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. My mind told me that the problem was too big. That we couldn’t make a difference in violence that had been going on for centuries. But my heart told me that the very reason young children are abducted and taught to kill is the very reason we want to save them and teach them about peace. Because when you are a child, your heart is delicate, fragile, and beautiful. It is a garden that can either be trampled and burned or nurtured and loved. I realized with a problem so massive, you must start with the smallest child. To teach them they are worthy. To show them a different way. So they grow to be soldiers of peace rather than soldiers of war.
eXile international was born out of a Darkness. In August, 2008 I went on my first trip to DR Congo with an organization called ALARM, Inc. On that trip, former child soldiers asked me to be their mother. Women tried to give their children away to me. I heard stories of boys and girls who were abducted by rebels and forced to murder their parents. Stories of women and children as young as 2 who were raped as a weapon of war. Stories of women who had their children stolen out of their hands by the rebels. I met children so traumatized that they rarely spoke and could hardly show emotion. We visited 5 displacement camps in one day with women just crying to go home. I realized that these people were not only living in true exile, but in emotional exile, as well. They lacked security and stability of the heart. It was a level of hopelessness I had never seen before. I had been to Africa many times, but Congo was like no other country I had been. I think for some people, its darkness envelops you in a way that bonds you to it. You leave knowing you have to play some part it bringing light to her people.
That’s how I left Congo. But I didn’t know what part I could play or how I would play it, until God seated me next to a three-year-old autistic Kenyan boy on the plane ride home. After two weeks of trying to wrap my brain around everything I witnessed, the people I met, and the stories I heard, this little boy profoundly summed it up for me. In a few seconds, with a few words, he made sense out of my restless thoughts. As he and I stared out the window at the magnificent clouds, he began to repeat something my heart needed to hear: “It is bigger than we are…It is bigger than we are…It is…It is…bigger than we are.”
His words settled my heart and my mind. I knew God was speaking to me through this little autistic boy. Speaking to me in a profound and beautiful way that would change how I see the world around me, and my place within it. I thought to myself, “Thank You, God. It IS so much bigger than we are, isn’t it? The heavens. And so is Life. So much bigger than we are…but the beauty is that so are You. And You, God, are in the middle of it all.” I finally understood that God is in us and with us, through our tears, through our violation, through our orphaned journey, through our loss. He is in the midst of it all. And the hope of Heaven is bigger than the waterfalls of pain. I realized that I needed to stop wrestling with the question “Where are you in all of this, God?” Because 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 and 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?” It is through becoming His hands and feet that He becomes alive in us, and we begin to live out the gospel in loving others.
When we begin living for something bigger than ourselves, we find ourselves. We find our purpose – our song. The trauma work we do with the children in Uganda and Congo through art and expressive therapy brings us to life as much as it does them. Much of the program we use was actually created out of what the Lord taught me through my own journey through trauma, depression, and anxiety. That is our dream for the children. 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. To help them to know Jesus – The Prince of Peace.
As an organization, our team has been honored to work with over 800 children. Both through trips we take to offer the art/expressive therapy program and in the support of local leaders on the ground as they do weekly group work with the children. When Peggy Cox and I founded the organization, we thought it would be a small umbrella of trauma care. God has opened more doors than we have the resources to walk through, and our team continues to be taught that it is by walking step by step that we touch lives. Not in trying to fix the big picture. It’s about touching one heart at a time.
My heart cry is for the children of Central and Eastern Africa and for anyone who others have given up on. I needed someone to believe in me in one point in my life. And because God never gave up on me – I will never give up on these children. I am not special. I am not amazing. I am just a small woman who is doing what I needed someone else to do in my darkest hour – to believe in me. Just to believe in me. Although I fail daily, my wish is to be His heart here on earth. I want to let the Lord use my passions to make a difference, to embed peace in once war torn countries, and to help these kids know that God is beside of them in their pain. What is your heart cry? What passions has God placed deep inside your soul? What gifts has He given you?
I have learned that we often wait and stand back to find our purpose. We wait for our passion to come to life 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 you change the world.
Editor’s Note – eXile International offers a variety of ways you can help support their work. Go to www.exileinternational.org to learn more about the incredible things they are doing and find a way to be a part of it!
Bethany Haley is proudly Kentucky born and bred. When she is not seeing clients in her private counseling practice in Nashville, you can find her either playing with her nieces and nephew, in the depths of war-torn parts of Africa doing art therapy with former child soldiers or involved in advocacy work in DC. Bethany earned her bachelors degree from Freed-Hardeman University in social work, master’s degree in social work from the University of Tennessee and her PhD in counseling psychology at Southern California University. She and Peggy Cox co-founded eXile international in 2008 after Bethany returned from DR Congo. She laughs loud, loves hard, and lives life as if she has only one.