Holly Mast emits sincerity and peace with every single interaction. Her gentle nature, intricate vocabulary, and deep wisdom make it hard to believe she’s only a senior in high school. Holly pulls out her chair, her baggy sweatshirt falling below her palms and her white sneakers reminiscent of a style her parents likely wore when they were her age. She adores her family and immediately begins talking about her parents and younger two siblings.
“Both of my parents are really strong Christians, so that’s been a good foundation for me and my faith. They’re also very supportive of me. Most people would say the career I’m heading towards isn’t a stable career, but my parents say, ‘If it’s for God – great!’”
Holly may still be in high school, but she feels God has already given her direction of what career path she’s supposed to head down.
“I know God wants me to do something with music. I’m not sure what that looks like yet. I’ve done a lot of songwriting, even though it is hard sometimes. I’m learning how to play the guitar and that is going ok – but not great.”
Holly giggles and her eyes twinkle as she’s recalling her previous guitar lessons.
“I’m going to major in media production in college. I’m hoping to do something with worship arts in church, but the thing I want to do the most is record my own music and possibly write songs for more people – whatever I can do in my life to use music to glorify God.”
However, Holly’s journey to this decision hasn’t been easy. Depression and deep insecurities have made a regular appearance in Holly’s life.
“Depression has shaped me the most – not that I’m defined by it, because I’m not. The depressive symptoms and the apathy had been developing for a long time, but it all culminated my freshman year in a very bad way. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in God, I was just very apathetic about Him and in my mind, I had bigger things to deal with than God. I was sad all the time, couldn’t get out of bed, or socialize with people. I thought, ‘Why should I care about going to church and furthering my relationship with God and reading my Bible?’ Those were things that didn’t even cross my mind. So, God and I drifted apart for a really long time.”
The summer before ninth grade, Holly attended Summerfest and had the realization that depression may be something she was struggling with.
“My friend had shared that she was struggling with depression and the things she had been feeling. I didn’t know what depression was but as she was talking I was like, ‘That’s me. I feel that way, too!’ I had a complete emotional breakdown after everyone went to worship. I went into my freshman year and for maybe two weeks everything was fine. But after that it came back way worse.”
Despite Holly’s struggle, or perhaps because of her struggle, with mental health and apathy towards her relationship with God, she hit a breaking point and in a desperate prayer, cried out:
“God, I can’t do this anymore. The way I feel is terrible, and I can’t fix this on my own, and I don’t know what to do. I feel directionless. I have no idea what my purpose is or why I’m even here.”
Then the Holy Spirit began to whisper in Holly’s heart.
“I heard Him say, ‘You are made for so much more than all of this’. I felt like He was saying, ‘You are made for more than this depression, but in order to overcome this you need to tell somebody. You can’t do this alone.’ He also said, ‘You need to come back to Me and let Me lead you.’”
Slowly, Holly began to work on her relationship with the Lord.
I began to talk to God every day. Even stupid things, ‘Oh, nice weather today’, just to keep in mind that He’s right there – a point of reference. I started getting back in the Word. and I told my parents what I was going through and began seeing a Christian therapist so I could heal spiritually as well.”
This slow and steady spiritual and mental transformation was crucial for Holly to discover her direction and her purpose, which was the second half of her prayer.
“There’s that moment of realizing how much I needed God. I need Him and His purpose and not my own. That was the place that changed my life the most.”
From there, God began to move and work in Holly’s heart, and she was able to fully listen to His promptings. She has always loved music, but stage fright can consume her and she doesn’t like to be the center of attention.
“I had been feeling purposeless and directionless, and now, looking back I can see that His answer to my prayer of showing me a purpose was a pressing He had on my heart a few months later when I just felt like I needed to try out for the worship team. But I felt like it was all in my head, so I fought it for such a long time. Then we had a sermon about the rich young ruler and how there were certain things he wasn’t willing to give up to follow Jesus. God asked me, ‘What’s your thing? I’ll give you a hint… it has to do with music.’ So then I was like, ‘Ok, You win.’”
Just because Holly is willing doesn’t mean it has come easily for her. She joined the worship team for the student ministry, but struggled every single time she led worship.
“I was terrified every time I went on stage. My stomach hurt and I would feel like I was going to throw up. It was terrible.”
When Holly went on a mission trip to Ecuador, her fear collided with her willingness.
“I kind of had a turning point when I was in Ecuador. I was asked five minutes in advance to lead the team in worship. I had a panic attack and couldn’t do it. I’d been obedient to His call but didn’t trust Him. That’s a learning curve. As I became more confident with who God made me to be, I accepted the person God made me to be. My love of music continued to grow and I began trusting God more.”
Holly has continued to grow in her relationship with God. She still battles intense stage fright every time she leads worship, but continually surrenders to God, following Him in obedience and trusting that He has a purpose for her even in the midst of fear.
She clings tightly to Jesus, trusting that He’ll carry her through it all, as she continues to heal from depression and live out God’s calling in her life to pursue music. Now, Holly feels the exact opposite of apathy for God.
“I don’t want this to sound irreverent, but Jesus is a friend. Obviously I don’t think of Him as if ‘God is my homie.’ I understand that He’s the King of the universe. There are times I feel like God is looking at me thinking, ‘You are absolutely ridiculous.’ But it doesn’t take long in His presence to know that isn’t how He views me at all. Jesus is there for me, understands me, is an advocate for my healing, and when there are days that are hard for me, I can just wake up and talk to Him. He’s not going to condemn me or tell me I could be better. He tells me He’s there for me and will walk with me. That closeness and intimacy with God, you can’t experience anywhere else – that deep comradery I feel with Him. Jesus is my friend.”
Danielle’s smile spreads across her face, her hands wrapped around the Keto coffee just delivered to the table. She shares that she isn’t always good at verbalizing her story, but likes to write things down so she’s a little nervous. However, with a brave breath, Danielle begins sharing. Her biological dad hasn’t been in her life for many, many years. He suffered an injury after playing a season for the New York Jets, and after that, he spiraled downhill until his depression, addictions, and abuse were too much for Danielle’s mom to handle. They separated when Danielle and her little sister were quite small and they rarely saw their dad after that.
“You would think I would be angry, but when I was little I would say my prayers with my mom then she’d leave the room and I’d thank God for being my Dad. It didn’t all matter because He was my real Dad and one day I’d live with my real Dad. I would pray: ‘Thank You for being my real Father. Thank You.’”
Growing up, Danielle regularly went to church with her mom and little sister and attended a private Christian school. Danielle’s mom remarried, and while loving, they were very strict.
When Danielle turned twelve, much of her world turned upside down.
“In sixth grade I changed from a Christian education to a public education and that was a hard change – not a good change. I also stopped seeing my biological father and it was the first time I realized I don’t look like everyone else. My biological father is black and my mom is white, and she remarried a Hispanic man, my step-father who raised me. It was hard because I stood out – I didn’t look like my parents or friends. I had my first anxiety attack that year at school, too. I became a chameleon. I’m good at that and can blend well into my surroundings. I just didn’t choose a good background to mold into. There was a lot of anger and confusion at that time, and it spilled over into years and years of rebellion and doubt and anxiety.”
In high school, Danielle continued to make poor decisions that left her full of guilt and shame.
“Minus all the crazy stuff, I thought my life was pretty easy. It wasn’t traumatic and I did feel close to Christ as a child. I was saturated with Jesus and didn’t know anything else. But I stopped going to youth group in high school because I felt so guilty. In college I was invited to go to the campus church but couldn’t show my face because I was a sorority girl who partied.”
Danielle still desperately wanted to know Jesus more and wanted to change.
“I always let guilt get in the way of a true transformation.”
Danielle met Ben her freshman year at K-State where he played baseball.
“He was with me during my chaotic college years. He was, however, grounded and focused on his goal: professional ball. He was drafted our junior year and left K-State. By the time I graduated college and moved to Tulsa to teach, he was playing minor-league baseball in California.”
Danielle used the move to Tulsa as a way to break free from the party scenes she frequented.
“[In Kansas City] I was partying too hard and needed to get away. [In Tulsa] I didn’t know anyone, got a one bedroom apartment and was teaching. I was only there for six months because Ben blew out his shoulder.”
However, during those six months, Danielle found a church and began getting plugged in, and Ben gave his life to the Lord. After Ben’s injury, he decided to join the railroad. They quickly married in Kansas City and moved together to Lincoln, Nebraska, for Ben’s new job. Any transformation that had begun to take place in Danielle’s life quickly deteriorated after their move. Ben was gone often for work, and Danielle filled the time without him by working hard and partying with co-workers and new friends.
“I was bar hopping and drinking and blacking out every single time I drank. I remember being drunk sometimes and going out and looking at the stars. I would talk to God drunk, but I’d feel so much shame the next day, and I’d be sick all day. Every weekend I was recovering from the partying, and I didn’t even think about God then. I couldn’t let my mind go there. Did I think God loved me? Yes. But I couldn’t think about that. I kept thinking, ‘How am I going to love myself better?’ and I’d vow to make better decisions and be the best at my job.”
She and Ben weren’t unhappy, but they weren’t connected and seemed more like ships passing in the night. Then one day everything changed.
“It continued like that until I got pregnant with Hart. I had changed career paths and managed a kickboxing gym. Ben and I were just in and out, passing each other all the time. But the minute I got pregnant, it brought me to my knees. I realized how selfish and self-serving I was and now I have a little person. I desperately wanted more for them. I felt like God was telling me, ‘It’s your life that just changed, not your skin.’”
In an instant, Danielle recognized that she wanted more for herself and for her future children.
“I wanted my child to know Christ early on. I didn’t think we could be the parents that I wanted to be without a relationship with Christ.”
Danielle began sharing her heart with her mom, and they chose to work through a Proverbs 31 Bible study together.
“That was me making another first step. I was never someone who didn’t believe then had a radical transformation. I’ve just left God so many times and slammed the door so many times. He’s given me many opportunities…but I’d slam the door.”
Danielle knew that if the transformation was going to continue, she needed to surround herself with Godly influences. She began praying for the Lord to provide her with friends that will make her closer to the Lord and graciously allow friendships that weren’t honoring or uplifting to Him to dissolve.
“I started changing the music I was listening to. I love music, I’m very driven by music. I easily take in what’s around me and who I’m with. I soak in a mood in the room, even if it’s not my own mood, I just soak it in because I never had a clear identity growing up. I just wanted to be like everyone else around me. I changed what I watched on TV too. We couldn’t find a church we really liked so my main focus was doing Bible studies with my mom and praying with her.”
As Danielle continued to radically change, her friends began asking questions, and she felt like she didn’t belong with them, but she wasn’t a perfect Christian, either.
“I felt a lot of guilt. I wasted a lot of years just doing my own thing. One thing my mom said on the phone that stuck out to me was: ‘There’s no such thing as a perfect Christian, so if you’re looking to be one, you’re going to fail. You just have to take the steps, and you have to try.’ I like to be perfect at everything I do, so I really struggled with that.”
It wasn’t long before Ben and Danielle decided to move to Kansas City to be closer to family and so Danielle could be a stay-at-home mom. On a walk in their new neighborhood, they met a couple who encouraged them to try out Pleasant Valley.
Being a new mama in a new part of Kansas City, Danielle joined PV’s moms ministry, she and Ben joined a community group, and eventually they were baptized together.
“Finding Christ as an adult, I just feel it so differently. I’m more mature and aware. I don’t think some of my old friends understand even the language I use now. I don’t curse and don’t like to be around it. I’ve had questions about why I don’t curse or curse in front of my kids.”
Danielle sometimes still feels like she’s in the middle – not like her old friends she partied with but not like her new friends she has Christian community with.
“I get around my small group, and I’m the ‘The Ex-Partier’ and that feels like my identity. I feel like I’m not ‘Christian’ enough for them. There seems to always be something holding me back at times and I need to get over it because I know God’s over it. He’s over me always thinking about it, too. I need to just move on. Move on!”
Danielle’s laugh fills the air. Her honesty in her journey is palpable and relatable. There’s no pretending with Danielle. She is who she is and she is still growing, still deepening her roots, still becoming more confident in her identity in Jesus. She is continuing to fall more and more in love with Him.
“Some people think a relationship with Christ is a lot of rules and checking off the list. When you just don’t worry about that, if you believe your story is written and God loves you, you don’t have to worry so much. It has always been more about a relationship with God. God is my real Father. My focus has always been a relationship more than how many times in a month I am going to church. How am I going to build my relationship with Him? People will use that [God is loving] to condone some lifestyles, and I don’t condone behaviors or lifestyles that aren’t biblical, but He has always shown me so much love. I don’t deserve anything I have. I don’t deserve my children, my husband, to stay at home and raise my kids. I get nothing but love no matter what I do. Jesus is love.”
Carlie Ross is no stranger to the anxiety that plagues nearly 2.6 million adolescents across the United States. Her first memories of anxiety began when she was just four years old.
At four, Carlie was diagnosed with an arrhythmia. She and her parents learned that she might have to have surgery later in life, but at only four, the confusing word terrified her. Carlie knew nothing about what an arrhythmia was and felt certain she was going to die. This turned into a deep fear that crippled Carlie every day. She couldn’t sleep alone, socialize with other kids, and began having trouble breathing. Carlie refused to do anything that caused her heart to beat faster because she was afraid it would bother her heart. She never played sports and to this day won’t ride roller coasters because of that foundation of fear.
“A lot of my anxiety always stemmed around death, because I thought my condition was more severe than it was and I thought I was going to die. When I was seven, my grandpa died. Since then, and with each passing family member, it has built onto the anxiety of death.”
Between the ages of eight and twelve, Carlie had three surgeries to correct the arrhythmia in her heart. After the last surgery, Carlie’s heart has never had another problem.
But the anxiety didn’t heal when her heart did.
“My anxiety continued to grow when I was in elementary school. I didn’t have a lot of friends, so I had a lot of anxiety about school, making friends, being normal. When I was about to enter high school, another family member passed away and brought back all of the anxiety of death and it stuck until I was a freshman in college.”
Carlie has attended Pleasant Valley her entire life, and chose to follow Jesus when she was ten. Despite the security in knowing where she would go if she were to die, the anxiety wreaked havoc in her life. In eighth grade, Carlie began taking medication for the anxiety.
“I didn’t have a really strong relationship with God until high school. I had the opportunity to switch schools, and He surrounded me with so many people at school that were my community and we helped each other grow in our faith. God helped me have that opportunity then I was able to step away from the anxiety of socializing.”
Carlie grew as a leader in PV’s student ministry. She led worship, went on mission trips, and discipled other girls as she continued to grow in her own walk with the Lord.
It was in her freshman year of college that she was really tested to the extreme.
Carlie woke up every morning with panic attacks – she couldn’t breathe, her heart would race, her hands would shake, and she would overheat. Every single morning was debilitating as she worked through the anxiety that filled her every day.
“My whole life, I’ve prayed, ‘Lord would help me to someday not be afraid of death and be excited to be in eternity with You.’ Then came the anxiety my freshman year. I was alone and really couldn’t function during a normal day so I really had to trust Him. Being away from my family I found idols in my life, like finding comfort in home instead of Him. I found I had put my trust in my parents keeping me safe and the comfort zone of my home church in Kansas City – but not God. He was who I had to put all of my trust in. That was the biggest growth for me at the beginning of my freshman year. I was learning to put all kinds of trust in Him, and it was a turning point. “
Carlie began therapy for the first time as an adult, continued taking her medication, and worked on fully relying on the Lord to help overcome the anxiety.
“I think experiencing that anxiety so horribly made me long to be in a place where I would never experience anxiety again, and that made me hopeful for a day I wouldn’t have to be anxious any more. That transformation was gradual, but one morning I woke up and got up and started doing my normal things and thought, ‘I didn’t have a panic attack when I woke up this morning’ and I began to think, ‘this is getting better.’ It really grew my trust in Him and pointed out that I hadn’t trusted Him for enough and tried to do it all by myself.”
Carlie calls that season her “big mental breakdown,” and since then she’s still struggled with anxiety, but it hasn’t revolved around death.
“Now I’m excited to be in heaven because I never thought I’d get to be excited about it.”
In fact, in January 2020, Carlie was able to stop taking the anxiety medication she’d been taking for eight years. Carlie has learned to trust God with every aspect of her future.
“There’s nothing that I’ll experience now or in the future that He won’t be with me through. I feel a lot more joyful and at peace in general. Through the whole pandemic and everything, I’ve been able to sit back and trust that He’s in control and holding my life in His hands. He’s holding it all together for His purpose and glory.”
Carlie knows she’ll probably experience anxiety again in the future, but she knows she can look back at all of the times in the past where God has been faithful and carried her through.
“I’ve experienced it all to different extremes and severities… [God] was in each moment of panic and in my month-long breakdown. He brought me out of it all… there’s nothing that the future will hold that God doesn’t already know about and that He’s not already there.”
Through the highest moments of anxiety, and through the times where her anxiety is at bay, one thing has always been clear to Carlie. She is able to proclaim with a steady assurance that…
“Jesus is my peace.”