Wanted: Dead and Alive
She arrived at the children’s home in the middle of the night with a hood over her face.
The first Christian guerilla I fought alongside was Ana,* a Guatemalan teenager. We lived at the same children’s home where I served as a missionary and she spent fourteen months in protective custody. Together we became resistance fighters of a sort. When Ana arrived, all I knew of her story was that she fit the ministry’s profile—female survivor of sexual crimes between the ages of two and eighteen, placed by court order. But even her arrival was revealing.
Her case was so politically dangerous that Guatemalan authorities shuttled her to our children’s home in the middle of the night with a hood over her face. For a month, the houseparents hid Ana in the shadows away from the windows of the cottage. Occasionally she peered out, shading her face under the wide bill of an army-green military cap. Other girls brought her meals, played cards with her in the afternoons, helped her adjust to the routine.
Eventually Ana attended school onsite during the day, played soccer at twilight, and strolled around campus after dark. We became friends on these nightly walks when she’d stop by our cottage to visit. My husband and I didn’t ask questions about her case—our role was strictly supportive, offering a grandparent’s presence and God’s unconditional love. We respected the hushed space between us. Knowing more of her story would not help either one of us. We had no authority to influence her legal case or her frequent disputes with the houseparents. We simply chose to be on her side and she trusted us.
Ana didn’t know this, but I too met the core of the ministry’s profile: I was a female survivor of sexual crimes, molested, and abused when I was between the ages of two and eighteen. Each of us had been assaulted by family members and others who should have protected us. We had been raised up in churches and later turned away from God. We each felt filthy, profoundly alone, wasted. Silence strangled our souls. We lived in constant fear of being found out—her for years, me for decades. Yet God fought for the story we carried within us to be known.
The full truth of Ana’s story was like a prize the government and her abusers wanted to own, a coveted secret that made her a fugitive—as if she were the guilty one. But stealing her innocence and keeping it a secret proved harder than her captures expected. Ana fled from her aggressors, which multiplied the odds against them. And they knew it. They couldn’t be sure of what she might say about them and what they had done. Now violent sexual predators wanted Ana dead.
Ana spoke freely but generally to us about hard years with her mean grandmother, men who came to the house, grown-ups who mistreated her. But the specific details she told the social workers and psychologists didn’t add up. Frustrated with their persistent questioning, Ana would explode in anger and shut down in silence. She would gag when severe asthma flared in moments of anxiety and needed coaching when she refused to cry. Though she escaped, the aggressors’ threats still claimed Ana’s mind and body. Their lies tied her heart and mind in knots.
After weeks of walks, Ana invited me to come with her and her social worker Tati* for a hearing where a judge decided whether she would remain in protective custody after turning eighteen. Ana sat at a circular table with a court-appointed psychologist. I listened to the interview in a courtroom four floors away.
I watched Ana on closed-circuit television. Ana sat on a wooden chair. Baskets of Playskool toys and crayon-colored chairs filled an area next to a play easel against the back wall. Younger children who fit better in the smaller chairs had surely testified in this same room, maybe using a forensic doll to show who did what to which body parts or drawing a picture story on the easel with markers.
As Ana answered the psychologist’s questions about where she thought she might live after being released, Ana laid the papers she had been doodling on earlier and picked out skeins of her hair, twisting them absentmindedly. She kept her head down, submissive but not ashamed. Ana explained that one adult relative and a sibling escaped to Mexico after their lives were threatened. She heard that another adult relative and a second sibling had fled illegally across the border into the U.S. She knew she couldn’t live safely with any family member.
I felt uncomfortable seeing Ana on TV, acutely aware of what it might be like to have yet another stranger ask pointed questions. I imagined myself in a kiddie chair alongside her as if we were children on trial in that empty space, facing a police line-up of the narco-traffickers and government workers who violated her alongside the men who sexually assaulted me. I felt surprised to think of my own abuse history in this setting and wondered how she silenced the ugly voices in her head. Only acts of God had broken the spell men cast over me with their death threats and condemning lies.
The judge affirmed the danger Ana faced and bent the rules to keep her in protective custody until the case could be closed. Her basic human rights had vanished and she would never again live free from harm with her family in the country of her birthright. But by keeping her in hiding, the court preserved her right to talk about what happens when people strip children’s bodies and souls for pleasure, control, and profit.
Investigators knew enough about Ana’s case to pursue an opportunity for her to tell a judge what she experienced even when she hadn’t yet decided whether to confess it all. She needed time and space to consider her future. She’d been rescued at age seventeen and would testify in court as an adult as to what really occurred back home.
True or false, whatever Ana would say in court depended on another kind of testimony, her salvation story of becoming a Christian. At this children’s home, Ana had heard the girls talk frequently about their faith. She joined in when they prayed, serious and sincere with their petitions. The girls were disobedient and fought the staff too, but they spent more time playing than fighting. Ana wanted to be happy like them and saw how believing in Jesus made them act and feel different than other teens she knew. The professional staff, the houseparents, even the maintenance workers all reported similar effects: their lives improved when they gave their hearts to Jesus.
Ana’s family had taken her to church but didn’t live like faithful Christians. Her grandmother yelled at her, berated her in front of others, and beat her when she refused to study for her confirmation. She was clearly not protected from harm. Even in a different church with her great-grandmother, Ana felt no relief. She took refuge in her bedroom, crying out to God, unsure if he even existed. She begged God to help her get out of what she described as “the black hole” of her life.
Ana did not understand faith until her houseparents taught her about Christ. One night she followed their suggestion and just started talking to God. Soon she began to cry, crying so hard she feared an asthma attack. But she couldn’t stop crying and she couldn’t stop talking to God. After that, Ana accepted Jesus as her savior. “God freed me from the fear of lies,” she told the audience confidently that evening. Once Jesus activated her heart, Ana was convicted.
Four months after arriving at the shelter Ana gave her testimony to the girls and staff, Ana confessed about her rebellious, painful, and disobedient childhood.
A month after sharing her conversion story in public, Ana invited me to go with her and her social worker, Tati, one Friday morning to the first of three criminal proceedings against her aggressors. The professionals who prepared her for court assured her that if she lied under oath, she would be abusing her power as a sheltered witness. And they also reminded her that on that day she could meet her responsibility to tell the truth. She had already turned eighteen and would be alone in the hearing room. Only Ana would decide in the moment what to say to the prosecutors that day.
I felt privileged to ride along with Ana and Tati. I knew that this case was serious, but I was naively unaware of the gravity of our trip. Ana had integrated so well into the residential treatment facility community that I rarely thought about the dangers she faced outside the walls. Many girls left the premises every day for school or work and returned to the shelter in the afternoon. In fourteen months, Ana left campus only a handful of times. On this day, she wouldn’t leave for school or work, but for the opportunity to tell government prosecutors what happened so they could prepare their legal case.
We planned to leave by eight o’clock that morning. At first I didn’t see the armed guards who would escort us—they were beneath the car searching for explosives and sensors. One guard’s polished shoes and pleated pants covered a strip of yellow line on the parking lot. I saw discreet headsets, pistols within reach. We would take the director’s wife’s sedan brought in from out of town. The sky blue eye of a GPS glowed on the front dashboard. Finally, one guard motioned for the three of us to get in. The social worker whispered as she let go of my arm, “Don’t let her talk about her case. Not a single word.”
Then Tati took the front passenger seat and plunked her big gold bag jammed with dossiers on the floor between her legs. Ana sat in the middle of the back seat, between me and the other guard. She owned her look as a classy young woman in dressy jeans on her way to the capital city; a hand-crocheted pink beret flaunted a rose bow over her jet black hair. Pearl studs anchored her ears. You would never imagine that people wanted her dead.
The armed driver got in last. We paused on the safe side of the black gate of the children’s shelter, ringed by electrified concertina wire atop the ten-foot concrete wall. The bodyguards synchronized their phones. Tati prayed out loud. Once the security guard opened the gate and we pulled out into the street, our vehicle became a moving target. I had never been wanted like Ana until then.
Depending on traffic, the ride down the mountain into the city would take an hour or two. Ana and I chatted about yesterday’s baking class and the cookies she’d brought to our house earlier in the morning. She knew she wasn’t supposed to talk about much of anything to any of us. She leaned into me with determination, as if joining us, dropping her head on my shoulder and curling her forearm around mine so we could hold hands. This time together in the back seat fortified us. I had never felt so invisible and so watched; so at risk and so protected; so irrelevant and so necessary.
Random thoughts and phantom images caught my imagination on the drive, dragging me through a sinister undercurrent till the end of the day. Slow-moving cars alongside us made me think twice. Were the passengers watching us? Most vehicles in Guatemala, including this one, had tinted windows with darkened glass so opaque it would be illegal in the United States. Aggressors can find people. Were we visible to the world?
The normal rush hour traffic had been miraculously paused, yet our driver raced through intersections so fast that I held my breath. The armed guards at stores and businesses that I had grown accustomed to seeing now looked suspicious. At any moment, they could turn and shoot right through the car window at any one of us.
Finally we reached the main government and judicial complex in Zone 1 where the driver dropped us off on the street in front of the Public Ministry building.
Just as I opened the car door, my anxious mind put us inside a hologram: a full-color, cops-and-robbers movie a split-second before the protected witness gets mowed down on the courthouse steps. I couldn’t shake the fatalistic images and diabolical plans swirling around us. Our escorts disappeared. My brain clicked on hyper-alert. I believed only God could protect us as we walked up the wide stairs into the atrium.
We crossed the grand foyer of cold marble. Dozens of people milled around the hall decorated with an enormous flag of Guatemala and justice-themed banners in Mayan languages. I suspected everyone I saw. Arrows pointed: This way for forensics. That way for forensic medical. This way for sexual crimes.
We found the office for investigating crimes against adult women where we sat down to wait. I breathed again when Tati shut the office door behind us. The familiar environment of an administrative office calmed my vigilance.
We waited. Ana fiddled with her sleeves and shifted positions often on the uncomfortable chair. The secretaries answered phone calls and typed. I dismissed my own anxiety and tried to make small talk with Ana to no avail. She grew more nervous and then speechless as time passed, caving inward. A tender and affectionate girl, I drew her close. She cuddled tightly to me, edging off her chair onto mine. As fear overtook her, her whole body pinged, each cell emitting a danger signal. I encouraged her to pace her breathing with mine. She gasped and shivered in terror, keeping her physical distress and psychic panic so discreet that a passerby would simply think kindly of our loving huddle.
I hummed the simple melody of a popular Christian tune we both knew from weekly devotions at the shelter, “No Longer Slaves.” The lyrics declare how Christ’s love frees us to be brave, to release fear, and to stand firm. I whispered prayers over Ana constantly in Spanish and English. I visualized her speaking calmly during the hearing, breathing easily, telling the truth clearly. I needed these remedies too. I wanted all of us to live through this day unscathed. Eventually Ana’s breath and body relaxed. Finally, a woman called her to come around the corner for the interview.
Tati wasn’t allowed in the session, so she and I walked to the restrooms and looked for the coffee vending machines. We passed by the lounges for people reporting crimes. Several dozen women and men in chairs organized like an airport departure gate had the disinterested faces of people who have been waiting too long. An electronic ticker mounted in the ceiling flashed a number occasionally, then somebody would gather their things and walk up to a window at a wall of safety glass partitioned like bank tellers’ stations. The building is open twenty-four hours a day. All day, all night, people come looking for justice.
We returned to the waiting room where we watched office life occur. Two investigators wearing royal blue vests marked with the insignia of the government’s Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights brought in several dossiers and laid them on the counter. They asked many questions as they went through each case with the secretaries, coordinating information about specific people, dates, and locations. Workers came in to make photocopies. One woman filed a complaint on behalf of her neighbor, desperate for relief from the suffering they shared by living next door to each other. The neighbor’s husband beat and raped his wife repeatedly, she claimed, and now he won’t even let her leave the house. She had taken the day off work to plead for her distraught neighbor.
This lady advocating for her neighbor and Ana are two of the small percentage of people in any country who make it to court for a sexual assault case. Many child sexual assaults are never reported. In many countries, including Guatemala, there are more child rapes than homicides. Each murder happens only once. Each child can be raped multiple times a day. Each time a sacred soul shrivels.
My mind fogged up with the uncountable realities of child persecution. Even if they lived across the street from the Public Ministry, how could any terrorized child make it to court on their own?
Suddenly the office door clicked open and two guys carrying athletic bags marched right up to the secretaries’ desks. In a split second, fear ripped through me again. I didn’t know what we would do or if we could escape through a nearby door. One man explained that they came to install new computer cables and hard drives under the desks. Oh sure, I thought. What a classic ruse from a movie script. I figured they had automatic weapons zipped up in the athletic bags. The secretaries moved their paperwork aside and let the workers disappear under the desks. I just knew we were stuck in an ambush.
One side of my brain tormented the other. I told myself it was silly to think of cinematic dramas in such a serious setting. Ana was finally talking to prosecutors, for heaven’s sake. I began to sweat. I felt brainwashed, my common sense overtaken by Hollywood and television. Any moment they would shove the secretaries out of their chairs onto the floor and blast us against the drywall with machine guns.
I forced my mind off the fake scenarios and took deep breaths. Like Ana, I’d been overwhelmed by internalized fears. Strange men suddenly entering the room created a shockwave of stress in my body and vivid images of danger in my mind. My reaction surprised me, since I had invested years of successful therapy to identify and discharge the assault trauma flashbacks I had once had around unknown men. But a more profound, life-threatening fear surfaced, far beyond the familiar protective reflex against what men can do.
My terror of speaking the truth had awakened. Memory fragments like shrapnel from old war wounds worked their way out into the open from inside of me. Voices clamored, saying they would kill me, hurt me, whispering, sneering, blaming me for getting them in trouble. If I spoke up, they glared, one hand choking my throat, I’d be dead. I had no right to tell, they shrieked. Spit hit my face as they blurted out, jeering, “No one will believe you, even if you do tell.” A residual fear of telling the truth had paralyzed parts of me for years. It doesn’t take a very large hand to muzzle a child.
As if I had touched his cloak, Jesus transfigured those terrors in that moment. I imagined myself next to Ana in the interview where he was doing a similar work in her. Both of us had resolved aspects of our trauma with good therapy, but God’s desire is to make us whole again. We shared this divine opportunity to experience justice—a comprehensive, commanding way of restoring a holy order in a person’s heart. When I looked for Jesus in that room, I saw that he was already there.
I listened to an imaginary prosecutor’s question: Would I be willing to tell the judge about my relatives and a half dozen other men? Yes, I would. And I did. I answered my own question: Could I really say the truth out loud? Yes, I could. And I did. Both Ana and I told our stories frankly when given the chance. I saw Jesus raise a dead girl to life and heal a sick woman that day.
As the moment passed, I began talking again quietly with Tati. I started to feel at ease again, exchanging family stories and ministry news updates. We genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. I chuckled when the tech guys emerged from under the desks for their lunch break, thinking about the ten o’clock massacre that never occurred. Tati explained that the longer Ana stayed in her session, the more truth she would tell. Tati thought we’d be done by noon. We waited four more hours.
Ana looked tired and relieved when she came around the corner escorted by the legal aide. She didn’t let go of my arm until we separated to get into the car. The driver merged into rush hour traffic and Ana drifted off to sleep on my shoulder. She would have two more hearings before a judge would decide how her testimony would rule over her aggressors. When we returned to campus, we hugged each other good night and returned to our own cottages, an ordinary ending to an extraordinary day.
Ana and I spent more time together as the weeks passed, sitting alongside each other in the lunchroom, walking arm-in-arm on weekends at twilight like dear friends. I was not allowed to go with her to the two criminal hearings because the presence of an American might jeopardize her case. So I was pleasantly surprised one afternoon when Ana called my name as she got out of a car that had just arrived on campus. I could tell she had some big news.
She came running toward me. “How’d it go? What happened?” I begged her. Looking at her face, it was as if we reached into each other’s souls as she said the simple words out loud in Spanish: “I won.” Right there on the plain concrete parking lot we were delivered in a God-sighting flash of utter vindication. We hugged. We clapped. We doubled our high-fives. We laughed out loud. The truth had set us free.
So far, eight men live in prison for their crimes against her. Officers still search for the others to be arrested.
Following the trial, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees completed a multi-agency process to move Ana to another country as a witness needing asylum. Her life will always be endangered; further contact with anyone from this period could re-expose her to the aggressors at large who still want her dead. By standing on the truth of her own innocence, she retains the right to an honest new beginning.
Like the obedient blind man washing the mud off his eyes in the water, I can’t completely explain how we got to this point. I just know that Jesus freed us from the burdens of deceit forever. Ana’s story includes what the predators did as well as how Jesus changed her heart. Both testimonies led to convictions, weaving worldly justice into eternal restoration. If the kingdom of God has a water park, Ana and I careened on the same raft down the water slide, laughing and squealing with joy on that judgement day, splashing into the clear waters of the Pool of Siloam, redeemed beyond our imagining.
*Personal names used are fictional.
Cover image by Joe Gardner.