Friends, I am so happy to be here and so grateful to my friend and founder Lisa for inviting me to share about my journey of restoration. I am looking forward to continuing my journey alongside this beautiful community of women and to grow as I am inspired by each of you.
Today I introduce myself by sharing an overview of my story. The middle of three girls, I was raised by parents who emigrated here in the early eighties from war-torn Eritrea, a small country in Northeast Africa. Even as a child I was very aware that although we lived in Dallas, Texas, we came from another place. Surrounded by a very close-knit community of friends and relatives, my parents intentionally tried to instill in us a sense of identity and pride in our country of origin. We grew up eating Eritrean food, believing all the Eritreans around us were our actual family, hearing stories about Eritrea and in my case, speaking our native language poorly.
My parents were also devoutly Catholic and going to weekly mass was not an option, but a requirement. The celebration of the sacraments was of utmost importance and I remember my parents flying in my mom’s priest-uncle from Rome to preside over our First Communions. Although we didn’t yet truly have an appreciation for the miracle taking place, even at our young age we knew something important was happening. At age sixteen, my mom forced me to attend a youth retreat and it was there, on the Saturday evening of the retreat, that I met God for the first time. Although I now know that God has always been with me, it was at this retreat that, being aware of His presence for the first time, I said my first genuine prayer: “God, if you are real, show me.”
I encountered His presence in a powerful way that evening and that experience still reverberates throughout the joys and sufferings of my life.sefanit Stefanos
Over the next two decades, I earned two degrees while living in Texas, Ohio, and Italy. Along the way, I searched for my purpose, made lots of mistakes, and sought healing and restoration. Even though my upbringing was idyllic in many ways, I was not immune to the usual lies of our generation regarding womanhood, beauty, lovability, and worth. I looked to accomplishments and success to measure my worth and compared myself to a fictional idea of perfection, to which I always came up lacking.
It was while in graduate school in Ohio that I believe my work of healing truly began. There I lived in community with four other women who served as both a mirror to who I really was and an inspiration to who God created me to be. Here I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes by Saint Irenaeus, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” This was the discovery I made in this little community of prayer and healing we created—that healing and restoration were rooted in the truth that I am created in the image of God and made to live my fullest potential in every dimension of my life. Therefore, I am no longer searching for perfection in order to love myself, but I am seeking health because I love myself. Although this might seem like an exercise in semantics, this realization changed my life. Through lots of prayer and self-reflection, I was able to see myself in truth – my bad habits, toxic relationships, and negative ways of thinking and behaving. These were part of who I was, and the process of restoration meant accepting that reality, surrendering it to the grace and mercy of God, and allowing Him to transform me.
Through the encouragement of God, this became a whole program of life changes geared towards my health, in every dimension of my life. I no longer attempted fad diets to like what I saw in the mirror but sought a holistic overhaul of my health and wellness that was founded on love for my body and a desire to treat it well. I started swimming three times a week and replaced processed foods for whole, homemade, and “real” food. It was fun, delicious and exhilarating. I started praying daily and let the love of God sink deep in my soul, with the truth that I am good, beautiful, loveable and worthy of every good thing. This only fueled my desire to be whole and restored and I continued with renewed courage to identify the areas in my life that needed healing.
I cannot stress enough how helpful it was for this process to have happened in the community of women I was living in. Scripture reminds us that, “iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another,” and that is exactly what happened in our community. It was in my daily interactions with these women that I saw the areas of my personality and behavior I didn’t like. My sarcastic responses were not just a part of my personality that people would have to accept, but a system of behaviors I had built over years as a defense to the world and a way to prove my intellectual superiority over others. It was immature and at its core, rooted in my insecurity. No one I lived with had to tell me this. My interactions with them amid this journey of restoration brought these realizations to light for me. So, I tried to stop being sarcastic and would apologize when I was. I was apologizing often at first but now, I rarely use sarcasm and am freer to say a kinder, more gentle word that is geared at building up instead of tearing down.
This whole process of virtue-building has prepared me for what God had planned for my life. After years of discerning religious life and almost joining two different communities, God surprised me by bringing me my husband. In this new journey of learning what it means to be a wife and mother, I am living out all those lessons of healing and restoration I have learned. It’s a whole new ball game as I am now seeking to do something I’ve never had to do – entrust my husband and children to God. What! This is so much harder!
I once heard motherhood described as walking around with your heart on your hip. I think there is real truth to this. In my experience, it has been much easier to trust God with my heart and wellbeing than it has been with my husband and especially my children. My deepest fears have resurfaced and the realization that there is only so much that I control is scary, to say the least. Although I desire to be like the women described in Proverbs 31 and “laugh at the time to come,” this isn’t coming as easily as I had hoped. When it comes to my loved ones, there is also a fear of suffering that I never had with myself. And although I have always been very confident, a new insecurity is immerging about my ability to prepare another person for success in this world. How do I instill confidence and equip my children to reach their fullest potential? How do I help them to know that they are loved and cherished not only by their family but the God of the universe?
Although these fears, like all fears, threaten the freedom in Christ that I know is possible, I will continue the basic formula of healing and restoration I have spent my life learning: stay rooted in prayer, bring everything to the light, don’t be afraid to face the sin and lies, and slay every anxiety and temptation with trust and love. Something God has been reminding me of lately is the reality that His grace is operative in the present moment. Anxiety and fear only have power when I take my focus off of God and the present moment, and instead look to the future, where oftentimes our imagination is much scarier than reality. God has never given me more than his grace enables me to handle and I trust that will continue; not only to survive but to thrive.
This is just the beginning. I’m looking forward to continuing this journey with each of you in this new community we are creating!