Man’s inhumanity to man is unfathomable. It’s difficult to comprehend that even today male children are captured and forced to kill, and female children are enslaved and sexually abused in acts of vengeance. When Bethany Haley Williams saw firsthand what few actually witness, she realized unspeakable acts had to be verbalized in the hope that these children’s stories could look much different than their violent beginnings.
A Kentucky native with a master’s degree in social work and a doctorate in counseling psychology, Bethany went to the Congo in 2008 and saw the true Heart of Darkness. Shrouded in despair and grief, children existed in the pall, some having physically escaped but remaining trapped by memories. Some could still feel the blood of their families, once literally on their hands, as if it stained them in this macabre spiritual limbo.
A decade ago, it was clear to Bethany they must be brought into the light and cleansed of those memories. She and her team took the cleansing literally in washing the feet of the child soldiers, an ablution of biblical and physical surrender and salvation.
On that life-altering trip, armed with a 35mm camera, Bethany went to assist with a trauma care workshop for women in displacement camps—and found her life’s calling.
“I had been to South Africa, but never to Congo,” she says. “It’s a beautiful place, but also broken in many ways.”
With a century of conflict scarring the land with graves, bones, and broken hearts, the earth and its inhabitants seemed tired, and the children bent, but not broken, by the weight of their burdens.
“My heart went out to these kids, and I wondered if they were receiving the healing they needed,” she says, with remembered anguish. “I had come out of my own trauma in a previous marriage. I knew what it was like to experience trauma and fight my way out of it. I connected with the kids because I wanted them to know they did not have to live in pain forever.”
Bethany, the picture of an ebullient spirit, had fought an inner battle after her failed marriage, blaming herself and contemplating suicide even as she battled to find her way back to the light. Eventually she checked herself into a facility where she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In her book, The Color of Grace, she describes her journey through surrender and forgiveness, to redemption.
“Some of the kids were so traumatized they could not even speak,” Bethany recalls. “They watched their parents die. Many were captured, enslaved, and forced to kill. Many orphans lived on the street. God put a fire in my belly. I wanted the world to know these kids were being kidnapped. The world didn’t know about child soldiering, that this was happening. I had a passion to partner with local leaders. Not doing something was not an option.”
Although Bethany had just regained her footing in the world, she promptly abandoned it, diving into the mission to research the issue. Seven-year-olds were being kidnapped, ripped from their homes in villages where their parents were killed, and forced to fight or commit atrocities.
From that beginning, art therapy counseling and holistic, rehabilitative care began to uncover hope for former child soldiers and orphaned children. Exile International (EI), a faith-based non-profit near Nashville, now empowers children of war to be leaders for peace.
“I went to Uganda, where war had been going on for years, and met with local leaders who had worked with successful rehabilitation programs,” she says. “I discovered the beauty of art and dance and music in trauma care for African children and how successful it was. It’s just another language in Africa, and to use that language in a healing program is just beautiful.”
Bethany began meeting with heads of non-profits to learn how the most successful ones operated. Without a preconceived notion of what she would do, she opened her eyes to what she should do.
“I wanted to have the heart posture of local leaders who are experts in their own culture,” she says. “How can I learn from them and help in Uganda and the Congo?”
She started EI while still working full-time in private practice to help fund the non-profit.
“I didn’t have money. I didn’t have a strategic five-year plan. One thing I was passionate about was that I didn’t want to wait until we had a plan to start helping these kids.”
Money came from the sale of photos and items brought back from Africa, from pledges from individuals, and from several churches.
From working with 24 children and two local leaders on the ground overseas, EI now helps 1,600 children in two countries with more than 50 staffers.
“It was very much putting one foot in front of the other and God just leading,” she says.
Having vowed never to remarry, Bethany found that God had other plans, placing husband Matthew in her path three years after her work began. He was working on his master’s degree in trauma counseling to help child victims of trafficking and soldiering. Two years after cautiously beginning dating, they married and now run EI as a team.
“We were both running head first toward our calling and bumped into each other,” she laughs. “It worked out great.”
“The joy of the work being done is tempered by the knowledge that war is still a reality in the Congo,” Bethany says. “In the area where EI operates, 100 children are rescued every month. The work to be done is monumental, and the teams from the areas who live and work with the children, risking their lives, are the mission’s greatest asset,” she emphasizes.
“Through our curriculum-based model, the children are not just survivors,” Bethany says. “They learn conflict resolution skills and will be peace leaders. They are the next Nelson Mandela in their nation.”
Several graduates of the EI program have returned to their villages to recreate the peace program in areas too dangerous for the mission workers to travel. Through replication of the model, more and more children in the Congo will be reached and taught that there is healing, redemption, and forgiveness, despite the devastation through which they have lived.
Bethany hopes to use the model to reach children in Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Iraq, citing the 78-percent decrease in trauma for children who have been in the program for two years.
“We know it is working, and we want to get it out to more places,” she says. “It’s a holistic model, and that’s why we’ve been so successful.”
Bethany and Matthew speak to groups often, sharing stories of the children.
Ten-year-old Nelson, covered with the blood of his parents as they were murdered with machetes in Uganda, was taken away by rebels. His art depicted the horror. Bethany washed his feet while they both wept. As a three-year-old, Devin was raped by soldiers in the Congo and as a teen now sings her liberation from the ordeal.
“We want the world to understand the gravity and to not look away from it,” she says. “It will take everyone using a voice to spread this movement of redemption and to step into the stories of the children.”
Bethany tells the story of Baraka, meaning “blessing” in Swahili. He was abducted twice by rebel groups, once at age 12 and again at 14. He worked his way through the program, fighting through the trauma and returning to his village to replicate the model with a Peace Club for child soldiers and orphans in his village. Baraka also astonished Bethany when he said he was also meeting with rebels to teach them about forgiveness and love.
“That’s how the replication model started,” Bethany says. “Baraka will say, ‘The only reason I was saved was so I could do this.’ It’s such a beautiful story of how brokenness turned into beauty, and pain into purpose. Your pain is not wasted. There is purpose in it.”
When children enter the program, they aren’t referenced as child soldiers or orphans. They are called Young Peace Makers.
“From the very beginning they say, ‘I am the hope child.’ They are able to envision pain becoming purpose in their country. It changes their mindset. They have a lot of shame, of course. Thirty percent of all children kidnapped are girls and have been sex slaves in captivity. There is a lot of healing to be done, but we love them and help them hopefully see that our past doesn’t have to define us.”