At the lowest point in my life “Jesus Freak” had a negative connotation. I’m grateful to know better now because it’s the thought that popped into my head when I first saw Dana Hebert during Live Oak’s praise and worship. Yeah, I know we’re supposed to be focused upward, allowing the music to open our hearts to the word of God. But how was I supposed to do that when Dana was over in the corner, arms raised, not moving to the music exactly like the rest of us were trying to do, but hovering somewhere above it? His eyes raised to God, oblivious of the mini-concert going on in front of him completely raptured in the presence of God. It was unusual for me, especially at the time, to see such unashamed oblivious reverence to the Lord. The whole scene reminiscent of 2 Sam. 6:20-22. Yes, this servant girl thought that Jesus Freak looked quite distinguished, if not completely crazy, among the sea of more tempered worshipers.
That first impression stuck with me. Unknowingly, Dana is one of the first people I look for when we return from our annual pilgrimage. He’s evidence that the Spirit is still there, right where I left it. When Laurel told me I was responsible for the interview of one of our church members my choice came pouring out without thought. Maybe God knew I needed to meet the Heberts. Slightly uncomfortable, I meandered through the crowd of Live Oak parishioners to look for the rain dancer. Dana smiled and accepted my request to sit down with his family. His willingness should have been an indicator that he had plenty to share.
Sitting down at the dining table of their temporary apartment, their house all but destroyed during Florence, I fed my son Cape bits of chicken, trying to keep food scraps from embedding themselves in the carpet while waiting for the Heberts to settle in. I noticed Jer. 29:11 on the wall, “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” I would refer to the wall hanging often throughout our talk as I imagine Dana and Tami must also daily having been displaced by the storm and after what I was about to hear.
I opened up the conversation with the usual questions to get things moving. “Where are you from?” “How long have you been married?” Blah, blah, blah. Turns out Dana and Tami needed little priming before the flood gates opened, divulging their story to me. Their story, like any good tale of love, loss and redemption, is one of sadness and hope. It’s a testimony mostly of encouragement, teaching us how to lean into God when it feels like he’s stepping away from us. Ultimately of turning the “pain of trusting into the joy of trusting,” as Tami most eloquently imparted to me when talking about the difference between her and her husband’s approach to God’s most difficult challenges.
Our church is no stranger to pain. Each person has their own story of unbelievable heartache and disappointment. The Heberts are no different. Dana comes from Vermont, as evidenced by the tattoo on his arm. A daily reminder of his northern roots and the high priced living he left behind in exchange for a more equitable future. He grew up with a faith-filled mother who was also his best friend. She was charismatic in her worship which is where he, no doubt, acquired his flair. Dana’s learning disability required his mother to coach him through his formative years creating a strong bond between them. Because of the disability he was estranged from the Bible. The Good News muddled in his brain unable to make the same impression on him that worship music made. Another reason he gets up to dance.
During his teenage years, Dana’s mother took him to a revival in Toronto. It was there that his life was irrevocably changed. Having never felt that much power under one roof, he became intimately aware of God’s presence. It was at this revival that he would see miracles performed. Worshipping for days alongside people from all over the world he was imprinted with a drive for mission work that he would later use in Haiti and even later, introduce to his young family.
Tami is a home girl. She grew up here in Wilmington in Covenant Church, where she now teaches preschool. This is also where a lot of Live Oak families send their children for pre-school, including us. Tami is one of four children, all of whom grew up in the word. Her young adult life culminated in a degree from a Christian college and two mission trips to Belize. After this service she met Dana, fell in love and set off into the sunset to forge a life. Hopeful for the future, the Heberts were not prepared for the hardships they would soon face.
I grew up just outside of Richlands, NC in a place called Back Swamp. My parents’ property backs up to an agricultural field that is separated from the Albert J. Ellis Airport by a thin line of trees. I remember the sound of a plane approaching, nothing unusual living so close to the runway. But this plane kept getting closer and lower. The engine grew louder until the cacophony was replaced with the sound of metal crunching. The kind of sound you don’t forget. The kind where you understand everything before you know anything. The plane had crashed behind my parents’ house. It turns out that this plane was the same one that would claim the life of Dana’s sister. She died on impact; so did his mother’s faith in God.
The year following the death of his sister was riddled with hard questions and no answers. The mother that had molded Dana into the man of God he had become abandoned her own faith, leaving him and Tami orphaned in their own shaken belief system. In their search for answers, the Heberts’ friends, Joseph and Brittany, hit them with some much needed truth: “God owes you nothing.” Armed with this hard, cold reality the couple set out to rebuild their faith, just in time for the second, very literal, blow. Playing softball for Life Community Church, a stray ball hit Dana in the head. The ball fractured Dana’s skull. The brain bleed he suffered affected his speech and memory. He forgot how to read. Out of work for six months, Tami took care of everything. She was his primary caregiver alongside working, taking care of their farm and family. The ill-fated softball struck just one year almost to the very day of his sister’s death.
The Lord grew them through the process. Tami, through the Job-like tragedies maintained her Job-like faithfulness to God. “Using the pain of the past to pave the way for the future,” she allowed prayer, not to change their circumstances but to change them. The above almost a direct quote. Tami has a gift with her words. Now when faced with hardships, the Heberts have a different perspective. When questioning whether or not to leave Live Oak Church during some tough times they respond not by running away but by digging in deeper. Immersing themselves further into the fold through service in the children’s ministry, feeding the homeless and plotting their own family mission trip to Haiti (including their two girls, Lux and Braelee). Although the Heberts are no stranger to suffering they still exude the kind of Christian confidence and light that piques my interest and makes me ask, “Can I stop by and talk to y’all for a while?” I hope their work in our church is just beginning. “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
1. Dana and Tami are receiving help from insurance for their losses during Florence, but it never hurts to stop by and ask if they need help with anything. She’s the one working in the kids’ ministry and he’s the Jesus freak in the back of the church.
2. Dana mentioned a book that made a big impact on his relationship with the church. He credits Ashley Einwaechter with introducing him to Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen.
3. The Heberts also mentioned the Christian song “Different,” by Micah Tyler, as being instrumental (pun intended).