First Lady Theresa Whitfield has an important message for survivors of abuse and violent crimes—you still deserve love and you can heal, forgive and move forward. She knows this firsthand.
In 2007, the unthinkable happened to Whitfield. While attending an event at her church, she was brutally stabbed and sliced by a mentally ill woman. Theresa was holding her baby daughter in her hands during the attack, and although her daughter wasn’t hurt, the doctors used 2,000 stitches to reconstruct Theresa’s face and body. Even though she felt God was telling her to just let go, Theresa fought for her life and prayed for her kids and was given a second chance at life. The horrific attack made national headlines, and Whitfield, who was still lucky to have survived at all, began her journey to healing. Today, Whitfield is wife to Pastor Jonathan B. Whitfield, and a proud mother of six, four children and two stepchildren she adores. She wrote a book about her pain and her recovery called Celebrating Your Scars: Living Boldly for Christ in January 2011. Although it’s been 12 years since her attack, she still remembers the pain and how she got past it and aims to share her journey with other women through her ministry and open heart.
We sat down with Whitfield to discuss the art of healing and turning pain into progress.
ESSENCE: How were you able to forgive your attacker?
Whitfield: I thank you for that question, because when [back then] started the magazine interviews, and television interviews going throughout the country from state-to-state telling my story and giving my testimony, that was the first question that every woman would ask me. I guess it wasn’t a processed thought, but it’s something that I was commanded to do being raised as a Christian woman and, and as a minister preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe if you minister it enough, and you teach it enough, it’s something that automatically happens. Why? Because we are to forgive in order to be forgiven. And I forgave her because I realized after all this that I had been through, I looked up and I saw that this woman had been through a great deal too. I didn’t have a choice but to forgive. Forgiveness is a commandment and it’s something that we all must do, because it sets us free. When that prosecutor told me that that woman doesn’t even remember me, she doesn’t know my name, she doesn’t know that that attack happened, I said, “Thank you, God,” that I have not been walking in bondage and all in captivity in my mind, you know, and holding a grudge and unforgiveness in my heart, and me being a prisoner. So, I thank God just for freedom, because there is freedom in forgiveness.
ESSENCE: I imagine it was difficult not to be angry.
Whitfield: We have to be careful with that because with unforgiveness comes anger, and bitterness and resentment. A lot of things lie in the root of unforgiveness, which is why it’s imperative for us to forgive. Once you let that in, that’s when you get caught up in that and it’s kinda hard to get out of it. A lot of women are walking around with the anger, but that anger is just a result of something else. It is our job as ministers to now get to the root of the problem. What is actually causing your anger? I believe in my heart that it is truly necessary for all of us to be who we’re supposed to be, and don’t let any situation or circumstance control over us where we’re not everything that we are and supposed to be here in life.
ESSENCE: What was your own personal journey with forgiveness like? And, what advice do you have for other women still trying to get there?
Whitfield: I healed by sharing. I encourage every woman that comes within my path, and when they hear my testimony or read my book, to tell their testimony too. Tell your story. If there’s anybody and everybody that will listen, because the more it is that you tell your story, the more healing it is that you get for yourself. The more and more you release, the more you are set free. And, I don’t start at the attack because the attack is the end resolve. And I don’t know if you had a chance to just uh, bruise through the, the little um, the, the little pages of the book that I have been able to share, but I believe that it, this comes from a long, long line in my life about the things it is that I have gone through, that I have laid dormant inside of me. And I would always ask myself, “God, why so much? Why so much?” But I’ve changed my philosophy, and anything and everything that now approaches in my life is no more longer asking God, “Why?” Now I’m asking Him, “What? You allowed these things to happen. You allowed these things to come. Now, what do you want me to learn from this?” Because as soon as you learn what it is, there it is that you’re going to be able to get over that.
ESSENCE: What would you say to other women who’ve survived domestic abuse or a physical attack?
Whitfield: In my book, I write about knowing who you are. Who are you? Who do you say that you are? Speak those words unto yourself, and if you can’t find any words, then look for the word of God that says who you are. I tell women all the time that you are fearfully and beautifully and wonderfully made, and you are made in the image of God, no matter what it is that you’ve been through, no matter what it is somebody said about you, no matter what the names are that they called you, and no matter what you even think about yourself. You need to speak over yourself and know who you are and then know whose you are, and therefore you shall be empowered. Loving yourself, it’s a commandment from God. It says to love God as you love yourself, and then love your neighbor. And then what we do is we detach from that neighbor part but that neighbor is really you. Love yourself. How is it that we’re able to love others and we cannot love ourselves? You deserve to love yourself.