“I had a bone-eating tumor…”
with Gabriella De Jesus
Tell me about your family life growing up?
I was raised in a Christian home. My parents are still together. I have two brothers. We grew up church-hopping a lot. In Alabama, we have one awesome church, Church of the Highlands. There aren’t many Assemblies of God choices. We had to figure out what our core values were and then tried to find churches that lined up with those values. My parents were most adamant about us going to a spirit-filled church. They believe in the baptism of the Holy Spirit and believed in all of the gifts of the Spirit. Besides that, I grew up in a pretty competitive house. We’re all leaders with very independent, very intense personalities, but we all love each other.
Were there any major impactful moments that affected your life at that time?
From the time that I was in elementary school through my sophomore year of high school, I played softball. I wanted to play softball in college and, all the while during this, I also loved helping people. I was thinking I’d go to a state school, play softball, and get my psychology degree because at the time I didn’t even know counseling was a thing. I was on track to do that. When I was fifteen, I went to a school the size of Waxahachie and was playing softball for a team like that. I was on exposure teams traveling and it was a big deal. During my sophomore year, I started having super intense knee pain. I couldn’t figure out what it was. I was going to physical therapy, getting x-rays, and doing all that kind of stuff. It was getting to the point where doctors thought I was making it up because there was no reasonable explanation for what was going on. Finally, I ended up getting one last x-ray, only to find that I had a bunch of cysts in my femur. I had the x-ray on a Monday and then went to see a specialist on Friday. By that time, it had already grown to be a fist-sized tumor. They had me go into surgery that next Monday morning, finding the tumor had grown to be six inches long. I had a bone-eating tumor eating away at my femur. I ended up having the surgery and getting a plate, five screws and two rods placed into my hip. I was on bed rest for three months and was in a wheelchair for two months after that. I was miserable because I was missing my entire sophomore year of softball.
During this time, my family started going to a church plant, where my dad was singing on the worship team. At a church plant, they ask that anybody that can do anything should do something. One day, while I was at rehearsal with my dad, the worship leader looked at me and said, “Hey, I feel like you can probably sing.” She was saying that even though she had never heard me before. She just assumed that because my dad could that I could. She went on to say, “You should come up here and practice with us.” So I got up there and started singing, which was cool for me because I had sung a little bit before then, but I had never thought to lead worship. Ultimately, I started leading worship on that team.
The next year went around and I was thought, “Okay, well, I’m going to try out for softball again.” On the first day of tryouts for the next year, I had knee pain again. Like you cannot make this stuff up. I told my mom and we went to the doctor, and they told me, “You’re not gonna believe this, but a water bubble has formed between the plate in your leg. You can live like this, but it’s going to be horrific. So you need to go into surgery again.” At that point, I remember thinking, “I guess I’m not supposed to play softball anymore.” After that moment, during my junior year, I got the plate removed and made the complete transition to lead worship. I hadn’t made the full decision to follow Jesus, but I started down that road.
Who was your role model/mentor in that season of your life, and how did they help you?
No, and that was kind of sad. I mean, I guess I did. I had a pretty great youth leader during the season that followed everything I mentioned before. During the season of being in surgery, I was pretty secluded. I was on bed rest and had to lay in the same bed as my mom for four months. I wasn’t out and about by any means if that makes sense. After that, I did because I got connected to this church. Then, my youth pastor, Bronson Moore, became the one that gave me all of my first tries at everything. Even when I made some of the most horrendous mistakes, he would still let me get back up every single week. It was amazing. He had a coaching mentality and that was great for me, being so used to being around coaches. He helped me learn how to be a leader very quickly because I was thrust into leadership almost immediately. He taught me really simple things, like how to journal which is so important. It may sound so dumb, but journaling your feelings and journaling what the Lord’s doing in your life is important. I think Bronson was also really instrumental in my realization that I even needed to go into ministry.
How did you come to Christ?
When I was around fourteen or fifteen, I had one of my friends die tragically. I had gone to a memorial service at a local Baptist Church. The service was put on so that all of these grieving kids could just come in and do something because she was so loved and very well-known in the community. I went in and they did the typical, “you don’t have to die and not know where you’re going” spiel. I got for real saved then. That was pretty impactful for me.
Was there a specific moment that you can remember where you realized the call God has on your life?
It’s a pretty full-circle story for me. When I was in high school, the summer before my junior year, I had gone to the Motion Conference. Tommy Burnett was speaking and was doing a normal call to ministry. I remember feeling the tug that there was something more for me. I was thinking of the desire inside of me to help people that I thought a future in psychology would accomplish. Those feelings to help people were still very real feelings inside me but I didn’t know that could be done in ministry at the level that I see it at the Oaks now. I didn’t know that it could even be a possibility for me. I remember going to the front and thinking, “Okay, Lord. I feel that you’re telling me this, but if the speaker comes and touches my head, I’m going to know.” That was a pretty big faith step for a sixteen-year-old to say something like that. Sure enough, he came and touched my head. I remember thinking, “Okay. I guess I’m supposed to be in ministry.” It came full-circle when he came to speak at a North Texas District event. I didn’t know he was going to be speaking, and I happened to be leading worship at the same time. I’m stood there thinking, “I’m literally on this stage because you gave that message eleven years ago.”
Can you tell me about any struggles you had with your calling during that period?
It was kind of a weird thing because I knew that I was supposed to go into ministry and I knew that I was supposed to go to ministry school. I had a lot of pressure from people around me to go somewhere else. When I was thinking about going to OSL, I had someone ask me, “Why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you go to Hillsong?” It was discouraging. I had to come to a place where I just decided that this was where I was going to go.
Another part of my testimony is that I was extremely bullied, in middle school. My way of coping with that was to follow the mentality of if you can’t beat them, join them. I became a pretty mean person. It was one of the worst seasons of my life. I hate thinking back on it because it makes me so sad. When I finally gave my life to Jesus and started leading worship, I had a lot of baggage of people thinking I was a hypocrite. There was a struggle of me knowing that it was real, but also living up to people’s expectations. That was very hard for me. I had to remember that even because you step into obedience, it doesn’t mean that there are no repercussions for your actions from before you did. It wasn’t very fun.
How did your story bring you to OSL?
Well, another piece to this whole story was that I had been dating a guy that had been attending OSL. The only reason I even knew about OSL was that I was dating this guy. At that time, I knew I was supposed to go into ministry and I had a feeling that I needed to be at OSL as well. I was running from the last idea because I didn’t want to seem like I was only going to follow this guy out there. I ended up going to check out James River and this other school called the South Carolina School of Leadership. It’s really funny because I was at the Church of the Highlands, and I never even thought to look at their internship program because I knew I was going to get out of Birmingham. I decided I was going to go to James River College. I had a deposit down and I had roommates. Then two weeks before school started, I woke up and realized I was supposed to be at OSL. I went downstairs, and luckily, my parents were awake and are amazing. I told them that I felt the Lord leading me to OSL. They said, “Well, if that’s what He’s telling you, then we’ll do that.” I ended up getting a speedy interview and leaving two weeks later to come to OSL. I had never been here or even checked out the campus. I didn’t even know that SAGU was a part of the deal. I was pulling up to live in Collins and didn’t even know. I had a couple of old Oaks Worship albums, “Lift Up The Light” and an old Seven album called “New”. I had listened to them all the time because my youth group was doing those songs. I was an Oaks fan girl from far in the distance. That was enough for me to know to get me out here. It was because of the Lord that I came for sure.
What internship(s) were you a part of? How did you choose the internship(s)?
The first internship I was in was worship because that was all I knew how to do. I did that and it was great. My first year was awesome. I met a lot of people. I did have some struggles when I came in because I wanted to reinvent myself. I came in with the baggage of being mean, and wanting to be nice. I opened myself up to some hard things that I walked through. That’s neither here nor there. I just wanted to do worship and I loved it. It was amazing.
After my first year, I felt like I hit that midlife crisis feeling of having to decide if this relationship was real for me. I remember sitting in my dorm room and contemplating the many questions that people have regarding God. It ultimately led me to start questioning whether or not worship was where I needed to go. I decided I was just going to fall in love with this church and fall in love with the church as a whole. I did fall in love with it and I had this attitude of not caring where I was being used, as long as I was being used for God. I could have been taken me out of worship and I’d be okay.
It ultimately led me into my second year, where I contemplated going into another internship, previously known as Spiritual Formations. I was going to be your only intern. It was an interview process and I had been approved. At the same time, I got a call from New Community Church, with Chris and Cara Railey. They asked me if I would come and intern with them and be away from the Oaks. I was stuck thinking, “Wow. These are two cool opportunities, but for some reason, it doesn’t feel right.” I ended up turning them both down and sticking with worship. I’m so glad that I did because another opportunity opened up for me. In my second year, I became a dual-internship student, and I was able to intern with worship, but also intern with Priscilla Shirer for a whole year. It was amazing because I was doing women’s ministry and I was also a part of the worship side of things. It was just absolutely amazing.
Were there any difficulties you went through while in OSL?
When I came in, we had to audition to be in the worship internship, like it is now. However, I didn’t know that at the same time, we were also auditioning for the worship travel team we had at that time. I just thought we were auditioning for worship. When I came in, I made it into the internship but I was also the only first-year that had made it onto the travel team. As soon as that happened, there was somewhat of a target put on my back from everyone else in my class that was very unwanted for me. That was exactly what I was not wanting. I ended up becoming obsessed with having everyone like me. I would do crazy things like memorizing the worship schedule for every person in the internship, then I’d go hype them up, and I made sure that I was there for everyone. When I would lead worship, it felt as if people wouldn’t come on purpose. One time I did this one thing, which was dumb. We were told that one of the best leadership hacks is if you have any blind spots, ask trusted people to tell you what they are. I had it in my mind that if I was vulnerable, and I just go talk to everybody, I’ll let them know that I want to be their friend. Then they can tell me things that I can get better at. I thought it would add dual value to both sides. That was the worst thing I ever could have done because people decided to unleash it all on me. They let me know exactly how they felt about me. Looking back on it, some of it was probably warranted but in general, it was not a fun experience. I would say because of my internship experience I was able to use that to make the internship so much better.
How did you get through that time?
There wasn’t just one moment. During all that time, I had some trusted leaders that I would talk to. They knew a lot about what was going on with me. It was the weirdest season because I was so I was going through so much. At the same time, I felt like I was growing so close to the Lord. That was what was the most ironic about all of it. I genuinely believe that everything that I’ve gotten, or “attained”, here was only because I was always at a place where I was I didn’t care where or how I was being used. I would be the admin to the admin if I needed to be. I was never looking for anything. I think I maintained an attitude of service. I tried to not feel like I was above doing things. I think that it helped me at the end of the day.
Down the line, during your time in OSL, where did you see yourself after graduation?
I didn’t even have a vision for it. I love the Oaks so much and I believe in the vision of this place so much. I didn’t know what my future was going to look like but I felt like it had to be here. That’s literally what it was. I did not care what I was doing. I would’ve taken anything. I kind of fell into my job. I don’t think I ever even got to the place, where I had to start thinking about those things if that makes sense.
Going off the last question, what have you been up to since graduating from OSL?
At the time I was in OSL, it was a two-year program and then you went on to SAGU. However, after I did my two years, and received my certificate, I was offered the position as the Oaks Youth Worship Pastor. I was in that position for a year and a half as an MA, and then I was brought on staff. I ended up being the youth worship pastor for three years. In the middle of being the youth worship pastor, I started to feel like there was more that I could to do to care for the worship ministry. I began praying and the Lord presented me with our whole Kids’ Worship pipeline process. It was then that I was transitioned into my first full-time job, which was that of the worship development pastor. Since then, I have now become the Associate Worship Pastor and the Worship Internship Director. Aside from that, I also got married to Kolby Kissinger!
Was the experience what you had imagined it to be? Did it meet your expectations?
It was so much more than I ever imagined it would be. I feel like I owe so much to the leaders and to the experience of going through all of that. Even though I didn’t have some of the best experiences, some of the experiences were just people being people. It had nothing to do with the leadership and had nothing to do with the way that things were being done. I do feel like, I am like who I am because of the experience. I met some of the best friends I ever could’ve met. I met people that I’m still friends with, like Kate Valido. I met my husband, who is my person for life. I got my first job. I got my most important job. I love it so much. It was what I expected, which I didn’t expect very much, because I didn’t know that much. It was also so much more than I ever could have expected. There’s nothing like living in Collins and having the community. It’s so much fun. There’s nothing like being at the Oaks.
Lastly, do you have any advice for students currently going through OSL and those looking into it?
Only old OSL people will understand this reference, but they used to drill this into our heads. We were always told to “submit to the process”. There are so many students coming into OSL or are in OSL right now. I’ve seen so many students get two years into their process, and they think, “I’m going to quit now because I haven’t gotten where I want to go or haven’t been able to do what I want to do.” And I would just say, first of all, God does not change his mind. Yeah, submit to the process. Sometimes you might think you’re here to get a job or to get a position and the only thing that you’re here for is to get the character that will sustain you for the rest of your life. I listened to the Learn By Doing podcasts with Alan and Amanda. I have to echo Alan’s thought process when he is talking about how millennials are so afraid of going through dark seasons. They feel like everything should be given to them immediately. There’s no grit to doing the work and have the work ethic. The reality is that you have to submit, submit to your schoolwork, submit to your pastor, submit to what pastor Scott is saying. No OSL student should be here and not understand what series we’re in or what we’re learning. They should be able to teach it to everyone that they meet. To students who are thinking about coming, I would say pray and submit to that process. It all comes back to submitting to the process.
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.