Through our partnership with IJM, we are sharing stories of their work for justice in the world. We hope these stories serve to practically undergird the truths we’ve uncovered together in days 1 through 4.
Today we get to learn from Holly Burkhalter. Holly serves as Senior Advisor for Justice System Transformation at International Justice Mission. She stewards IJM’s relationships in the policy, human rights, and development communities and speaks and publishes regularly on IJM’s behalf.
Before joining IJM, Holly spent nine years serving as the US Policy Director for Physicians for Human Rights and fourteen years as the Advocacy Director and Director of the Washington office for Human Rights Watch. Holly also staffed the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations from 1981 to 1983. From 1977 to 1981, she worked for Representative Tom Harkin, D-IA.
She is the author of Good God, Lousy World, and Me: the Improbable Journey of a Human Rights Activist from Unbelief to Faith.
When I was young, the person I loved above everybody else was my grandmother, Adah. I loved that she had been a missionary in India her entire adult life. I loved her white hair and sky-blue eyes. I loved her courage and I loved her faith. Then when I was sixteen years old, I saw a different woman. My grandfather had died and my courageous, faithful, resilient grandmother was completely shattered. I sat by her side and listened as she wept and rocked and mourned. She wasn’t mourning her beloved husband. My grandmother was mourning the loss of her faith. “God has abandoned me,” she said, and then she fell silent, lost in life-threatening depression that lasted for over a year.
Out of my own pain and love, I promptly renounced my childhood faith and the God who would abandon a saintly old woman in her hour of greatest need. Adah gradually came back to health and she came back to faith, as vibrant and passionate as it ever had been. But I didn’t.
I did try to keep faith with my grandmother, whose whole life had been in service of others. I moved to Washington, DC, in my early twenties and worked for Congress and for several magnificent human rights organizations. And every single issue I worked on—genocide, rape, torture, landmines, HIV/AIDS—was a reminder that the world is ugly, cruel, and violent (especially if you’re poor and a woman or girl) and that a loving, protective, powerful God was simply not in evidence.
Meanwhile, I married the love of my life, adopted two beloved baby girls, and had a picture-perfect life. Well, not exactly. It would have been a lot more perfect if I had not had mental illness myself. I struggled for decades with untreated anxiety disorder that I certainly had had as a child. Menopause in my late forties super-charged my insomnia, panic, shakiness, hyperactivity, and adrenaline surges. Worst of all was what I can only call “brain noise.” I later learned that the incessant music I heard in my brain was an auditory hallucination—a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, another anxiety symptom.
Then one day when the noise was at its worst, when I felt at my most powerless and the world’s savagery had entirely blocked the sun, I prayed. The noise stopped and I felt a gentle flow of goodness and peace. I knew that God had turned down the noise in my mind enough to make way for the voice that is real—the voice of God was compelling me to not simply accept that things are not as they should be, but to know there was a role for me in the Creator’s plan for a new heaven and a new earth.
In 2006, I joined the staff of a Christian organization named International Justice Mission, which was created to follow Jesus into places of injustice and darkness and hurt. IJM works in a dozen countries to bring rescue and restoration to children, women, and men who suffer from violence, slavery, rape, and injustice. My role at our headquarters office is to find ways for donor governments, UN agencies, and development experts to take up the issue of violence against the poor and powerless, especially women and girls.
I remember so clearly when my eloquent articulate grandmother experienced such grief and loss that she literally stopped talking for almost a year and suffered repeated breakdowns before her death at the age of ninety-five. But her voice—and faith and spirit—always came back. My own voice was once almost drowned out by brain noise, despair, cynicism, and disbelief. Someday I’ll tell her all about it.
To learn more about the IJM advocacy efforts Holly is leading and to take action, visit FreedomCommons.ijm.org.