When Debbie and Tim Shultz met during the summer of 1984, the only thing that could have prepared them for the next three decades of life and love was their faith.
Almost from the outset of their relationship, there was pain—an unspoken pain that came in the unexpected form of an abortion.
Tim was a preacher’s kid, and Debbie had grown up with Christianity as the underpinning of her home life. As teens, they hit it off at an all-star basketball game, and after nine months of dating, they knew they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together.
In 1986, Tim was living in Mississippi and Debbie was preparing to play basketball and continue her education at the University of Evansville in Indiana on a full-ride scholarship. The summer before school started, Debbie moved to Mississippi to be with Tim.
That summer, Debbie found out she was pregnant, and the couple’s lives turned upside down.
“The words, ‘Congratulations, you’re pregnant,’ which are obviously supposed to bring joy and excitement, brought fear, and, ‘Oh my gosh. What are we going to do?’” Debbie said. “Just a lot of shame. First of all, having sex before marriage went against everything that I held true and dear.”
The fear of letting other people down—their families, Debbie’s teammates, and their church leaders—plagued their consciences. Also at stake was Debbie’s college scholarship—something which her parents could not afford the cost of replacing.
So they made the decision to have an abortion when Debbie was about eight weeks pregnant.
Although Debbie doesn’t remember what the abortion was like, she does remember the pain that followed on the one-hour journey home.
Cramping besieged her abdomen.
“With every bump that Tim hit as he drove me home was excruciating pain,” she said. “I don’t know why I don’t remember the rest, but by the grace of God I don’t.”
After the abortion, a veil of silence fell over the couple as they tucked its memory away.
“We just thought we could move on with our lives like nothing ever happened and stuff it down and not tell anybody,” said Debbie. “And so, we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t tell anybody.”
A few weeks later, Debbie and Tim moved to Evansville so Debbie could start school. While there, Debbie excelled, eventually being inducted into the university’s hall of fame as an all-star basketball player.
In 1987, the couple married, something they both remember as a joyous occasion.
“We were very thankful that we were able to get married and make that commitment to God and not carry all the guilt anymore, again thinking that everything would just fall away—we wouldn’t have to think about the abortion anymore,” Debbie said.
But the abortion continued to hover over their lives.
When Debbie suffered a miscarriage a year into their marriage, the pain came surging back into her memory.
“All of the guilt and condemnation of the enemy came rushing back to the surface,” she said. “That, ‘This is the punishment you deserve, God is mad at you. You don't deserve to be a mother after what you've done.’”
“And all those lies just pummelled me,” said Debbie. “And I unfortunately believed those, but I kept it to myself and just internalized everything. I was so isolated because there was no one to talk to about it. And so I struggled with that.”
In dealing with the heartbreak of their miscarriage and the unspoken grief of their abortion, Debbie and Tim’s marriage faltered.
“The foundation of our marriage was already cracked,” said Debbie. “The trust that marriages are built upon, that foundation, already had a crack in it, and that crack was growing. Our relationship began to struggle by keeping this secret, by having this wedge between us.”
Even when the couple’s first son was born in 1990, Debbie continued to be haunted by the abortion.
“I remember holding him and having such joy, but this nagging in the back of my mind said, ‘You don’t deserve this baby, you're never going to be a good mother,’” she said. “Again, I believed that and it really impacted my self-worth, and I felt unworthy of love, of God’s love. It impacted our relationship, of course, and my relationship with God.”
The couple entered a phase of mere coexistence, still unmarked by any communication about the trauma of their past.
“You have to understand—we weren’t talking about this to anyone,” Tim said. “We weren't talking about it to each other, much less anyone else at all. So it was just this looming heaviness that... you’re trying to move on with your life, you're trying to do work, trying to do all things on the outside that you're supposed to be doing. But the reality is, there’s this deep dark pain and shame and we didn’t even talk about it between ourselves.”
Soon the Shultzes were parents of two more children, and their marriage was crumbling.
“If divorce would have been an option for us, we would not still be together today,” Debbie said. “But by the grace of God again, He was the glue that kept us together.”
In 1997, that grace took hold of them both. That year, the death of a friend who wasn’t a believer rocked Tim’s world. Reeling from that loss, Tim recommitted his life to God.
“From that point on, we both really just began seeking God individually and wanting more of the Lord—still not really addressing the abortion issue, just wanting God,” Debbie said. “We wanted more of His love. As we each individually grew closer to God, we grew closer to each other as a result.”
By 2000, the couple had two more children, making them the parents of five children on earth.
During that time, Debbie found herself at church praying one evening. Somewhere in her, she felt a wall blocking her from the Lord.
“God, I just want to get closer to you,” her heart cried out. “And I remember God just speaking so gently into my heart, and said, ‘You need to forgive yourself for the abortion.’”
The response floored her.
“I was really shocked because again, I had stuffed (the abortion) so far down," she said. “I really didn't think about it, even though there were ways that it was affecting me.”
“So I just prayed a very simple prayer and I said, ‘Okay, God, I forgive myself for the abortion,’” continued Debbie. “And I seriously felt that wall crash down in my spirit, like it just tumbled down and I immediately stepped upon that wall and toward the Lord. And that was really the beginning of my healing—that one defining moment when I forgave myself.”
That night, she told one person her story, but still felt bound by her secret. It wasn’t until two years later at a women’s retreat that she would find real healing and freedom.
“I just went hungry for more of God and I told Him, ‘Okay, God, do in me whatever you want to do. I give you permission, whatever it is,’” she said.
Abortion was far from her mind when she prayed that prayer. But in a monumental moment, some women who were leading the retreat began praying over Debbie.
“They prayed against the spirit of heaviness, of shame and guilt,” she said, noting that the women still knew nothing about her abortion. “God just really used them to break those things off of my life.”
Debbie’s whole being was overcome.
“I just started weeping,” she said. “And the tears just poured out of me. It was like the 15 years of toxic poison that had been locked up inside of me just came pouring out through my tears. I don’t know how long I cried, but it was a long time. I’m sure I had a big puddle at my feet.”
With that, Debbie was transformed.
“Afterwards, I felt free,” she said. “It was an incredible—I don’t want to say ‘feeling’ because it wasn’t just an emotion. It was a transformation. It seriously was like the weight had been lifted off of me. The shackles were broke off of me, my hands, my mouth. And I immediately wanted to tell everybody that was there at the retreat about the abortion and what God had just done. So I knew that I was free because, again, that wasn’t something I was willing to do before that.”
After Debbie shared her story with the group, the pastor asked her to share it with the congregation of about 300 people the next Sunday. She agreed.
“We went from not even talking about it to each other and it never being on the radar to—‘Guess what? We’re gonna stand up in front of everyone and we’re gonna spill the beans,’” said Tim, who was associate pastor of the church at the time. “‘We’re gonna trust God here and we’re gonna just do what He tells us to do.’ We had made a covenant between us and the Lord and between each other that, if God asks us to do something, we’re gonna say, ‘Yes.’”
That “yes” was life-changing for Tim.
“Debbie was standing up there and she was sharing her story and I was sitting in the back just weeping,” he said. “The Lord was showing me that she was un-robing the shame. I just see her standing there with this robe of shame falling to the floor around her feet, no longer covering her.
“She was totally transformed, which then transformed me, gave me the freedom then to be transformed to be able to speak about it,” he said. “So together, we started sharing the story anytime God would give us the opportunity. We would just say, ‘Yes,’ whether it was one person or a thousand. We just wanted to share and make sure people understand that if you embrace the grace of God, He is enough. He is for us, not against us. Abortion is not the unforgivable sin.”
After the service, people came to thank Debbie for sharing her story, admitting that they had similar experiences.
Shortly after sharing with the congregation, Debbie had a vision. In that vision, she saw a sea of women standing in a field, as far as the eye could see.
“God again spoke into my heart and said, ‘All of these women are hurting from the pain of abortion, and I want to use you to help them find healing,’” she remembered. “And so, that’s my life calling, what I believe is our destiny: where God wants to transform and take what the devil meant for evil and turn it into good and give it beauty for ashes and bring Him glory through all of this.”
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First Step Women's Center
Following her transformation, Debbie began volunteering at a pregnancy help center as a peer counselor. In 2008, without any cash on hand, she and Tim opened their own pregnancy center, Lifetime Pregnancy Help Center in Springfield, Illinois.
“God proved himself so faithful every step of the way, to provide financially, to provide the staff,” Debbie said.
Since its humble beginnings, the center has experienced profound growth.
Now known as First Step Women's Center, the center was converted into a medical clinic in 2014. A few years later, First Step purchased a mobile medical unit to reach college campuses, and this September, they purchased a brand-new building, catapulting the center’s square footage from 1,200 square feet to 9,500 square feet.
In this new location, the Shultzes believe they can serve three times the number of at-risk women they are serving—a critical goal in a city whose local Planned Parenthood performs abortions through 19 weeks and 6 days.
Last year, 131 at-risk mothers chose life after visiting First Step. So far in 2019, close to 160 women have chosen life.
“We don’t want to keep this to ourselves”
While First Step continues to save lives, Debbie and Tim have zeroed in on how they can continue serving women and men who are seeking healing from abortion.
This July, Debbie stepped away from her role as executive director of First Step and into the role of board chairman. Now living in Tennessee with Tim’s 91-year-old parents, the couple has been married 32 years and is talking openly about the secret that once threatened their marriage.
Today, they are following God’s next calling and pursuing full-time ministry in abortion recovery.
Debbie continues to lead abortion recovery retreats in Illinois and is hoping to initiate some in Tennessee through the post-abortion recovery ministry Surrendering the Secret.
As the year closes, the couple has nearly completed the manuscript for a book about their journey to healing. Next month, the Shultzes will tell their story as part of Silent No More at the March for Life in Washington, D.C.
Looking back at the last three decades, the Shultzes find themselves filled with gratitude for all God has given them, especially their children and grandchildren.
“After coming out of that story and just feeling the pain of all of those decisions, and to now be able to look back, I’m just so thankful,” Tim said. “I just want to make sure that people understand that God is good, man. He really is for you. And so we want to help people embrace that grace after abortion and just take a chance on God see what he’ll do with their lives.”
For the Shultzes, their freedom is worth sharing with the world.
“The only reason we’re doing that is to of course honor God and be obedient,” Debbie said, “but to help other men and women find healing.”
“We don’t want to keep this to ourselves,” she said. “God has set us free. We want to help others find the same freedom that we found and even beyond that.”