The Color of Grace: Healing for Child Soldiers in Africa

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“What if grace were a color? What about redemption or love? I finally concluded that these words, these soulful gifts that only exist because of God, would be an array of colors too beautiful for simple words, and they can only truly be seen by living them.” ~ Bethany Haley Williams, “The Color of Grace”

 

If you would have told me three months ago that I’d be reading a book about a woman who is serving the Lord by bringing healing to child solders in Africa, I’d have said you had the wrong person. I’m a self-proclaimed armchair political pundit with no time for such sentimentalities. There are people specifically called to care about such things. I’m off the hook. America is in the throes of the most unserious political cycle in history. The people in Africa can wait.

But it’s the hi jinx in Washington and the clowns clamoring to be President that can wait. The circus can just wait. Sadly, it’s not going anywhere.

The Color of Grace, written by Bethany Haley Williams, landed on my radar via my interest in attending Dallas Theological Seminary. While trolling the profiles of some of their alum, Matthew Williams’ profile, for reasons only God knows, piqued my interest.


After watching Matthew Williams’ video, and finding myself in tears, I clicked my way to a few more websites, and then finally landed on Bethany Haley Williams’ book.

I have been stunned by how profoundly this book has affected me. In the spirit of more transparency (than you asked for), up until too recently, I was that person who, upon hearing that missionaries would be speaking at church, would opt out since “there won’t be any ‘real’ Bible teaching”. I had better ways to spend my time.

I’m not proud of that.

In my feeble defense, I’m really not heartless. It’s just that my “feels” aren’t all that easily accessible. I recently (tearfully) asked God to peel away another layer from my hard heart and have His way with me. I’m guessing stripping me of my stoicism (apathy?) is where He’s choosing to start. And true to His I’m-in-the-business-of-blowing-your-mind nature, He placed within my heart an affection for child soldiers…in Africa…of all things.

The children Beth Haley Williams works with are victims of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Some have been made orphans by the LRA’s brutality, others were forced to be soldiers. To understand the magnitude and utter treachery of the LRA, think of the worst things imaginable happening to a child then put it on steroids. Horror doesn’t even begin to describe. Stories of abduction, rape, torture, being forced to kill their own family members, even being forced to eat human flesh. Then, after you’ve wrapped your mind around that (if it’s even possible), remember that they are children.

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They.  Are.  Children.

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Many of these children have already lived a lifetime in a madman’s hall of horrors, their innocence ripped away by an evil hard to comprehend. And Williams, by the grace of God and in His strength, listens to their stories, reaches into their hearts, and helps them start to heal.

“I often tell myself that if these children can survive such atrocities, I can be strong enough to listen to their stories.”

And I can be strong enough to care. Apathy, the brand I have suffered from, isn’t so much a lack of caring as it is lacking the courage to feel deeply. Feeling deeply gets messy. And those of us with painful pasts want none of that. But we are of little use to God if we are incapable of compassion. If we’re too scared to feel beyond the surface. If our self-preservation tactics that we use to guard our hearts are constantly deployed. There is a false security in self-preservation, but there is also stunted growth.

Williams, a psychologist, has traversed the valleys of her own deep emotional trauma, and has come out with a greater understanding of God’s redemptive power.

“More important than the details of a painful journey is what awaits us on the other side of brokenness.”

Williams does more than listen to the stories of these war-torn children. God has equipped her to reach across the chasm of their pain and help them to the other side of their brokenness. Through art therapy she enables the children to express their deep emotional pain that would otherwise remain and become malignant within their hearts. She then encourages them to express, through drawing, their hopes and dreams.

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“…the team gave each child two white handkerchiefs and a set of markers. Though their minds contained memories that were too horrible for words, drawing their stories was a safe way for them to communicate their pain…I said, “These handkerchiefs represent God capturing your tears. If you wish, on one handkerchief you may draw your heartache or a sad time in your life. On the other, you may draw what you dream for your life after war–what your happy tears would draw if they could…In the middle of our times of suffering and our times of joy, God is with us. Sometimes we feel Him there. Sometimes we don’t. But He promises us He is there. As a reminder of that promise, I want to invite you to draw Jesus in the center of both your drawings.”

…the room fell silent. They drew slowly at first…their eyes became fixed and determined. You could tell that the details they drew were etched into their hearts, and they needed to release them. Their drawings were specific and detailed – helicopters, soldiers, guns, blood, bullets, dead bodies (some mutilated).

…one by one, the children who volunteered to share the story of their drawing bravely stood before their peers. Holding their drawings up, they explained in detail those things they had held in secret – memories of war, flashbacks of killings, nightmares that had come to life.

Thomas: [The rebels] made me watch as the knife came across my mother’s neck…But God saved me…I dream of being a doctor one day by the grace of Jesus Christ.”

Robert: Rebels kicked in the door…abducted my parents…cut my brother to pieces…rebels made me kill a boy…he was my friend, my brother. My hope is to one day be the president of Uganda and give the good news of peace to our country.”

“Story after story. And then it came. The weeping…tears held back for years by dams of strength. The sound of sobbing was almost unbearable…covering their faces with their handkerchief drawings, which were literally capturing their tears. The colors of their art mixed with their tears on the cloth, and Jesus was right there in the center of it all.”

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“We will pray that you become soldiers of peace rather than soldiers of war.” ~ Bethany Haley Williams

While I’d love to share this portion of Williams’ book in its entirety, I can’t. Legalities aside, her words demand to be read, not paraphrased. Williams is masterfully eloquent and with each written word her heart–a heart that rejoices with and breaks for these children of war–resonates a genuine affection for them and their Savior.

Thanks to God turning my heart into mush, The Color of Grace brought me to tears more than once. But it wasn’t the stories of the horror these children endured that made me cry the most, but, rather Williams’ account of how easily the children smile. Their spontaneous praising and dancing to the Lord. Their abandonment to their Savior. Jesus said, “Let the children come to Me”, and they do. With joy. In the midst of unspeakable trauma, they sing praises to the One who never left nor forsook them. They get it.

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“They are beautiful, dreaming children in the hands of a redemptive God.” Bethany Haley Williams

And they dance.
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“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 almost as astounding as the extent of the horror was the resilience and strength in their smiles. How do you dance after the LRA has forced you to kill your mother? How do 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.””

History is replete with tyrants who have brutally exploited children for their own agendas. But God has a remedy for the searing pain of such madness. It’s called forgiveness.

Even forgiving horror unspeakable.

“One thing I know: the power seen in the children’s ability to forgive and to dream is stronger than the force of evil that stole their innocence.”

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In the midst of darkness there is light. And that light is Jesus. Williams is shining that Light into the hearts of Africa’s child soldiers. She is helping them to heal, grow, and hope. She is showing them that they are not the sum of what they were forced to do, but, rather, they are their nation’s future soldiers of peace.

“The enemy would want you to see yourself as what you have done or what has been done to you. He would want you to live in your past and be held down by your pain forever. Just like a broken bone, your heart can and will heal slowly. Day by day, God will turn your mourning into dancing. But today, the enemy will not win. God has beautiful plans for your lives!”

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Over the years I’ve been known to dub a book as “required reading”. The Color of Grace has made the cut. Other than being beautifully written, this book shines a much-needed light onto a darkness that too many of us know (or care?) too little about.

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Bethany Haney Williams is the founder of Exile International (EI), an organization that seeks to “empower children of war to become leaders for peace through art therapy and holistic, rehabilitative care.” Visit their website for information about the work they do, how you can help, and to read the stories or watch videos (like the one below) about the important work EI is doing for Africa’s children.

 

 

 

 

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