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Two photos side by side. The first is older and features Kal Otis as a young girl. The second is her smiling as an adult, knowing she was made in God's image.
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Journey to Beloved: Knowing We’re Made in God’s Image

Kal Otis tells her unforgettable story of hopelessness and redemption and how finding out she’s made in God’s image changed her life forever.

Children are a gift from God. But I grew up believing that being born was a curse, not a gift.

I was born in Texas to traditional Indian parents. A year before my birth, my brother died in childbirth, which sent my mother into deep depression. My birth—rather than being something to celebrate—magnified her despair.

Why?

Driven by cultural stigma, she was bent on having a boy—never, ever a girl. My father later explained to me that my birth was greeted with condolences and ill remarks from relatives who deemed my mother a cursed failure. My father was actually forced to hire a nanny because my mom refused to mother me.


Unwanted and Blamed

I have a clear memory of not being wanted, especially after my younger brother was born. I, like any child, yearned to be held, hugged, and told those three powerful words: “I love you” by my mother.

Instead, my father was brutally upfront about my mother’s feelings toward me, and after a while, she was, too. I grew up hearing “I wish you were never born” so frequently that it began to shape my identity as a curse, wholly unwanted. The older I got, the more progressively angry I became. I couldn’t understand how being a girl was my fault. In my desperate pursuit of being wanted and earning my mother’s love, I started behaving like a boy.

It was an extreme identity crisis, and I had no one to talk to.

My parents had planned on settling long-term in the United States. However, my mom became increasingly adamant about not wanting to raise a girl in America. My father had a very prestigious position as a professor at Texas A&M University. After years of arguing, they uprooted our entire life and moved to India when I was 12. Their decision to undergo this enormous change was based solely on my existence. That meant that I carried the full weight of their decision, despite having no voice in it, especially after we arrived in India. My father would never secure a job in his field, which had a terrible impact on his masculinity and ultimately on the rest of our family. My mother constantly reminded me that my dad (and therefore our whole family) was unhappy—because of me.

Alienated Among Aliens

The contrast between the two countries assaulted my senses immediately when we arrived in India. The blaring car horns, exhaust fumes, high-pitched Bollywood music, and unrecognizable speech patterns confused me. The foul stench emanating from infested water streams and sewage was wretched. I recall that first drive along unpaved roads at a painfully slow speed. I spotted kids dressed in rags. They were squatting by the water banks drinking from foul, green water. It was all shockingly unfamiliar—and miserable. Kids ran toward our car with grubby, outstretched hands begging for food. Huts built of cow dung and mud lined the streets in every village we drove through. My heart was torn over the plight of these innocent children, clearly suffering.

A preteen Kal Otis swinging on a vine in rural India.After a three-hour journey, our car pulled up in front of my new home—a humble, modest house in front of a slum. As soon as my feet touched the ground, a little boy navigated his way to us, stomach-down, on an old skateboard. He pulled his body along with his arms. He had no legs. When our eyes met, he tugged on my dress and begged for money. I started to cry, feeling his pain and my own. My aunt jerked me away.

That day I got my first lesson in human trafficking. Parents with no means to raise their children sell them to organized crime groups. Additionally, thousands of children are kidnapped and intentionally disabled, then forced to work as beggars for these groups. They’re not allowed to keep their earnings or go to school, and they’re often starved to evoke sympathy.

Oppressed

In India, I quickly found myself dealing with a new identity crisis. My inability to speak the language, dress like my cousins or understand culture made me a target of ridicule from my extended family as well as kids at my school. My American lifestyle appeared rebellious and disrespectful to everyone. In my desperation to belong and not be rejected, I started to change how I talked, dressed and behaved in short order. The process of stripping away everything about myself made me feel lonely and numb. Now, instead of only the voices within my immediate family, multiple voices began to reinforce what my mother had ingrained in me: “You’re just a girl. You have no rights, no voice. Your life has brought a curse to our entire family.”

A quote reading “You’re just a girl. You have no rights, no voice. Your life has brought a curse to our entire family.”

My life was oppressive. What I would come to understand, but not accept, is that all females, including my mother, were victims of their culture. They believed they were a curse and their only hope for a new identity hinged on their ability to produce a son. In addition, the dowry system in India is a poor identity constructor for girls in its societies. It requires extraordinary financial resources to marry off the girls. And when there are multiple females in a family, it becomes difficult to survive financially. Sons bring stability and security during parents’ old age, as well as income generated by marriage dowries. The burden is so great that before I graduated high school, two of my closest friends committed suicide to free their families from accumulating debt to pay dowry. Like these friends, I viewed myself as a burden and I wanted to end my life.

God’s Not Here

As the years went on, I became increasingly restless about the social injustice toward children, especially girls. Once I was in college, I started volunteering my time at the local orphanage and in a slum. Both experiences exposed me to excruciatingly painful realities that made me question whether God could possibly exist.

Since girls aren’t wanted, they were often thrown out or killed after birth. Baby boys born with deformities or severe medical conditions had the same fate. Our work was to search for discarded babies on the streets, in trash cans, and on railroad tracks. We brought them to the orphanage. Endless cribs lined the rooms, each housing three to four babies. Caring hands were sparse, and I witnessed babies dying and being mistreated. I learned that parents who had the financial resources would abort girls by illegally employing physicians to perform fetal sex-determination and sex-selective abortion.

Want to help, I started volunteering at a local slum twice per week to teach kids how to read and write. I found myself falling in love with those children. And they looked forward to my visits. One day, I realized that kids were going missing—and never returning. I was shocked to discover that those kids were systematically dying from malnutrition and poor living conditions. This drove me over the edge. I decided then that there was no God. If God really existed, he would not allow such suffering, especially in children who had no control over their circumstances.

The Strong Defender

I returned alone to America after I graduated college to pursue a master’s degree in child development and family relations. When I completed that degree, I started teaching kindergarten.

At random one day, I invited myself to my landlady’s church. It sounds laughable when I think about it, since I’d long since denounced God’s existence.

At the beginning of the service, the pastor asked people to greet one another. My invisible walls shot up, and I stood there stiff and uncomfortable. A total stranger walked up to me, gave me a bear hug, and whispered, “God loves you” with such sincerity that my entire body tingled. There I was, standing in the middle of hundreds of strangers, hearing and feeling what I’d longed for my entire life. A dam broke inside me. And 15 minutes later, my entire world titled on its axis. The pastor was on vacation, so a guest speaker from Africa was preaching. He said God loves the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows, and forgotten. He expounded on how God’s heart breaks for them and that he’s their strong defender, calling his people to defend them on his behalf.

I was in awe and filled with a holy fear. How could someone I’d never met answer all the deep questions I’d been chasing for years? For the rest of his sermon, no one else existed but God’s messenger and me. Something supernatural happened. I was overcome by peace, love, understanding, mercy, grace, and, above all, a truth that altered my perceptive. I walked away with a new identity and a strong life mission.

Life With Jesus

That day, Jesus became my Savior, and I couldn’t wait to share my news with everyone, including strangers. My excitement was met with joy by many of my friends—and disappointment by my parents. They ostracized me for the next seven years because my conversion brought them even more shame. They believed my faith was a phase and I would get over it.

As painful as their decision was, those years of alienation provided a sacred space to immerse myself in God’s Word and discover a family with his people. I loved reading God’s Word and discovering truths about who He is and who I am to him. It’s where I discovered that I was in God’s mind before the foundations of the earth were formed. This made me feel beautiful. Nothing about me was a mistake. I was fearfully and wonderfully made in my God’s image.

Knowing the truth didn’t always keep me from wrestling with God about my past. It wasn’t easy; the temptation to run from my history and forget about it was strong. In fact, I discovered that people in the Bible had tried this, too. But like them, I’ve found that it’s in our past that God wants to meet us. Revisiting the past was a long and exhausting process—yet I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. My journey through my life history was what brought healing, answers, and freedom.

Ministry with Mission

Today, my story fuels my life’s mission. I don’t want any child to go through what I’ve experienced. Kids need to know the truth about what God says about their identity in him. I also want them to feel safe, loved, and valued. I’m tenacious in this resolve, which has repeatedly afforded me the strength to forge through tremendous obstacles and fight for this vision that God has deeply embedded in my heart. Here are ways my story has influenced what I do and how I lead my team.

Ever-Present Truth

Besides teaching weekly Bible lessons, I want children to hear a few “image influencing” basic truths like “God loves you” and “Jesus is here for you” every week. And whether the teaching material calls for it or not, it’s also equally important to share the Gospel in creative ways regularly.

Safe Environments

We not only work at keeping kids physically safe, but we also strive to create environments all the way through high school where kids are surrounded by consistent leaders which make them feel safe. We train leaders on hot topics and create spaces where kids can ask tough questions and openly share issues they’re wrestling with.

Unquestionably Loved

I love to hug (or high five) kids and tell them I love them. It’s amazing to watch how their faces light up. Kids learn about their Heavenly Father and his love through consistent care from both their parents and our team. Kids need to hear, see, and feel love to understand God’s love. Authentic and committed volunteers are key to making kids feel loved. This is why the majority of our small-group leaders move up with their kids starting in 1st grade through high school. I’ve had the honor of experiencing the joy and the fruit of leading a group of girls since 2nd grade. They’re now in their third year of college, and I continue to share a rich relationship with each of them and their parents.

Value and Purpose

When I learned I was made in the image of God, it transformed me. It’s a mind-blowing concept with the potential to bring deep value to how each of us views ourselves. For me, this realization gave birth to new hope and a new identity. I want kids to see their value and use their God-given gifts to fulfill their purpose. For this reason, I’m committed to equipping parents and giving them practical tools to teach their kids they have value and to help them discover their purpose.

Even though I continue to wrestle with my past from time to time, my heart echoes what David said: “Let my crushed bones rejoice.” I delight because God has brought redemption, healing, and divine purpose from my shattered story. Where I once saw myself as an alien orphan, I now see myself as God’s beloved daughter. Where I once saw myself as a mistake, I now know that I was masterfully knitted together in my mother’s womb for a purpose. And God uses my story to change someone else’s.

A headshot of Kal today.Kal Otis is the owner of Creative Ministry Group Consultants as well as the family and children’s pastor at South Park Church in Park Ridge, Illinois. She’s passionate about equipping next generation leaders.

Want more articles for children’s ministry leaders? Check these out.


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