In Portugal, Yvonne Malone sees a nation where people suffer in silence, knowing something is wrong but unable or unwilling to do anything about it.
The TEAM missionary estimates that 95 percent of people in Portugal suffer from depression at one time or another, due in large part to what she calls a Portuguese reluctance to deal with conflict or express emotions in a healthy way. Malone, who serves at O Caminho Church in Ermesinde with her husband, Clark, says the traditional church doesn’t provide much help, portraying God as distant and uninterested in personal lives. Malone has started a new Christ-focused support group in an effort to help Portuguese women break through these barriers.
“We realized that we needed to have a ministry to help people deal with their inner hurts and their hang-ups, so they can be healed and go through the process of forgiveness and pass that along to other people,” Malone said.
Dealing with inner hurts is a personal issue for Malone. She struggled with depression in the mid-1990s and felt a huge disconnect between her knowledge of biblical truths versus the emotional turmoil she was experiencing. In 1998, Malone sought counseling and began her journey of recovery.
“I realized what false premises I had based my whole Christian life on. I would appear as one thing on the outside, but on the inside, I would be torn up in knots,” Malone said. “God had to take all of that out and put in the solid truth of his love.”
As Malone dealt with her own issues, she felt God nudging her to help heal others. She took counseling courses and began private counseling sessions for church members. Malone also wanted to start support groups for women, who often have little power in Portugal’s male-dominated society, even though most women work full-time in addition to running the household and raising the children. Domestic violence, often fueled by alcohol abuse, is a serious problem. As a result, most women have low self-esteem and don’t believe they deserve help.
“I tell them that they have worth in God,” Malone said. “And I’ve seen that when women become believers, they recognize that they are people of value. It gives them courage to deal with their problems.”
After a number of attempts, Malone was finally able to start a support group for women late last year, modeling it on a successful program being used by a church in Lisbon. The group meets once a week at O Caminho Church. After some tea and snacks, the women discuss questions from a book called “Hurts and Losses.” Gossip is not allowed, as Malone and her co-facilitator emphasize the need for the group to be a safe, private place to share. They also stop the women from giving advice, teaching them instead how to listen and be supportive. The women end each evening by saying the serenity prayer together. Following Malone’s example, they have grown more relaxed with each other and started to open up.
“I think they can sense that I’m real,” Malone said. “It helps them to hear that I’ve been a believer for all these many years, but that I’ve had to wrestle with things and there are things that I’m still working at. I know where they are at, and I’m in the journey together with them – I may be further along in the journey than them – but I’m in the journey with them.”
Malone is encouraged about the progress of the new program, as she can see it already bringing about positive changes in the women’s lives. She hopes this group can be a prototype for future support groups, and believes that a number of the women would even be capable of facilitating their own groups.
“Some beautiful things are happening,” Malone said. “It’s a joy to see these women learn that God is real and there is such a thing as a healthy life.”
-Written by Lisa H. Renninger
-Photo by Robert Johnson