Today, I am so pleased to share with you my conversation with Bonnie Gray, author of Sweet Like Jasmine. Ms. Gray has such a special heart that I was immediately drawn to and connected with. As we chatted, she shared so much that inspired my heart, and I pray it will inspire yours. Her book goes deep into what it feels like to feel unwanted, cultural divides, beauty and femininity, and healing through going back to the past. I pray you are blessed by our conversation and that you will pick up her book. It makes a great and interesting read and a lovely gift.
We talked about how faith can help us fall apart, healing, witnessing, loneliness, and the most important parts of our story. We look closely at Ms. Gray’s anxiety, and the moments in Jesus’ own experience with anxiety.
Hoping you all walk away from reading this knowing you are fragrant, beautiful, sweet and unique like jasmine. Thank you, Ms. Gray and Icon Media Group for making this interview possible.
If you have been following Modern Witnesses at all, you know we love stories. We believe stories change the world, and they change us. Ms. Bonnie Gray spoke to us on the importance of stories:
Bonnie Gray (“BG”): I really wanted to write something honest because when I was growing up, I didn’t have any safe spaces. My own home was toxic; my own home was telling me to be quiet and stay silent– that nobody cared how I felt. That wasn’t a part of my world, and I never even knew there was something that existed outside of just, “If you do open your mouth make sure it’s something that is helpful for somebody else. If it’s something where you are upset, just keep it to yourself. I don’t want your questions. I don’t need to know how you are feeling and how you are doing.” I never even knew there was anything outside of that; all I knew was my own home.
My first friends, and my true friends, have always been books. Specifically, I was drawn to voices of color because, for whatever reason, I felt that voices of color were always honest, more honest in a way that I felt connected. I felt like I wasn’t on some other planet and people talked about stories of pain and heartbreak and fear and loneliness, and yet I could see beauty because I could be connected in that moment.
I love this quote by James Baldwin:
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”
I have been wanting to write this book, Gabriela, for 10 years—when I first found my birth certificate, and I decided I needed to stop running away from my story. I needed to stop running away from the fear that I had that I really wasn’t wanted– my father didn’t care about me; why would he not come back? Why did he leave me?
We often tell ourselves stories to get us through our hard times. I would think, Maybe he has cancer. Maybe he wants to come back but my mother, who is toxic, wouldn’t allow him to see me. I would check the mailbox when it was my birthday, secretly, hoping, maybe I would get a card. Maybe my mom might be hiding his letters to me. We kind of make up those stories where we are loved, and we are wanted. But, you know, I never found any card or letter from him.
I even waited until I was 18. I held out hope. I thought, Maybe my mom was so toxic that my father is waiting for me to turn 18, and he will come back for me, and I wrote about that in Sweet Like Jasmine. I was looking out in the crowd thinking, “Ok, he’ll come back for me, and some man is going to walk up to me and say, ‘Bonnie, I am so proud of you. I am your father.’” But no one came out of the crowd. That’s when I said, “You know what? This is a childish desire, to reunite with my father.” I was 18, the first time I went on a plane. I had never even been to Los Angeles, nobody in my family went to college—they didn’t even graduate from high school, and so the first time I went to UCLA was the first time I ever saw the campus.
Things other kids grew up having like, “Oh we go with our kids to find colleges”; I didn’t even have a credit card because we grew up below the poverty line. I think now you can get a card—
MW: I think it’s easier now. Now, they even have cards for kids.
BG: Yeah, so when I was growing up, you couldn’t get a card unless your parents had a card, and then your parents could only get a card if they had a job. My mom was cutting hair in our kitchen for cash. There was no record. We weren’t legitimate, meaning I couldn’t even get a credit card, so it was just like, I couldn’t rent a car to drive down there—you know these are things that people don’t realize.
The reason why I wrote this book, Gabriela, is that we need to tell our honest stories if we want to have a voice and shine God’s light. Nobody needs to be told how to live their lives; nobody needs to be told that there is a better way. I think that stories are what people are longing for. They want to find themselves in a story and find that their stories have meaning, and that there is purpose in their pain. That’s not something you can tell somebody; that’s only something you can show somebody by coming alongside them and letting them see your life and letting them see who you are—all aspects of yourself. Unless we do that, no one is going to share their heart or their story with us.
I never have to struggle to reach somebody’s heart because God has given each of us a light. Jesus said, “You are the light,” you have to put your life and light on a lampstand, and it will provide light.
Coming out of the pandemic, everyone is lonely in a different way. We have all gone through things that are internal that being problem solvers, being resilient, all of those things cannot solve this need and longing and desire for us to feel understood.
Stories and honesty are how we are going to be able to share our light.
“They want to find themselves in a story and find that their stories have meaning, and that there is purpose in their pain. That’s not something you can tell somebody; that’s only something you can show somebody by coming alongside them and letting them see your life and letting them see who you are—all aspects of yourself.”
BG: On my trip here, I was sitting next to this guy who was from the East coast, and he was coming to watch the Dallas Cowboys play football. We were just sitting there, waiting for our flight. He asked me, “Where are you going?”
And I immediately, within the third sentence said, “I am here because I just wrote a book, and it’s about my life. I grew up in a broken home. My father left when I was seven, and I didn’t know where he was or why he left, and I didn’t care about it, but I realized later, when I had my own kids that, you know, one day they are going to ask me, ‘Where is grandpa?’ And I won’t know what to tell them, and they are going to ask me, ‘Why don’t you know?’ and I felt that sense of shame for the first time. Why don’t I know? How can I tell me kids that I don’t know and I never found out why.”
And here is this man– I don’t know him, and he said, “I totally relate to that. We all have a story, and we may not want to talk about it. Why talk about it?” And I was like, “Exactly! So for you it could be a mom or a dad—why are you saying ‘Yes, I totally see it?’”
So then I sat there, and he shared his story with me. We realized we are two sojourners in human life; our humanity. We find a connection. And of course he is going to be curious. Curiosity is so important. Then, he was like, “So, what happened? What did you find out?”
I said, “I am not the kind of person that wouldn’t want to be strong. That’s how I have overcome things and how I have survived. I don’t look at the things that get me down. I did not choose to go find my father. My attitude was always, ‘who cares’, I moved on. I am a Christian, and I thought that having faith meant that God would help me overcome. I didn’t realize that that wasn’t the whole purpose of faith.”
I said to him, “I don’t know what your faith is, but you will learn later in life that God also uses faith to help us fall apart. Help us to come to terms that I can’t do it all. It takes more faith to fall apart—to face the honest and the truth of our lives, more than it takes faith to pray that it doesn’t happen.”
He was like, “Whoa, what do you mean by that?” I said, “Well, I started having panic attacks. Do you have anxiety? Do you have panic attacks?” I had this conversation with him. “I didn’t choose to go find my father. After I was 18 I said, ‘I am on my own, fine. God is going to help me.’” That kind of resilience was good for a season in my life and God gives us grace to overcome those hard times at that moment. There is nothing shameful in being strong, that’s great, but what we don’t hear about enough in our Christian culture, and as it relates to Modern Witnesses, is that, that isn’t the most powerful part of our story. That’s like starting at the mountaintop. That’s all we talk about– the mountain top, but most of life is not lived on the mountain top.
“You will learn later in life that God also uses faith to help us fall apart. Help us to come to terms that I can’t do it all. It takes more faith to fall apart—to face the honest and the truth of our lives, more than it takes faith to pray that it doesn’t happen.”
MW: Absolutely not.
BG: Exactly, and that is loneliness.
I didn’t know it was loneliness until I went through it. If I have to always wait until I accomplish or overcome something, I am pretty lonely along here in the journey. When I started having my panic attacks, I had nobody to talk to about it. Immediately, I felt I would be marked as a broken person and no longer belong to the club of normal people who are changing the world.
“There is nothing shameful in being strong, that’s great, but what we don’t hear about enough in our Christian culture, and as it relates to Modern Witnesses is that, that isn’t the most powerful part of our story.”
MW: Your book resonated a lot with me because I recognize that, you are right, there is a time for strength and there are things we have to get through just to get to the other side. I agree, and I love that, that God uses faith to help us fall apart. That is beautifully said. I have seen so many books and so much in our culture that is focused on moving on and moving past, but your book is about finding healing in revisiting elements of the past. Why was this important for you to share?
BG: I think it’s threefold. I started having anxiety and panic attacks when I was already very successful in life, meaning the cookie-cutter American dream. I had a loving husband, two beautiful boys, I already was a career woman for 15 years. I was an engineer computer science graduate from one of the top two computer engineering schools in the country. I was a missionary. I did everything that I felt would exercise my faith. The Christian culture message is like, “Oh, you want to show your life is God’s power.” I felt I was doing all these things, and by God’s grace, He uses it all.
If God wants to take us deeper, He is going to take us to those places because that’s where He went Himself. Jesus Himself—His ultimate greatest hour of power was when He fell apart. Scripture says He fell on His face because He was so overwhelmed. As someone who has been through panic attacks and anxiety, when I read that, I was like, Jesus was having anxiety. He was overwhelmed. He fell on His face, and in that moment, He was saying there has to be another way. He brings us back to show us He was there because He doesn’t want us to be lonely. Jesus has never left those places in our lives where we were alone. His desire is not to make us better but to love us deeper.
For some reason, after we become believers we think, “Ok, God’s love drew me to Him,” and then for some reason that ends and we think it’s all about doing things for Jesus. In Revelation, Jesus says, “Return to your first love.” I remember when I read that I said, “I don’t even know what that feels like anymore. What is that first love feeling?”
The way He created our bodies—once we survive those hard times, a lot of us, as believers, don’t understand– we are like, “Why am I feeling brain fog?” “Why am I waking up feeling bad?” “Why am I unable to fall asleep?” What we do is we double up on what we have done in the past—we serve harder, we praise God more, we read the Bible more. Yet Jesus is quietly waiting for us to rest. He says, “Come to me those who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest for your soul,” and we focus on loving God with our minds, and our heart. The greatest command is to love God with our heart, mind and soul. We spend a lot of time with our minds (studying the Scripture and knowing the truth). That is important, but many of us, we just focus on that. That’s not all of it. Second, is our heart. In Scripture, it tells us the heart is the seat of decision making. That’s where our devotion and commitment to make decisions align with the truth. But many of us, and I myself, sort of ignored the soul.
I didn’t understand. I was having panic attacks and I thought I had done everything I needed to do to shine His light. These panic attacks were happening during the most peaceful time in my life. I was so happy because I could finally be a stay-at-home mom and be the mother that I never had. I was like, “Ok, great. I can now create a new story. I don’t like my old story. I like this new story.” My whole life I was driven to create a new story, and I was finally positioned to do it.
I [would be] sleeping. I wasn’t worried about anything, and I would just wake up choking, my throat would narrow, and heart palpitations. I never had them before. It was like a light switch.
“Yet Jesus is quietly waiting for us to rest.”
MW: That’s really scary.
BG: Yeah, I would wake up sometimes with my neck stiff, sometimes hurting. I started having these panic attacks as I was driving. I couldn’t drive. I had no idea what was bothering me, and in fact I just got my first book contract. A childhood dream was coming true because I had always wanted to write but then my mother forbade me and said I was selfish if I were to be an author.
MW: Props to you for the strength you had. There are stories of people having obstacles but then having at least someone at home who believes in them and nurtures that, but you really overcame everything. Your mom loved you in the best way she could, but it was no easy thing for you. Everything you have accomplished is a huge testimony. It’s mind-blowing.
BG: That’s why when I started having panic attacks I felt so shameful. I felt like, “What did I do?” I thought I was obedient. My therapist then told me, “Did you know that verbal and emotional abuse have the same impact as physical abuse?” I didn’t know that. I was 42 years old, and I didn’t know that was true.
I asked, “Why is it happening now? I feel so safe and happy.” And he said, “Did you know that a soldier who is fighting on the battlefield is strong; he is helping; he is being so resourceful—he is not having panic attacks on the battlefield, when he is getting through hard times. It’s when he comes home. It’s because you are safe. You are finally home.”
So many women of faith like us accomplish so much and those are beautiful things. The way God designed our nervous system, the way trauma works is it protects us in the moment. It relaxes and then that is when your body expresses what it could not at the time you are being strong.
This changed my whole direction in life and why I wrote this book and why I wanted to do it. There is so much shame around mental health issues.
My therapist said, “It’s because you have been strong; it’s because you’ve overcome and because your faith is flourishing. Now God is saying it’s time for you to heal.”
It was a new dawn. To be whole, I can’t throw my past or things that have hurt me into the dark.
People say, “Jesus died on the cross, it’s all covered, forget the past.” But I wrote in the book that when Paul said that, “Forgetting the past and strive toward the goal of Christ,” he was talking about his past as a pharisee, about basing his value on what he did. He doesn’t say forget your past, period, like it’s erased.
Faith is not an eraser. Faith is giving us ability to go into those broken places. We are the living temples. God is alive and living. His story of love and peace and healing and redemption and all those wonderful things. He is doing it through our lives.
God made us in a way that our mental health is connected to our ability to tell our stories because if we don’t, we are not going to be well. I know this because I walked through it. I would love to challenge our readers, What would you say to yourself if you gave yourself permission to be more honest than you were comfortable with?
This is the question that became my prayer that allowed me to write this book. I wrote it and placed it next to my computer.
I wrote this book to be honest. We don’t hear this honesty enough from believers. It’s not a memoir of just Bonnie. I chose 28 specific topics of true worth so that the reader can understand him or herself a little more.
“Faith is not an eraser. Faith is giving us ability to go into those broken places.”
MW: That’s a great starting point. Your writing focuses a lot on the concept of beauty, and reminding readers that they are beautiful and God’s masterpiece. What does beauty mean to you?
BG: Before this journey of Sweet Like Jasmine, I felt beauty was a pursuit of ideals and perfection and it was something that I pursued and wanted to model things after. I was looking for beauty outside of myself. Through Sweet Like Jasmine God was like, “I created you in beauty,” I never thought that was true. I thought everything I had was broken or incomplete or ordinary or strange or weird. I get emotional—that is my longing for the reader.
MW: It reached me and it stood out to me over and over again.
BG: This whole concept of beauty was something that no one has talked about yet. It’s one thing to write about my desire and longing for beauty but to talk about it—tears are good. It wasn’t part of my nature to cry before.
I am wearing a very feminine floral outfit now.
MW: You look beautiful. Femininity and beauty is something I am exploring a lot more now.
BG: I don’t know if it’s because I grew up below the poverty line, but what I wore didn’t matter. As long as it fit and it did it’s job, I didn’t care about it. I started changing, and I am glad you are exploring this now. Don’t wait until your 40s. Beauty is a part of my identity I felt I didn’t have. I used to think the words ‘beloved’ and ‘beautiful’ were very cringey; I didn’t like those words. I was like, “Ok, that’s great for you and I cheer you on—that’s good, it’s your thing.”
I said, “If you really want me to do this God, I need something from your Word that tells me this.” And it’s interesting because Ephesians 2:10 says:
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
I used that for so much—to be a missionary, to serve God, to do all these things, but when I looked closer, the root word is “handmade artwork.” We are works of God. It isn’t things you produce, but it’s actually handmade art. It’s artistic. The root word is poema, from where we get poem. There was this other side of me that I didn’t know, but I can say it now—I’m an artist. I am drawn to beauty. I have my own definition of it. I never thought I had room for it, but I was wrong. Everything God creates is so beautiful.
MW: Is there a tradition you and your family keep or engage in?
BG: There are so many traditions that we have, but you will like this one. We like to go hiking, and it’s related to my healing journey because when I was having panic attacks and anxiety I said, “Well, since I am having these panic attacks and anxiety might as well be somewhere beautiful.” I was like, “Let’s go hiking.” We would go to these different hiking trails, and what I do is that I like learning and looking things up. Everyone has to ask a question about something they would like to learn about.
On our drive there, everybody will ask a question, and then one of us will look it up on Wikipedia and look into it.
Previously, I often tried to look at what others were doing to raise a beautiful family but then God is telling me, “No, I made you the mom because I am going to speak through your life– through the things you like,” and I am nerdy. If there is something I don’t know, I like to look it up and talk about it, so that is what we do, and we will take turns.
MW: This is something I love to ask everyone– if you had to define Christianity in a sentence, it would be:
BG: What popped up for me is from Moulin Rouge—“To love and be loved.” Christianity is how God makes beauty out of brokenness, and we share those broken pieces so that we are no longer alone, but we are walking each other home. Home to ourselves and home to one day seeing Jesus again. That’s how I share the gospel.
Check out Sweet Like Jasmine here.
With every order, find a free guided journal to reveal God’s love in your life here: Stories of Faith.
About Bonnie Gray:
Bonnie Gray is the author of Whispers of Rest, Finding Spiritual Whitespace and Sweet Like Jasmine. An inspirational speaker and podcast host of Breathe: The Stress Less Podcast, Bonnie touches thousands of lives using storytelling, soul care, and prayer. Bonnie’s global following of readers come to her for inspiring Christian content in her authentic, unique voice. Her writing has been published and syndicated across a broad online audience. Bonnie lives in California with her husband and two sons.
For more Bonnie Gray, visit: http://www.thebonniegray.com