be their mother. Women tried to give me their children. I heard stories of boys and girls who were kidnapped by Joseph Kony’s LRA rebels and forced to murder their parents. I met with girls as young as 5 who had been raped as a weapon of war. Some of the children were so traumatized they rarely spoke and could hardly show emotion. My heart was broken at the residue war had left on these children, and I knew something needed to be done. I didn’t know what that was yet, but I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t look away.
My head told me that the problem was too big – that I couldn’t make a difference in violence that had been going on for centuries. But my heart told me that by beginning with the smallest child – a new generation of soldiers for peace could change the fabric of nations that had been in war.
Exile International was founded soon after returning from Congo. The original plan was to provide art therapy and trauma care workshops for rescued child soldiers and children who had survived war. I quickly realized the children needed much more than a workshop – they needed weekly group work, lead by local leaders, incorporating art, dance, drama, and music into their healing process. Expression is one of the many languages of Africa, and it’s beautiful to watch the children come to life again through this therapeutic model.
Six years later there are over 500 children in weekly Peace Clubs (art therapy trauma-care groups) in Uganda and Congo, nearly 100 children in our sponsorship program, and 90 children at the Peace Lives rehabilitation center in Congo receiving holistic therapeutic care each day. Each year we have the privilege of providing trauma care trainings to other organizations working with emotionally wounded children, and we are honored to advocate for child survivors of Joseph Kony’s LRA rebel group in Washington DC. I’m constantly humbled at what God has done.
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?” He is beside of them when they are afraid in the bush. He is holding their hand when they are abducted or running from rebels. He is right there with them on the battlefield and the bullets. The question is not “Where are you, God?” The question is, “Where are we?”
I believe when we begin living for something bigger than ourselves, we find ourselves. We find our purpose – our song. That doesn’t have to be found across the world. Most of the time that begins with the people right beside of us.
God used my greatest heartache to bring hope and healing to others. Not because I am great or wonderful, but because I just put one foot in front of the other and it led me to where I am today. We have the same dreams for our children in Africa… that they are not only survivors of war, but that they allow God to use their deepest pains to bring others to life by being the future leaders in their communities one day. And it is happening! These young men and women are returning to the very villages they fought in to teach the community about peace and forgiveness through art, dance, drama, and song. We are expanding our programs, buying land, and humbled every day with this journey.
Sometimes we wait and stand back to find our purpose. We wait for our passion to come to surface in order to begin living, when He has already given it to us. Our passion is found in living out our purpose, and our purpose is found in living out the gospel. Being the hands and feet of Jesus and loving His children who He places in front of us. One at a time. That’s how we change the world.
– Bethany Haley Williams
Founder & Executive Director of Exile International
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