“It has been an amazing journey. I’ve always had a real love for people. And especially people who are going through really difficult times. I know what God can do with a broken life. I know that with God there is hope.”
(From the July - September 2019 issue of VOX)
Born in Belfast in 1963, Jacqueline Robb grew up in the midst of the Troubles when bomb explosions were “the most normal thing in the world.” She recalls when the garage behind her home blew up and the back wall of the house came in. “All I could think of was the dog,” Jacqueline said (thankfully he was unhurt although covered in debris).
The violence and trauma in her community was reflected in family life. “I grew up with domestic abuse. We were always frightened of my dad and I thought that was what dads were like, I thought that was normal.
“My family were not churchgoers but they did send us to Sunday School. I grew up feeling rejected and unloved but I remember sitting on a wooden bench singing ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.’”
When Jacqueline’s parents finally separated, her mum had to go out to work to support the children and Jacqueline was left in the care of relatives. This was to have devastating consequences. “I was sexually abused by my uncle and my grandfather and that went on for years,” Jacqueline shared.
The family suffered further trauma when in 1976 her mum’s fiancé, Desi, was murdered in a paramilitary shooting. A few weeks later, a 17-year-old and 23-year-old were arrested for the murder. “I was only 12 and I wasn’t a Christian but I remember praying for those boys, ‘Father forgive them, they didn’t know what they were doing.’”
Searching for Love
As a teenager, Jacqueline turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism, “While my friends were having a sip, I was downing the whole bottle.” Desperate for love, she starting sleeping around but soon discovered that sex doesn’t equal love.
In 1979, Jacqueline remembers watching the film Jesus of Nazareth and seeing Jesus reaching out to sinners. Remembering those early Sunday School lessons, she wondered, “Maybe God could love me?”
The next day she went into the local Baptist church and asked, “How can I become a Christian?” Giving her life to Jesus, Jacqueline felt clean for the first time, but she soon began to struggle again. “I came to God with a lot of baggage and nobody talked about how I could off-load my baggage. I still had all these issues and after 18 months I felt that I wasn’t a good enough Christian and I walked away from God.”
Marrying the first guy who offered, Jacqueline found that history was repeating itself. “The first time [my husband] hit me was when we were on our honeymoon. That was the start of on-going abuse that continued for years.”
Things became so desperate that she tried to take her own life. When she woke up in hospital, she clearly remembers the feeling of sadness and disappointment that she had not died.
In 1986, Jacqueline was watching television and saw a clip of a car riddled with bullet holes. One of the two young men who had murdered her mother’s fiancé was about to be released from prison. She was amazed to hear that he had found faith in Jesus while inside. God had answered her prayers.
Jacqueline went on to have two beautiful children but the domestic abuse continued and once again she turned to alcohol. “That was how I survived.” Things went from bad to worse until the pain grew so bad that she began contemplating suicide once again.
Hitting Rock Bottom
“I made a plan. I would put the kids to bed and then end it,” she said. “That night I fell on my knees (I was too drunk to stand up) and cried out, ‘God help me!’ Thank God that He heard the prayer of a drunk woman! He started to send Christians across my path. I’m sure the smell of drink would have knocked them over but they didn’t judge me and never gave up on me. I went back to church and, in September 1995, I recommitted my life to Jesus.”
For the first 11 months, Jacqueline stayed sober but she remembers pacing the floor every night, battling the cravings, until the pubs and off licenses closed. Then a friend took his own life and she started drinking again in secret to deal with the loss. Eventually, in desperation, she went to the pastor’s wife for help, “I can’t walk away from God again. I really need God to help me.”
This woman prayed for her, anointed her with oil and asked the Holy Spirit to break the addition. “That was over 22 years ago and I haven’t had a drink since. The difference was, God really set me free and took away the desire. When God healed me from that addiction, it was amazing,” Jacqueline smiled.
Recognising the affect that domestic abuse was having on her children, Jacqueline realised that she needed to separate from her husband but she was told it might take up to three months to re-house the family. “I prayed, ‘I want a house within a week.’ Six days later, I got a phone call offering us a house. We knew God’s peace and His provision.”
Learning to Forgive
One of the biggest challenges was forgiveness. “I remember the Lord challenging me about forgiveness from the Lord’s Prayer. I cried out, ‘Lord, you know what they did to me... my uncle, my grandfather and my husband. You are going to have to help me.’” It was not about letting them off the hook. When I look back, that was when my own healing started. Now God has helped me to use my story to help others.”
The couple were eventually divorced in 2009 but Jacqueline found the grace and strength to forgive all those years of violence and abuse. “My ex-husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer in December 2017 and since then I’ve been his carer. God has enabled me to be there for him and has given me a real love for him, not as a husband but in the way that you can love another person.”
As God worked miracles of healing and restoration in Jacqueline’s life, He was also laying the foundation for the work that she does today. In 2009, the elders of her church in Greenisland near Carrickfergus, decided to set up a CAP centre (Christians Against Poverty) to help people in the area who were struggling with unmanageable debt. Soon afterwards they approached Jacqueline and asked her to head up the new centre.
“It has been an amazing journey. I’ve always had a real love for people;and especially people who are going through really difficult times. We are working with people that society doesn’t want to bother with. I’ve had clients who have been involved in paramilitaries. Some people wash their hands of these folks but their only hope is in Christ.”
Beauty from Brokenness
During a CAP conference in England in 2016, Jacqueline experienced another miraculous “coincidence.” Exactly 40 years to the day after she had begun to pray for the young men arrested for the murder of her mother’s fiancé, someone at the conference mentioned a Northern Irish pastor working with a church in Liverpool. This pastor was the man convicted of Desi’s murder who had given his life to Jesus while in prison.
“I got to meet Billy and his wife,” Jacqueline shared. “That day, we both reached out our hands and the next moment I was giving him a hug. When you pray for someone for so many years, there is no hatred. He has spent his life going into prisons and schools warning young people not to get involved in gangs.
“I had a million questions for him. I found out that his father had been murdered by the IRA when he was just 12 years old and after that his family was consumed with hatred. He was 17 when he shot Desi. He’d been told (wrongly) that Dessie was a police informant.”
The most difficult thing for Jacqueline was telling her mum about meeting Billy. “Desi was the love of her life and yet she was so gracious. ‘Back in them days, the wee fellas did what they were told,’ she told me.”
The problem of debt, so prevalent among the people Jacqueline is seeking to support, is often just a symptom of deeper issues such as sexual abuse, domestic violence, addiction, mental illness and depression. “My story is not unusual. The stuff I have been through is all too common in our society, even though it is often the best-kept secret.
“I love Jesus because He first loved me. My mum told me that I was conceived when my dad came home from the pub one night and raped her. My mum might have thought I was a mistake. My dad may have rejected me. But God’s word says, ‘I saw you when you were knit together in your mother’s womb.’ That gives me hope. I am not a mistake. I’m not unloved. We are living in such a broken world but He has a good plan for each of us.”