When mother-of-four, Rita Ferns, had five people close to her die in the space of fourteen months, she understandably spiralled into a deep depression. But the new Christian clung to her faith during that dark time and is now able to look back and see that even in the hardest periods, God was at work.
“Four family members committed suicide and I just broke down,” the 55-year-old says. “I didn’t think it was possible to feel that bad and still live. I locked myself away and the only thing I had was my Bible. I didn’t even have the strength to read it but I would cling to it every night.
“Every morning I would pray to God to take me, then one morning as I cried out to God I heard the words, ‘I’m going to take you out of the mud and mire and set your feet on the rock.’
“Then Psalm 40 came to me where it says, ‘I waited patiently for the Lord and he heard my cry.’ I knew then that God was with me.
“The days started to get better as God poured out his love.”
But Rita’s faith was to be put to the ultimate test as tragedy struck again when her son died from a drugs overdose last year.
“I just felt myself being lifted up,” she says. “Despite what I was going through, the love of God was there – I felt loved and precious and I knew that Jesus was with me even through that. Now, even though I have the memories, the pain that goes with them isn’t there. Jesus has taken it away and now I can look back on my life and see God at work, even in the dark times.
“I used to just cry constantly but now I am totally set free. God is an awesome God.”
That’s quite a statement for Rita, who goes to Bathgate Elim in Scotland as her whole life was characterised by abuse and poverty on an unspeakable scale.
“I was abused from the age of five,” she says. “My dad had a drink problem and it wasn’t uncommon for him to spend evenings in the cells. There were nine of us and I was the eldest.
“My mum struggled to cope so I took on that maternal role.”
As Rita got older, things got worse as her father’s drink problem increased and periods of homelessness followed.
“When I was eight my mum just ran away and left us in a social worker’s office,” she says. “In those days they had no homes for men and children so even though my dad was willing we were put into foster care and those are some of my happiest memories in my life.
“We were placed with an American family in Dunnon- near a naval base and life was good.”
But after tracking down Rita’s mum, the children were placed back into her care. With seven children in a one bedroom flat, life returned to a cycle of drink and despair.
“We lived there for five years and dad started to be violent towards my mum, even when she was pregnant,” Rita says. “He was constantly in the cells. There were quiet periods when he was trying to come off the drink but they never lasted long.”
Throughout her childhood, Rita suffered regular beatings at the hand of her father and mother until at the age of 16, she left home.
“I got straight into a relationship with an older man who was quite controlling,” she says. “I was just desperate for love. We were together for ten years then the relationship broke down.”
Looking for a new start, Rita and her children moved to Livingston in Scotland where she concentrated on bringing up her family.
“I was determined that they’d have the childhood that I never did,” she says. “I made sure that they were always clean and fed.”
Then, four years ago her daughter told her about an Alpha course at the local Elim church so Rita decided to go along.
“Pastor Jimmie Vowles at Bathgate was running the course,” she says. “I’d been brought up as a Catholic where it was all about rules and regulations. I’d always believed in God but thought of him as a scary God who would never want me because of all the things I’d done. I carried around all this guilt because I blamed myself for what had happened.
“But here I was being told about a Jesus who had died for me and loved me. It was incredible and I got to know him through relationship not religion.”
But life wasn’t easy for the new Christian as she came to terms with her past.
“I would still cry every day when I thought about my mum, dad and brothers, then I had the four suicides of my family members,” she says. “I just wanted to die. I was in agony inside.
“But then God spoke to me and my life started to turn around. I went to therapy and they couldn’t understand why I wasn’t angry after all I‘d been through but God has allowed me to look back on my life and see the blessings along the way and understand my parent’s pain.
“Every trial and challenge I face I’m able to cope with, because of all the responsibility I had as a child. I used to cry day and night but God has dried my tears.
“I believe that God has put me in Encounter Church Bathgate so that I can help others.
“Every day I wake up and thank God that he’s taken the pain away.”