CONOR AND ASHLEY’S STORY

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I remember Ashley and I entered Ozark Christian College the same semester – spring of ’12. We followed Conor by one semester. They’re from Santa Clarita Valley, California. I immediately admired Ashley and her chic Cali style and long beachy waves from afar. (We lived in different dorm buildings.) Conor was the guy with a nose ring who sat next to me in class and cracked great jokes that made everyone laugh. They were a sight for sore Midwestern eyes. Fast forward a year and I was invited to join a small group that Ashley was also a part of. From there, we became friends and my admiration for her and her husband has grown even more over the last four years. They’ve since planted themselves in Joplin and have been doing awesome work for the community. I personally know many people who value Conor and Ashley because of their depth, how fun they are to be around, and the passion they have for people. Here is their story:

April 14, 2017

ASHLEY: Neither of us were raised in Christian homes, but mine was to an extent where I didn’t know anything about Jesus until I got into high school. The extent of what I knew about God was that we celebrated Christmas so that made us Christians. I remember asking my parents on Christmas, “Why are we Christians and not Jewish?” and they were just like, “Because we celebrate Christmas!” That was my logic and that was what I knew. I had some friends who went to church when we were growing up and I would randomly go with them on Sunday to their kids service, but I can’t remember a single thing. I felt so out of place that I just blocked everything out. There was never a bitterness in my family towards it … we just didn’t talk about it. At the time we were growing up, there was only two really big churches in our area – a really big Baptist church and Catholic church. There weren’t really any other churches that were good at connecting people or focused on relationships. Everything was very formal. My family was not a formal family so it just didn’t vibe.

I have a brother who is two years younger than me. We raced bikes competitively. Mostly him, though. I quickly figured out it wasn’t for me.  We traveled a ton for competitions and we were gone almost every weekend. Through that, I started questioning my worth only because my brother was kind of like a golden child. He was the one who was good at the sport we had committed our lives to and I was just kind of there. It wasn’t like I wasn’t allowed to try other things; I tried dance for a couple years, but I’m just not sporty whatsoever. I was good at school. My parents encouraged me in that, but when you’re in elementary school, it’s not like you can go really far and do a lot of extracurriculars especially when you’re gone on the weekends. I started just wondering what I was good at. Where do I find my worth? That played in later in life, too.

My dad was also an alcoholic. It would come in waves. He just had a super addictive personality. There would be spouts of my childhood where he would be sober and everything would be fine and then there would be spouts where he would go on drinking binges for years. I remember when I grew up, started talking to other friends about parents, and realized other people’s parents didn’t drink and drive. I remember my dad picking us up from daycare and then going to the liquor store and drinking and then driving us home. I just thought that’s what everyone’s dad did. We kind of lived somewhat of a party lifestyle. Both of my parents are really kind and hospitable, but when you don’t have Jesus in your life that sometimes translates to having parties. We were always around people who were drinking and always had alcohol at our house. As I got older, it started to create some tension between myself and my dad. As a child, I started realizing that wasn’t okay and I have a really stubborn personality, so I started stepping in and saying, “I don’t think it’s okay that you talk to my mom like that” and  “I don’t think that it’s okay that you do this … thing.” If my dad was inebriated enough, he would always try to fight people. We had the cops called on us more than we could count. I remember they would show up at the door and we would tell them that everything was fine. I honestly didn’t start getting the social queues of what was right and wrong until I got into middle and high school and started spending time with other families. At that time, that abstract thinking starts developing and I started to realize that my normal wasn’t normal …

CONOR: I grew up, like Ashley said, kind of in a non-Christian family as well. No religious background. In our hometown, if you asked someone if they knew who Jesus was and they said “no,” they legitimately had no idea who Jesus was. That was the case for our family. The only time we went to church was on Easter and that’s because my grandma made us all go. I hated it. We had to get dressed up and the whole time we were there I just felt like we were being judged. I grew up with a negative view of the church because of that.

I lived in two extremes. My parents divorced when I was really little because my dad was kind of crazy and he, to this day, wouldn’t admit he was. We look back now and just think, Wow, can’t believe he did some of the stuff he did. Same as Ashley, it wasn’t until later we acknowledged it was unhealthy, but at the time … oh, it was just dad. I remember sitting in my garage and watching my dad leave the house and it’s a memory that’s cemented into my head … standing at the door and watching my dad leave and me not understanding why. So I grew up with a split family. On one end, my dad always had a chip on his shoulder and hated the world. He felt like he got the short end of the stick. During the week, I was in Valencia and on the weekends … for the most part of my childhood … I grew up in Canyon Country. That created a weird dynamic. On one hand, I had mom who was more well off. She was a single mom trying to make ends meet and raise two boys. I have an older brother. My step-dad came along and raised me and my brother. He’s been awesome and to this day, I’ll call him dad because he taught me what it meant to be a man. Looking back now, I see two polar opposites. When I was younger, my dad started giving us boys alcohol because he thought it would make him cool. On the other side of things, I had my mom – who didn’t drink at all. She taught us alcohol is bad. We don’t look at it. We don’t touch it. Be inside by the time the streetlights come on. So we were kind of living in this paradox of perfect and crazy. Also, I learned how to hide who I was and how I was feeling because I knew that mom would kill me if she found out what was happening at dads and I knew dad hated what was happening while we were at moms because he resented it. I kind of become who I needed to be while I was with dad and who I needed to be with mom.

That translated into high school and me just being an absolute turd. I had no idea who Jesus was and I was a total punk. My mom thought I was an angel and doing great. I was never good at school. Even sports … I played sports and was okay at them, but never really cared enough to excel. It wasn’t until I joined this fire academy program that I started seeing that, Oh, maybe there’s something more in the world. So I jumped into this fire program and tried to figure out who I was. By senior year, I decided I was going to be a firefighter. I thought, I’m going to do this and prove to everybody that I’m worth it. I found my worth in firefighting and was actually really good at it. I was excelling and had some job offers. I thought that was what I was going to do. At that point, I still had no relationship with Jesus. Going into senior year was kind of the messiest time. I went in thinking, Okay, I think I know who I am but it was all based on the world. I really had no idea who I was and if something were to have happened, my entire world would have crumbled and fell apart.

ASHLEY: By the time middle school hit, I started trying to find my worth in whatever I could. Now I know I’m good at being creative and problem-solving and I really like art, but those things were never valued in my family. I was never encouraged to really do any of that. So I resorted to boys … and friends … and trying to be popular. Middle school is a weird age for everyone, but I really started testing limits when I was in middle school. When I went into high school, I remember hearing about this program called Young Life. All I really knew at that point was that it was exclusively for high schoolers and they got to go to this really cool camp. That’s where all the popular girls that were a year older than us went. They had all these really cool black and white pictures on their MySpace. [laughs] One of my friends and I were like, We need to go this camp. My friend had an older sister who was several years older and she went to Young Life. So school’s starting, me and my friend, Molly, are pumped because we finally get to go to Young Life. We go to Young Life and the first 45 minutes was all about fun and being silly. We had multiple high schools in our valley so we got to meet new people. I wasn’t a part of anything that was mine up until then. At the end, they do a ten or twenty minute talk about Jesus. I can honestly say that at the time, I didn’t really care and none of it really hit me until later. The information was there, though. I had heard the name Jesus and actually knew some things about God as to where before I knew absolutely nothing.

Freshman year, I had my first party. I had friends over and everyone got really drunk. From then on, my house just became the party house. That first party probably had ten to twenty people and then it just spiraled out of control. I went to Young Life camp that summer after freshman year again. We were the only young ones there and everyone else was seniors. Most of the day at Young Life is about having fun,  playing games, and building community and then at night, there’s usually a message that lasts between thirty minutes and an hour. The talk builds throughout the week. By day five, you’re basically asked to give your life to Jesus. The whole week you’re going through who Jesus is, what he did, what sin is, and Jesus died for your sin. Then you’re asked to give your life to Jesus. The night that hit me hardest was the night they explained how Jesus died. I totally remember the talk. I remember them showing clips from old movies and this thought really hit me, Why would someone ever do that for me? I didn’t feel worthy or valued. Being told someone gave their life for me totally got my attention. That night, I remember being a mess and that thought clouded my mind. That next day, I gave my life to Jesus and I was super excited about it. I had a mentor at the time and she was excited it. So, I went home. I was super pumped. My mom asked me, “How was camp?” and I said, “I gave my life to Jesus!” and her face went completely blank. She said, “You’re never allowed to go back to Young Life again. They’ve totally brainwashed you. I didn’t know that’s what this was about …” She went off. I wasn’t allowed to talk to my Young Life leader anymore. I wasn’t really allowed to do anything. It became this really sore spot in my relationship with my mom because she obviously had been burned by religion and wanted nothing to do with it. That’s when I realized she didn’t want us to have anything to do with it either. So, I started going back to Young Life behind my mom’s back. I stayed involved and hung out with my Young Life leader.

I was still involved with the party crowd. I would get teased when I wouldn’t drink at parties. People would say things like, “Oh, why don’t you just go read your Bible” and dumb things like that. But when you’ve been a Christian for two weeks and just learned about Jesus, it’s intimidating and I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I didn’t have a Christian community to support me. Things kind of went backwards. I was still going to Young Life and hanging out with my Young Life leader and had a positive influence in my life, but my actions didn’t change. They only got worse. I started having pretty large parties at my house every weekend – anywhere from 50 to 200 people would be at my house. We would go to the grocery store across the street and load up our cart with alcohol. It just got worse and fed my ego. At first, it was just a fun thing to do with my close group of friends, but then it was how I found my worth. People at school knew I had parties. It was a desirable thing to want to come to my parties. I thought it was cool that it was kind of exclusive and it gave me this sort of pride or value.

I dated some really not good guys. I got into one relationship that was really bad. He was horrible to me and he wasn’t a kind human being. He didn’t value me at all. Through the midst of this, my self worth went down the drain because I was putting my worth in all these wrong places. I developed a pretty bad eating disorder my sophomore year of high school, but no one really knew about it except for this boyfriend. People knew because I lost a lot of weight quickly. There were some rumors, but I hadn’t spoken anything to anyone except for him. He was annoyed by it, but there was some sort of weird loyalty to me so he didn’t tell anyone.

I get into junior year and I’m still with this guy. We had been together for almost two years. We’re at Burger King and he breaks up with me in the drive thru by saying, “Where do you think this relationship is going?” [laughs] I was a mess, so I went and stayed the night with a friend. He then told me he emailed my mom and told her about the eating disorder. That was the scariest thing of my life because I didn’t want anyone to know. I ended up admitting to it, but my mom didn’t place me in any sort of care or therapy. I would just say that it was better when secretly it was getting a million times worse. After the breakup, I basically just went crazy and had bigger parties. I was living this dual life where I was still a Christian on the side and still going to Young Life. I signed up to serve for a month the summer before senior year at a Young Life camp. I don’t know why … I couldn’t even tell you the reasoning behind it. But that changed my life. During this time, I still had my eating disorder. It was still this secret part of me that no one knew about. But that camp was the first time I’d experienced Christian community. I lived beside other kids my age who were solid Christians and I just thought, This is what I could have? Relationships aren’t based on what I can give them?  It changed everything. I made solid friends there – even some who lived in the same town and we could keep each other accountable. I made a commitment to get better and not drink. I came back from Young Life camp a couple weeks before senior year and did pretty good for awhile. But then senior year started … [laughs] Senior year was just a battle in every way: spiritually, mentally, emotionally …

At this time, my parents were still together. My dad had been sober for a good while, but during my junior year, he started drinking again. At the tip of all of it, he ended up getting really drunk one night and when he came home, I was being stubborn and pushing him and telling him he shouldn’t do what he was doing. Usually he took his aggression out on my mom, not physically, usually verbally. I remember that night, he cornered me and looked me in the eyes and said, “I wish you were never born. I wish you weren’t my daughter.” That shook me at my core because if this person who a part of my creation doesn’t seem me as valuable or worthy then how am I valuable or worthy?

CONOR: So up until then, Ashley and I didn’t really run in the same circles. We had two separate groups of friends, but I hung out with the girls that were a year older than us and she hung out with the guys that were a year older than us. The older girls hated Ashley and the older guys hated me because we were the young punks that were trying to steal their boyfriends and girlfriends. I got introduced to Ashley junior year by a close friend, Mickey, who also was a childhood friend of Ashley’s. He invited me to his birthday party that Ashley was hosting at her house. During my junior year, I started going to the parties at her house because the girls I was dating were always at her house or Mickey had invited me. Through that process, I started hanging out with Ashley and we started talking. I still had no idea who Jesus was. Ashley and some of her friends had invited me to Young Life. My buddies and I checked it out – hated it and never went back. We just said Young Life wasn’t for us. We just thought it was a bunch of kids who partied on the weekends, but then went and claimed to be Christians the rest of the time. We just kind of hated them because … either be a Christian or don’t. We fell on the “don’t be a Christian” side and we really liked drinking and partying.

Junior year was really rough. That was the first sense of freedom I really had. I was a total idiot. I had met Ashley. I was dating somebody and she had just gotten out of a relationship. We were at the Valencia Morp (backwards prom). You dress crazy and it’s just a stupid dance. I remember that was the first time Ashley was like, “We should hang out!” and I was like, What? I’m on your radar? Okay! We started texting back and forth here and there and throughout the summer. She went to Young Life Camp the summer before senior year and I didn’t see her the whole summer. I was partying with all her friends and became really good friends with three of her good friends. It was really weird. I don’t know how I became best friends with them. I just did. She came back and I was like, “We should all hang out.” And then Ashley and I started secretly talking.

I was never popular in school, but then senior year I got in really good shape and came back a week later than everyone else. Everyone was like, “Oh hey, Conor, what’s up? Where have you been?” I felt like I was the coolest kid in the world and was like, I’m going to date all these girls that never gave me the time of day last year. I was trying to prove myself and then Ashley and I started talking more through that. I went over to her house like every Wednesday night and would go over there most nights to do homework. We ended up dating through that process, but nobody knew we were dating.

ASHLEY: Yeah, we kept it quiet for, like, maybe two months. Everyone thought it was just a joke, though. I usually dated very casually, so when we got together everyone was like, “How long’s this going to last?” Senior year, my biggest struggle was Where is my worth? I knew about Jesus and what that life was about and I had experienced it. I knew what would happen when I placed my worth there, but there was this false sense of pride and worth that came with hosting those parties and being popular.

Around that time, I had been going to counseling for my eating disorder. My mom had found out that it hadn’t gotten better; it had actually gotten worse. My mom and my counselor had an intervention with me and asked me to go into full-time care at a treatment center. Conor and I had been dating for two weeks and I text him, “By the way, I have a eating disorder. I’m going into full-time care. I’m going to be gone for who knows how long.” I remember going to the treatment center and them saying, “You’re probably going to be in and out of treatment centers for the rest of your life.” That scared the sh*t out of me. I was in there with girls who had been in there for years – girls who were physically distorted and mentally distorted. It was scary. It felt like prison. We had to have pat-downs to make sure we weren’t hiding food anywhere. We couldn’t shut the door when we went to the bathroom. We were always being watched. It felt like a combination of prison and child care. I thought, I don’t want that to be me. I had brought an old Bible with me that I had picked up from Young Life Camp and I don’t think I had ever really read it before. I didn’t really know how to read it. We had to be up so early every day. We had a quiet time and I would just open the Bible to a random page and just start reading from there. I started copying verses down on notecards to fill time, but what that was doing … I started learning Scripture and speaking that over myself. I was only in that treatment center for a month, but still went to counseling. That was basically the end of it all. I was scared so badly because I didn’t want that to be in my life. With an eating disorder, there’s a lot mentally that’s going on that needs treated even once behaviors stop.

Through that, I stopped going to school … like a month before I went to the treatment center. I just stopped showing up. I did home study and second semester senior year, I started back up. Conor and I were still dating. I tried breaking up with him through all of it a million times, but he wouldn’t let me.

CONOR: We stayed together through the whole process and figured it out. Once she got on the tail end of it, she looked at me and was like, “Hey, I think you need to quit drinking.” I was like, “There’s no way I’m doing that.” I loved the lifestyle I was living and it was frustrating because … Don’t tell me how to live my life. Who do you think you are to preach? I was almost mad at her for being a Christian and thought she was trying to push her beliefs on me. She was changing … and it was good change, but at the time I didn’t see it as a good change because I wasn’t going to be able to party at her house any more. I was being selfish. It was a process. She started looking at me and saying, “I think you need to go to church.” I was like, “Well, okay. I’m not going to go to your church. I’ll go to a church.” I started going to a church in town with no intention of actually believing or doing anything. I just thought through that, she’d keep hanging out with me and maybe I could pull her back into this other lifestyle … which is a horrible thing to do. But in my head, I didn’t want her to get away from that because that’s what our relationship had been about.

I started going to church and God got a hold of me through Real Life Church in Santa Clarita. I just started doing stuff with my life that I never thought was possible. I left each week going, Man, I want more of that and I don’t know why. I remember going the first time by myself and didn’t tell anyone I was going. I went home and told my parents that I went to that church and they were like, “What?” I was like, “You guys got to come with me. It was awesome.” They said they had been meaning to try it and I was like, “Well, you need to come because it’s killer.” They were like, “Who the heck are you? You hate church.” I was like, “I know, but you gotta come try it.” So, I brought my parents with me and we started going every week – me, my mom, and my step-dad. Through that, God really got a hold of my life. The pastor would say stuff that started to resonate more and more and I remember Ashley looking at me and saying, “Conor, I don’t know where you’ll be in six months, but I know where I’ll be and that’s closer to Jesus. So, I don’t know, I think you need to get baptized. I think you need to give your life to him and follow me.” So I was like, “Either I become a Christian or we’re breaking up?” and she was like, “Yeah, basically.” I was like, “Uhhh … I’m not getting baptized, I’ll tell you that right now. I’m not at that point in my life. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this.” I hate it when Christians say they’re Christian, but don’t actually believe it and do it. That was my thing: if I’m going to do this, I’m going to sell out and give up everything and do that … which is not an easy thing to do.

ASHLEY: You kept saying, “When I’m ready to stop drinking, I’ll do it.”

CONOR: Yeah, I finally got a place. Towards the end of senior year, I had some really low nights of having, like, alcohol poisoning … shaking on the floor … not knowing if I was going to make it through the night. Having those moments pushed me closer and closer to God and thinking, Maybe this isn’t the life I want to live. I remember one morning the pastor spoke, “What experiences do you have to offer the Kingdom?” and I was like, I don’t have anything to offer. I’m an alcoholic punk kid. I started drinking when I was twelve. What do I have to offer the Church? He said, “Maybe your story is rough. Maybe you need to share it with middle schoolers who are headed down the wrong path.” I thought, I could do that. I hope nobody has to experience what I’ve experienced because I’m an idiot and have done some really horrible things in my life. I got asked to be a junior high volunteer at their youth ministry and I had been at the church then for six to eight months. I was like, “Yeah, sure. You know I’m not a Christian, though, right? I have no idea who Jesus really is. I’m not baptized. I’m just learning and trying to figure things out.” He was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s fine.” This guy, Steve Meyers, was like, “Just come throw a football around with some middle schoolers” and I was like, “I can do that.” I show up that first night wearing a t-shirt with a naked girl on the front. Full on naked. I get kicked out of youth group my first night of volunteering. I get chewed out by this guy and tells me basically to never come back which is super harsh now that I look back it, but I needed it.

ASHLEY: Yeahhh …

CONOR: So, I left. I came back that next week and apologized and was like, “Hey, I’m just trying to figure this thing out.”

ASHLEY: “Like I didn’t know this wasn’t socially acceptable. I wear this to school, so …”

CONOR: Yeah. Seriously, though. I was just trying to navigate what this Jesus thing looked like. Even the littlest things … like don’t wear naked girls on your shirt. That’s most likely not something Jesus would do. I figured out more and more as time went on and got more connected. So yeah, I graduated and started going to church. I got offered an internship at the church and was trying to figure out if that was what I was going to do. I still wasn’t baptized.

ASHLEY: You got plugged into a men’s discipleship group.

CONOR: Yeah, I started meeting with Michael DeFazio and nine or ten other guys. Michael started pouring into us and making us read these super deep theological books that I had no idea what any of them meant, but it was the first sense of community I had ever experienced. Then, Ashley and I hit a fork in the road trying to figure out what was next …

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ASHLEY: During my senior year, my parents were together, but my dad’s drinking had gotten worse. He got addicted to drugs. I knew something was going on with my dad because he was acting stranger than normal. I remember waking up on morning during my senior year and hearing someone crying at my house. It was just a day I decided not to go to school. I thought it was weird because everyone else was supposed to be at work or school. I started looking around and it was my dad. He’s in his room and he calls out to me and I go in there. I remember him being there and shaking, sweating, and rolling on the bed. He said, “I’ve been addicted to heroin for months now and I’m going through withdrawals because I’m trying to get off of it. I need you to stay here with me and tell me it’s going to be okay.” I remember just staring at him. Seeing a parent ask you to do that … when they’re the ones that are supposed to take care of you and they’re asking you to take care of them … I was a mess. It was right before I was to go to that treatment center and I was just like, No. I was mad at him. I don’t think I said anything. I just got into my car and left. I think that was one of the last times I had actually talked to my dad. He didn’t get better. He got back into drugs. He moved into the spare bedroom because my parents were going through a separation. They still lived in the same house and he started bringing other women into the house, so my mom kicked him out. He just got more threatening like, “How dare you take my house! How dare you take my kids!” He was on drugs and you never know how someone is going to react, so we had to get a restraining order against him. I didn’t talk to my dad at all at this point. My mom still talked to him and my brother still kind of talked to him. As the drugs got worse, my brother stopped talking to him. My parents were still married, but were supposedly working towards a divorce.

We had to move out of our house when that happened because it got foreclosed on. We moved into an apartment. I was totally fine not talking to my dad again. I was so angry. Conor and I graduated. Conor was in community college and got offered that internship at the church. I wasn’t really doing anything. My goal all through high school was to become a doctor. My plan was to go to a good college, but my senior year my parent told me they couldn’t afford it. They asked me to go to a junior college and I said no. So, I spent the whole first semester out of high school trying to figure out what I was going to do. I actually applied to a couple junior colleges and tried moving to Santa Monica and to Ventura, but none of it worked out. I started going to Real Life with Conor here and there. In the January after we graduated, my mom just came home one day and told me and my brother that our dad had passed away. It was really weird. At that point, I hadn’t talked to my dad for a year. He died from a heart attack because he had been taking drugs and drinking. At that point, I had decided that I was going to travel with Youth with a Mission (YWAM) and was planning to leave in March to go do that and be gone for six months. I remember being conflicted. I was angry at myself for not talking to him in a year. I was an 18-year-old trying to figure out how to reconcile with someone who wasn’t physically present anymore. Neither of us had apologized for the way we had acted. I had to grieve and process that without him physically being there. Conor and I were dating through all of this. It was rough because I was a Christian and my mom and my brother were not. When things started going down the drain with my parents’ marriage, I had a conversation with my mom about my faith. It was the first time she ever let me talk about it and she understood it … that it’s not about religion; it’s about a relationship with Jesus and it’s all based on having faith in him. It was the first time she realized, Oh, you’re not brainwashed. This is different and this is something you’re passionate about. You know what you’re talking about. You’re not just giving church-y answers. Between January and the March that I left for YWAM, my decided to become a Christian. She didn’t know what to do when my dad passed so she asked if she could come to church with me. She came with me, but then it was scary because I left. I remember she went to church with Conor a couple times and with Conor’s family a few times while I was gone. I packed up and left for Ireland for six months.

CONOR: And I had accepted that internship at the church by the time she had left. I had gotten baptized. She took off for Ireland. We tried to make it work for three months. It was really tough with the time change. When I was getting to work, she was going to bed and that was really the only time we could talk. I was such a new Christian and was trying to navigate all of these tough questions: Who am I? Who is Jesus? I had a chip on my shoulder because I didn’t want anyone to tell me who he was. I wanted to discover that for myself. I went through a weird season where Ashley was trying to help me and tell me more about Jesus and I was just getting frustrated.

ASHLEY: And I was learning so much on my trip and I was excited. I wanted someone to share that with. I felt like he was on the same page as me, but in reality he was a few steps behind me. I was like, “This is what I’m learning! Isn’t this awesome?” It was too overwhelming for him. Basically, after being in Ireland for a month, we decided to break up. We decided we needed to figure out who we were on our own and work on our relationships by ourselves. We had no intentions of really talking.

CONOR: When we broke up, she was like, “I think I’m going to stay here for two years.” I was like, “There’s no way I’m doing long distance for two years.” That was the last thing I really heard from her, so I moved on with my life. It was a good thing and a bad thing. She was kind of an anchor for me in my faith. So, I backslid a little bit during my internship. I had never been Christian and single, so I didn’t know how to function healthily around anyone because I had only been a Christian with Ashley in the context of our relationship. I got some help. Through the internship and awesome godly men pouring into me and encouraging me to be a man of God, I really figured out who God created me to be. I started to understand I had something to offer the Kingdom and maybe what I had to offer the Kingdom was full-time ministry. Through working with students, I found out I loved it and was actually really good at it. I never in a million years would have thought that was the case. I had a couple different guys in my life say, “I think you need to go to Ozark [Christian College]. Go to college, get a degree for it, and do this for life.” A bunch of guys I had been in community with had left for Ozark the semester before me.

ASHLEY: Conor and I had reconnected online my last month in Ireland and just caught up with each other. During that six months, I decided I wanted to stay on staff. My mom was a new Christian and I remember telling her, “I want to be a missionary!” She was like, “You’re crazy. Can you have a job out there?” I was like, “No, as a missionary you have to raise support,” and she was like, “Absolutely not. You will not ask people for money.” That was so hard because it was something I understood and she could not fathom it. I prayed about it and I just felt like God was telling me to listen to her. I left so soon after my dad had passed away and I didn’t feel like my relationships with my mom or my brother were very good. I felt like I had to be home and work on those relationships before I could do anything else. Conor, my mom, and another friend picked me up from the airport when I came home.

CONOR: Through all of that, she was like, “Hey, I’m coming home.” I was like, “Oh, so you’re not staying for two years. That’s crazy. And hey, by the way, I’m going to Bible college.” Ashley was like, “You’re doing what?! That’s crazy.” I told her, “I think I’m going to do this for life.” So, when she left, I was at this point where I don’t really know who I am to when she came back, I was like, “I’m going to be a pastor!”

ASHLEY: Before I had left, he had found out about Ozark and was tossing the idea around. I remember saying, “If you go there, I will never go there. I’m never moving to Missouri. We are breaking up if you move.” So later, after I decided I wasn’t staying with YWAM, I started praying about what was next. I loved ministry and toyed around with the idea of doing something with that. Ozark was still not on my radar. I was thinking of more, like, a local Christian college. When Conor told me that, I was just like, “Good for you. I’m glad you’re taking a risk and doing this crazy thing, but I don’t know if I’m going to do that.”

CONOR: So, we picked Ashley up from the airport and three days later, I left for Ozark. While I was at Ozark, we started texting and calling more and more. We started dating once I got back to Ozark. It was good for me because I was able to go beforehand and establish community and really good friends with the guys living on my floor. Ashley came out and visited that semester on a Tuesday Tour and ended up coming out that next semester. It was healthy because I was able to establish friendships before she got out there.

ASHLEY: Being at a Christian college was very surreal. We had been at church, but even Real Life does church differently. Real Life’s thing is like, Church for the unchurched. It was weird because the majority of our classmates had grown up in a somewhat of a Christian home or going to youth group and professors would say, “You all know this story in the Bible,” and we would be like, “What the heck is he talking about? We go to go read about this after class!” Or like googling it as the professors talking about it because you don’t want to look like an idiot. [laughs] It was a funny experience. We learned a ton! Probably more than others because we had to learn the basics and the theology on top of it.

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CONOR: We spent that whole semester and dated that whole year. That summer, I decided I was going to ask Ashley to marry me. I took her mom to breakfast one day when I was home and was like, “Hey, I think I’m going to ask your daughter to marry me. I’d love your blessing. What do you think?” She was like, “That would be awesome. I think that would be great.” I planned the engagement. We were going up to Seattle to see Ashley’s family and I was tagging along for the trip. I decided I would propose at her family’s house and we could do a big BBQ or something. I’ll do it with everyone around. And then on the way up, she was like, “If we ever get married, don’t ask me in front of a bunch of people. I hate that.” So, I was like, “ABORT MISSION!” [laughs] I re-planned the engagement and found this cool little beach called Alki Beach across from the Seattle shoreline. I asked her to marry me at a picnic on the beach.

ASHLEY: That day was a really comical day.

CONOR: Yeah, it was a hot mess. It was not a good engagement.

ASHLEY: No, it was awesome. But you were nervous.

CONOR: So many things happened one right after the other.

ASHLEY: But there was a party afterwards and it was perfect.

CONOR: Yeah, we went back to the house afterwards and her family was there and some of her friends from YWAM. Some of her friends from YWAM happened to live in Seattle, so I called them and asked them to be a part of it. It was really cool and worked out well. But, we were both looking at each other and were like, “Yeah, but there’s no way we’re ready to get married yet.”

ASHLEY: Yeah, this is like a goal – but, no.

CONOR: We committed to it and tried to figure it out.

ASHLEY: We were engaged for thirteen months. Thirteen months at Ozark means we saw dozens of couples meet, date, get engaged, and get married within that thirteen months. For awhile, it’s kind of fun and funny but then you get to months nine and ten and you’re like, “Why did we do this?” But it was great.

CONOR: We needed that time.

ASHLEY: It was thirteen months of preparation for marriage: premarital counseling, planning, et cetera.

CONOR: … my appendix being removed. In the middle of premarital counseling with Peter Buckland, I’m hunched over and sweating.

ASHLEY: Peter was like, “I think you guys need to go to the hospital.” We didn’t want to reschedule with him though, so Conor was like, “No, I’m fine.” Eventually, Conor was white in the face and Peter was like, “No, you guys need to go right now.” [laughs]

CONOR: By the time we got married, we had dated for almost five years. We had a lot more baggage to work through.

ASHLEY: In reality, we had a lot more to work through. Dating someone who knows literally everything about you and then marrying them is scary. If we would have stayed broken up and met different people, you can tell them what you want about your past. They don’t have to know every detail. They know you for who you are now and that’s cool, but waking up every morning and looking someone in the face and realizing, You know all my secretsYou know where I come from and you’re still choosing to love me. We had a lot to work through. When you first become a Christian anyway, you’re thinking, Okay, that’s the old me and this is the new me. But some of the “old me” is my personality and I want to keep that and get rid of the bad habits and you’re also trying to do that with someone who is also trying to do the same thing, but you know about each others’ pasts. It was a weird journey, but I think that’s why thirteen months was needed for us.

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CONOR: Now, we’ve been married four years in August. We never thought we’d end up in Joplin. We both planned on graduating Ozark and moving back to Cali, to a coast, or another big city. God had other plans. He opened doors for us within the same week for both of us to get jobs we fell in love with. Those jobs went full-time within a week of each other which was crazy. We both had these two awesome part-time jobs, but we probably can’t live on this forever, but within a week our jobs went full-time. God continued to open doors here. We’ve fallen in love with Joplin and have been trying to figure out what it looks like for us to invest in this community. Ashley working with kids and me working with youth has tied our hearts to the school system here in Joplin and thinking through what it looks like to bring redemption to that place any way we possible can. It’s been a fun journey. Our families still don’t understand a lot of what we do because it’s so foreign. When I told my mom I was going to move to Missouri, she gave offered a different job opportunity every day for a month. They were just afraid we wouldn’t make enough money to survive, but God has been so faithful. It’s been cool for our families to be challenged in their faith because of what God’s doing in us and seeing the work we’ve been doing. Our parents are like, “This is weird. Maybe there’s something to this?” My parents got baptized and are Christians which is awesome. Ashley’s mom has come to faith through our story. Even through our wedding – people were introduced to Jesus through that. So, we’ll see what the next 25 years holds. We’ve been doing this together since we were 17. It’s been a whole lot of mess and a whole lot of grace, but it’s been fun.

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