"Growing Brave to Become More"—Rebecca Bender and Author Patti Callahan Henry (Podcast)
Updated: Jan 26, 2022
Growing Brave to Become More: Rebecca Bender and Patti Callahan Henry – Episode #187 Listen to Podcast
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Description: Fear of the unknown and fear of change are some of the greatest struggles we will ever face. Today’s guests, Rebecca Bender and Patti Callahan Henry, share how they found the courage to make a change, which led them to freedom and joy like they had never experienced. Human trafficking survivor and activist Rebecca Bender opens up about the life she was manipulated into and how, by listening to God’s voice and the strong spirit that He gave her, she found a way out.
Novelist Patti Callahan Henry shares how she left her job as a nurse to become a writer, and the story she wrote about C.S. Lewis’ wife, Joy, who also took a leap of faith that led her to a love that she never could’ve imagined for herself.
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Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast.
This week we talk with two women who have known and seen what happens when we find the courage to make a bold shift in our lives: novelist Patti Callahan Henry and activist and author Rebecca Bender.
Rebecca Bender is the CEO & Founder of the Rebecca Bender Initiative and is a survivor, leader and author of In Pursuit of Love. Rebecca thought she was going to have the life she had always dreamed of when she moved to Las Vegas with her boyfriend, but the dream became a nightmare when her boyfriend became her pimp at the age of nineteen. Rebecca shares how she was forced into sex trafficking for nearly six years, and how during that time, she felt God pursuing her, and slowly building the courage in her that would eventually allow her to escape her captor.
IN PURSUIT OF LOVE
BECOMING A WOMAN OF PASSION, PURPOSE, AND
TRIUMPH REGARDLESS OF THE PAST
Rebecca: I’m Rebecca Bender. I’m a survivor of human trafficking, but I’m more than just my story. I’m a wife and a mother and the CEO and founder of a nonprofit and I’m an author of several books. But my newest [book] I’m really excited about, which is In Pursuit of Love.
Feeling Unseen and Unwanted
I grew up in a small rural town in Oregon of about 3,000 people. Back then, it was a little tiny lumber town called Cave Junction, Oregon.I had a great childhood. I was an only child. I grew up skipping rocks and swimming in swim holes, riding horses and bikes. I just had a great childhood with a lot of animals on small farms, cows and chickens.
One side of my family was a very strong Christian family, church pastors and Bible study teachers and ministers. I would go to church with them on Sundays or vacation Bible school.
But my life at home with my parents, and my mom and my stepdad, was just so very different than any form of going to church or faith at all. [There were] different forms of violence in the home, whether my dad was yelling and throwing things, or my mom had a new boyfriend that was really a jerk and didn’t treat her very well. It really desensitized me probably more than I even realized until more recently in my adult life. It left me, as a only child, feeling very unseen, unimportant, and unwanted, which kind of stuck with me. As I grew into my teenage years, I wanted to get out of my little town. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to explore what was out there.
[I was] happy to join the new group at school that invited me to that first party. [I was] happy to do it, because I just wanted to love and be loved. I wanted to be a part of something. I wanted to have fun. I was a varsity athlete. I was an honor roll student. I was busy. I was on prom court, harvest ball queen. But again, I was kind of a party girl, so I was great all through school and on the bus to and from away games. And then that Saturday came around, I found out where the nearest party was and went and hung out with friends and was always on the go.
That was what had become my norm. So when I would occasionally attend church with my grandma, I felt very judged. I felt like [they were thinking], Oh, this is the family that the prayer requests have been about. And I know those were never anyone’s intention, but it didn’t always feel welcoming. I felt like an outsider, which pushed me, I think, even further away from wanting to be a part of a community of faith.
”I felt like an outsider, which pushed me, I think, even further away from wanting to be a part of a community of faith.” — Rebecca Bender
Pregnant and Alone
I got pregnant at seventeen, had a daughter at eighteen, and moved into a college town that’s about two hours north of my family. And right away, I could tell that this was probably not going to be the adventure that I had hoped [it would be]. I didn’t have the support of my grandparents and my own parents and my aunts and cousins. I didn’t have any support. And suddenly, I was the girl on campus with the kid. Those vulnerabilities I had as a young girl, feeling really alone and unimportant, started to resurface. And it was at that time when I was questioning if I’d made the right decision to move there that I really started to get in with the wrong crowd.
That is when I met a young man who had a lot of ambition and seemed to have a lot of answers to my problems. You know, I’m a single mom living in poverty, trying to put myself through school. And he had all these answers, and he was funny and he was charming. My dream started to shift and morph into his. Everything became about we and us and our plans and our future instead of me having dreams that he wanted to support, like maybe a healthy relationship would do. Everything became his plans, but somehow, he was able to convince me that they would become our plans. You know, any attempt to fast track a relationship is a huge red flag.
Obviously in hindsight, as a healthy adult, there were a huge amount of red flags that I just didn’t know to look for. You know, things like frequently making trips out of town, not having a job that anyone can actually visit, but [having] enough things that clearly [show] they have a “good job.” Right? Really nice cars, really nice homes, being able to travel so much. How are you doing that if you don’t have a job that anyone can visit? Multiple phones. Engaging in culture that really degrades women, whether that’s music choice or concert attendance.Any time you are in a new relationship, your circles should be doubling, right? You’re getting introduced to his friends and him to yours and and vice versa. Instead, my circle [was] shrinking, [it became] seclusion and isolation. Whether [that was] moving you away or encouraging you to move to a different town. All of those became red flags that no one really noticed.
I thought I’d met the one. I thought I was going to get married, have a white picket fence. You know, we talked about having kids someday, and I just was completely in love. I was a nineteen-year-old girl, head over heels in love with this man who seemed to have all the answers to every problem that I had.
When we started packing up my apartment to move in, he told me that his job was relocating him to Las Vegas, and I had some other red flags. We had gone on vacation there once, and I think I was so in love that I wasn’t seeing clearly. And I’m sure I’m not the only woman in this world who’s been so head over heels at nineteen that you just kind of look aside at the things that may have caused red flags because you so hope and want this relationship to work.You know, you can’t imagine going back to hopelessness, so you choose to look the other way because you really want the dream that’s being dangled in front of you. I noticed some other red flags when we had been on vacation in Vegas, but again, I chose to believe him. I chose to believe the lies, because I really wanted this relationship to work.
”You can’t imagine going back to hopelessness, so you choose to look the other way because you really want the dream that’s being dangled in front of you.” – Rebecca Bender
Tricked into the Trade
I was in complete mental chains. Traffickers are very good at brainwashing. There’s actually a study out from Northern Colorado University that shows that domestic human trafficking, trafficking here in the United States, it fits all fifteen indicators of cult behavior, which was really eye opening for me when I learned that, because you could see how this high control leader really created this us versus them mentality, this controlling where you eat and when you sleep and who you’re in relationship with, who can be your friends, a complete isolation to outside information. And then the bonds that you form with him, whether it’s Stockholm syndrome, capture or bonding trauma. These are actual DSM-5 indicators from psychologists. These aren’t terms that just trafficking victims make up, like this actually happens to people when they’re in very controlled, isolated, traumatic relationships. And before I knew it, I felt just completely brainwashed and desensitized to this very hyper commercial sex industry.I still had moments of, Yeah, this still isn’t what I was sold, though.
This isn’t what I actually want to do. This isn’t what I want for my daughter. And I would kick back and I would push back and I would say, “Now, this isn’t what I was promised. This isn’t what you told me.”And the problem is, the more I would push back, the more hurt I would get physically. I can remember him actually saying to me once, he actually said it to the whole room, all the other women, he pulled me out in the middle and he said, “This one has a spirit that won’t be broken,” as if it was a bad thing.
And for a long time, I thought it was, and now I’m so grateful that God gave me a spirit that pushed back and said, no, something’s not right here. Part of my brain was starting to fall for it, but part of me was trying to hold on and grasp for a little bit of hope that this just this isn’t actually normal.
During my nearly six years that I was in domestic human trafficking, I was traded and sold between three different traffickers. There were moments in my life where I started to feel like I was going crazy. I started feeling like my mind was slipping away, and I would do things to try to keep myself present. But really, God began pursuing me.I was so, so filled with knowing that I could hear the voice of the Lord, the voice of the Creator of the universe who chose to talk to me, and that really kept me through some of my darkest times. I started to get very hopeless and suicidal, depressed. That’s when I started to feel my mind slipping. And I would just start praying, like I’d call out, “I pray for the spirit of peace in the name of Jesus.” I would pray this over myself while being trafficked.
“I was so, so filled with knowing that I could hear the voice of the Lord, the voice of the Creator of the universe who chose to talk to me, and that really kept me through some of my darkest times.”— Rebecca Bender
I think someone gave me a Jesus Calling devotional during my time of just trying to find myself. It was so great to have something that was very quick, but very deep. You know, Jesus Calling goes deep in a way that really speaks to your heart, and I loved the thought of Jesus talking to me the way that I had heard Him for so much of my life through so much of my trauma.
A Tough New Reality
Finally, in 2006, the feds raided one of the homes of my traffickers. And thankfully, in December of 2007, two of the other victims had been sentenced to a year in prison for felony tax evasion, and that gave me an opportunity knowing that my trafficker also was about to take a plea deal on a tax evasion charge. I knew that he wouldn’t be able to chase me as he had done in the past, when I had ran in the past.I packed up everything I could in our suitcases, and I grabbed my daughter and I fled. And I think that was really hard. Escaping was scary. It’s hard. But what’s even worse, what’s equally as hard is . . . now what?
Here I am, back in my tiny, small lumber town. You’re technically choosing homelessness. You’re sleeping on people’s couches, you’re getting on food stamps, I don’t know, I didn’t have a fork or a pillow. I had nothing. Living in a very small town with a criminal record, a huge gap in job history, a ridiculous amount of stigmas with the term prostitution. If someone were to run a background check [when I tried] to volunteer at my kid’s school or to get a job, it was this constant fear that everyone was going to find out what kind of girl I used to be.
This is my favorite part about God: how He breaks off chains, He breaks up shame. He can completely redo our lives. We can become new creations, but it takes a lot of work.
And I had this come to Jesus moment one night with the Lord, where I just cried out to God and I said, “I don’t want this either. I feel hopeless. I feel just as hopeless. I don’t want this life either. Is this all you saved me for? To live in government-subsidized housing and beyond poverty and riding the public bus? This is really hard, too, and I don’t want this either.”
“This is my favorite part about God: how He breaks off chains, He breaks our shame. He can completely redo our lives.” – Rebecca Bender
And I remember God saying very clearly, “If you give me the same amount of time that you gave the enemy, I will never be outdone.”And it’s like I had this revelation shift in my heart of, I can’t expect God to undo in thirty days what took six years to really take hold.
And so I said, “Okay, I’ll give you six years, but if it’s not better, I’m out.” I just had this moment of being real with God. You have to be real with God. He knows what you’re thinking, and He knows even more than you do what’s happening in your brain and in your mind and your heart. So just crying out to Him helps really shift and give you some revelation and helps you take your eyes off of your circumstance to see what He has in store.
“You have to be real with God. He knows what you’re thinking, and He knows even more than you do what’s happening in your brain and in your mind and your heart. So just crying out to Him helps really shift and give you some revelation and helps you take your eyes off of your circumstance to see what He has in store.” — Rebecca Bender
It was in that moment of declaring, “Okay, I’m in, I’m all in,” that I started accepting, I think, more of the support for my community, from my family, from my church. And God just did a radical shift in my own heart. I started loving the small town I lived in, and I started feeling and seeing a part of the community that I really had only seen through the lens of my vulnerable young self, where now I got to see this incredible community of people who wanted to come around me and support me and break the shame.
Finally Letting Go of Shame
I am now happily married. We celebrated ten years earlier this year and we have four beautiful daughters. My oldest daughter, who was with me during all of this, is now almost twenty years old and she is off at college—she’s a junior in college—and God is just doing great things in her life. We’re so blessed. We live on a tiny farm with chickens and eggs and a little garden. And I just love being able to travel and share the word of the Lord.I started the Rebecca Bender Initiative back in 2014, I started sharing my story back in 2008, and over time I started, the Lord kept kind of eating at my heart that I needed to do something.
So I took my story and created a law enforcement training and medical professional training to try to help community professionals. And year to date, we have trained over 100,000 FBI agents, undercover cops, and local law enforcement across the country. Prosecutors, judges.
Those relationships have grown organically, and we’ve been able to meet nonprofits, been able to help traffic victims in several cases. I’ve taken the stand as a human trafficking expert, testified in trials across the country, helped to prosecute traffickers. And what I love about the work that God allows me to do today is not only do we get to bring justice for the victim and we ensure that her and anyone who this person who had potentially had interaction with can be safe now, but I love that it’s also creating constant change in the community.
“What I love about the work that God allows me to do today is not only do we get to bring justice for the victim . . . but I love that it’s also creating constant change in the community.” – Rebecca Bender
You know, I was a girl who was pursuing love in all the wrong places, and eventually, that led to a trafficker actually pursuing me because of my vulnerabilities. But the whole time God, pursued us, and at the end, it’s really about, Will you let it all go to pursue Him?
“Those who’ve been forgiven much loveth much.” And I just kept owning that. If God took Rahab and put her in the lineage of Jesus and said to His disciples, “This one loves more than you,” how much more for girls like me? You know, Jesus loves girls like me—we’re all over the Bible. Put the shame on who should own the shame, which is the perpetrators. Don’t take that ownership of that on yourself, hand it right back to who deserves it. And it’s not you.
”You know, Jesus loves girls like me—we’re all over the Bible. Put the shame on who should own the shame, which is the perpetrators.”— Rebecca Bender
Narrator: You can find Rebecca’s book, In Pursuit of Love, wherever books are sold. Other resources are available on Rebecca’s website, RebeccaBender.org.If you or someone you care about is involved with trafficking, there is help. Call the National U.S. Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888 to get help today.We’ll be right back with our next guest, Patti Callahan, after this message about a free new resource from Jesus Calling: The Jesus Calling Magazine.
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Narrator: For decades, the world has been captivated by the writings of 20th century British writer and theologian C.S. Lewis, including novelist Patti Callahan Henry. As Patti grew curious about one of her favorite writers, she found herself wanting to learn more about his mysterious wife, Joy Davidman. After years of research, Patti wanted to tell Joy’s story and wrote a fictionalized account of her life called Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis. Patti walks us through her journey through writing and introduces us to the remarkable life of Joy Davidman and her remarkable story with C.S. Lewis.
Patti Callahan Henry
I am Patti Callahan Henry, I also write under Patti Callahan. I’m a novelist. I’m a nurse turned novelist, a real believer in the power of story. I live in Birmingham, Alabama most of the time, but spend another majority of the time in Bluffton, South Carolina.
Early Years and Dreams
Up until I was twelve years old, I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My dad was a Presbyterian pastor. You know, being in the middle of a church like that and watching, I saw the constant human drama: the ups, the downs, the marriages, the deaths, the dissolutions, the infighting, the behind the scenes. I don’t know, but I do guess, that it helped shape me as a writer, because I was constantly exposed to the human dilemma, to what faith and being a human being meant in our daily lives—and not just in my family, but my parents were constantly dealing with the crises of other families, too. And I was observing it. I was a watcher.
When I was a kid, faith was the facts. You know, [faith was] the ten points or the things that you listed that you must believe in. I was always questioning, and I was very strong willed—or so I was told. So I think that my faith isn’t as settled and a for-sure set of beliefs like it was when I was young. Now, my faith is more of a mystery.
I think if I had stayed there with this “settled and for sure” [faith], it would have prevented growth.I think we have to have faith in this God that’s in dwelling and accessible. But the grown up part of that faith for me is that that’s okay. That is okay for me. I don’t have to feel guilty or bad or wrong because [my faith] evolves—it evolves and changes. And I love this word transforms. [My faith] transforms, and it transforms me. As long as it’s always about the indwelling God, I feel fairly safe in my faith.
“[My faith] transforms, and it transforms me. As long as it’s always about the indwelling God, I feel fairly safe in my faith.”— Patti Callahan Henry
I did really want to be a nurse. I went to Auburn University and was a pediatric nurse. I received my master’s degree in child health. I was a clinical nurse specialist in pediatrics. I loved it. But I was also always scribbling, still always taking notes, totally involved in the power of story, a fascination with mythology. And when my kids were very young—I had three kids in five years, they were five, three, and new—I decided that I was going to try and write only one book, that I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I also wanted to dive into the art that had sustained me all those years.It was pure fright. I had to tell myself no one would ever read it. There are parts of it nobody has ever read. I mean, I went back to school, I took some classes, I entered contests. I was rejected and knocked down. And it was definitely an act of perseverance and faith—a different kind of faith, but a faith.
Reflections on Writing and Faith
I think I was always a writer. I wrote from the time I could hold a crayon. I have little notebooks and stories tucked away in the attic. I have kept a journal since time began. For me I’m a big believer in solitude and quiet.
I think everybody would say this about Jesus Calling, but often, It’s played pivotal roles at different moments in my life. More often than not, when you open it and read for that day, it’s what you needed that day, which is kind of astounding because sometimes you won’t pick it up for a long while and then you’ll read that day and be like, Whoa, there you go.[This is the] Jesus Calling [passage from] April 19th.
I love you regardless of how well you are performing. Sometimes you feel uneasy, wondering if you are doing enough to be worthy of My Love. No matter how exemplary your behavior, the answer to that question will always be no. Your performance and My Love are totally different issues, which you need to sort out. I love you with an everlasting Love that flows out from eternity without limits or conditions. I have clothed you in My robe of righteousness, and this is an eternal transaction: Nothing and no one can reverse it. Therefore, your accomplishment as a Christian has no bearing on My Love for you. Even your ability to assess how well you are doing on a given day is flawed. Your limited human perspective and the condition of your body, with its mercurial variations, distort your evaluations. Bring your performance anxiety to Me, and receive in its place My unfailing Love. Try to stay conscious of My loving Presence with you in all that you do, and I will direct your steps.
An Improbable Love Story
Becoming Mrs. Lewis is my first historical and my fourteenth novel. I have been a C.S. Lewis reader all of my life. And what I was fascinated with, which is the subtitle of the book, is Their Improbable Love Story. As soon as I started to research that improbable love story, I instead found a fascinating and fiery woman who had so transformed her life that it changed her heart and her family and her work. And then, of course, that transformed the heart and the life and the work and the family of one of our most beloved authors of the 20th century.
When I say improbable, what I mean is that here we had this married ex-atheist, ex-communist, former Jewish heritage, married-with-two-kids woman living in upstate New York. And then over here, you have also a former atheist, but one of the premier Christian apologists of his day, Oxford don, living in England. He had never left Ireland or England for all of his life, except for the six months he was in the war in France. And she had never left New York for all of her life, except for the six months she wrote screenplays in Hollywood. How were these two people to have ever met, much less become friends, much less fall in love and marry? Forget about it. Right?
[Joy Davidman] was born to immigrant parents, Russian Eastern European immigrant parents. She was born in a part of New York that was called the Jewish ghetto or the Jewish Highway, and they eventually worked their way up in the world. Her father was a principal. They eventually worked their way up into the Bronx, but she was not a child of privilege by any means. She was privileged because she lived in America. But she went to a public college tuition free. They didn’t have money when she graduated. She had to live with her family.
If I speak about Joy, I think what happened with her is that she had this mystical experience that she would not let go. She wanted to find out what it meant. She wanted to find out an answer or answers to this mystery of what happened to her, that in her words, she said that she realized life was too intense to be endured with logic alone or to be endured with flesh and blood. And so she went in search of what this meant, of what was beyond logic, something that would satisfy her heart, her intellect and her experience. And that’s when she first started writing to Lewis.She wrote to him for answers. She wrote to him because she wanted to figure out what this meant. And she felt that he was the smartest person she had ever read, and that his work and his words really hit her in a place that nobody else has had. And he didn’t answer all her questions in his book. So she thought, I’m gonna reach out to him. And she did. She wrote to him. And that started three years of pen friendship before she ever boarded a ship to sail to England.And I always say, “And that’s when this story gets really good.”
The Transformative Power of Love
There are so many things that struck me that I didn’t see coming with their story. The first is her intelligence. I hadn’t heard anybody talk about that. Every time I had heard about her before I started writing this book, I had heard about her as “the poor dying wife of C.S. Lewis, the woman who broke his heart.” And when I started to understand who she was and her genius and her intelligence and her forthrightness and her fiery spirit, I was taken aback, because it had been hidden from me and hidden from us behind C.S. Lewis’s shadow.Joy was a child prodigy. She was brilliant. She won the Yale Younger Poets Award. She was incredibly well read. She was a genius. And that armor stood in the way of finding her true self. And once that happened and she was able to love herself, then I believe she was able to love another person in a way that allowed him to love her in return. I do believe that it was the first time Joy ever truly loved, and it’s because she first found her true self in God. I was struck hard as a writer by how much she had contributed to his work and how little credit she had been given for that.
“I do believe that it was the first time Joy ever truly loved, and it’s because she first found her true self in God.” – Patti Callahan Henry
I was struck by their immense love for each other, even when it wasn’t romantic. Their immense and profound support and acceptance of each other just as they were. If you read her poetry and you look at her married poetry verses, you know, she’s quite obviously—but we don’t know for sure—talking about Lewis, she never is wanting him to be a different man. She wants him to feel differently about her, but she doesn’t want to change him. There is this acceptance. One of her poems talks about “the gold of him, of who he is.” And I think that’s very much the way he and his brother Warnie felt about her. And those things struck me very hard.
She was brave and she was willing. I always say, you know, we might not all need to pack up our kids and move to England, but we might need to pack up everybody’s expectations and everybody’s demands and everybody’s definitions of us. And that is what she was willing to do.
”We might need to pack up everybody’s expectations and everybody’s demands and everybody’s definitions of us.” – Patti Callahan Henry