WOW... What can I even say? Where do I even begin?? This past week was one of the most memorable of my entire life... And anyone who knows me, also knows I do not make that statement lightly after all I have been through these past several years.
The past week feels like a whirlwind, and when I think back on the memories of my time at the National Youth Gathering, it feels dream-like to me.
Last Monday morning my mom, sister Michelle and I headed to the airport to begin our trip! We flew to Dallas first, and then connected to San Antonio. In the Dallas airport we saw several youth groups wearing "Live Loved" t-shirts and I started to get really excited to know I would soon be speaking to these very same kids who right now, had no idea who I was.
As I looked out onto the 30,000 empty seats in front of me, I have to admit, it was a bit intimidating.
Ok, very intimidating.
I thought to myself, "ok, well... This was certainly a fun trip! San Antonio seems like a nice city... Let's go home now!" ;)
After checking out the Alamodome we proceeded to the Rivercenter mall that was across the street from our hotel so we could relax and get something to eat. Outside of Macy's I saw a familiar face (and bald head :) I had the blessing of passing by Nathan Erb! Nathan is the Youth Pastor from my hometown church, Resurrection Garden City, NY. And I had not seen him since 4 years ago when he and Pastor Jeff Browning prayed over me before I left for Mexico! Talk about a joyous reunion!
Nathan is a huge part of the reason I was asked to share my story at the gathering. It's another one of those God-incidences that I love so much!
See, for the past two years, many people had been working tirelessly to plan this elaborate event, and as of 6 months ago, they still did not have a keynote speaker for the event on Fourth of July.
It 'just-so-happened' that Nathan was on the band committee for the National Youth Gathering and was working closely with the other organizers for the event.
He overheard that they were still looking for someone who had a unique story of finding their identity in Christ, instead of their circumstances.
And he immediately thought of me.
Nathan shared my story with Nate Peregoy & Megan Miessler, organizers of the gathering, and they were intrigued. They told him to contact me and see if this was something I would even be willing to do-- get up in front of 25,000+ people and share the most painful moments of my life and how God helped me through them.
My first thought was "umm...no!" , but my first words were, "absolutely, it would be my honor."
And so, that is how this part of my journey began. :)
Later that Monday night we attended the first of the four giant "mass events" that would take place during the gathering.
The theme for the 2013 National Youth Gathering was "Live Love(d)," based on I John 4:9. "This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.”
So, Monday nights theme was beLoved, Tuesday was deLoved, Wednesday was Love Lived and Thursday was Live Loved.
On Tuesday morning we ate Texas shaped waffles for breakfast and then prepared to venture out to explore downtown San Antonio.
However, before we did any of that, there was someone very special I had to go see-- my childhood Pastor, Bill Harmon.
I saw in the gathering guidebook that Pastor Harmon would be speaking about Christian politics in one of the ballrooms at the convention center... And I prepared to go surprise him there.
During the time I was sick, Pastor Harmon got the call to move from Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Garden City, NY to a parish in West Virginia.
The last time Pastor Harmon saw me, I was in a hospital bed, unable to move, writhing in pain and unable to even communicate with him.
On Tuesday, I slowly wheeled into the room where he was speaking, and sat quietly in the back, waiting for him to make eye contact with me.
It took about 5 minutes, but as soon as he saw me, he ran over, hugged me and began to cry. And then, so did my mom and I.
It was so special to reunite with him under much happier and healthier circumstances!
On our way out of the convention center, I saw some amazing paintings of Jesus on display in the lobby, done by the "Jesus Painter." I went over and starting looking at them, when a man walked up next to me and starting asking me which painting was my favorite. I scanned them all and told him this one was my favorite-
The man took the painting and asked me what my name was. He proceeded to sign the painting to me, because as it turns out, he was Mike Lewis, the official "Jesus Painter" himself! How cool!!
Check out his ministry's site to see some of the amazing portraits he does- http://www.jesuspainter.com/
Finally, we set out to see San Antonio. San Antonio is a very unique city, in that it is all connected by Paseo del rio, the River Walk that runs underneath the streets of the city. The River Walk sidewalks are lined with restaurants, bars and shops and the whole feel of the city reminds me a lot of Mexico. :)
We went on a boat tour of the entire river and learned a few interesting facts about the city.
We went to see the historic Alamo, where the battle of the Alamo took place.
We passed by the Tower of America's too!
At Tuesday night's mass event (deLoved) Mia Koehne gave a powerful testimony about the way God has helped her put back the pieces of her once destructive and broken life. It was very moving and I was so blessed to get to meet her and pray with her.
On Wednesday morning we went back downstairs to indulge in some more Texas shaped waffles, and were surprised to see 6 golden retrievers sitting in the restaurant! Assuming they were disability service dogs, I went over and asked if I could pet them. It turns out, these are some very special puppies!
They are Lutheran Charities K9 comfort dogs. These dogs have traveled all around the country bringing comfort in moments when it is hard to find any. They went up to Sandy Hook Elementary school after the tragic shootings, they went to Boston to comfort those affected after the marathon bombings, they have gone to dozens of natural disasters and hurricanes to give people something to smile about. They are God's paws & feet to those in need!
Here we are with Luther, Ruthie and Isaiah-
They are adorable and so loving... And they all have their own facebook pages! Check them out at https://www.facebook.com/
After loving on the puppies, we checked out the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center (located across from the Alamodome) The LCMS Youth gathering set up more events than I can even list... From rock climbing walls, a zip line, jumping castles, craft stations, sports, games, prayer blanket and bracelet making stations, and sooo many other awesome activities. They definitely thought of every possible way to keep 25,000 teenagers engaged and entertained!
These amazing kids also set out on mission trips each day throughout San Antonio to share Jesus' love with the city. They visited orphanages, fed the homeless, took care of abused animals in shelters and did various types of service events!
Talk about living loved!
This is me with Pastor Dan Weber, who gave great sermon-type messages at each of the mass events. The world gets smaller and smaller, as it turns out that Dan's mother is Pastor Harmon's secretary!
Here we are with Jeffrey Meinz, who was a big hit with the kids! Everyday before the mass events began, Jeffrey held a "Gathering News" segment in which he made jokes and poked fun at certain kids from certain states (like Iowa ;) He really riled up the crowd and made everyone laugh with his crazy antics and great sense of humor!!
That afternoon, we ate lunch at a great Mexican place on the River Walk with our great friends, The Thompsons, who live in San Antonio.
...We felt right at home! :)
If you can believe it, ALL 25,000+ took part in Communion... And in less than 20 minutes, mind you. There were 150 Communion stations throughout the entire Alamodome. It was intense and exciting.
After the service, we were invited to a special lunch in the Alamodome for everyone who was involved in the Mass event that night. By the time I rolled in, all of the tables were full, except for one. So I pulled up next to a kind looking man, who smiled at me and introduced himself as Mark.
He asked me where I was from, what I was going to be speaking about, etc, and we just made small talk until I mentioned that I was really excited to see the Sandpainter, who I knew was also presenting that night.
Mark smiled big, and informed me that he was the sandpainter!
Mark uses light and ordinary sand to create beautiful images that go along with bible stories, and the results are impressive, entertaining and beautiful as well!
Definitely take time to check out his website too- http://www.sandandlight.com/
A special prayer circle was held and I was put in the middle of it, around 50 people prayed over the entire event-- from beginning to end, for God to be glorified through this night. Pastor Harmon said a special prayer for me, which meant so much. Before I left, my Pastor here in Naples, Pastor Paul & his wife Maria, also had said special prayers over me, and I definitely felt them on this night!
Finally, the big moment had arrived. I was taken down into a green room, where I was mic'ed and prepared to take the stage to speak in front of 25,000 people.
My heart felt like it might come out of my mouth, I could hear the crowd getting ready, and I was so nervous, but in a good, exciting way!
I had the great honor of carrying the Christian flag down the aisle, after 50 other kids carried down flags representing each state and country who had youth present at the event! I believe there were 13 countries total, and people from every state of the US in the Alamodome that night!!
As the worship band played, "All Creatures of our God and King" I proceeded down the aisle carrying the one flag that unified all the others-- yes, the people at the gathering might be from different states or countries, but we are all part of the body of Christ!
When the song finished, I posted my flag and wheeled backstage to prepare for my big moment.
Part of the newscast that was done about my story by Patrick Nolan on FOX4 last year played on two 60-foot tall screens in the Alamodome.
When it finished, I was introduced by the emcee Sarah Salzberg- "Ladies and gentleman, welcome, Jessica Stevens."
As soon as I wheeled onto the stage the crowd erupted in applause and gave me a big standing ovation before I even said one word!
I was so touched that I thought I might start to cry and not be able to get through my speech. I choked back my tears and instead said, "oh wow, thank you so much, this is incredible... So surreal."
Being on a stage in front of 25,000 people is not an every day thing, and I had no idea what to expect! The lights were so bright and blinding that I really couldn't see much of anything, except a large sea of shadows bouncing off of the tops of peoples heads. My words echoed back at me, which was a little bit weird and took some getting used to.
I proceeded to speak about my long journey through pain and suffering. I told them how I was a happy, healthy teenager who played sports and enjoyed spending time with friends. Until, without any warning, my life as I knew was ripped away from me by an illness that has no cure.
I shared how I ended up in critical condition, paralyzed, unable to eat or move and trapped in a body full of agonizing burning pain.
I said how we were told there were no other options to save my life, and I had only a few weeks left to live.
How through a series of events only God could orchestrate, we found hope through an experimental ketamine coma treatment in Mexico, how God used Dr. Cantu and Dr. Barrientos as his healing hands and feet.
I shared how there were even moments when I doubted God existed, and how I couldn't understand why a loving God would allow me to suffer for so long.
I shared how in the moments I was near death, God revealed himself to me in ways I could have never thought were possible.
The more I talked, the more at peace I felt. Now, I have felt God's peace, comfort and love in many different ways and forms through the past seven years of illness, but being up on that stage, sharing the miracles and grace He has given and shown to me when I was most in need and undeserving, in front of such a large and spirit filled crowd, gave me a new God-feeling that I don't quite have a name for just yet....It felt as if Jesus himself was standing in the front row, smiling big, hands outstretched as far as the east is from the west, shining His light down on that stage for everyone to see what HE has done!
I continued to share about the long, hard process it was for me to learn and accept that my identity does not come from what I can do... But from Whose I am! There are so many things we place our value and worth in, and while these things may explain you, they do not define you... They are not your identity!
We only see what is in front of us right now, and sometimes, that can be really scary... But we are fully known by an awesome God who see's all, knows all and is above ALL!!
Our identity doesn't lie in who were are... But in Whose we are!
I shared how I still live with uncertainties about my future- will I ever walk again? Stay in remission? Get married? Have kids? Live a long, healthy life?
I explained that those questions are bigger than me, but they are not too big for God!
While I believe the answer to my questions is yes, the truth is, even if the answer is no, I will be ok because I live loved! I have the love of Jesus, I have His strength in my weakness... Whatever the future holds, that is all I need!
During my speech the crowd gave God and I THREE huge, long standing ovations for all the amazing He has done in my life... Which I am told is a record breaker for the National Youth Gathering events of the past 35 years!
After I finished speaking, the emcee Sarah re-joined me onstage and asked me a few follow up questions. The whole audience laughed when she asked me to explain why a 25 year old woman was sitting up on stage clutching a teddy bear :)
When the event was over, it took me over two hours to make my way out of the Alamodome that night!!
Everyone was stopping to hug, high five, share their own struggles and take pictures with me! Kids wanted me to sign their backpacks and shirts and write little messages for them in their bibles! I felt like a celebrity! I felt so humbled to think that God trusted me enough to share His love with thousands of his precious kids!
Some guys even proposed to me... But unfortunately, I am pretty sure if I took any of them up on that offer, I would end up in jail, since they are still teenagers! Hahaha
As I made my way through the crowd I received a text from Nate, telling me to stay put at my location because the crisis team was trying to find me. Within minutes a pretty young girl named Victoria was brought over to me, hysterically crying, to the point she could hardly speak. We were escorted through the crowd and into a private meeting room, where she shared with me her long, painful struggle with paralysis and seizures from RSD. I was the first person she had ever met with the same condition, and she was so relieved to know she wasn't alone.
The next morning I was asked to meet with two other young girls, Michaela, who is also suffering from chronic pain, and Macy, who developed RSD in her foot after a surgery.
So many youth stopped to share their personal stories with me, and I am amazed by the strength and courage some of these teenagers have displayed in the face of tragedies in their short lives.
Their stories all touched me deeply and I am so glad God made these connections for us all.
Here are some pictures of me with my many new friends-
As we left the Alamodome, we were treated to the most gorgeous and lively display of fireworks I have ever seen! It was magical, like God himself was lighting up the sky with joy and happiness over all of us gathered to worship him in this place!
This national youth gathering (http://www.lcmsgathering.com/) is held every three years. Some people were saying how cool it would be for me to come to the event in 2016 and WALK across that stage and give an updated testimony! And hey, you never know, with God, ALL things are possible!... I see it happening! :)
The livestream from Thursday night was viewed over 7500 times, which just blows my mind! To God be the glory for every life touched through this event...including mine.
Thanks so much for checking in and sharing this amazing experience with me! I am forever grateful to have had this opportunity!! God bless! Que Dios te bendiga!!
ps- I was so touched and overwhelmed by the amount of facebook friend requests I received after this event, that I decided to make a page specifically to keep in touch with everyone :) "Like" my page and say hi!
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