I met Michelle Layer Rahal through April Cranford, who I interviewed a short time ago for the blog. April told me a little bit about Michelle and I was intrigued by her story about how she came to write her book, Straining Forward.
When Michelle and I spoke on the phone she described how she was inspired to write the book. She heard Minh Phuong Towner speak at a local church and after hearing her speak, Michelle found herself called to this project. Michelle says it wasn’t even ‘her’ that was speaking the words of commitment, it was God’s calling to her. She still can’t explain it, but she did follow in obedience, and that obedience is impacting many people in positive ways.
The process of writing would take years of commitment because of the depth of the story itself, and also the healing process that took place for both women.
I left my conversation with Michelle challenged in my own faith, and inspired by the care and attention she gave to sharing such a personal account in a respectful and honoring way. Michelle has come alongside Minh and it took years to get the manuscript written, and neither one ever gave up on the project, even while facing some of the most difficult trials that life can bring. Her perseverance definitely came through, and also a deep love and commitment that she has for God and for others.
Read on for my interview with her, and you’ll have the opportunity to connect with her via her links below.
If that isn’t enough….
Michelle has graciously offered a FREE download of the first chapter of the audiobook version of Straining Forward. Download here!
Interview with Michelle Layer Rahal
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I was born on a small farm in upstate New York, near Niagara Falls. I’ve lived in four states, and now call Virginia “home.” I tend to live life by following open doors rather than intentionally pursuing anything in particular. This has led to a string of positions and opportunities I might otherwise have missed. I’ve worked as a radio news journalist, an elementary school teacher, a published educational consultant, a worship leader, the assistant director of assessment for a large school district, a family and youth ministry director, and a published author.
Though I hold an undergraduate degree in Theater Arts and a graduate degree in Education, most of my professional experiences have involved a lot of writing and big mugs of coffee. I enjoy reading, cooking, and making music with my husband. Greg and I met in the worship band at our church and have been married for 17 years. No kids. No pets. No boat. No second house. But we are surrounded by a great family, great friends, and lots of laughter.
And here’s a little extra information …
I was born and raised on a small farm in upstate New York, near Niagara Falls. I tend to live life by following open doors rather than pursuing anything in particular. I’ve now been married to Greg for 17 years. We met in the worship band of our church 25 years ago, when I was married to someone else. Greg told me he loved me before we had our first date, which was after my divorce. Church and music linked us together. No kids. No pets. No boat. No second house.
Who are the most important people in your life, and why?
My husband is the #1 person in my life. Genesis 2:24 says, “…a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Since we are ‘one flesh’, putting Greg first is also the best thing I can do for myself! We are the closest of friends, and there is no one I’d rather do life with. He makes me laugh every day!
My siblings and their families register at #2. Greg and I are blessed by extended family who provide us with a sense of belonging and grounding. We have incredible siblings, in-laws, nieces, nephews, and grand nephews. They are a fun crew to hang out with, and they ALL get along! In today’s world, I think that’s very rare.
Friends, logging in at #3, are the finest gift of my life. My husband has always been surrounded by dozens of friends. Not me. I was kind of a loner until I married Greg who demonstrated what true friendship looked like. Now I have a ton of TRUE girlfriends—and a best friend, Denise. She holds me accountable; and since my husband introduced Denise to her husband, I assume we will be best friends for a very long time!
What are your favorite ways to spend a day?
Because I love to travel, my favorite kind of day would be seeing the sights in a foreign country, taking in a show, and eating in a great restaurant with a lovely bottle of red wine. COVID has truly put a damper on that! But a perfect day at home involves reading and writing or cooking and having friends over to eat—with a lovely bottle of red wine. Every day is bathed in God sightings; life wouldn’t seem right if they weren’t!
How would you describe yourself to people who don’t know you?
(This sounds like a job-interview question!) I am passionate, loyal, hard-working, detail oriented, resourceful, and utterly dependent on God. I’m an alpha, but I don’t normally seek leadership roles. They seem to find me.
How did you get into writing? How long have you been doing it? What are some challenges you’ve faced along the way? What are some amazing things that have happened along the way?
I think I’ve always been a writer. My third-grade teacher told me I was a writer, and I believed her.
My first professional writing job was writing copy for a news radio station in Dallas, TX. That eventually led to reporting and anchoring. Writing for a 24-hour news radio station teaches you to write fast and succinctly. It was good work, but it didn’t speak to my heart.
I went back to school to become a teacher, and that involved writing a lot of lesson plans and weekly newsletters. This led to a job with one of the first online education companies in the country. After a couple years, an education contractor hired me to help write the text for state and national studies. A highlight was visiting reservations and interviewing American Indians—students, teachers, and principals—for the first National Indian Education Study (2006).
My experience with writing using educational data led to a job with Arlington Public Schools as their Assistant Director of Testing, and I also wrote articles for Educational Research Services (ERS). Working with data taught me to be thorough, thoughtful, and above reproach. Once again, it was good work, but it didn’t speak to my heart.
In 2012, a Vietnamese refugee spoke at my church. Her story rocked my world. Though I had witnessed extreme poverty on American Indian reservations and in Haiti where I did educational mission work, I had never come face-to-face with someone who had risked everything to escape a communist regime. I walked up to Minh after service and said, “I want to write your story.” (Those were God’s words, not mine.) Writing “Straining Forward” turned into a 6-year project and taught me more than I ever wanted to know about communism, abuse, refugees, orphans, and the meaning of James 1:27.
What are the three most important things that you want people to know about you?
God is my favorite subject, and I blog about him on my website. I prefer silence over small talk. I prefer to work alone, but I appreciate the company and will ask for help if needed.
Name one life lesson that you didn’t want to have to learn, but you are grateful you did, and why.
Though I would have preferred to describe myself as a passionate and natural leader, I came to realize in my 50s, that people who didn’t know me viewed me as intense and controlling. I suffered a stroke in 2014 that set me back for about a year. During that time, I was forced to slow down, depend on others, and let go of perfection. I thank God for my stroke, for what it revealed to me about myself, for making me vulnerable, and for providing a way for me to enjoy life more fully. God is good!
What creative project(s) are you working on that you are really excited about?
I am currently working on a second book about the various and creative voices God uses to speak into our daily lives. I am also preparing for the audiobook launch of Straining Forward for late April. Both are quite exciting to me!
What messages will people take away when they interact with you, and how can it help them?
God is good, real, present, active, and speaking to them. There are no coincidences in life. God has a plan; we can either let Him lead and enjoy the grand excursion, or we can forge our own path and experience a mediocre trip.
What are you grateful for?
EVERYTHING!! My husband, family, and friends. My home, church, and yard. I’m grateful for the “stuff” God allows me to possess: a car, a dishwasher, cell phone, computer, a walk-in closet, killer shoes (I have a shoe closet!), and more clothes than I actually need. I’m grateful for the gift of sight, sound, taste, and smell, as well as the ability to run. I’m grateful to live in America, for the right to vote, and the ability to worship freely. I’m thankful for music, art, and beauty in a dark and chaotic world. And I am grateful for life’s trials (divorce, miscarriage, stroke) that have refined me and drawn me closer to God.
Michelle Layer Rahal is the award-wining author of “Straining Forward”. She is a former radio news reporter, published educator, and youth ministry director. After graduating from Hofstra University, she obtained a Master of Education degree from the University of New York at Buffalo. She lives in Virginia with her husband and blogs about providence and perseverance at www.KeepStrainingForward.com.