WRITTEN BY ANDREA PACHECO
(Names in this story have been changed to protect anonymity)
As our session began to record, she searched for the words to best summarize her life experiences growing up as a child with her family in Brazil. “The biggest feeling when I think about my parents: fear,” she said, “they didn’t know what was being loved or how to love.”
In fact, for Gisela, the first time her father ever truly spoke to her “…normally, not just to give an order…” was at the age of seventeen. Over time, he did extend open arms to offer her a hug; it was the first time in her life they ever embraced- she was twenty-one years old. With quiet resignation she described the oppressive and volatile qualities of her father’s character, yet there was no sting of bitterness or void of self-pity; her words carried only the peace of forgiveness. It was not always this way. It was a lesson she came to learn, one which typifies her testimony perfectly- the lesson of forgiveness.
The biggest feeling when I think about my parents : fear.
As for her mother, she was emotionally unavailable and remote- negligent even- but also stern and severe in her disposition and was described as possessing the ability to “intimidate anyone with her eyes.” Neither parent wished for parenthood; in fact, they each utterly resented their role, fostering an environment bereft of natural affection, empathy, and love. In the mind of both her parents’ children “had their place” and so, they occupied a world that existed parallel to the adult world and neither connected meaningfully- despite living under a shared roof. God himself was not welcome there and was fiercely denied. Instead, her parents built their homelife upon the foundation and spiritual deficits of staunch, secular atheism. Christianity was a sham, and the church was a den of charlatans who peddled faith to manipulate simpletons into giving away their money. Ultimately, in this regard, their cynicism reigned supreme.
Childhood was traumatic; marked by cruel isolation and repeated themes of rejection. At school, the social landscape- though peppered occasionally by tiny mercies of inclusion- was, for the most part, spent in forlorn solitude. Unbeknownst to anyone at that time, Gisela had autism. Due to her ability to operate at a high-functioning capacity her condition went undiagnosed for years by physicians. What was imperceptible to professional clinicians was especially so for her medically untrained teachers who consequentially, came to stigmatize her as needlessly difficult. Worst of all she was branded as “weird” by her schoolmates whose acceptance she so badly craved. Powerless against her undue status as pariah, she acquiesced to her fate as an outcast. Without hope, she was left demoralized and confused by her plight; not only in the schoolyard, but at home where she subsisted and remained, unseen.
Tragically, the dark grip of fear only intensified for little Gisela who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of an extended family member who came to live in the home. In addition to unbearable isolation, neglect, and violation of the highest order, she was forced to grapple with the immense burden of harboring this terrible secret. Even at the age of five, she was acutely aware of her father’s explosive temper and feared his reaction if the truth became known. She confessed, “If my father would get to know it, I am going to destroy my family…It was going to be chaos, and my family was already chaos! I didn’t want to lose what I had.” It was all so unfair! Desperately she had hoped someone, anyone would notice that she was not okay, without having to say a word, but how was that possible? “My parents were never there. They never played with us, never [sat] with us, never watched anything with us; there was no relationship, so how would they know?” she explained, disconcerted by the memory. Sadly, no one did notice her suffering, neither did anyone come to save her from her pain. Gisela recalled mournfully, “I desperately wanted to be loved. I desperately wanted to be around people. I also desperately wanted to keep people away because they were hurting me, everybody that I knew.” Disconnected from love, with no one to protect her, she gave up hope of rescue and withdrew further into herself.
Desperately she had hoped someone, anyone would notice that she was not okay...
Then, one day, saving hope came to her in the form of a close friend: her first real, true friend. Since her brother was struggling academically at the large Catholic school they attended, her parents opted to move the children to a new, smaller, private school. At the new school, her brother would receive the focused attention he required, and it was closer to home. It was a pragmatic decision, to be sure. What escaped them was how it was guided by the providential hand of God. Within the first week at her new school, it was not long before Ana took notice of the timorous, twelve-year-old Gisela (who sat alone in the classroom during lunch) and approached her to talk. Her amiable demeanor was disarming and immediately put Gisela at ease, quelling her social anxiety. Days later, when Ana encouraged Gisela to accompany her to a church service on the weekend, it was received with moderate ambivalence. Nothing in Gisela’s life provided context for any sort of church experience; it was entirely foreign. Still, it was not as though Gisela had not contemplated the existence of God before. Following her exposure to Catholicism at her previous school, the idea that “there is someone out there” lingered, but she was unable to discover who God was when her questions went unanswered. Although the invitation was a strange one indeed, her curiosity was ignited about Protestantism. Despite uncertain expectations, in the end, she knew at least she liked Ana, and for her that was enough.
Sunday came, and Gisela (equally excited as she was uncertain), accompanied her friend to church. Her parents took little notice, as was the case with most of the activities, she engaged in. They assumed it was simply an effort, on her part, to make friends and therefore, inconsequential. How wrong they were! When Gisela entered the sanctuary, she was overwhelmed at the display of hospitality toward her. Fellow churchgoers she had never met welcomed her and treated her, she said, “As if they knew me before. That was the first time, ever in my life I felt loved because they embraced me in such a way that I felt part of the family.” Up to that point she did not know how it felt to be loved; she stated emphatically, “When I attended there, I felt love [for] the first time.” It was a feeling she wanted more of, and she continued to go to church with Ana.
By the third week, her parents did take notice when before-long she came to inform them of her intent to be baptised. How could she be careless enough to allow herself to be “brainwashed” by a collective of corrupt con artists? It was unthinkable. “If you commit to this religion, you do not belong to us anymore,” they threatened harshly. Hoping to eradicate this abhorred influence from her life they grew increasingly dictatorial; tensions escalated, and life for Gisela took a grim turn. In their rage, contempt for God was on full display as they forbade her from going to church, prohibited the name of Jesus being spoken and banned bibles from entering the home. Access to her computer and phone was removed, and she was subjected to a form of ‘house arrest,’ in which her movements were restricted- apart from going to and from school- each day. This became the routine of her life for three long years. During this time, under the weight of oppressive isolation, Gisela discovered early on in her first year as a believer that, “Christian life was not all wonderful; that it would be hard.” She learned that in order to survive the strain of her situation she would have to depend on God.
One may be tempted to believe God abandoned them to such circumstances- as they continued unchanged, but for Gisela, God (by his mercy), strengthened her through Godly counsel. Coincidentally, the church she was disallowed from attending, stood next to the school she attended. With ease of access, the elders consistently checked in, to advise and edify her. When Ana heard, Gisela was forbidden to own a bible, she determined to bring her own to school every day so they could read from it together. In addition, even the Pastor would meet Gisela frequently after school (before her walk home), to spend time with her. Due to these precious moments, she continued to grow in faith and deepen her trust in God, despite the draconian restrictions imposed on her life. Effectively, this blessed oversight by Gisela’s parents helped sustain her when she felt spiritually vulnerable.
She learned that in order to survive the strain of her situation she would have to depend on God.
Encouraged by her Pastor, she came to understand that the battle she faced was not with her parents; it was a spiritual battle against demonic forces that influenced their actions, as taught in the book of Ephesians: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV)
Due to this reality, citing Colossians 3:20 (which teaches children to obey their parents in honor the Lord) she paraphrased her Pastor’s counsel: “If you are receiving love from God, this love needs to be enough, and you cannot rebel against your parents because they don’t know what they are doing to you…they are just sowing what the enemy is doing with them in their lives. They are trying to destroy you…don’t do to them what they are doing to you, just act as an obedient girl, honor God in everything you do, and obey them. One day they may recognize [it].”
Surrender to the truth of these words was not easy for Gisela as she wrestled with the thought of how to love someone who “hated you all their life,” who took away your joy in attending church upon finding Jesus, among other grievances. Despite these wrongs, she chose to love because she recognized that God first loved her. Fortified with boldness and informed by the truth of her Pastor’s words she determined to, “…love them, even if they didn’t love me back because I was receiving love from God.” It was a remarkable insight to grasp at twelve years old when parental love and reassurance was greatly needed but withheld. Instead of comfort she bravely chose sacrifice; fleeting promises of happiness and peace were willingly traded for her profession of faith in Jesus. Yet, she is human after all, and after three years of constant struggle, endeavoring to love in a home devoid of love, she became emotionally drained and spiritually fatigued. With no end in sight to her discouragement, despite faithful intercession on behalf of her family, she surrendered hope and decided to “give up.” Within the very same week, God enacted a miracle- through an answer to prayer- to deliver her from the mire of despair. While out at a Christian concert with friends (who were believers themselves), her eldest brother chose to follow Jesus, and converted. Consequentially, Christ’s victory in the life of her brother meant victory for Gisela too, and after years of forced confinement in her own home, she was finally free. Her brother was eighteen, and her parents- as vehemently opposed as they were- knew they were helpless to change his mind. Although they blamed Gisela for corrupting him with her beliefs (which she admittedly had no part in), they decided not to dispute the matter further. In fact, they altogether loosened their grip of control over Gisela, once they recognized she had formed a united front with her brother, who shared her faith. By the grace of God, Gisela was singlehandedly rescued from her tribulation and was able attend church again (with her brother no less!); a door of escape opened and how glorious it was.
Years later, after Gisela graduated with a degree in Veterinary Medicine, her mother decided it was time to announce her wish to separate from father. It was a decision she mulled over many times, but when it came down to it, she decided to wait for the last child to graduate before she made her intentions known. Years later, when she began her new life (after the children left Brazil) her relationship with Gisela and her siblings improved dramatically. Today, they share a relationship that is more akin to close friendship than a conventional parent-child bond, but Gisela is grateful for it nonetheless, and continues to pray for the salvation of her mother.
During her time away at University, God confronted Gisela about the unforgiveness she nursed against the family member who had wronged her egregiously by sexually abusing her as a toddler, who, by her own admission, she hated so bitterly as to wish him dead. Resistant at first, she gradually allowed herself to endure the discomfort of her raw emotions before God, when a thought began to ruminate: “If God says he wants me to forgive someone, who am I to say God is wrong; who am I to say that person does not deserve to be forgiven?” Ultimately, she relented, and forgiveness won.
It was not an easy choice, however, to trust God with her wounds; she describes it as a painful process- but a necessary one- in her journey of faith. She said, “Forgiveness many times is not a feeling, it’s not an emotion, it’s a choice…a decision. We decide to obey God, we decide to forgive, and then God starts to work in our hearts, in our wounds. We first need to make the decision even if we don’t feel it.” God began to open her heart through forgiveness. It was a decision which served to equip her for the next great personal challenge she would face- to share the gospel- with a man she feared all her life, her own father.
If God says he wants me to forgive someone, who am I to say God is wrong; who am I to say that person does not deserve to be forgiven?
When her mother told her father she wanted to separate, the gravity of the situation caused him great distress, and his health began to plummet, silently. One evening, after he had spent the day searching for apartments, he suffered a stroke in bed and fell to the floor. Rushed to hospital in an ambulance, his condition continued to destabilize with each passing hour, to a point at which he became critical. In an attempt to mitigate his rapid decline, he was forced to undergo several major surgical interventions from which it was not certain he would survive. Helpless to do anything, the family waited as he was transferred to ICU, where he lay, in an induced coma. Thankfully, he did survive and nearly one month later, he eventually improved enough to be moved to his own hospital room. Once an extremely proud and imposing man, her father had been reduced to the dependency of an infant, unable to do anything for himself. Unable to eat, talk, write, or walk, doctors advised the family to assign a person to stay with him once he transferred, and the responsibility fell to Gisela.
Though her father was bedridden and severely disabled, she still feared him, and approached her role as caretaker with trepidation. In the past she would invoke the immense wrath of his temper if she dared to share Jesus but now, she had the advantage, and he could do nothing but listen “he was in bed he couldn’t stop me from sharing the gospel” she reasoned. Truthfully, she realized she was more afraid to lose him to eternity without him knowing the gospel than she was afraid of any tumultuous confrontation that may ensue. Decidedly, she refused to let this newfound opportunity go to waste; fearful as she was. Each day, for weeks she faithfully stayed by his side morning to night, reading the bible, sharing devotionals, and playing worship music, while he lay, incapacitated, unable to resist. In his eyes, however, she glimpsed blazing fury, as he tried to intimidate her without words “he looked at me with so much anger that his eyes literally got red” she said. None of his antics were able to quench her spirit, “He was in his bed, and I was in my chair so he couldn’t stop me…I kept talking,” she confessed; her words punctuated with tiny giggles of delight. Eventually, as he became more conscious and regained speech, Gisela’s fears came flooding back with the memory of past outcomes; she prayed in earnest, “God! What should I do?” She opted to err on the side of caution.
Morning time at the hospital began as usual. Gisela arrived to dutifully help her father with his needs, only this time, she avoided any mention of the bible. “Are you not going to read today? Are you not going to read the devotional for me?” he asked, bemused. Did she hear that right? She was amazed. What a relief to discover he found hope in the power of the word of God; and how encouraging it was to know that God had used her! From that moment, she shared her faith without hinderance daily, and he received it all with great gladness. After two months, by the grace of God, her father was able to leave the hospital and return home. Gisela observed that he was a “different person” than he was before the stroke, stating that she noticed “his heart changed completely.”
It was a miracle to witness change in action as he started to attend church with her and grow closer to God in faith. He even became baptized! For thirteen years she prayed for her family and was in awe that God allowed her to see the salvation of both her brother and father. All of it was more than she could ever have hoped for; it was simply beyond compare.
After some months, he invited Gisela out to a fresh juice stand (customary in Brazil), on a typical, pleasant sunny day, yet the conversation that flowed was not typical for either of them. With anguished regret and a heavy heart, he revealed to her that “he hated me all my life and never wished me there.” With shame, he acknowledged that he never wanted her- a fact she had always known- but nevertheless, stung to hear. Burdened under the weight of his past mistreatment and sinful neglect, he ardently sought forgiveness, but, she had already forgiven him years ago. What struck her most of all was his profound astonishment, she said, “[At] how I could take care of him with love and kindness even knowing he never loved me. He said that the stroke he got, even thought it was the hardest thing he went through, it was the best thing that happened to him as it opened his eyes to God.” He thanked her for not giving up on him and the family. It was a gift from God for Gisela, who dreamt of such a moment all her life; his remorse released her and helped to heal the pain of the past.
Today, her father has become an avid, generous hugger; happy to tell Gisela and her brothers, as often as possible, how much he loves them. In fact, his devotion as a father compels him each day to wake promptly at 4 a.m. to pray for his children and to entrust them to the Lord!
Gisela’s captivating testimony is a redemptive story of hope, the faithfulness of God, and the lesson of forgiveness. God’s forgiveness enables us, supernaturally by his power, to forgive others; turning hate into love (as was the case for Gisela’s father) whose radical transformation she aptly described as being miraculous, “like water to wine.” Truly, his transformation is undeniable, fashioned lovingly by the hand of our God as it is promised to all those who trust in Jesus for salvation:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV)