The stories are horrific.
On her first trip to Congo, in 2008, Bethany Haley Williams listened and cried — mostly she cried —
while being told stories of children being kidnapped at young ages and forced to kill their parents.
Children were forcefully taken away by the Lord’s Resistance Army and made to fight as child soldiers.
Adults who were spared death were told that soldiers would eventually be back for their youngest.
“It just broke me and broke my spirit,” Williams said of the stories she heard on her trip with African
Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries.
Williams herself had lived through trauma and depression and felt a bond with the children she
“I just saw a different level of brokenness,” she said.
Williams, who lives in Nashville, recently released “The Color of Grace,” a book chronicling her work with
the Brentwood nonprofit Exile International, which she founded shortly after making her first trip to
“It wasn’t easy,” she said, “but I knew this story had to be told.”
Williams and her husband, Matthew, who travel back and forth two or three times a year for art therapy
workshops and one-on-one counseling sessions, are continuing to work toward making all children of
Uganda and Congo soldiers of peace rather than war.
She recently spoke with The Tennessean regarding her life’s work with Exile International and the
release of “The Color of Grace.”
Talk about the focus of Exile International.
The focus is mind, body, spirit rehabilitation for the children, so they’re able to receive trauma care and
then there’s conflict resolution and leadership training. We’re also able to meet their physical needs as
well with education, clothes and medical care and for some of them a place to stay, because most of
them have been orphaned because of the war. We’re seeing them now actually go back into the villages
they fought in and they are doing dramas about peace and reconciliation and forgiveness. Their stories
are really coming full circle, which is pretty beautiful.
How do you keep from going emotionally bankrupt?
I can’t say that I haven’t been, at times. I mean, I think, when you sit with a child and you hear how they
were … held in slavery by rebel forces, that it has to emotionally break you. There’s no way you can hear
those stories and it not emotionally break you. That is what I’ve used to fuel my passion to do something
because the natural reaction when you look darkness in the eyes and evil in the eyes, at this level, the
natural reaction is to just look away and say it’s too big. I really tried to make a conscious choice not to
do that and I regularly tell myself that these could be my kids and if they were my kids I wouldn’t have
the option of looking away.”
What convinced you to finally write the book?
I remember sitting up in bed one night and thinking, there’s no way the world knows about this and
they’re not doing anything. It’s just impossible. Like, I have to believe people are better than that and
they have more kindness than that. I just realized people don’t know. They don’t know children are
enslaved in the bush and they don’t realize that kids are still being kidnapped. It’s not something new,
it’s been going on. … It’s been missed and that’s one of the goals we have with the book, is that it’ll be a
catalyst and to be a mouthpiece for 1) the children who have been rescued and are trying to start a new
life, and 2) the children — girls and boys — that are still in the bush.
Did you discover the bond you share with those children while writing the book or beforehand?
I realized even from the beginning that God was using what I learned from my own journey through
trauma and depression and even being suicidal, he was using those lessons he taught me to lead me into
the lives of children who had been traumatized, so I could relate to them a little bit in a different way
and I could use what he taught me to help them. What I went through was just a drop in the bucket
compared to what they went through.
It’s incomprehensible to even imagine.
They don’t have a choice and they want to get out. … There’s a fear they instill in these children that ‘I
can’t leave’ or ‘I have to do what they say,’ which is one of the reasons they kidnap the kids. … There’s
that hierarchy with adults. … So, to go back to your original question: For me, I saw God using my pain
for a purpose and that message — I really wanted to help the kids to see that their pain could become
purposeful, and we’re seeing that happen now. The very thing that they thought would kill them is
fueling them to go back to their villages and speak about peace and reconciliation and forgiveness. Even
on this last trip, one of our graduates came down from the mountains in Congo and told us he was doing
trauma work and studying the Bible with rebels three times a week.
Slowly it’s changing.
If enough children and enough young people started to speak up … then the whole country would