Four years earlier we had landed on foreign soil. The flight that carried us, and our 100 pounds each of luggage, was just short enough to cry the entire way. We felt strongly we were on the right path, but that did not make it painless. Eager to know, love, and serve we dove in fully committed to the people of our new home. Each day felt long and overwhelming. There was so much to learn, so much to do. We wanted to be trusted and loved. We wanted to trust and love.
“God, protect our children from harm”, we earnestly prayed.
From the very beginning we knew and were told that discouragement would come and it might come in the form of illness or an attack on our family or marriage. We were armed with knowledge about quickly identifying that.
We stayed busy managing multiple programs, building relationships with our neighbors, hosting short-term teams, and raising our family. Our kids thrived. The two oldest excelled in language acquisition and spoke circles around the adults.
“I wish I could get away from them,” she typed to her friend.
Just shy of our three-year anniversary abroad, we decided to work with a new organization. As we learned the language and confronted the cultural issues, we outgrew the stateside leadership and couldn’t convince them our opinions were worth respecting. With sadness we packed and moved a few hours away to a new area, a new assignment.
After our move our daughter grew more and more angry. She distanced herself from us in ways we didn’t understand. She put walls up and refused to let us into her life.
“She is a teenager, this is normal,” we said.
Even as we said it, it didn’t make sense. We’d always been such a tight-knit and happy family.
Confused, we confronted her. “Why are you so angry?”
“I’m not.” She lied.
One night we decided enough was enough. “You’ll stay home from school tomorrow and we WILL talk”, we said. She shrugged; she walked away and slammed her door.
I woke up early that morning. Angry and hurt, blaming and upset, I went for a run. “God, she hates us for no reason. She is terrible to us. She keeps hurting us. Lord, please tell me how to punish her”, I prayed.
Running fast, fueled by anger, I asked again, “God, this is so terrible – what should we do with her?” The answer came so clearly I checked my ipod to see if I had heard it there. I asked again. The response stopped me dead in my tracks. “Give her gifts. I love her. Give her gifts.”
Totally bewildered I sprinted home to tell her Dad, “We’re not supposed to punish her. We’re supposed to give her gifts.”
Over the period of the next several hours we ignored every hurtful word hurled and every angry action. We took our daughter to treat her to gifts. It confused us and it confused her but we spent the day spoiling her.
Late that night she walked up the stairs into our office and handed us a four-page letter. She asked us to read it immediately. As I read it hot tears poured down my face.
“It’s my fault.”
“You warned us, you told us to be careful.”
“It happened many times.”
“I was afraid.”
“I didn’t know how to tell you.”
“I am ashamed.”
“I should have known how to stop it.”
For three years our little girl had been subjected to the crafty and culturally accepted advances of someone we trusted and saw as her friend, an innocent playmate. It wasn’t until we moved away from it that she could begin to feel the all consuming and confusing mixture of shame and pain over what took place. She turned her rage inward, she turned it on the people she trusts most to love her.
When they were together it was always within our walls. She worked on her language skills and he tried his English. A few nights a week for years the kids played outside near the gate together. Other kids almost always seemed to be right with them. “They are so cute working on language like that,” we thought. Because he was in the same grade as her we had thought of him as her equal. Yes, he was nine years older than her but he seemed like a child in some ways.
Sobbing together on the floor of our office, I said “This is not your fault.”
“But you told me that someone could try to hurt me.”
“You told me.”
And so it began, the long and grueling process of hurting and healing together. The HIV rate in our host country demanded tests for her. The emotional damage and deep shame demanded much more. It continues to demand MUCH more.
As it turned out my warnings were about bad boogie men and not about a friend, not about someone in the same grade in school as her. My warnings didn’t help prepare for the sly way he would move in on her and manipulate her feelings and guilt her into thinking she had chosen it. He was an adult, and in his culture having sex is his right.
As parents that boarded an airplane filled with faith and a desire to serve God abroad, praying, “God, protect our children from harm” we were devastated. Our Father had not heard us. We felt He had looked away. Having entered the mission field aware and on guard we felt so stupid for missing it, for not knowing, for not seeing.
The road has been long. The anger rises up without permission. The grief hits us all at unpredictable times.
Give her gifts, Lord. We love her.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Sexual abuse of children is a complicated issue world wide. In certain cultures it is endemic. Kids being raised in a second or new culture are at an increased risk. How aware are you of this issue in your culture and what measures do you take to try to protect your children?
(The author of this important true story has chosen to remain anonymous yet may be addressed as ‘Jessica’ in the comments.)