Story by Reagan McCain, 9th Grade Student, Highland View Academy
Between April 2 and April 7, Highland View Academy celebrated a Week of Hope that flooded the campus with the Holy Spirit – Pastor Andrew Ashley inspired students, staff, and community members alike with his real and personal depictions of God. The students at Highland View Academy were especially touched by the words of Pastor Andrew, with eight students, including myself, choosing to proclaim their belief in God and publicly devote themselves to His work through baptism and dedication.
The week had been in the planning process for almost a year. Highland View Church had sent out over 15,000 fliers to the community, organized a free dinner every night, provided free child-care, given out prizes at every meeting, and timed the event to coincide with the academy’s Student-led Week of Prayer. This meant that respected student leaders preached in the mornings at chapel and Pastor Andrew brought the good word in the evenings. This dual-pronged approach invited the Holy Spirit onto campus in unprecedented ways and led to a harvest greater than anyone expected. It seemed like after every benediction there was another person pouring out their heart to Pastor Andrew. Every night students sat in the pews, deep in thought, as the Spirit worked on their long hardened hearts – I regularly saw a dozen students teary-eyed and seeking guidance.
“This week was one of the best honestly, the best I’ve ever gone to,” said Darlene Ntakirutimana, a junior at the Academy who was the first one to ask to be baptized on Monday evening. “For three months now I’ve felt like I just didn’t have hope. I didn’t have hope for myself or anything,” but when she heard Pastor Andrew preach on the lukewarm church of Laodicea she decided she needed to get real hot, really quickly. She remembers, “I was very touched and moved, it felt like they were talking directly to me.”
Pastor Andrew was certainly on fire that week. “The goal of this week,” he explained Thursday night “was to display, paint a picture of God that is irresistible and easy to fall in love with. The purpose of this week is to show us what God has done for us and we need to choose him because the Devil is after us. So, like whom are you going to choose?“ That message of urgency resonated with many of the young people but making that choice was a little scary, as Lucille Borges, a freshmen who chose to be baptized, explained “I felt like something was holding me back, but I didn’t know what it is. I think it was just me being scared.”
“It’s a hard thing to do,” Pastor Andrew admitted, “it’s not popular, it’s not cool. When you do this some of your friends are going to make fun of you… it’s not cool to be the Jesus’ person ya know?“
But many students took a “posture of bravery,” at the end of the week. Notably Christopher Romero, one of two guys to be involved and the only young man from the dormitory, decided to be dedicated that Sabbath. Nearly no one knew of his decision until he was called up front to pray with Pastor Andrew Sabbath morning. The moment his name was called I, and the rest of the baptism group, burst into tears. “I didn’t really tell people because I didn’t want to, like, show off or something. This was something between me and God,” he explained a few days after his dedication. On Wednesday, Pastor Andrew shared the story of Jacob and his tumultuous relationship with God, “he felt like he wasn’t good enough.” Rome confessed he could relate. “That’s how I felt, like I mess up all the time, why would God want me?” But as Pastor Andrew preached that night, “God isn’t a sky monster,” He does not want to condemn you but redeem you.
This hopeful message was infectious and made a measurable difference on HVA’s campus. Typically, a prayer group of 3-5 people gathers in the hallway to pray before class every morning. But on Wednesday of Week of Prayer, attendance had tripled, making it difficult to navigate around the prayerful huddle to get to lockers. “I’ve seen more positivity throughout the school this week,” declared Darlene “and they’ve been taking this into their heart. Even the People who do not believe I’ve seen actually be respectful and actually thinking about it and considering that God might be true.” Lucille agreed, “From the first day to the last day I felt like everyone became a little more respectful, a little more attentive. There’s a lot of people that just feel ready. It just feels lifted.” She went on to insist, “This week has been a particularly good week.” Everyone seemed to agree that during this dedicated week people were touched, moved, and changed like never before – I certainly know I was.
On the first night of the service I was talking to our church’s pastor, Cesar Grassioto, about what he was expecting me to say in this article. He ended our brief conversation with a few prophetic sentences, “Hey, who knows, maybe this story could be your story?” Because of Week of Prayer I had been in deep conversation with God all week. I spent the entire week praying fervently for all my friends and loved ones to accept Jesus in their heart like I had a long time ago, though I was not baptized. I have always been careful with what I believe in and have tried to be secure in my convictions before professing them to the world. So I had been taking my sweet time soaking up information about God and exploring the Bible, making certain that it was true. But that Thursday I processed everything I had heard that week from both the spiritual leaders at school and Pastor Andrew, and realized I agreed with everything I had heard, and held that truth in my heart. So when Pastor Andrew made an appeal during prayer, I knew that it was about time for me to make public a choice I had made privately years ago. I mean, what was stopping me from committing myself?
After talking to Pastor Andrew, I spent the next two days telling people about my decision and was overwhelmed by the support of my friends and family in person and on social media. It served to only excite me and the others more and more. Soon it was Sabbath and time for seven baptisms. I sat in one of two pews full of robed teenagers eagerly waiting for the last part of the service as Pastor Andrew preached. Soon it was our turn and we were ushered into a sort of hallway that led to the baptismal pool on stage. My name was the first called, and I stepped into the freezing water with Pastor Cesar as Pastor Andrew said a blessing, “and in the name of the Son, the Father and the Holy Spirit, I baptize you.” One after the other, in quick succession we were all buried and then raised in Christ. Each one of my new brothers and sisters was welcomed into a warm embrace of the others as our wet robes soaked the carpet beneath our feet. We became one, united mass of sobbing, shivering teenagers overwhelmed by the grace of God and the momentous journey we had ahead of us.
This Week of Hope marks the most baptisms at HVA in decades, and has been described by some as a revival in our school. That seems to me a bit presumptuous – there is still so much work left to do! But the hope is that the impact of this week does not end with just eight kids, but that it spreads and leads to an even more massive change in the atmosphere of our community. None of us think it is going to be easy. Every spiritual mentor we had guiding us throughout the baptism warned us about the wilderness we were about to face. Even as I write this in just the immediate aftermath, I feel myself being attacked by a discouraging force. But we know that we have God working with us and that even when we inevitably slip up we have a Savior ready and eager to forgive us. That is the hope we cling to.