From Jeremy: This is an interview with Alece Ronzino. Alece chose to live a better story by dedicating her life to mission work in South Africa at the age of 19. Despite living her dream, everything change suddenly and unexpectedly and she found herself living a different story. One that she never anticipated.
JS: How did you end up in South Africa and what was your ministry there?
Alece: I went to Africa on short-term mission trips as a teenager, and when I was 19 I moved there. I wanted to do mission work there long-term, but initially committed to a year. Thirteen years later, I was co-leading a nonprofit called Thrive Africa that focused on leadership development and AIDS prevention in the poorest region of South Africa.
JS: You were living a life that most would describe as perfect, living the dream of ministry in Africa. What happened?
Alece: Well, my life was far from perfect, but I absolutely loved it. Even with the challenges of leading a support-driven organization with a multi-cultural staff team of over 60, I undeniably felt like I was right where I was supposed to be, doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
Then the bottom fell out of my world when my husband confessed to a long-term affair with a friend of mine, and ultimately made the decision to leave with her.
JS: How did you feel when all of these things happened?
Alece: To say I was devastated would be the biggest understatement of my life. I went through a long period of depression, and for a long time—years, I mean—I couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. The hits kept coming, with further layers of betrayal and deceit being uncovered. When we couldn’t get financial support back up, the Board of Directors eventually made the decision to close the ministry.
Through that season, I lost basically everything in my life: my marriage, my home, my ministry, my community, my dream, my future. The heart-shattering grief left me immobilized for a long time. “Long dark night of the soul” is about the most fitting phrase I can think of.
JS: Did you ever consider giving up on God?
Alece: While God and I weren’t exactly on speaking terms for a long while there, I never really considered walking away from Him entirely. Like all the other relationships in my life, maintaining closeness just seemed to take more effort and energy than I had. I withdrew from everyone, including Him. I was empty and broken, and lacked both the strength and desire to press into Him. When I’d stop and think about it, it would compound my feelings of failure—like once again I wasn’t doing enough.
Eventually as my heart began to show signs of life again, it finally felt easier to “go there” again with Him. Corporate worship, a great counselor, and the free therapy of my own writing helped me reconnect with God and recognize the ways He’d been there with me all along.
JS: Do you ever ask God “why?” What helps you with that question?
Alece: While I don’t understand what happened—and I know I likely never will—I never really asked God why. Decisions were made, and the consequences of those decisions sucked… but I knew it wasn’t God doing this to me. I was forced to come to terms with my “God is good, all the time” faith that really didn’t know how to acknowledge His goodness in the portions of “all the time” that were just plain awful.
But I eventually realized that I can’t trust in the God who gives without also trusting in the God who takes away.
JS: You had a close friend, Sara, who died. Her motto was “choose joy.” How has she influenced you as you deal with life?
Alece: Oh, Sara… I could talk forever about her, her friendship, and the impact she’s had on my life. In short, she was my daily dose of perspective as she lived homebound, in debilitating pain, with a disease that was slowly and excruciatingly taking her life. Yet she lived every day with more joy than anyone I’ve ever known.
She taught me what it meant to truly trust God, and to believe in His goodness even when life was anything but good. Even now that she’s gone, she remains an ever-present reminder and inspiration for me to look beyond my circumstances and choose joy.
JS: You recently took a trip back to Africa for the first time since moving back. What was that like? Do you see yourself ever moving back?
Alece: I returned to Africa this past spring for the first time since losing everything. It was extremely emotional for me, being back in places that held both good and bad memories. I had to make the choice to do the hard work of facing and feeling it, eventually finding healing in and from the place that had been the source of my deepest wounds.
I was able to see again that it was also the source of my greatest joys. And I came to grips with the fact that while Africa is no longer home, she will always have my heart. I don’t foresee living there full-time again, but I know I will always continue to be involved in work there in some capacity.
JS: What would you tell someone who has seen their dream shattered? (I hope that’s not too strong of a word.)
Alece: It’s definitely not too strong of a word, because that’s exactly what happened. My dreams shattered. And while it looks different for each person, everyone eventually goes through a season of shattered dreams.
The greatest thing I can pass along to someone who is in that place right now is something a friend had said to me. Don’t bring building supplies to the graveyard. There will be a season where all you can do is sit in the grief and the heartache. You have to face it and feel it, and not try to shortcut around it. But eventually—and you, or those you trust to speak into your life, will just know when that time is—you have to start taking steps forward.
Give yourself permission to grieve. And then give yourself permission to hope again.
JS: Thanks Alece for sharing your story and helping us to remember that today is an opportunity to choose joy.
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