Daja McAtee suffered in silence for over a decade after being sexually abused in elementary and middle school.
“I started becoming a really angry person and hating everyone,” said McAtee, 23. “I didn’t understand why I would go around my other friends and see how they were with their family and think, ‘Why was I born this way or why wasn’t I born in a family that was together?’ It was hard growing up. We moved a lot. We went from living with family members and my mom’s friends where the abuse started. I was surrounded by people I was supposed to be loved by.”
Her suffering led McAtee, a Louisville native, to attempt suicide while visiting a friend in Rhode Island last March.
While recovering in the hospital on her 22nd birthday, God gave her a second chance and a new purpose.
“I woke up in the psych unit,” McAtee added. “I just remember when I woke up, I felt there’s a reason I’m supposed to be alive. They had a small library, and I was looking for a book to read. This one book stood out; it was ‘not a fan’ by Kyle Idelman, and it was all the way in Rhode Island. I didn’t know him or Southeast at the time. I ended up reading the whole book in the hospital. It’s the only thing I had to do. It grabbed my attention. I realized, ‘This whole time I’ve been a fan, not a follower.’ For so long, I felt like I didn’t have anybody, and it just made me realize that the one person I should want love from is God.”
On March 15—exactly one year after attempting suicide—McAtee was scheduled to be baptized at Southeast Christian Church’s Blankenbaker Campus. Though COVID-19 delayed it, she was baptized in July after a Sunday service, surrounded by friends from the College-Age Ministry.
A hard story
McAtee is the oldest of four children on her mother’s side and has 10 siblings on her father’s side.
While her father has been absent for most of her life, her mother worked a lot to support their family, and McAtee helped take care of her younger siblings.
She went to church on and off during her childhood, but considered herself an atheist by middle school.
At Waggener High School, McAtee got good grades, played four sports and worked part time to avoid being home.
“People realized I was trying to avoid going home because I would always want to do activities and be involved in school, so I wouldn’t have to go home,” McAtee said.
She graduated high school in 2016, but despite good grades, she dropped out of Spalding University.
“I pushed people away, and I started hanging out with friends where I ended up going to parties all the time,” McAtee added. “I wasn’t really a drinker, but when I did drink, I would drink so heavy that it would cause me to black out. I just wanted to not feel. I was always hanging out with people I wanted to fit in with and (trying to) be who I’m not. It’s either try to fit in or be by myself. I was doing toxic stuff that wasn’t me. I was running away from my problems. When stuff starts getting hard, I run away from it. I didn’t want to feel the pain.”
After meeting a friend through an online app, McAtee traveled back and forth to Rhode Island for the next three years.
Wings and Jesus
After two hospital stints in Rhode Island, McAtee returned to Louisville and got a job at Wing Stop in August 2019.
It just so happened the owners were Southeast members, and McAtee said, “This was the second sign that I needed to go to church.”
Eddie and Renee Williams, who attend the Crestwood Campus, shared the love of Christ with her.
“When Daja came to us, we immediately recognized her as a nice lady,” said Eddie Williams. “We didn’t know about her story, but pretty early on she shared it with us, and we understood she came from a dark place. We found her as someone who came with integrity. She started as just a cashier and continued to set herself apart by her actions. She’s now the general manager at one of our restaurants. Along the way, we talked to her about Christ and our involvement in the church, but more importantly trying to lead our lives in a way that would point her in that direction. Actions speak louder than words. She was hungry. This is how God works. We invited her to come to church, and she jumped at the chance.”
McAtee hadn’t stepped foot inside a church in years, but right away, First Impressions coordinator Keri Owens connected her with Kayla Sheeran, who leads a girl’s group in Southeast’s College-Age Ministry.
“Daja was looking for community,” said Sheeran, 25. “When she first came, she opened up very quickly and vulnerably about her story. It was really beautiful how she shared with the girls in the group. For her to get baptized showed others she’s committed. I remember being with her on a camping trip in July and she said, ‘We need to share Jesus with the people here.’ It’s been really encouraging to me. To walk so closely with a story like that, I felt really blessed that she saw me as someone safe to be around.”
McAtee also attended Movement Night and Navigate, CAM’s weekly, interactive group on Sunday mornings.
“I remember sitting at a table in Navigate by myself and everybody’s like, ‘Hey, can I sit here?’ I was like, ‘Wow. I’ve never experienced that because I always felt I’m not going to know anybody. Nobody’s going to sit by me. I finally found some people where I didn’t feel alone. I remember thanking God that I went through so much, and I’m finally at a point in life where I turned myself around back to Him and started believing in Him.”
The Williamses were in their pajamas at home, watching SE Online on Sunday, July 5, when McAtee asked if they’d baptize her after service.
“Renee and I got in the car and drove faster than I would like to admit,” Eddie Williams said. “Let’s just say we drove rapidly, and we’re honored to take part in her baptism. Having the privilege of baptizing someone is special. Daja’s been off to the races ever since. She’s a part of the family. My wife, Renee, calls her the daughter she never had.”
McAtee now serves with CAM.
“I’ve been serving with CAM, and it’s been on my heart to do ministry,” McAtee said. “I’m all about wanting to help people who feel alone and don’t have anybody.”