“I continued to isolate myself…”
with Gabriella De Jesus
Tell me about your family life growing up?
My mom was sixteen when she had me. Growing up, I was raised partially by her and partially by my grandparents. I didn’t have my dad in the picture. My grandparents spoiled me. They loved me so much. My grandpa became like my dad. My grandma was like my mom. My mom became almost like my sister because we were so close in age. I grew up mostly with my grandparents and I went back and forth between them and my mom.
Were there any major impactful moments that affected your life at that time?
When I was a kid, I remember going to this summer camp at a church in Dallas. It’s ironic because my mom is not Christian. She doesn’t want anything to do with the church because when she was pregnant, she faced Christians who didn’t have the nicest things to say to her. That’s the bitterness that she’s carried through now, she’s still like that. She did work in the church for a little bit though, while I was a kid. She worked with a youth program for at-risk youth, to keep them off the streets and have something to do for them. It was based out of a Baptist Church but it wasn’t influenced by the church necessarily. They didn’t do Bible studies or anything. I think that’s why she took the job. They had a kids’ summer camp that I went to, which was more influenced by like the church where we learned about Jesus. We participated in Bible stories, little plays, and I remember being a kid and being curious about it. Because I didn’t usually go to church, I didn’t know anything about God. That was my first little piece, and it was the most impactful thing I went there for. I looked forward to it every summer because I got to learn more. Even though I didn’t quite understand what it was, I was learning that I just wanted to be there.
Who was your role model/mentor in that season of your life, and how did they help you?
I would say my grandparents and my mom were all role models to me in a certain way. I look up to my mom because she was a single mom and she has been so strong. My grandparents were role models, obviously because they raised me. I adore and love my grandpa so much. Most of the time, if my mom or grandma were working, he was who I was with. He took me everywhere. He was so sweet and so patient. He was a role model for me because he was like my father figure.
When I was a teenager, I started attending the church. I looked up to my youth pastor and leaders because they were incredible. They helped build a firm foundation in me. My pastor, Shawn, became another mentor and like an uncle-figure that I could talk to. He poured so much time and energy into the whole youth group. Seeing the love that he had for the students and the ministry spoke to me so much. I looked up to him and I still look up to him now. He was a really big role model for me in what it looks like to serve Jesus faithfully and to be loving and kind to everyone you meet. That was impactful to me.
How did you come to Christ?
When I was in middle school, I always had a natural curiosity about God. I guess that I always believed there was a God, but I didn’t know that He was personal. I didn’t know what that looked like, I just knew that you can’t do bad things. At that time, I had friends that went to church and I decided to tag along to hang out with them. It was a fun group and I liked it. I ended up going to a conference and there was a human video with Jesus dying on the cross. I remember being so affected. That was the first time I remember thinking, “I want to know more about you, Jesus, I want you.” I would consider that the initial time I gave my life to Christ.
After that, the church that I was a part of, although a great church, did not have much of a discipleship program happening. I had accepted Jesus, but I didn’t know what to do next. I felt this overwhelming sense of love and redemption. It was amazing but I didn’t know where to go from there. Going into seventh grade, I had no structure and didn’t realize that accepting Jesus meant relationship and connection. I fell pretty hard and went through a rough year. I got into a lot of bad things with the wrong crowd. I just wanted to feel accepted and loved, but I fell off the deep end. I didn’t do well in school, even though I’d always done well before that.
That summer, my church friends started going to a different youth group. I tagged along with them again every once in a while. When I walked in, it was completely different from what I had experienced. People worshipped with their hands up and I didn’t understand it but I wanted to do it too. The passion that they had, I wanted that. I’ll never forget this next moment but at one of the services I showed up to, they were talking about the summer camp that for that summer. I wanted to go to the camp and I happened to come on the last night to sign up. There was a fifty dollar deposit that was due. For some reason, I happened to have forty dollars in my pocket that night and I just like felt the urge to talk to the youth pastor, Shawn. I asked him if I could go to the camp and he said of course. Right then I gave him the forty dollars, gave him the last ten on the following Sunday, and then raised the rest of the money to go. The camp was completely different from anything I’ve ever seen before. During a mid-week service, the message seemed to be more pointed at people who were pastors’ kids, and missionaries’ kids, that felt like they didn’t have great testimonies. They had never done “anything”, but the speaker was there to encourage them. He said, “You don’t need to have done anything to have a powerful testimony.” That spoke to me, even though I was the exact opposite of who he was encouraging. I had felt that I didn’t deserve this love yet, but his message about being faithful and good spoke to me. It made me feel like I can pick up from where I was and be faithful. If God accepts all people, regardless of if they’ve done anything or if they’ve done everything, then He’ll accept me. That was not only the night I rededicated my life to God, but I was also in the Holy Spirit. And I got that too. And I didn’t know what that was at all. It was the night that I gave my life to Jesus. What solidified that decision was that after the camp, the youth group I went to the camp with started a discipleship group that I was a part of.
Was there a specific moment that you can remember where you realized the call God has on your life?
I think that was something else that happened the same night that I gave my life to Christ. At the camp, they asked the youth pastors and leaders to pray over students. They invited students that felt called to the ministry to raise their hand to be prayed over. I felt like I was, so I raised my hand and a woman came to pray with me. She confirmed that feeling by telling me that I had a powerful gift to reach people for Christ. After I got involved with the leadership again, the worship pastor came up to me and asked me to join the worship team. At first, I said no because I was really shy. As time went on, I finally joined the worship team and it helped me realize I could be a worship pastor. God continued to confirm it more and more, as he encouraged me through several people.
Can you tell me about any struggles you had with your calling during that period?
When I first got involved with worship, and my calling, there was always the issue of pride. I had to ask myself, “What’s my heart behind this? Getting the glory? Is it for God?” It is so easy to make it about you sometimes, and you don’t even realize you’re doing it. It was easy to get caught up in messing up or sounding good. I had a lot of anxiety about being on stage at first. I slowly started to understand, God doesn’t care how you sound and nobody else will either. I learned how to worship and what that meant.
How did your story bring you to OSL?
During the summer before my junior year, my youth pastors were called to pastor a church in Michigan. After that transition, we got new youth pastors from CFNI. That summer we went back to the camp I had rededicated my life at, but it wasn’t the same. We had a rowdier group and had to stay at a hotel instead of the campgrounds. That next summer, they decided we would go to a different camp called Camp Lakeview. After I got saved, CFNI was all I knew and I knew I wanted to do ministry. I thought that I would go to school at CFNI. There was still a part of me, that although I wanted to do ministry, I also really wanted to take normal classes and an education that I wouldn’t be able to get there. When I was at Camp Lakeview, there were recruits from SAGU, and I had never heard about it before. They explained to me what they were and it was exactly what I wanted. At the same camp, I spoke to recruits from OSL as well and they gave me a lot of information too. I loved the idea that they partnered with SAGU and I would get hands-on experience. After visiting both tables, I applied and got into both schools.
What internship(s) are you in, or have you been in? How did you choose that/those internship(s)?
During my freshman year, I got involved with Mission Ten at SAGU where my eyes were opened to missions. I chose to go to a mission event that they had and signed up to learn more. They called me and asked if I would interview to be a mission trip team leader. At first, I said no, but I decided to give it a shot, fully expecting to not be accepted but they accepted me. That was my first encounter with missions. Apart from that, I was planning on being in the worship internship. That was my plan but then I got a call asking if I would be interested in the Local & Global internship. I was conflicted because I wanted to do worship but it seemed to be interesting. I sat on the idea and prayed about it. Even though I still wanted to do worship, I decided to transition into Local & Global. It seemed right, even though it wasn’t my first choice. I liked it and had a lot of fun, but I don’t think I did as well as I could have in that internship. As much as I did learn, I was in a rough state, mentally.
At the same time, I got involved with Local & Global, I had already auditioned to be on the worship team. I was scheduled to be a part of worship every once in a while. At the beginning of my third year, I stepped out of OSL for a little bit. I was feeling really overwhelmed and was not in a good place mentally. I didn’t want to waste others time, but I kept my church leadership degree and stayed the Oaks. One day, I was speaking to Alex Kissinger and she asked me, “Kiara, why aren’t you in the worship internship?” I explained to her that I had taken a step out of OSL and then I had missed auditions for the worship internship. We spoke about it more and she got me connected even though I couldn’t be in the internship during that semester. I started serving with worship in the kids’ ministry. When the next semester came around, I joined the worship internship. They poured a lot into me. I think, at that time, the main person that poured into me was London. She was there for me and helped me.
Have there been any difficulties you have gone through while in OSL?
During my last little bit of high school, I loved serving at my church but I had gotten to the point where I was tiring myself out. Earlier in high school, I had been in a toxic relationship. So when I started serving at the church, I decided I was not going to date and I didn’t. I stayed faithful to that choice. The majority of my high school time, I would skip some of my lunches to go into the library to read and pray. When I got my first job, I began to feel like I was involved with too much. I started to see myself fail, not in my faith but my personal life. I began to look for comfort in people instead of the Lord. After I graduated high school, I entered into a relationship. We were not in the relationship for the right reasons and it carried on into my first two years of college. I knew it wasn’t good but I felt like no one could know because they would see that I was some kind of fraud. I was already struggling with the feelings of detachment but I continued to isolate myself. I kept to myself and was scared of everybody at school. I thought that no one was going to want to know me. I thought I wasn’t worth anybody’s time. The feeling just repeated over and over again. Those first two years were a struggle.
How have you gotten through them?
Because I had that strong foundation built in me from, from being in the leadership group in high school, I never lost faith. I never questioned God, if He was good, or if He existed. I always knew He was there. I would turn to Him every once in a while, but then the majority of my time was spent just trying to distract myself from being alone. What helped me was getting more involved with worship. I’m thankful to Alex Kissinger because she spoke the truth to me. She is always the one that speaks it like it is like because she loves you, that’s the way that she loves you. London Kissinger was also there to talk with me through a lot of things. That was the beginning of me slowly making my recovery. I felt like I had someone that I could open up to and talk to. London is a comforter who will be there with you. If you’re sad or if you’re crying, she’s there and she comforts you. That’s how she loves you. On top of that, I ended up getting an amazing roommate. I love her so much. She’s so social, loving, bubbly, and she got me out of my shell. Felicia listened to me no matter what. I also got out of that toxic relationship and then I met my husband, Chris Elder. Chris is just the sweetest man and he is so patient with me. As I worked through the healing period of getting out of that bad relationship, he was so patient, kind, and loving to me.
Down the line, where do you see yourself after graduating from OSL?
I see myself being involved in a church. I don’t know where I would say I see myself. I see myself being a worship pastor, which I didn’t want to say for a long time. I don’t know if that’s exactly what’s going to happen. For a while, I thought I couldn’t be a pastor. I thought it wasn’t for me. Honestly, I thought I couldn’t be capable of doing that sort of thing. I’m so excited to realize that you don’t have to feel like you’re qualified. If God calls you to ministry, He’s going to equip you. I feel now I am ready to be used in whatever capacity. I have such a heart to serve.
What are your hopes for the time that you will spend in OSL?
I just hope I can grow in the areas that I lack or still struggle with. It has been a slow process of just kind of getting back on track again. I spent so much time by myself falling off the deep end but this whole season has felt like I am slowly but surely making progress. I hope that I can continue to make strides to be better and to do better. I hope to continue to serve and submit my life to the Lord in every way I can. I hope to continuously grow in that, get better, and become more responsible. I want to become a more dependable leader that can be counted on.
Lastly, do you have any advice for your peers currently going through OSL and those looking into it?
I would say when you choose to be a part of OSL, you gain people who care about you and care about your well being. A lie I believed for a long time was that nobody was going to care for or be able to help me, which is why I stayed isolated for so long. For anybody who might be just like me, who might be a little more quiet, timid, and more in their head, just know that these people are there to help, love, and grow you as a leader. Reach out for help, if you’re struggling with grace. Remember everyone at the Oaks will always be there for you. They care about you and they’re on your side.
The Oaks School of Leadership (OSL) at Oaks Church was founded in 2009 and since then more than 600 students have gone through OSL. Many serve in high-caliber leadership positions throughout our nation and around the world. OSL exists to position students for effective leadership in a variety of capacities, including ministry, non-profit and business leadership, by providing students with hands-on leadership training combined with a degree from an accredited university.