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Out of Darkness and Into the Light

An Unhappy Childhood

Growing up, I should have been the happiest girl around! I had a father who loved me unconditionally and a mother who devoted her life to caring for our home—but I wasn't happy! The main cause of my unhappiness was my oldest brother. He was very abusive—not just to me but to our entire family. It was obvious from his actions that he was an angry and deeply wounded soul. And he often demonstrated this anger through irrational and often physically hurtful behavior.

After school, to avoid going home, I would often take long walks alone, wallowing in loneliness and despair. When my father, an exporter by trade, went on occasional business trips, I would spend countless hours cooped up in my room, trying to avoid my brother. Without my father's presence, my brother found greater opportunity to torment all of us.

Seeking Answers

My parents had migrated from India to the Philippines, settling in Bacolod, the city where I was born, and later moving to Manila. With four siblings, our house was definitely full. I shared a room with my only sister who was nine years my senior. I knew she loved me, and she offered some protection for me against the abuse of my brother. I also felt my father's love, who never failed to express that I was the apple of his eye.

Being Hindu, our family traditionally went to the Hindu temple every Sunday to pay our respect to the “gods.” In my early teens, I began to wonder about and question if God even existed. I wondered what God looked like. Was he Indian like me, or perhaps American or Chinese? I wondered if the “religious” teachers—the Catholic nuns who taught my religion classes—would offer the answers I was looking for. But even they had no answers that satisfied.

The Only Answer

God, however, knew of my quest. He sent a cousin to me—a cousin who had left the Hindu faith and embraced the Christian faith! During the two weeks of my cousin's visit, in a most gentle and non-judgmental manner, she told me of how she had come to believe in Jesus Christ and that she had accepted him as her Lord and Savior. I, on the other hand, responded by debating all she said with the senseless wisdom I gained from being a believer in a false Hindu prophet.

But my cousin had planted a kernel of truth in my mind. After she left, I couldn't help but think about all she had said. I was sitting in a chair gazing out a window in the living room when it began to make sense. It was like a light bulb had been turned on within me. My cousin's words led me closer to the answers I had been looking for. It dawned on me that what I was seeking was exactly what my cousin had found—a relationship with a living God.

The Unexplainable

I approached my mom and asked if we could start attending church. Being a Hindu her entire life, it was almost like my mom thought I had gone insane. Though the idea of attending church was rejected by my mom, a still, small voice within me kept insisting that I approach my father with the same idea. This really didn't make sense to me, because it was my mom—not my dad—who was the “religious” one in my family.

Years later I would hear my pastor say that if something can be explained, then it most likely isn't from God. And though I could not understand why the voice was prompting me to go to my dad, I did anyway. I went into his room and sat beside him on his bed. After suggesting the idea of going to church, I learned an amazing thing! My father told me that he had been watching the 700 Club on TV and had prayed the prayer of salvation with the host of the show.

The following Sunday, my dad and I, and even my mother went to church. It was on this very day that my father and I publicly accepted Jesus Christ into our hearts as our personal Lord and Savior. It seemed that my mom, too, made the same choice, but we later discovered that she never really accepted Christ into her heart. From this time on, we began attending a Pentecostal church regularly. I later joined a Baptist home church whose members consisted of Indians—Sindhis, like ourselves. The church was pastored by a missionary couple whose hearts' desire was to lead Indians to a true knowledge of the Lord.

Life Turned Upside Down

After becoming a Christian, I can't say that everything was smooth sailing from there on out. In many ways my life was turned upside down. My father passed away about a year later, and it was a huge comfort for me to know that he died a believer. But our family suffered a great loss. He was the provider of food, shelter, and all the material possessions we needed. And now, in the blink of an eye, he was gone! We rushed him to the hospital on a Sunday afternoon and he died the following day. We never knew exactly what caused the internal bleeding that led to his death. I was right there with him when he died, and I felt like a lost sheep. I no longer had a father who would provide and protect me. I now had to trust and rely on my heavenly father—a Father I could not see but who promised to never leave me.

The situation with my brother worsened after my father died—so bad that there came a point when we had to rely on the kindness of missionaries and relatives to provide shelter and food for me and my mom, who by this time had returned to the Hindu faith. Then, when all seemed hopeless, God prepared a way for my mom and me to come to the United States. But, coming to a new country did not solve every problem. My mom and I didn't have our own home like we did back in the Philippines. We relied on my aunt who provided us with a room in her house. Since neither my mom nor I had a car or knew how to drive, we were also dependent on my aunt for transportation. This predicament made it difficult for me to work or go to school. I was stuck at home. The only job I could qualify for was that of a telemarketer, since I had no college education. Fortunately, I had my mom for support, and my dad's brother provided some financial support, but for a long time, I struggled both psychologically and emotionally.

Life Filled with Purpose

During my loneliness, I would often take walks, and pour out my heart to God. I would wonder and query what His purpose was for my life. Exactly what was He trying to accomplish, and how much pain must I go through before His work in my life was complete? Then in 2001, 10 years after coming to the U.S., God finally revealed His will for my life—I was to be a teacher. How God revealed His plan for my life still amazes me to this day. I began attending a small Indian church where I was given the opportunity to teach English as a volunteer to Indian and Pakistani people from nearby communities. Later, I began volunteering as an ESL teacher at a megachurch. Three years after I started volunteering at this church, God began to pave the way for me to go back to school. After three years of writing research papers, cramming for exams, and completing projects, I finally graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies.

My last year of college, I met my husband to be—Joseph, an Indian who had come to the States from Singapore, and a Christian. It had been almost 20 years since I had felt a desire to be married, and I was beginning to give up on meeting someone who would be the mate I needed. Then in the spring of 2006, the Lord answered my heart's desire. He sent Joseph just when I was beginning to believe that I was destined to live a life of solitude. After two years of getting to know each other, we got married, and by God's grace, we are approaching our sixth wedding anniversary. Joseph and I continue to seek God's will for our lives—admittedly at times feeling confused as to what that will is. It is then that I have to remind myself that I am no longer that lost little girl I once was; I am His child. I have to trust that in due time He will reveal his desire for our lives. With Joseph's encouragement and support, and God's prompting, I decided to go back to school again, this time for my graduate degree, which I just recently completed. Praise God!

The Christian life is not an easy path, which is why the Lord said, “narrow is the way that leads to eternal life, and few are those who find it.” (Matthew 7:14) But one thing I am sure of—there is no other way and no other God who can love me enough to die for my sins. There is no other God who can forgive me of every evil thought and deed I have committed. And no other God can provide me with the hope of eternal life. Therefore, amidst all the struggles and challenges in this life, I press on towards the One who loves me with a love that I cannot comprehend. And though I cannot see Him, I know He is with me, and will be to the end of my days.

(Shirley Surtani, born and reared in the Philippines, has lived in Texas since 1991. She recently completed her Master's degree in Reading and ESL at Dallas Baptist University. She loves working with international students and is looking forward to a career in teaching. Shirley lives with her husband in Richardson, Texas.)

Article Link: http://ccmusa.org/read/read.aspx?id=chg20140304
To reuse online, please credit Challenger, Jul-Sep 2014. CCMUSA.