A few weeks ago at worship, we shared about our dear friend Katelyn as she traveled to Australia to rescue her sister and her sister's children from the horrors of an abusive relationship. Thankfully and amazingly, they all made it back safely to the United States and we asked Katelyn to share her story on the blog. Here's Katelyn's powerful story - in her own words.
For the past several weeks, RISE has continued a series called “Hope is on the Loose.” Through stories and honest reflections we have been reminded that no matter what stands before us, no matter how defeated we feel in the face of fear and doubt, there is hope. I soon learned that in recent weeks these words would profoundly affect my life – and would become a story and a journey of my own.
Finding a Foothold on Faith
In the past, my experience with church had left me feeling out of place and discouraged because I did not fit the mold of the confident Christians before me. My faith shifted unsteadily beneath the weight of doubt, and the fear that I would never find the deeper connection I longed for. After years of trying to fill a spiritual void with everything else (unsuccessfully), I decided to attend a Sunday service - and thankfully, it was RISE. For the first time, I felt like I’d found a place that offered guidance to all levels of faith and said it was okay to have questions. I admired the way I saw God’s purpose in others' lives, and hoped that one day I could feel God's presence in my own heart.
Still, it was a struggle. I wondered, “Why does it feel like God can’t hear me? Does He really have plan for me? How can I find strength in faith? Really, where is the hope?” Well, sometimes our greatest lessons and gifts arise from the times when we are most vulnerable and discouraged.
12 Years and 10,000 Miles
Two weeks ago, my family was faced with a terrifying situation. My sister Cecile was living in Australia and is a victim of domestic violence. For years, she endured some of the most unfathomable circumstances and repeatedly tried to leave. Yet, with three young children who were Australian born and a confounding foreign legal system, she hadn’t been able to. Last week, she faced a situation that put her family’s lives at stake, and her only chance for protection from further harm was to return to the U.S. The challenges between passports, custody, and paperwork seemed insurmountable, and we only had a window of opportunity for a few days.
My parents had tried for years to help bring her home and for twelve years had been unsuccessful. Immigration, family law, custody issues… all in a complex foreign government; coupled with the power and control that is ever-present in abusive relationships. It would take a miracle to bring them home.
It’s so painful to see a loved one suffer and it's downright defeating to know that ten thousand miles of ocean stands between you. I felt helpless and I knew that Cecile needed prayer and faith beyond what I could give. So, I met with Amanda to find some spiritual guidance and ask for her prayers. She reminded me over and over to hold onto hope – because God was here for us and God would guide my family through this journey.
In desperation, I booked a flight to Australia and within hours I was at the airport. After all the years of waiting and all the disappointments, I couldn’t stand the thought of losing her again. I decided I was going to Australia and not returning without them… and that was the extent of the plan. Everything else was left to the power of prayer and the hope that things would fall into place in the next 72 hours.
When I got to Los Angeles, I was already exhausted. I had a 10-hour layover until the next 21 hours of travel commenced and it was the first time I’d had a moment to process all that was happening. With the exception of my parents and members of RISE, the entire “rescue mission” was being done in secret. I was traveling to the other side of the world to try and save my sister and I had no idea what to do when I got there. I was determined, but I was scared and felt overwhelmed. I needed hope now more than ever.
The Kindness of Others
One of the countless gifts I received was the unyielding support of friends. Amanda had brought together the RISE Leadership Team and members of the community to gather in prayer for our family. On the verge of tears, I turned on my phone and found it filled with texts and emails from RISE members and others I had never met. “You are loved… your family is in our prayers… God is with you… we are with you… hold on to hope”. I was speechless. It was humbling to see that so many had reached out to pray for our safe return and gave encouragement when I needed it most. Along with promising words, a dear friend sent scripture to give comfort and guidance for the days ahead. By the grace of God and others, I received strength and hope when I could not find it within myself.
After forty-eight hours of travel due to delays and missed flights, I finally made it to Australia and embraced my sister with tearful joy. I held my niece and nephews in my arms again, and couldn’t help but smile each time they said “Auntie Katelyn”. We had no guarantees of the days ahead, but we had each other. Even more, we had the gift of prayer, support, and faith that spanned oceans. Though we were a world away from everyone, we were still connected by hope.
On Saturday evening after we’d given up waiting for a call that was due days before, the phone rang. It was the head officer of the U.S. Consulate in Australia letting us know that he had just received word from the State Department. An hour later, he unlocked the doors of the U.S. Embassy just for us, and printed emergency passports and approval papers on the spot. Cecile’s children were now officially U.S. citizens with U.S. passports. They could leave the country and didn’t have to return. It also meant that the man who brought so much suffering and tragedy to my sister’s life couldn’t stop her from leaving anymore. Finally, they could be free.
When we called my mom, she immediately booked their return flights and was already decorating rooms for the kids to be welcomed home to. In our last few hours, Cecile parted with beloved pets and she packed up family photos while the children chose the few favorite toys they could bring. I was awed by the courage she showed in walking away from twelve years of life and belongings – taking only four suitcases, faith in God, and the hope for a better life.
The Journey Home
We made it to the airport by 3 am, and caught our flight from Melbourne to Sydney. Just when we thought the chaos was over, Cecile was stopped by federal police at the Customs checkpoint. I had gone through the line beside her without delay and waited for her to be waived through as well. Instead, my heart sank as I sat on the other side of a glass wall, and watched as she was met by officers and pulled aside. How could this be happening? We were so close… we’d done everything right… she had all the legal paperwork. The officers refused to let me join them, so I watched from a bench as Cecile sobbed and handed over pages of court orders.
After an hour of panic and confusion, the immigration officers confirmed a paperwork error on their part, and let her through. By this time, the gates had been closed on our flight and I had been taken off the standby list for my ticket. Still, we ran through the terminals like our lives depended on it, and in seeing our desperation, the calls were made to let us board.
I was going home - and I had my sister, niece, and nephews sitting all around me. I gazed out the window at the land and broken life that had kept my sister trapped for so long… and I thanked God as I watched it all fade away into the distance.
A New Beginning
We’ve been home for just over a week now, and I still have to convince myself that it’s all real. I spent almost half of my life praying for this day to arrive. To have the laughter and memories of sisterhood… to be an aunt, and watch her children grow up… to see the joy in Mom’s heart for finally having the chance to be “Grandma”.
At first, it seemed like God showed up at the last moment for a ‘grand finale’ of miracles, but I know now that God was with us all along. From the community of people that reached out to help, to my weariest moments of doubt, we were never alone. I believe hope opens our eyes to faith, and faith opens our hearts to God. From this journey, I’ve learned that He guides us every step of the way – even if in a sense beyond our own understanding.
Though long awaited, our prayers have been answered, and with greater blessings than I ever could’ve imagined. My sister will never have to suffer from the hands of abuse again. She’ll no longer have to live in a world of fear, poverty, and brokenness. Her children can grow up in a loving and peaceful home with the promise of a happy future – and for now, they can enjoy the carefree days and innocence of just being kids.
This journey has created a new foundation for my life in so many ways. I experienced the work of God through His grace and will. I have seen the beauty of the church living to its purpose, through the power of prayer, compassion, and seeing others who live and love as God would. Now, what once was a source of heartache has become the greatest gift of my life – and transformed into a story of hope.
Words cannot express my gratitude for the love and kindness everyone has shown. Together, your prayers have brought a miracle to our family and given my sister the opportunity for a new life. Thank you for opening your hearts to us and sharing in faith and hope.
Love to all,