“In my distress I called to the LORD; I cried to my God for help. From His temple He heard my voice; my cry came before Him, into his ears.” Psalm 18:6
There are certain people in this life that simply bring joy and peace with them wherever they go. Their smiles speak compassion. Their words are filled with tenderness. They love Jesus with all their hearts, and thus, they love others well. I have the privilege again today to highlight another Her Story, one such woman who shines the love of Jesus into every life that she encounters. Her Story has its ups and downs, but the beauty of Christ radiates throughout each and every detail, and His strength carried her through every dark and stormy night. God is honored through her life, and I have been blessed by her faith. This is her story.
She was raised by a mother who made sure that each of her five children were in church every Sunday. Faith in Jesus was the blessed reality in her home. She was baptized at the age of seven, and from that day forward, she was always one who followed the rules. She just had a desire to do the right thing. She wanted to be good. However, having a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ was not something she fully grasped until her first year in college. She was accepted into Manhattan Christian College and was planning to pursue a dual degree program at Kansas State University. Just prior to heading off to school, her small youth group had gone away for a weekend. While they were away, a very violent storm struck their hometown, and their weekend get-a-way was cut short with the devastating news that most of their town had been flooded. When she and her friends finally made it home, she couldn’t find her parents or reach them by phone. Panic set in. She was able to connect with a family friend who owned a boat, and they took her by her house which was halfway under water. Shortly after that, she was able to locate her parents who were safe, but in one weekend, they lost all of their earthly possessions…her memory books, trophies, pictures…her entire life, now flooded. As difficult as that was for her to lose everything, she went off to college that Fall with a whole new perspective on life and what was really important. This was her first major intersection with God.
She loved her college years. During a time in life when most people begin to question who they are and what they really believe, she was blessed to be in a healthy Christian environment surrounded by Christian friends. She dedicated herself to growing in her relationship with Jesus and learning more about His Word while pursuing a degree at both Manhattan Christian College and Kansas State. She was one busy girl. Yet, all the while in the back of her mind, her heart’s desire was to eventually be a pastor’s wife. The summer before her junior year, she met a man while recruiting for her college who was in his last year of bible college in California, and she fell head over heels in love. They communicated long-distance throughout her junior year and began to talk a lot about marriage. This was what she had been waiting for, longing for. Could it all be happening, finally? As things seemed to progress between them, she decided to move to California and finish college there in order to be with him. She finished her junior year in Kansas and packed up her life to move out to California that summer. The excitement and anticipation for what was ahead consumed her. She never could have expected the news from her love that she would receive when she arrived. Completely unaware of what had been going on in his heart, he told her that he felt that God wanted him to be in the ministry as a single man. She was devastated, and her heart was completely broken. She returned home and spent the remainder of the summer asking God for answers…why did this happen? What does this mean? She searched for comfort and solace in His Word, and she found Him there. Never before in her life had she felt so completely in love with Jesus as she clung to Him in her brokenness. He carried her through the heartbreak and gave her strength for each new day. This was her second major intersection with God.
She ended up moving to California later that year with her sister and brother-in-law. He had been transferred to the Orange County area, and her sister didn’t want to go unless she moved with them. There really was nothing keeping her in Kansas, so she decided to move with them. They found an amazing church in Fullerton, and she immediately got connected with the young adults ministry at Eastside Christian Church. The group was led by Pat Merold, the senior pastor’s wife. She learned so much through her teaching about grace and forgiveness. Pat modeled to her what a strong, Christian woman should look like.
It was in this group that she met her future husband, Stan. He was charming, funny, and they quickly became good friends. He had a little girl named Nelisa that was three years old, and she adored her as if she were her own daughter. They dated for about a year and a half, and during that time he was offered a job in Phoenix, AZ. They were married in June of 1986 and moved to Phoenix to start their new life together. A few years after they were married, Nelisa’s mom and step-dad moved to Arizona as well, which thrilled her because now they would get to see Nelisa so much more.
During those first few years came her third major intersection with God. She and Stan wanted to have a child together, but she had struggled to stay pregnant. Three pregnancies had resulted in three miscarriages, and again her heart was broken. Through many tears, frustration, and questioning God and His purposes, she found that she was pregnant again. She had some complications in the first trimester but was determined that she would carry this baby to full-term. So, she quit her job and stayed home through the first trimester, trusting that God would provide…and He did. During her second trimester, she was hired on at an engineering firm, knowing full well that she was pregnant. Later that year, she gave birth to a healthy little baby boy, and they named him Nathaniel. A few years later, God blessed them with a daughter, Ariana. After she was born, Nelisa decided that she wanted to come and live with them, so they now had this beautiful, little family of five. They were very involved with their church family at
Central Christian Church, and she really thought that life couldn’t get much better.
Stan and a partner had their own print brokerage business, and they had finally gotten
to the point where she didn’t have to work and was able to stay home with the children. This is when she had her fourth major intersection with God.
During their 8th year of marriage, she and Stan started to experience some serious financial difficulty. In the midst of this, she remained involved in church leadership and was serving diligently there. She was praying and living a life that she thought was honoring to God, and she couldn’t for the life of her understand why things were happening they way they were. Although she is not one to believe that God’s blessings are dependent upon what we do or don’t do, she soon found out that things in her life were not what they seemed.
A few years prior to this point, she had arrived home one day to find a note on their door from a detective in the Tempe Police Department. They were looking for Stan and wanted talk to him about something that they would not disclose to her. After a lengthy conversation with Stan, he finally revealed the reason behind the letter. There had been a complaint filed from someone in a Tempe apartment complex stating that Stan had been exposing himself to young girls in the complex. She was mortified to say the least. How could this have happened? The person who had filed the complaint did not press charges but insisted that he get counseling. So, they immediately sought out counseling, and things began to look up until they started having the financial difficulty. Stan and his partner had made some very questionable business decisions, and the stress was rapidly building. What she didn’t realize at that time was that major stressful events like this would cause someone with Stan’s problem to act out in inappropriate ways. She hadn’t been going to counseling with him, because this was viewed as “his problem”. With all the stress, Stan again found himself in a Tempe neighborhood exposing himself and masturbating in front of junior high/senior high girls. Once again, she received a call from the detectives looking for Stan. They had no money and had just gone through bankruptcy court. They were living in a house that they were renting with the three children, who were 5, 7 and 15 at this point. She spent the next six months going through the legal system with a public defender for Stan. He was sentenced to spend one year in a prison in St. John, AZ.
The next few months were spent driving the four hours one weekend a month with the children to visit him in prison. After about three months of his incarceration, he finally decided to open up to her about all that he had done. He sent her a very long letter telling her how much he appreciated all that she was doing to keep their family together, but
he felt he needed to tell her everything. Again, there was nothing that could have prepared her heart for the news. He then revealed that he had not been faithful to her throughout their marriage. This sent her over the edge. The one man whom she had trusted with her whole life, with her whole heart, and with her children had hurt her in ways that no one else ever could have. Brokenness was her new reality. She sought counseling over the next several months and came to the most difficult decision she had ever made. He would not be allowed to move back in with them, and she filed for divorce. How could life have come to this?
Still, with all of this chaos swirling around her, she felt God’s presence near. She had a wonderful church family and small group that encouraged her and helped carry her through this difficult time. People stepped in and helped her with her children when she just needed a break or when her son needed a man in his life. She was a single mom for almost four years, and although she did everything that she could, she still made many mistakes and some bad choices during that time. She went through a very self-destructive time, making decisions that she knew wouldn’t hurt her children, but knew would hurt herself and her relationship with God. Thankfully, that phase didn’t last very long. She was wise enough to keep herself surrounded by people that loved her and spoke truth into her life. She worked hard to support her family of four and was promoted three times within two years at Pepsi into a Key Account Manager position. Through it all, God proved Himself faithful. Through it all, He never left her side. That position allowed her to support her family without help from the outside, and things were starting to take a turn for the better.
In the summer of 2000, she started dating Johnny. He was part of the vocal team that she led worship with at church. Although they were serving together for about a year at this point, their relationship hadn’t moved beyond the superficial. Once they starting talking and getting to know each other, however, she began to think that maybe, just maybe something might be there. But she was scared to death. Could she offer her heart to another, risking pain and brokenness yet again? They went out together a few times, but something just didn’t seem right. She was discussing this with one of her close friends who had the courage to tell her the truth. Her fear was rooted in her inability to “fix” him. Johnny was actually a great guy who genuinely cared about her, respected her, and loved her. For the past several years, she had devoted herself to fixing her marriage that had fallen apart. There was nothing now to fix. She thought about what her friend had said and decided to give this guy a chance to change her mind. And change her mind he did! He is the most wonderful man that she has ever known. Just months later, they were married and blended their families together. Johnny had two sons that now completed their family.
Their life together has been anything but perfect, and they’ve had their ups and downs with the children, but their relationship has been strong because it is firmly built on their love for the Lord and for each other. They’ve had the blessing of working together in worship ministry, youth ministry, and global outreach missions work. In 2007, they took a huge leap of faith and ventured out from the mega church where they met to help start a new church plant called Real Life. It has truly been a rewarding experience full of both challenges and growth opportunities for them to draw closer to God and closer to each other. As she reflects back on her life, she can’t help but wonder how she could be so blessed to be where she is now and have such opportunities afforded to her. God has truly been faithful!
You don’t need to know her well to see her love for Jesus. It oozes out of her pours. She shines bright in a dark world. If you were to meet her today, you would never know all that she’s been through because the joy of the Lord is her strength. I’ve been blessed on numerous occasions to be led by her in worship, and every encounter I’ve had with her has left me wanting more of the Lord. Jeri, thank you for loving Jesus how you do. You’ll never know how many lives you’ve changed. I am just one of many. Thank you for sharing your story. May God be glorified through you.