Ana Mullan grew up in Argentina but has spent the last 32 years in Ireland, working alongside her husband, Sean, in establishing new churches and innovating all-of-life mission, but her journey has not been an easy one. For “My Story,” Ana shares her struggle to find identity, self-worth and healing.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD, ANA.
I was an only child. My mum had emigrated from Italy, age 10, and the move caused a lot of problems. She suffered a lot and became bitter. She demonstrated her anger by being verbally abusive and smacking a lot. She would put me down, saying things like: “I have lost all my friends because of you; you don’t know how to behave.” That is a tough thing to say to a seven-year-old child. I believed it, so I grew up with very low self-esteem. Her parenting was controlling. My dad was a weak character, so he hardly intervened.
My mother’s anger was geared mainly towards God. She would say: “You are not going to judge me; I am going to judge you.” Funny enough, that statement made me think that God existed. I figured she couldn’t be talking to the air!
WHAT IMPACT DID YOUR CHILDHOOD HAVE ON YOU?
I never felt I belonged. I was a very odd person, a weird child. I had friends, but looking back, I think they felt pity for me; I lived in an insecure environment with parents who tried to control everything about me. I was the type of girl who, at a dance, would be left standing on the side. My mum even controlled the way I dressed. My clothes were not at all fashionable, so I stood out.
WHERE DID JESUS FIT INTO YOUR LIFE?
Jesus introduced Himself to me when I was four years old. I went to a Catholic church and saw Jesus on the cross. I was horrified. I asked my mum, “Why is He hanging on the cross? Did He do something wrong?” But she told me He had done nothing wrong. I was very upset, and from then on for several years I couldn’t watch any film that showed Jesus being crucified.
When I was 18, my mum became a Christian. There was a big change in her, but there were still loads of issues she needed to deal with. Nowadays, we would have encouraged her to go to counselling, but that didn’t happen. I decided to go to church with her. The young people there were very loving and receptive. They accepted me for who I was.
I heard the message of God’s forgiveness. I had such low self-esteem that it was great to receive God’s love. That’s when I started my journey with Jesus, though Jesus had been journeying with me already.
HOW DID YOU FIND OUT YOU WERE ADOPTED?
When I was 19, I had an argument with my mum, and in typical teenager fashion, I said, “I’m not going to live here any more,” to which she replied, “Go! You are not our child anyway…”
My dad was very upset. He told me, “Nothing has changed.” But in those days, to be adopted was not something that was accepted.
It made me very insecure and confused. Nothing seemed permanent in my life. I would start things but not finish them, and I kept changing jobs all the time. By the time I was 25, I realised I was stuck.
SO WHAT CHANGED?
The missionary ship MV Doulos came to Argentina. It had a great impact on me, but because of my lack of commitment, I thought it would never work for me to join the ship’s crew. The night the Doulos was leaving, I was reading my Good News Bible and there was a picture of Jesus inviting Peter and the other fishermen to follow Him. They left their nets behind and followed Him.
That spoke to me, so I ended up joining the ship. It was extremely challenging for me to share a cabin with three other girls! But God did His work in my life. I started the process of maturing and becoming more secure.
I met Sean and, after I returned to Argentina, we started a relationship via letters. He visited and we decided to get married and move to Ireland. It was a wise decision because it meant I could get away from my family.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE COMING TO IRELAND AS A NEWLYWED?
I come from a huge city, and we ended up in South Tipperary at the Irish Bible School - right in the heart of the countryside. In Argentina, I was warm, but here it is always cold. I had never even seen a fireplace and I did not know how to start a fire! After Bible school, we joined Baptist Missions working in Cork city and east Cork, and in 2000, we moved to Dublin to work with an independent church until 2009.
HOW DID THINGS CHANGE WITH YOUR MUM?
Eventually, she was put in a home because she had Parkinson’s. Thankfully, a couple from her church visited her regularly. The great relief was that other people could now see what she was like. She would still ring and give me verbal abuse over the phone. I had grown up thinking that I was the difficult person, but I came to recognise that the problem was with her.
She died when I was 50 years old. I returned to Argentina and tracked down my godmother. Through her, I discovered that my mother had destroyed all of my papers including my original birth certificate. I had no way of finding out about my birth mother or even where I had been born.
I was angry, but I also had mixed feelings. My mother had nurtured me and loved me in her own way. And now she had died. But she had also taken my identity. I felt like an onion: one layer after another was being peeled off; everything was being taken away.
HOW DID YOU DEAL WITH THE PAIN?
I decided to start again with God. It was as if He was saying, “Ana, you won’t find your identity in being a daughter or a mother or a wife; your identity comes from being my child.”
For about six months, I meditated on a verse in Genesis when Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden. Despite all their bad choices, God covered their nakedness. Then I saw a charcoal drawing of Jesus, totally naked on the cross. In Genesis, God covered Adam and Eve, but when He paid for our sin, His own son was naked and shamed. That spoke to me of God’s profound love for me. It stopped being a theological concept and became an experiential thing.
SO WHAT BROUGHT ABOUT HEALING IN YOUR LIFE?
I spent a few months meditating and reading. One book that helped me was The Gift of Being Yourself. I was struggling to understand redemption. I knew what it meant in theological terms, but I didn’t know what it meant to live as a redeemed person. After reading the book and praying, I heard Jesus saying to me, “Redemption is to become fully yourself under my leadership.”
Healing takes time. It means learning how to work with God. I bring my wounds to Him, and He soothes the pain. We talk about it. The most important thing is that God has created me in love. His love is bigger than the hurt somebody has caused in my life.
Sometimes we are hurt so much that we feel we have the right to be angry or to punish somebody. We can come to God and say, “This is how I feel, but my desire is to be healed and to be set free.” He can work with that.
HOW WERE YOU ABLE TO FORGIVE?
Forgiveness is a journey. I think when we realise how much God has forgiven us, then we can let go. I’m not going to allow that person to have power over me any more. Of course, it comes and goes. At times, you will feel the pain again. As a Christian, I can always go back to Jesus and say, “Here I am. I’m struggling with this all over again.” We have a Saviour - not only for the initial decision of becoming a Christian but for our everyday life.
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING GOD HAS TAUGHT YOU THROUGH ALL OF THIS?
It is more important to be than do… that is a big lesson. God is more interested in who I am becoming than what I’m achieving. Gratitude is a big thing for me, too. That is why I wanted to share the story. I want people to see what Jesus can do.
TELL US ABOUT THE NEW MINISTRY GOD HAS GIVEN YOU.
I went back to the Irish Bible Institute to complete my BA in theology, and more recently, I have trained as a Spiritual Director. It has been a wonderful journey.
I meet with people who want help to deepen their relationship with God.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU GIVE TO PEOPLE FACING PAINFUL SITUATIONS?
Talk to Jesus about it! It sounds a bit simplistic, but one of the dangers in our Christianity is this idea that Jesus is only for the religious part of life. Jesus is not just for Sundays - He is for all of life.
We need to read the Gospels focusing on Jesus’ humanity, not just His divinity. Jesus suffered all that we have suffered, yet without sin. His family rejected Him. His friends abandoned Him. He was abused verbally. He was badly treated. He was betrayed. He was falsely accused. He was beaten and crucified. I can say to Jesus, “I have a terrible pain.” And He understands. My tears were many, but I have brought those tears to Jesus.