When I Wandered

I’ve always loved babies and kids. From a very young age, I dreamed of being an elementary school teacher and decided I would do what it takes to become one.  I grew up in a “Christian” home and attended Sunday school and youth groups. When I was 15, everything was shaken in my life. My parents got a divorce and I began to question God and ask, “Why is this happening?” I went away to college happy to finally be on my own and away from the sadness of my broken family. I began to date for the first time and stopped going to church. Dating and guys became my idol as I began to search for someone to love me. I didn’t have a good example of real love or a healthy relationship.

Halfway through college, at the age of twenty, I found myself pregnant and in an abusive relationship. I had felt trapped and I had been praying for a way out of the relationship but this brought me to rock bottom. I was so ashamed. Even though I had turned my back on God, I still felt His presence in my life. He was still chasing after me!  He told me that He still loved me and would walk me through this part of my life. After many tears and prayers, I decided to place the baby for adoption. I was in the middle of college and still wanted to be a teacher and knew I could not provide for this child emotionally or financially. I found an amazing Christian family to adopt the baby and we have a great open adoption to this day. This was the hardest thing I have ever gone through but God was with me through the whole process- I could not have done it without Him.

Jesus said, ”What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” (Matthew 18: 12-14). I love this verse because it reminds me of my story. God was still searching after me even though I continued to disobey Him with my own desires and sin! I can only imagine the type of rejoicing that happened in Heaven when I finally decided to give up my selfish ways and trust Him.

I moved back to Ventura after college and was in search of a new church and community. I had checked out a few churches in the area but did not feel welcomed or noticed. I decided to give City Church a try because I had seen the stickers on cars around town. I happened to be there on a City Group Sunday. I enjoyed the service but, since I am shy, I wanted to get out of there without having to talk to anyone. I wanted to get on with my Sunday but God had different plans.  After the service, two women, Tiffany Dooley and Shaleta Chatman, stopped me invited me to their City Group. I immediately felt cared for and important after talking to them for just a few minutes. They took a genuine interest in my story and who I was. I wasn’t just another new person at church anymore. I thought visiting The City Church was a random decision but God knew what He was doing. He knew exactly what I needed: community and love.

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I attended their group for two years and developed amazing friendships and community with those girls. My faith grew as a believer and they challenged me in my life. I came into the group broken, with a lot of baggage, and they didn’t judge me for it. They were a genuine example of God’s love and grace. They loved on me and prayed for me. This was the first time in my life I felt like I had genuine girlfriends who cared about me. I could call Tiffany any time of the day or night for prayer or encouragement.

 

Tiffany baptized me a couple of years later. When I married my husband, Dallas, she was a bridesmaid in my wedding and her husband, Andy, officiated the ceremony. Now Dallas and I have a beautiful baby girl of our own. The love of Jesus is so real and it’s expressed through real people doing real life together. If it wasn’t for the love of Jesus I experienced in my City group, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

KNP_2578Allison LaPrelle has been attending the City Church for over five years. She is married to her husband, Dallas. They just had their first baby girl- Isabella Grace. Allison is a kindergarten teacher at a public school in Santa Paula. She is passionate about children and loves to serve in the nursery.

A New Heartbeat

Around the age of one, doctors diagnosed me with a complete/ 3rd degree heart block.  A person with this condition is at high risk for a sudden cardiac death. My parents became so nervous when they received the news. Regular exercise was now life threatening for me. I have spent much of my life with cardiologists and in emergency rooms due to chest pains. I constantly had shortness of breath every time I went up a flight of stairs. In New York City, where I grew up, a flight of stairs in the subway was unavoidable.

When I was about 17 years old, doctors told my mom and dad that my heart was going to get weaker. They talked to me about the possibility of a pacemaker. I remember praying and believing God would heal me. I know this sounds crazy,  but during a prayer time at my home church,  I remember feeling as if God was actually healing my heart. I wanted to confirm that this was true so I went to the doctor. They ran an EKG and told me that my heart had changed and it looked different. They saw no signs of a heart block. I was ecstatic. I didn’t have chest pains or shortness of breath for a few years after that. I truly believe God healed me.

Then, early in August 2017, I felt light headed for three days straight at work. On the third day, I knew that something was up. I told my coworker I felt like I was going to pass out. I drove myself home and my friend took me to urgent care. The doctors ran tests and then followed up with more tests. I felt so “off” the following weeks. After what felt like forever, two cardiologists confirmed that I would need a pacemaker. They said they had no idea how I was able to function without one for so many years. They were surprised I had not passed out and died at some point. I remember hearing them say “if you want to have kids… if you want to live more years… If you want to… you need to have this surgery.” 

I went home and was so overwhelmed. I thought “God, I thought you healed me?! What happened to my heart changing and no symptoms?!” There were so many doubts and fears going through my mind. 

What happens when the prayer God answered suddenly seems like a lie? We lose our hope and feel that God has failed us. We think, “Why is this happening?” I dealt with those fears and doubts. I remember praying before making the decision about surgery and I heard God say, in the quietness of my heart, “Marie, I’m still your healer, and sometimes the way I heal is not what you expect. I can heal in different ways.” That brought me so much peace.

Fast forward to my surgery; it was painful. I couldn’t move my left arm for 6 weeks! It felt more comfortable sleeping in a sitting position then lying down. I remember feeling overwhelmed.  Then the Ventura fires happened. If you know anything about smoke, it affects your lungs and can also affect your heart. Worship got me through this season of sleepless nights.  The presence of God brought me peace. It was not the easiest journey, but God was there and He sent His people. I honestly couldn’t have gone through it without a community. Many people at the City Church stood by me to pray with me, bring me food, take me to doctor visits and spend time with me. 

After Jesus was crucified and had been dead for three days, Mary Magdalene went to tell the disciples that Jesus had been resurrected. She stated “He’s alive and I’ve seen him!” Their faith was restored. Maybe my story can give a similar hope to you. Are you going through a hopeless situation and you feel as if God has let you down? Your situation may feel as conclusive as death itself. Rest assured that God wants to make that situation come to life.  Look up, believe His word. He wants to restore it and turn it around. Wait for the miracle. I’ve seen what He can do.

PHOTO 2Marie Martinez graduated from the Generation Intern program in Seattle, WA and moved with Pastors Jude and Becky to help pioneer the City Church in Ventura in 2011. She now attends the Ventura campus and serves as worship overseer for the Spanish ministry. She is passionate about building the local church and leading people into the presence of God through worship. Marie has been a College City group leader for seven years and loves raising up women to be passionate for God, and empowering them lead and disciple other young women.

 

You Belong

Catching Up with Erica Lopez

It would be hard to attend the Ventura Campus for very long without meeting Erica Lopez. She’s always present working behind the scenes to include others in the life of the The City Church. Erica attended our very first service and gave her life to Jesus at our New Years service shortly after we opened our doors. She has barely missed a Sunday since that time. I was able to sit down with Erica last week at the Natural Cafe in Moorpark and talk to her a little bit about her experience in our community. She was taking a quick break from her new “dream job” (as she calls it) working as Pastor Mike Rovner’s assistant at Rovner construction.

Erica, you’ve been a fixture of our church as a volunteer at almost every event, on every Sunday. What motivates you?

City Church changed my life. It changed everything. I suffered from fear and anxiety and the church gave me the tools to overcome those things. They taught me how to pray and gave me a Bible and gave me a place to go. I’ve lived in Ventura County all my life but was never really aware of who God was or how He could impact my life.

I went to the church on the very first Sunday, it was the soft launch before the grand opening. Pastors Jude and Becky had come and were the new leadership of my daughter’s school (now City Christian School) and I wanted to know who they were so I could decide whether I’d was keeping her in the school. I had never heard a pastor talk like Pastor Jude about real stuff. He’d say, “Don’t believe what I say, go to your Bible and check on it for yourself.” When I did check it out, the Bible commentary page would say the exact thing as Pastor Jude. God was so obviously speaking to me and drawing me to Himself through all the different messages.

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Erica and her daughter, Jaden

Were there any particular messages that deeply changed your perspective about God?

I specifically remember the message about belonging. He told us that we could belong to Jesus before we even believed, before our behavior changed! It was the first time that I felt that I didn’t have to change first in order to be included. I know we talk about this idea in Grow class but I also always tell people to go back to that series about Joshua in the podcast archives so they can hear it too. It’s such a powerful truth.

Did you feel like people included you right away?

Yes. People immediately reached out to me. Pastor Katie and Pastor Becky invited me to a City Group and told me how to serve. I didn’t know much about leading a Bible study but I told Debby (Wooff) I could be her assistant and be the person who would always read the chapter and have something to say if she asked a question. I made some of my very best friends coming to that group and serving on teams with people.

But I have also found that some of it is a response to preaching. I always say, “Pastor Jude says…” this or that when I encourage people in their faith. People think I’m talking about a personal conversation but I’m not. When you really listen to someone’s preaching, you connect with what they’re saying. I remember him saying once at the beginning, “I can’t personally ask each one of you to volunteer. But I’m asking you to volunteer.” I took that to heart for myself.

Were you proactive about serving right away?

I did not feel at all qualified to serve in the beginning. I remember Debby asking me to help pass out books and I was worried that people would know about my past and believe I wasn’t worthy to help. It was just passing out books! But I did it and they didn’t care about my past.

Now when I serve, I’m always thinking of the people who come to visit who are like me. Someone cared enough to serve so my life could be changed and now I serve with the same hope that someone else will be able to have that same experience. I went to a church for a year before I came to City Church and I sat in the same seat every week and no one ever talked to me. I’m really passionate about talking to people and noticing them. Just recently I noticed a woman who would sit in the same seat every week and it was a bit hard to talk to her at first but I just kept doing it and eventually she came to my dinner group and is now connected to a number of different things.

What do you think helps people feel connected over the long term?

Whatever you are doing, it’s mostly about doing it consistently. It takes time to connect with people and get to know them. I think I became close friends with people because I served with the same people every week over the course of time. That’s why groups are important. How are you really going to get to know someone if you don’t see them regularly? I really admire Debby Wooff because she did her same group over the course of so many years and we were able to really get close to one another.

And now you lead a group with Dee Taday; it’s a dinner group. Can you tell us more about that?

Life was getting really busy and I was overwhelmed with work and everything and I didn’t have time to do another book study. So we started in the summer and now we just meet for dinner twice a month and hang out. We often talk about the message from Sunday and then just share from our lives. We do it at different restaurants. It’s so easy, I just tell people and then we show up. We do it casual and just get separate checks or counter service. I highly recommend leading this type of group if you’ve never done one. Just do it consistently!

Erica, is there a scripture that you would want to share with the women who read this blog that kind of sums up this story?

Yes, Psalm 27:13 says, “I would have lost heart unless I had believed I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” I see the goodness of God in the church and in my family and friends and the people I do life with. I remember a couple years ago, I went through a really dark time in my life and Pastor Jude started his Psalms series and he shared this and also the scripture, “And He will strengthen your heart.” My heart has been so strengthened by the goodness of God that I have seen in this community.

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Erica and her husband Joe have one daughter, Jaden. They sit on the left hand side in the first or second row of the Ventura campus every single week. You can get to know Erica and serve with her on the Guest Experience Team and the Beautiful Women of Influence team or attend her City Group.