Feature

Inside the Gate

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Editor’s note: Two years ago, we introduced you to A’Lee, a young Cambodian woman from a tragic family situation who was discipled by Alliance worker Heather Williams. (You can read the article at cmalliance.org/showthemjesus). The following is an update on what has since happened to A’Lee and her family and how their lives have inspired a recovery ministry.

Heather Williams (right) with A’lee

When A’lee was about to graduate from our Bible training center, her mother, Dani, who had struggled with alcoholism for most of her life, returned home to welcome her daughter. Dani had been living in a home for widows where strict house rules had helped curb her drinking.

But when Dani returned to the old neighborhood, it wasn’t long before she started drinking again. I decided to invite her to stay with us, since three of her children were living in our home. I laid the ground rules: if she was sober, she could enter our home; if she was drunk, she would have to live outside our gate.

Unfortunately, Dani continued to drink heavily. It made me sad, and it was even sadder to watch her kids try to coax her out of her addiction.

Waiting for Sobriety

One afternoon as I passed her on the corner, she motioned to me. I could smell the alcohol before I even got close. “When I am sober again, I’ll come,” she said. A few hours later, I saw her spread-eagled by the side of the road.

However, a few days later she walked down the driveway to our home, completely sober, and moved into the room where three of her children were staying—including her youngest, adorable Little John, who exhibited destructive acting-out behaviors. Once A’Lee obtained her diploma, she moved into our home as well.

As Dani recovered, she was a great help around the house. Life settled into a comfortable pace for a week or so. But the pressure was too much. Out the gate she went, apologizing to me as she left. Her kids were in tears as they tried desperately to drag her back inside.

Some hours later, she was banging on the gate and stumbling. I sat on my side of the gate while she lay outside, and I explained the rules again. She nodded, then closed her eyes, waiting for sobriety to return.

When Dani was able to come in, she apologized profusely, and I talked about how much God loves her and that He is always willing to take her back when she asks Him to. She and I hugged each other, and she came into the house.

I cannot remember how many times this cycle repeated itself. But each time, her days inside the gate became more and the days outside became less.

Heather walking with A’lee on the train tracks by Heather’s home

A Hard Road

One day, Dani gave me a long overdue haircut. As she brushed and trimmed, she shared with me her life story.

Both Dani’s parents drank. When her father was drunk, he would abuse both Dani and her mother. And since the little girl was not of much use to her father, Dani was sold into servitude to a woman in another country. Dani had a roof over her head, and she learned how to cook and clean. But eventually the woman married. The new husband abused Dani before she was fired and kicked out onto the streets.

Living in a foreign country with no food and nowhere to sleep, 11-year-old Dani did the only thing she could think of to provide for herself: please men. But the pain in her heart was so unbearable she began drinking heavily to numb herself.

Yet Dani was determined to make a change when she had her first child, A’Lee. She tried to protect her little one from the men in her life but continued to drink, often blacking out. So, Dani handed A’lee over to her grandmother. In addition to caring for A’lee, the grandmother also began caring for the four boys and a girl Dani would later have by multiple fathers.

No Different

Heather playing with Little John

By the time Dani finished telling me her story, I began realizing that, other than our life circumstances, she and I were no different. We were both sinful but also created by God with value and worth. But Dani had just been given a much harder road to walk—alone, with no love from any human and no knowledge of any force stronger than the evil spirits she tried to appease along the way. I, on the other hand, had known love and care since birth.

We became allies that day—sisters who had come to trust and love each other.

Dani didn’t want to give her children the same life she had known. She wanted to stop drinking, but she was unable to. She begged God for help. She tried so hard, but she was fighting a brutal enemy. And every time she failed, Dani’s guilt and shame were overwhelming. She expressed how she wanted to kill herself and bring her story to a close. But something kept bringing her back.
The Bible stories I shared amazed Dani, as they explained the evil forces she fought at every turn. She learned that her lowly station in life didn’t mean she was worthless. In fact, God had created her with value.

As we began reading the New Testament and Dani saw the Perfect Lamb, slaughtered for her, she was deeply grateful. She resonated with the shame that Jesus felt on the Cross—naked, spat upon, mocked. She wanted to die, but she now knew He had died in her place to bring an end to Satan’s tyranny.

Dani’s addiction remained, yet these days, when I saw her struggle, I felt it; I was in it with her. This woman, wracked with pain and unable to control her addiction, was my hard-working, smart, funny, loving friend.

We asked God to show us what to do. Dani began to do well, and I had hope she would learn how to get through hard times without alcohol. But Satan wasn’t about to give up that easily. Dani again succumbed to her addiction and once again lived outside our gate.

A’lee’s grandmother in her home

Relief, Then Grief

A’Lee, who had experienced deep shame because of her mother’s struggles, began acting out and deliberately turned from God. Eventually, I had to ask A’Lee to move out. This left me with no help for the kids, so I sent them to stay with their grandma who lived next door.

One day, when the youngest, Little John, was at my home, he stood before me saying, “Watch! This is what they taught me!” When he began swaying suggestively, I broke into a cold sweat. At the age of seven, Little John was already being groomed for sexual abuse, and I had no way to stop it. I prayed fervently that God would spare him.

One evening, Little John’s siblings were at our gate, yelling that he was missing. I prayed throughout that night, asking God to protect him. Yet a sense of dread remained. In the morning, we learned that Little John’s body had been found, drowned in a nearby swamp.

I admit that I first felt a sense of relief before I grieved. Little John loved the Lord, and I had no doubt he was now with Jesus—no more drunken mother, no more being groomed for abuse, no more fear or nights with no place to sleep.

But there was no solace for Dani. She returned from where she had been hiding, still struggling with her addiction. Her favorite child was now dead.

As Dani walked out after the memorial, she said, “Please take care of the children. I beg you.” Within a few hours, she had flung herself onto the railroad track in front of an approaching train. One of her daughters had tried to rescue her, but now Dani, too, was dead.

Renewed Hope

There is still pain, and there were many months where I couldn’t see what God was doing. But God used Dani to point my husband and me clearly to what He wanted us to do next. She taught me so many things about addiction. And getting to know her and A’lee led to the start of the C&MA Addiction Recovery Center, which has cared for seven people with drug addictions since its start in April 2019.

I will forever be deeply saddened that the recovery center was not created in time to help Dani, but it has been there for A’lee.

After Little John’s death, A’lee returned to our home, pregnant. She had decided to marry the baby’s father in the traditional animist way. However, her husband, an addict, had become violent. A’lee soon realized that turning from God had been a mistake.

Heather reading Bible stories with children in her neighborhood
But she was finally home, inside the gate, working through her addictions. She and I prayed desperately for God to work in her husband’s heart so he would seek God and join her. Although addicted to drugs and alcohol, her husband came home for the birth of their first child. And over the next year, both he and A’lee grew in their understanding of God and His position as Lord over their lives.

Because of what God did in Dani and her daughter’s lives, many people in her community have learned to follow Jesus and have experienced healing in their families. God still acts for our good and for the good of those we love. If we follow Him and ask Him what to do next, in the end, we will see His greater purposes.

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