Gwynneth Pugh–Jones was just 18 years old when she endured a traumatic experience that made her feel as if she could “never turn her eyes to God again”. The nurse in training was, in her own words, “quite naïve”, and had become good friends with a man whom she has chosen to keep anonymous.
Choosing an evening when he knew all her housemates would be out at work, this man took her out for dinner, walked her back home and charmed his way inside. “I was a Christian and I had quite strong views about sex before marriage. I made it very clear to him what my beliefs and values were, but unfortunately he abused those values,” Gwynneth explains. For six horrifying hours Gwynneth was subjected to a vicious attack at knifepoint. She was raped and burned with cigarettes. Afterwards she remembers sitting in the bath for hours, trying to feel whole and clean again. Despite the serious crime committed against her, Gwynneth didn’t share her ordeal with anyone: “When it happened to me there weren’t the reporting mechanisms that there are now; safe houses, places set up to receive someone who has experienced rape,” she says. Instead she chose to pour her energy into becoming the best nurse she could be.
It wasn’t until 14 years later, when Gwynneth was married and expecting her third child, that she became overcome with worry that her attacker might hurt someone else. “I couldn’t bear the thought that it could happen to one of my daughters,” she says. So she approached a friend who was a police officer and asked him to search their records. To her surprise the man was listed on the database, having recently been arrested on the south coast for assaulting a minor.
“At a similar time I was in the school playground and a mum was absolutely breaking her heart crying,” explains Gwyneth. “So I did what I do best and I scooped her up and brought her home – because we live close to the school – and I gave her the opportunity to talk about what was upsetting her.”
As the mum opened up, she started talking about her brother who had recently been arrested. She couldn’t believe that he would commit such a pernicious crime. Immediately, Gwyneth realised this woman’s brother was the same person who had attacked her. “The facts just matched up,” she explains. But as Gwynneth revealed the shocking truth, it became clear that she wasn’t prepared to listen and the two left on bad terms. “I wasn’t angry with her. I mean, I have a brother, and I probably would have reacted the same way: of not wanting to believe that my brother could do something like that.”
It was six months later when the woman came back to apologise and tell Gwyneth the result of the court case. Her brother had been found guilty and was now in prison on suicide watch. “He was so distressed and ill from the enormity of what he had done,” says Gwyneth. He was specifically tormented by his memories of abusing a Christian lady that he used to know. “That was his biggest struggle, realising the consequences of that, and how it must have affected my life since then.
“And then she asked what she deemed was the impossible question: would I consider going to visit her brother in prison?”
Gwynneth asked God what she should do and sought legal advice before deciding to visit him. “I did have some things I wanted to tell him and I rehearsed what I was going to say, but as I sat in the chair across from him, all of that disappeared. As I looked at this almost unrecognisable man in front of me, just absolutely broken, God showed me how he saw him, and it was a true moment of godly compassion. He showed me this man restored. He showed me him as a prince, as a brother, someone with absolute true value. He showed me him looking well.”
Putting aside her own fears and anger about what he had done to her, Gwyneth visited a further five times over 18 months, each time sharing her faith and talking to him about God’s grace. At the end of that time he became a Christian. “It was a huge relief because he found peace,” Gwynneth says, explaining that she asked the chaplaincy team to take over his discipleship from that point onwards, giving her space for her own healing. Meanwhile, he confessed to more crimes and his sentence was extended.
Praying with my perpetrator
Gwynneth decided to stop visiting the prison, but some years later, she heard on the grapevine that he had developed a life-limiting disease. A phone call from the prison service swiftly followed. “He had an end-of-life directive and in that directive he asked if I would be willing to go and pray with him”.
“At first I really was unsure about going in and it took probably two weeks to make a decision. When I went in he had been moved to a hospital on compassionate palliative grounds, but he still had a prison guard with him. I sat down and did as he requested: I prayed with him; prayed peace over him; spoke love over him; and while I was praying with him he died.
“It was such a privilege to be able to pray him home even though we’d had such a difficult journey together...it was true compassion to be able to do that.”
After he died, Gwynneth was handed a letter that he had written. In it he explained how he could never thank her enough for forgiving him and for the compassion that she had shown towards him “and how that had released him to be able to get on with his life,” she says.
God had taken Gwynneth on an incredible journey of healing and wholeness but there was more to come. Years later, while on a retreat she was asked to think of anything she might need to repent of. “In the pasta lot of people had prophesied Isaiah 54 over me: the shame of the women’s youth being restored. So I quietly said: ‘Please take the shame away.’ I also repented of my unbelief about where God had been during the six hours of my ordeal.” That night she had a dream that she was lying in a pristine hospital bed, tossing and turning. Each time she was roused from sleep she was gently and lovingly soothed by someone she instinctively knew was God. “I knew I was safe and I knew I was totally loved and that everything was going to be absolutely OK.”
When she awoke and went to have her morning shower she heard the voice again, this time encouraging her to look at her back, which still bore scars from the attack. “There was nothing there, the scars had gone. God had not only healed me emotionally and spiritually, but he had healed me physically and it was just amazing. It took me to a whole new level of intimacy with him,” she says. “My message for anyone who has been through a similar ordeal is: ‘Never hesitate to take anything to God. God isn’t frightened of shame, he doesn’t want you to carry that shame. He just wants you to be free, living a full life.’”
Gwynneth Pugh–Jones was speaking with Rachel Matthews on Premier Christian Radio's Inspirational Breakfast programme