Forgiveness: When anger from pain and bitterness feels too strong to consider it

Prior to resettling in New Hampshire, my day-to-day survival had taken precedence over reflecting on how past experiences impacted me. As a result, I suppressed a lot of pain and anger. But here, in New Hampshire, I was becoming more grounded and more in touch with my emotions.

From 1997 to 2002, I transitioned to a different state of mind. I started acknowledging that I was in a safer environment and that the Congolese government could no longer harm my family. I now had a great church community alongside me. My faith had always played an important part in my life. So it was natural for me to be plugged into a local church. Among other activities, I participated in a summer program called Joshua Generation (JG), which was part of Youth With A Mission Pittsburg (YWAM). The program was a community outreach for middle schoolers and high schoolers from all over the country. It was based in Pittsburgh, PA.

The timing was perfect. I was at my peak. My emotions were taking over. But I was still frustrated. Two years in New Hampshire and I still could not take full advantage of the freedom moving to the US afforded me. I was depressed, angry, paranoid, even suicidal. Fortunately, I had a great mentor from church—Joanne Trombley. I called her crying. I told here about all the emotions I was feeling. She was very consoling. She encouraged me.

When the Joshua Generation program came along, Joanne thought it would be good for me. So she urged my mother to let me go. There was only one problem—but it was kind of a big one. I was not old enough to participate. But again, good luck smiled at me. Because I was big for my age, I looked a lot older. And since Joanne had such a good relationship with the program directors, they said I could go. My mother eventually did too. I was excited to be away for a few weeks in the summer.

Deo at JG 2002

Deo at JG 2002

First year at JG

I was excited to leave New Hampshire and participate in JG. I was one of the youngest participants. There were teens from all over the country. The program had drama, dance and worship teams. I did all three. I learned my first choreography there. I thought it was very cool to learn dance and perform in dramas. I had played the conga and bongo drums at my church. So it was natural for me to play for JG. I enjoyed playing the drums and being part of the workshop team. My experience at JG was a welcome distraction from all the things that were going on with me emotionally. There were intimate reflection/prayer times during the first week, which triggered some of my internal emotions, but I was able to suppress the deeper ones.

We got to travel. My team went the East Coast of New England—from Pittsburgh all the way up to Laconia, NH. We stopped along the way in some very impoverished neighborhoods to do community evangelism through performing arts and community services. This was my introduction to inner city America outside of New Hampshire. Prior to this, my American experience had been limited to New Hampshire. I was grateful to live in New Hampshire but it did not have much diversity. In 2002, New Hampshire was probably 97% white. What little diversity there was in the state was concentrated in the towns where I lived—Manchester, Concord, and Nashua. Of the non-whites, fewer were blacks and African immigrants. Through JG, I was able to see other communities in America with rich cultural ethnicity.

My JG leaders thought it would be good for me to share my story of how my family made it out of the Congo and how my family’s faith protected us and kept us together. I was up for it. I was a fearless, albeit amateur, presenter. And my story proved impactful. As for my fearlessness, that came from my life experiences. I was not scared to be in any neighborhood in America. I thought America was paradise. It even had water fountains in local parks. So even when people told us that the neighborhoods we visited were the worst and most dangerous in their communities, I had no fear because the situation I came from in the Congo was worse. It was very hard for me to understand why people in those communities felt hopeless and why they were not grateful for what they had. When I was given an opportunity to present my story, I included a comparison between my Congo environment and the communities I was visiting. That seemed to resonate with people. Some people came up to me afterwards and thanked me for sharing my perspective about my struggles, fears, dangers, and survival.

Disconnect between relationship building and mission

It was cool to see people impacted by my comparison. But I was naïve. All I saw were the opportunities and privileges these poor communities had in comparison to my experiences as a refugee of war. I lacked the ability to see how the institutionalized disadvantages of these communities prevented them from moving forward—educationally and economically. I could blame that on JG organizers because they focused so much on the mission. They forgot to build relationships with the communities we were serving and ministering to. So how could we fully understand the needs and disparities these areas faced?

I was the only black guy in most the teams I was a member of. Cultural competencies were clearly lacking with JG organizers during earlier trips. This lack of knowledge influenced how I viewed the impoverished communities I visited and served, especially the black communities. Still, I do not blame JG organizers for skewing my point of view regarding impoverished black communities. Often the kids in neighborhoods I visited said I talked funny. Some said I talked white. But it never bothered me. It was paradoxical to black folks in these communities that many blacks outside their area spoke differently from them. Mostly I heard these comments from teenagers and younger kids.

JG kept me busy. It gave added meaning to my faith and I found a new gift in presenting and speaking to diverse audiences. I became good friends with some of the JG leaders. When I returned home after my first JG trip, I felt confident. All the cool stuff I did at JG suppressed my anger and pain. I was very sad the day my trip ended. I did not want to go home. But JG was only in the summer. So I had no choice. The moment I returned I felt the burden of my pain. The relationship with my mother was rotten. She was in a different relationship and had just given birth to my younger brother in May. She felt as if I were against her relationship because I did not want her to be with someone other than my father. But that was not the case.

Relationship shift with my mother

Deo and his mother Bernadette

Deo and his mother Bernadette

I had always been close to my mother. We went through a lot together. She kept our family together. Because of everything we experienced, and the trust and openness we had, I felt disconnected when she kept her new relationship separate from me. True, she had no responsibility to tell me anything. She was my mother and I was her son. But because I was the man of the house, I sometimes felt as if I were her equal. So I was very hurt about the way I found out she was pregnant. I think she might not have known how to tell me. We spent a lot of time going to Boston to visit her boyfriend. One night we went to a party with her boyfriend’s friends and someone asked to me if I was excited to have a younger brother. That was how I found out she was pregnant. I was devastated. Ever since then, I have not been able to trust what my mother told me and my siblings about her relationship with my baby brother’s dad. I did not know how I was going to move forward.

When I lived in the Congo, I experienced many painful hardships that filled me with anger. When I came to the US, I thought I would leave hardship and anger behind. I was wrong. My mother’s new relationship and the birth of my brother whose father was not my father tested me. The pain ate me up inside. I would stay up all night, thinking about my father and the little time I shared with him. I was angry!!!!!! And my anger ran deep. The pain felt like thorns piercing my heart, making it bleed. The bleeding itself did not hurt, but the thorns did. Their poking struck nerves. I felt very agitated. At times the thorns felt more like red-hot needles. They came so frequently I could not heal. I felt hopeless. And that was the worst. I could not shed the pain of my emotions. I was overcome. I was drowning. I couldn’t breathe. I struggled. I gasped for air. But then I submerged again. This repeated over and over. I thought about suicide, giving up and how it would be so much better if I were no longer here. I thought my mother would realize the mistake she made by lying to me and moving forward with a guy I thought was not honest and was going to destroy what we were building. Somehow I found some strength to keep going. My church community was always there for me and now the JG organizers had become my friends, too.

Distraction from pain

Summer of 2002 finally ended. For seventh grade, I transferred to Saint Joseph Middle School in Manchester, NH. Sister Irene, a local nun who helped my family a lot, was able to get me in. I made new friends at Saint Joseph and it was one of the best opportunities I had at the time to be welcomed into a very supportive community. I was involved with soccer, dance, and the band. I was able to utilize some of the skills I developed through my JG experience. Nevertheless, I couldn’t wait for the school year to end so I could return to JG the following summer.

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School

2002 was a challenging year. My relationship with my mother was on again, off again. She worked very hard to provide for us. She bought a bigger van after my younger brother was born to transport us around. She financed the Van, a 2002 Ford Windstar. My mother always paid everything on time. Her boyfriend decided to take on paying for the car insurance and I was happy he was stepping up and helping. Not everything about him was bad. There was some stuff about him that I admired. He was very smart and well educated. I loved talking politics and diplomacy with him. He was a huge soccer fan, a sport I enjoyed very much growing up. I respected him to a certain extent. After all, I still needed a father figure in my life. He had some attributes similar to my father, especially regarding education. I wanted things to work out between him and my mother, even though he had certain qualities I was not crazy about. I wanted my mother to be happy and have someone besides me to take care of her.

But just when things were getting better they got worse. My mother’s boyfriend was supposed to pay for the car insurance monthly. We found out the hard way that he was not paying it. My mother got into a car accident in a winter storm. Her car needed to be towed and we called the insurance company. They informed us she was not covered because she did not pay her insurance for the last three months. I was devastated and angry. My mother’s boyfriend was supposed to pay for the insurance monthly because he took on that responsibility. Now my mother’s van had $2500 worth of damage, which she needed to pay for out for her pocket. My mother’s boyfriend had excuses of why the payments did not go through. But his excuses did not help the situation. My mother needed to save money to pay for the repair. And the car could not be driven in the meantime. For a month and a half we were without a vehicle. I felt like we went back to zero. We worked hard to have a vehicle and we were progressing. My mother’s boyfriend’s negligence set us back. My mother had to pay for a taxi to pick up my brothers and drop them at daycare. We lost our vehicle from mid-February to the end of April. We went back to pushing shopping carts home after grocery shopping. I was furious! And not simply at my mother’s boyfriend. My anger towards my father’s side of the family intensified, too. I thought about the time after my father’s assassination when his family gave my mother an ultimatum. They suggested she leave the kids with them and restart her life alone, to go find someone else to take care of her. When my mother said no, my father’s family washed their hands of her and gave us to my mother as a gift.

I kept wondering, how could they do that and give my mother such alternative? Why couldn’t they just accept all of us? Why did we kids have to be separated from my mother or separated from our uncles and aunts? To be fair, they thought they were doing the best thing for us. When my father was assassinated, it was done secretly and other government officials were assassinated and suddenly disappearing at the same time. And their families disappeared too. Our friends and families were afraid to associate with us. They didn’t know what was going to happen to us and what it would mean for them if they were caught trying to help us. My father’s family thought it would decrease the risk of the government coming back for us if we were separated. They also knew that asking questions about what happened to my father was risky. My brothers and I were young. I was only six and a half when my father was assassinated and the rest of my brothers were a lot younger. We would keep our mouths shut. But my mom went around asking people what happened to my father. The government was hush-hush. They would not say much about what happened. My mother was looking for answers. My father’s family thought her behavior was putting my brothers and me in danger.

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But despite these realizations, it still hurt that they wanted to break up our family. I felt bitterness and anger towards them. And as my mother struggled to make money to have our car fixed, I resented my father’s family for abandoning us. I was hurting badly. Even the Bissonette family, who spent the first two years helping us, had distanced themselves from us when my mother’s boyfriend came into the picture. I felt lonely. No family members would come to our rescue. It was just us.

Cutting my knee ruined everything

I continued to press through. I was looking forward to attending JG in the summer of 2003.  I started fundraising by working different jobs for people at my church. One was an electrician who ran his own company. I worked for him often. I enjoyed the work, but one there was a mishap. While opening a box of lights with a brand new knife, I accidentally missed the box and cut the left side of my knee. It was a nice cut, which required a couple butterfly bandages to close. When I went home, I did not tell my mother what happened. But after a few days, she noticed I was limping. She asked me what was wrong with my knee.

Eventually I caved and confessed. My mother was very upset. She brought me to the hospital and they stitched me. She told me that because of this I was not going to JG. I was devastated. She took away the only thing I was looking forward to and had been working so hard to afford. But her decision was final. I did not go to JG that summer. Instead I played a lot of soccer and prepared for my eighth-grade season. Playing sports was good therapy for me.

I went back to school in the fall and worked very hard my eighth year. I had a great community around me at Saint Joseph. I made an agreement with my mother that to celebrate my eighth-grade graduation I was going to go to JG the summer of 2004. I also planned to find a way to move in with some of the JG leaders at their base after JG ended. Some of the staff lived at the base full time. They facilitated other programs throughout the year. Towards the end of eighth grade, I told most of my close friends I was going to move to Pennsylvania to live with the JG leaders. I was convinced I was going to find a way to live with them.

Internal confrontation

I raised enough money to return to JG in the summer of 2004. I went to Pittsburgh for a one-week training camp to learn the dances and dramas before doing outreach. That year, my team was going to East Chicago to work with a local community center called Agape. I was excited to be going to Chicago. This time around I was little more mature and I knew what to anticipate at JG. I was also a better dancer. I was able to suppress most of my negative feelings because I was away from home and enjoying myself.

Deo and his friend Ben at JG 

Deo and his friend Ben at JG 

One night, we had an evening service where a speaker talked about forgiveness. I was ignoring most of the stuff the speaker was saying because I felt like I was all set and I did not need to forgive anyone. I tried to remember whom I had anger and hatred towards, but I could not identify anyone. But the more the speaker spoke, the more uncomfortable I started to feel. It was like standing in front of the audience and suddenly thinking my zipper might be open. I attempted to ignore the feelings. Then suddenly I felt like someone grabbed me by the back and lifted me out of my seat. I attempted to fight back, but I wasn’t strong enough. I found myself standing. I kept saying to myself, “I am fine, I do not need to forgive anyone.” I felt sadness in my heart and anger arose from my inner soul. I said to myself, “This is not happening to me right now. I’m imagining it.”

Before I could send my emotions back from where they came from, I felt like someone opened the wound in my heart by pulling the stitches apart. I started bleeding and I did not know how to stop the blood from flowing. When I realized I could not stitch the wound back together, I started to scream. “God, I need you to come into my heart and take away the pain, anger, and bitterness!” I felt heavy. Like my prayers were bouncing back to me, buffeted back by mesh walls that prevented my sound from escaping. I felt overwhelmed and hopeless. Images of different events that occurred in my life started playing back in my head like a movie.

I saw scenes of people being burned alive. I was brought to my father’s secret funeral. I was taken back to the night when my mother was arguing with my father’s family. I saw the hopelessness on my mother’s face. I saw my brother Destin, sick as a dog, at the hospital and a doctor telling my mother that she needed to sacrifice buying us food to buy my brother meat, which he needed to get healthy. I saw another scene of my family in the refugee camp when we ran out of food and my mother was using corn powder to make oatmeal for us. We ate oatmeal for a few days until the UN gave us our monthly food. I saw my mother come home crying, saying she was being treated horribly at work because she did not speak English. It was her first job in America and she had only started two weeks prior. I was taken to a scene of my mother handing me the phone, a few months after we resettled in New Hampshire, to talk to my father’s brothers. I did not say a word because I hated them. I was taken to a scene when my brother and I found out my mother was pregnant. Then I saw myself translating for my mother, telling her that the insurance company had cancelled the coverage on our car because her boyfriend never paid the monthly bills.

The “Aha” Moment!

I realized at that moment that I had been carrying all of this pain and anger. I heard a voice saying to me that I needed to let go. I argued with myself and said, “But I’m not supposed to let go. My experiences justify my feelings.” The voice was insistent. “Let go!” it shouted. I started screaming from the top of my lungs—in French, Lingala, Swahili and English, “Okay, okay. I forgive! I forgive! I forgive!” The more I screamed, the more the walls that held back my voice crumbled. The power of my voice pushed through. The sound punctured my skin and burst through. Liquid, pus, and blood flowed out the puncture. I continued to scream. I started to feel lighter and empty inside. And my scream of pain and anger turned to hope.

It was then that I realized my scream had been a declaration of freedom and that I was being spiritually transformed from the inside out. I was sweating and had lost my voice from screaming. But I wasn’t done. I had declared my freedom from the bondage of pain, depression, and bitterness. I asked God to take it away—not just the spiritual reality of it, but the physical reality as well. I needed to move forward. Trusting in my faith and confronting my emotional captivity allowed me to accept letting go of my pain and anger. I had been holding on to the past and the past was eating me from the inside out. By taking the action to forgive, I was able to trust in being free and vulnerable—enough to let go. Spiritually, my faith in God has never forsaken me. It provided me with a different perspective to tackle my physical reality. My spiritual walk has always brought me to a place of humility. For the longest time, I never allowed that humanity in my heart. When I surrendered and trusted in the process of letting go and healing, I was able to shift the chemical imbalance that had made me afraid and, at the same time, had tricked me into feeling that holding onto my anger and bitterness gave me control when, in fact, the opposite was true.

When I opened my eyes, only a few people were left in the room where the presentation took place. I walked up to one of the staff and I asked if I could use their phone. I ran outside to call my mother in New Hampshire. As I talked, I started crying. I told her I was sorry and I just wanted her to be happy. I thanked her for everything she had done for me. I thanked her over and over and over and over I said I was sorry. My mother said, “It’s okay, Deo. It’s okay. I know, I know, I know.” I told her I was a new person and I felt light and I forgave everyone. My mother told me she was happy and I did not need to carry the burden anymore. “Be free, my son.” And I felt free. I was a new person. I had peace in my heart. I had no longer felt hatred or bitterness toward my mother, my mother’s boyfriend, my father’s family, or even the Congolese government who assassinated my father. But, most importantly, I needed to forgive myself, and to no longer allow all the images and memories I carried from Congo’s civil war and living in the refugee camp to control my life. I spent a lot of time sharing my story of restoration and freedom from anger and bitterness to people I connected with through JG in Chicago. After JG was over, I decided to return home. And I did so as a new person. Forgiving changed my trajectory for the better. If I never took ownership to forgive, I would not have been able to move forward with my life.

Deo and his brothers in the spring of 2004

Deo and his brothers in the spring of 2004

What does it mean for you

Forgiveness is one of the most powerful human tools. Our emotions play an important part in who we are. The anger or pain we carry keeps us from moving forward. If we are not careful, it becomes part of us. It influences our behaviors in how we love ourselves and others. Forgiving is an act that happens within us. It is the freeing of ourselves from pain, anger and bondage. The anger, bitterness and pain caused by not forgiving is very deceiving. It tricks us into protecting those feelings because it is the only way we feel like we have control of our reactions to the painful experiences we go through every day.

You have the power and free will to confront your emotions. It is important to acknowledge the impact that withholding forgiveness has on you. It is also critical to acknowledge the emotions behind this refusal to forgive. Most people are in denial about such emotions and suppress them like I did. The chemicals you release internally, due to these negative emotions, often result in toxic behavior externally and no one likes that version of you. My freedom came from my faith in God and trust in the process of surrendering. I acknowledged that I had anger and bitterness. I realized I needed to let go. I trusted in myself that things were going to be okay when I did let go. I trusted in God that He was going to transform me. I trusted that better and positive emotions would replace the toxic ones once I decided to let go.

If you are not a person of faith, you will need to find something else you can hold onto to help you find the courage and strength to substitute positive feelings for toxic ones. Get involved with something that uplifts your spirit as you enter the forgiveness phase. Find people you trust who can walk alongside your process of reconciliation.

Remember, forgiveness is all on you. Nothing others do will change how you feel. You need to name your negative emotions. Take ownership of them. Confront them internally. Control them. Replace them with positive emotions. Forgive.