When I was eight years old, my younger sister and I were suddenly uprooted from our home in California to vacation in El Salvador. After we had stayed with my uncle’s family for what seemed a long time, we found out our “vacation” was permanent. What about my home in California where my school and all my toys are? I wondered. As we adjusted to a new culture in El Salvador, we also adjusted to a new stage of life that excluded my dad. Even though I had already witnessed domestic abuse back in California, I concluded that this new situation was probably my fault. Therefore, in my mind it was my job to make things right.
While my mom and sister often collapsed into tears, I concluded that I must hold back my own tears and rely on Jesus and absolutely no one else. Grown-ups shared heavy information with me, saying I was “strong,” and even my mother treated me as a sort of substitute husband and father. I felt that I was doing something right and making up for things I had messed up. Meanwhile, my relationship with my dad was on and off, consisting of sporadic phone calls lasting less than a minute. After every phone call I felt confused about whether my father loved me or not. Over the years, when we saw him, alcohol was always involved and the visits were brief.
As I grew into my teenage years, I concluded that after what I had witnessed and experienced, I would never get married and never have kids. I kept to myself, relying on my academic success for value. I was determined to move forward in life with as little help as possible from men, placing all men in one box and closing it firmly. Because I was a good student, I was able to go to a Christian college in the United States and leave my sad childhood behind.
During my senior year of college, my sister and roommate invited me to attend a bilingual church with them. I went as a concession to them, having also decided to leave behind Latin American culture. Yet after attending for some time, I developed good friendships and grew to love and appreciate my pastors. When the pastor’s wife offered to disciple me, I was hesitant at first due to my internal trust issues. But I accepted her kind invitation and slowly began to see a different way of living. Our times together were simple: over tea, we read the Bible, prayed together, and simply talked. Despite the decisions about my life I already carried in my pocket, the Bible seemed like a breath of fresh air. I was able to process the difficulties of my childhood with someone for the first time, and it all centered on Christ.
One summer day I gathered with a group of Christian friends to watch a soccer game and met a young man named Kevin. Over the summer, Kevin began asking me to go out for coffee. I kindly rejected his offers at first. But his kindness wore me down and we began dating. It was not easy for me to let go of my conviction that all men were untrustworthy. But Kevin would listen to my concerns without being pushy and provide me with Biblical resources to examine my negative assumptions in light of God’s truth. I was also able to process my changing perspective with my pastor’s wife.
The woman who would never marry instead began to imagine marriage to a man who has helped me re-imagine what a husband and father can be when God is involved. We have now been married eight years and have three children: another “never” that God has graciously re-defined, helping me overcome my fears of passing on negative traits from past generations.
God had opened my eyes to the reality that not all men were like my father. Yet before I even started college, I had completely given up on having my father be part of my life. My prayers had changed from, “Lord, may we be a family again,” to “Lord, open his eyes to know you.” The childhood letters to him with my best handwriting had grown into adult prayers for him that never stopped, despite all the pain he had caused.
Before my first daughter was born, Dad started making 40-second phone calls again, and I went along passively, not saying much. Yet Dad shared years later that during one of those calls, something I said encouraged him to change his mind about taking his own life. I don’t even remember that conversation. The Lord protected Dad from losing his life several times during this rock-bottom period, and he finally began to get the help he needed to heal physically, spiritually, and emotionally. It was a long, hard process because of all the damage he had caused himself, his family, and even his community.
While he was walking through this healing process about four years ago, Dad called me and the conversation actually lasted more than a minute! Something has to be off, I thought. Then I realized Dad was asking for forgiveness, telling me that Jesus was his Savior, and asking to be part of my life again. Was I okay with that? After that phone call, I honestly thought he was either drunk or lying. Similar phone calls followed. My answers to all of his calls were brief and vague. A big part of me truly wanted to say I forgave him and another part of me wanted to keep my distance. What if it wasn’t true like most of the things he had said in the past? I wanted to be safe from getting hurt.
The Lord once again clearly worked in my heart showing me that trusting Him involved every area of my life including the emotions involved in this relationship. I realized God is bigger than me, and I praised God that he could change anyone he wanted long after I had given up. Gradually I went from viewing my father as merely a biological relative to calling him “Dad” and even being able to say “I love you” — all because of Christ in me. I could not have given him a chance nor forgiven him if it weren’t for the grace that had been given to me through Christ.
The father-daughter relationship is still under construction, but I like to tell people that this restored relationship is the biggest miracle I have personally had the privilege of witnessing. The experience of seeing and hearing Dad praise Jesus with humility and gratitude is an image I never expected the Lord in his grace and sovereignty to allow. As Ephesians 3:20-21 says, “To him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine … to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.”