Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Love Story of Rich & Tonya

"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her."
Ephesians 5:25

Graphic Design by Zach Smith

"The Love Story of Rich & Tonya"

"It was a late spring evening in 1994.  Another night of drinking and numbing the pain of a life full of unhealed wounds, I stumbled across the street from the bar in which I was drowning my pain and passed out on the couch of a family friend.  A few hours later, I heard someone come through the front door.

Rich was just returning home from his night shift job.  He was a roommate to our family friend, and we began to strike up a conversation.  I felt drawn to his quiet, but strength-filled demeanor.  We said our good-byes and I was hopeful we would see each other again.

A week later, I decided I would call him.  I got his phone number from our family friend and reached out.  Surprisingly, he called me back.  We began to have a few phone conversations and then one night I invited him for dinner.

As we began to spend time together, Rich questioned my drinking habits and asked me if I thought I might have a drinking problem.  He had been sober for the last two years and was concerned about my possible problem.  I was adamant that I didn’t have a drinking issue, but his question planted doubt in my mind.  Did I?

My adoptive father was an alcoholic and we didn’t have the best relationship and I didn’t want to be like him.  I thought if I admitted I had a drinking problem, then I would be just like him.

As the months went on, Rich asked me to consider getting help.  To appease him, I went to the local rehab center to have an evaluation.  My mom went with me.  I was hoping they would tell me how to be a social drinker and be able to participate in some sort of out-patient treatment.

As the providence of God was upon me, the center went on to tell me that I was sicker than I thought, and they recommended a 28-day in-patient treatment.  I told them I had to think about it and I would get back to them.

I spoke with Rich and told him what they said, and he told me that if he and I were to have a future together, I needed to go to treatment and be sober.  I really liked Rich and wanted to see where this would go, so I went to treatment.

The pain and agony of going through treatment and bringing up some very old wounds that occurred when I was five years old from a sexual assault from a babysitter was almost more than I could bear.  I needed hope, and I needed it fast.

 I didn’t grow up churched, so I didn’t know about the hope of Christ.  I learned in treatment and AA about a higher power, and I remembered my great-grandmother’s prayers, so I knew there was something to all this Jesus talk.

Rich and I ended up getting married and losing our first baby to miscarriage.  Our second child, a daughter, was born 7 months after we were married.  We continued to go to AA meetings, but did not attend church.

In August 1997, my mother was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident.  That very day, Rich and I were preparing to move to Charlotte, NC to be closer to his family and for job opportunities.  I remember driving through the switchbacks of Colorado near Durango crying in total despair and telling Rich that we were going to Charlotte for something bigger than job opportunities.

Turned out that God was speaking to me even though I didn’t really know it at the time.  When we got to Charlotte, Rich told me we would start going to church.  Being in a new town, just having lost my mother, and being newly sober, I was in a total depression.  I had no desire to push on.  I was struggling.  I can remember Rich asking me one particular night why I just wouldn’t let him love me.  You see, I had been so wounded by men that I had build the “Great Wall of Tonya” and wasn’t going to let anyone hurt me again.

I wish I could say that immediately I let him in.  I didn’t.  What we did do, is found a church.  Our church family began loving on us and literally was the hands and feet of Christ.  They were amazing.

As God began to soften my heart and “sift me,” I began to let Rich in to my “protective bubble.” It has taken years and years, but that is the evidence of our love story.  Through it all, Rich has loved me like Christ loved the church.  He never gave up on me, he never left me, and he has been such a reflection of Christ in my life.

Together through it all, we have had two miscarriages, 5 children, financial loss, children with serious health issues, business loss, career changes, broken dreams, death, emotional and mental breakdowns, substance abuse recovery, childhood abuse, and an emotional affair on my part.

How on earth can one couple withstand ALL of that?  Apart from Christ we could not.  That is the beauty of our love story.  By the grace of God, forgiveness, and hard work, we are continuing to write our love story.  Everyday is a new day, fresh with mercy and grace.  We have and continue to work intentionally and sacrificially to ensure that God’s story of hope and redemption in our marriage is one that inspires others to never give up.

We are celebrating twenty-five years this year.  MIRACULOUS.  Only God can take two VERY broken people and cause us to love each other more every day.  We now teach married adults at our local church.  We speak at marriage retreats, expressing the goodness of God and to encourage others to not give up before the miracle happens.

I am so thankful that God gave me the gift of Rich.  What a blessing he is and I couldn’t imagine loving him more, but I know that God is still writing this story.  Not every day is butterflies and rainbows, because we still have the adversity of raising five children and some of them are not walking in the ways of the Lord. But today, we have the Hope of Christ guiding us and in the end we know who gets the Victory.  Our God is a good God even in pain and suffering.
“Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story”-Psalm 17:2"

Bio:  Tonya Shellnutt serves as State Government Relations Director at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the largest religious liberty advocacy organization in the world. ADF exists to keep the legal doors open for the Gospel.

Since joining ADF in 2017, Shellnutt has been working to engage, empower, and protect churches, ministries, and religious institutions across the country. She is committed to safeguarding their religious liberty legal protections. Additionally, Shellnutt works with legislators, policy groups, and grass roots to ensure generational wins.

Prior to joining ADF, Shellnutt was a small business owner for 15 years and served as State Director for Concerned Women for America in both Montana and in South Carolina where she focused on faith and family public policy issues. Shellnutt and her husband have been married for 24 years and have five children. They have taught and mentored married adults for the last fifteen years and currently serve in the married adult ministry at Oakdale Baptist Church in Rock Hill, SC. Tonya is also an author and working on a second writing project. She speaks to various groups throughout the country.

Tonya, how grateful we are that you and Rich shared your story with us here!  I am continually amazed at the grace and mercy of God and how He has brought you through so much!  You are a huge blessing in my life.  May God bless you and Rich with many more happy, healthy years together, may He enlarge your ministry in new and amazing ways, and may your life together shine hope into the darkened corners of the couples you minister to.  


  1. This is a great series Cheryl. Thanx. And thanx to Rich & Tonya.

    God bless.

  2. Thank you Tonya for sharing yours and Rich’s love story. This a a beautiful story of God’s redeeming love and His compassion. Thank you dear Cheryl for sharing these encouraging posts.

    1. Thank you so much, Pam. I love Tonya and Rich's story so much! God bless you, sweet friend.

  3. Truly the Lord is able to do the miraculous in such difficult situations! How thankful I am that the Lord never stopped reaching for Tonya, and that Rich was there to be his love in action. May the Lord continue to bless them both in all they do for the kingdom of the Lord!

    1. Oh, isn't that so true! I am so thankful for Rich & Tonya's amazing story and testimony, too! God's redemption is so evident and strong in their lives. God bless you, dear Marilyn!

  4. Such an encouraging post. We may run from God but we can't hide was my first thoughts reading into the story. Amazing Love...How can it be? That You my King would die for me? Such a love story of redemption. Hugs and blessings, Cindy

    1. Oh, I loved being reminded of that dear, old song! God's love truly is amazing, and it is so apparent in the lives and marriage of Rich and Tonya. Thank you so much for your sweet visit and kind words, Cindy. Many hugs and blessings back to you, my friend. :)