Sioni grew up experiencing ongoing sexual abuse perpetrated by her adulterous mother’s boyfriend and an older brother. It’s difficult to imagine a mother ignoring the repeated raping of an elementary-aged daughter or later selling her pre-teen daughter into prostitution.
Although Sioni has a story of redemption, as an adult she was also extremely “damaged” while attempting to raise two small children on her own. In addition to the challenges of deep poverty, the only reference she had to what it meant to be a mother came from her own highly dysfunctional mother.
Scheila, Sioni’s daughter, spent her childhood living a life of trauma. Her mother prostituted herself in order to provide the barest of meals and a place to live. Scheila was a witness to the men, the abuse, and the pain. If that wasn’t traumatizing enough, she also became a generational victim of sexual abuse.
“She made a lot of mistakes as a mother,” Scheila says of Sioni. “And through some of those decisions, I also ended up being sexual abused by a relative. Richard (Scheila’s step-father) came into our lives when I was 13, and things got better, but by that time, I was extremely rebellious.”
“Rebellious” is a nebulous term, but in Scheila’s case her “rebellion” included drugs, sex, and felonies. She moved out of her parents’ New Jersey home and out to the West Coast. She ultimately ended up living on the streets and committing crimes in order to eat until one day she found herself in a Washington-state county jail facing a sentence of 7 to 14 years for second-degree armed robbery.
It’s not hard to trace the source of Scheila’s rebellion. Sioni says by age 12 Scheila was openly defiant, and even as a young child, she lied profusely. However, she was unaware of the molestation of her daughter, that Scheila says was taking place for as long as she could remember, until she was 11.
“I was in such denial,” Sioni admits quietly. “I was not well myself, either, and here was my story repeating itself and I didn’t have the right tools to help her.”
FORGIVENESS: A JOURNEY
The atrocities committed against Sioni as a child and as an adult led to Scheila experiencing emotional trauma and sexual abuse. It should come as no surprise that Scheila didn’t want anything to do with her mother or step-father, much less their god.
“From her earliest years, I was crying for that girl so much and praying to God,” Sioni says. “As she got older, she did everything in her power to destroy her life . . . everything I said to do, she did in the opposite way.”
When Scheila was arrested for armed robbery at the age of 18, she spent seven months in a county jail. Sioni reached out to more than 100 churches in Washington to send someone to visit her daughter. One minister responded.
“Pastor George visited me once a week, every week,” Scheila says. “He became that voice and vessel for a seed to be planted and watered. My anger toward God began to soften — someone besides my mother saw the potential God saw in me.”
Although Scheila didn’t turn her life over to God at that point, she could see Him working — and knew He was real when her sentence was unexpectedly reduced to 18 months, including time served. Once out, however, she went right back to her old friends and old ways and was back in prison almost immediately, before once again being released.
Despite Sioni’s lack of skills when it came to mothering, she clung desperately to God for His help and stayed faithful in her love for her daughter, despite the hurt.
“I never turned my back on her — I loved her through it,” she says. “As a person, sometimes you make mistakes. I had to ask her forgiveness at one point, but the key is not turning your back on your children. You can love them, but it doesn’t mean what they’re doing is right.”
Shortly after being released a second time, God sent a couple to knock at Scheila’s door. They ended up taking her to church where the prayers of her mother, Pastor George, her step-father, and countless others were answered; she gave her life to Christ.
“On my way to the church, I prayed, ‘Lord, if You are real, let this preaching hit me hard.’” Scheila recalls. “The pastor spoke about rebuilding what was destroyed and the Spirit used him to speak on things that only I knew about — and it was in a congregation of 500 people or so!”
When the altar call was given, Scheila says she ran to the front — she was exhausted from running from the Lord and wanted the same type of relationship her mother and Pastor George had with God.
“When I walked out of the church, it felt like I was floating — my life was transformed,” Scheila says.
Scheila moved back to the East Coast and reunited with Sioni and Richard. She attended seminary, attained a Master of Theology, and has been happily married to Khalil Singley for eight years, with a 7-year-old daughter of their own, Xianni
REDEEMING THE PAIN
The experiences Sioni, 50, and Scheila, 30, suffered might seem like nightmares they would want to avoid revisiting at all costs. But instead, they use those experiences to reach other women who are now hurting.
Through Sioni and Richard’s home church, Pleasant Valley Assembly of God in Brodheadsville, Pennsylvania, the couple now lead a very successful prison ministry, with Scheila assisting. Sioni and Scheila minister to women inmates and Richard, the men.
Scott Carver, 45, is lead pastor at Pleasant Valley AG. He shares that prior to the pandemic, the ministry was conducting eight to 10 services every week at prisons — most of which were at least an hour away.
“Richard and Sioni are a blessing,” he says. “They truly are committed to the work of the Lord and have proven to be trustworthy in their ministry. It’s evident in how God blesses that ministry.”
One of the keys to their ministry is that Sioni and Scheila are transparent about the word “forgiveness” and what the Bible instructs.
“When women [who were in their prison Bible studies] are released, one of the first things many want to do is get revenge on a person for putting them there,” Sioni says. “Instead, we point them toward forgiveness, but it’s not easy; it’s not natural to forgive. I tell them forgiveness does not free the offender; it sets you free.”
The pair of women know that difficulty firsthand.
Sioni and Scheila have come to learn that the adage “forgive and forget” is not a biblical directive. Yes, forgiveness is a biblical mandate, however forgetting atrocities committed against one’s self or those loved, is not.
“Forgiveness is an everyday battle,” Scheila explains. “I still struggle at times, but every day you’re forgiving more; God is chipping away every day through prayer and meditating on the love you now have for Him and all the amazing things He has done — His love helps coat and silence that pain.”
Sioni agrees, noting that forgiveness is easier for some more than others. However, the stories Sioni and Scheila have to share speak volumes to the women they work with — for if Sioni and Scheila can forgive, the possibility of them forgiving also exists.
“I just received a letter this week from a former inmate who after two years is now reconciling with her mother,” Sioni says. “Forgiveness takes time, but what I tell women is that if they want to tear down the wall between them and God, they need to forgive, just as He forgives them.”
Both Sioni (Three Times Sold) and Scheila (Rebuilding What Was Destroyed) have written books, which they use in their prison ministry efforts. The books open doors of hope to imprisoned and recently released women’s hearts and minds as they reveal the depths to which the mother-daughter pair lives’ sank, but which God has now miraculously redeemed.
HOPE FOR THE HOPELESS
Carver notes that the Rodriguezes live a life of redemption, inside and outside the prison walls.
“They’re very committed to not just reaching people in the prisons, but in their everyday life,” he says. “They are committed to leading people to Christ and they’re consistent with that.”
However, Sioni and Scheila recognize that for individuals in situations similar to their experiences, there are no easy answers and escaping the bitterness and pain can appear to be hopeless. Sioni believes the way to recovery begins with prayer.
“Pray that God will give you someone you can trust,” she says. “In my case, I didn’t trust anybody — if people tried to show love, I’d think, You’re a fake, you lie, you just want to hurt me . . . So pray that God will reveal to you someone who you can trust, who loves you, and can help you place your trust in Him.”
PHOTO: Scheila Singley (left) and mom, Sioni Rodriguez