Seedlings and Stories

Greg Robson

Sharing our stories can lead to living out our callings

If Northland is going to thrive in the months and years to come, it will be because we’ve lived out the tenor of the recent sermon series “Cultivate.” If we take the concerted time and effort to cultivate our heart posture, we might, in fact, live out that calling He has laid on our lives. But how does that work, and what does that look like? The easiest conduit is to unfurl your story and share it with others. Following is a look at eight Northlanders who unpack just how our heavenly Father guided them to the places they are today.

John Williams – Celebrate Recovery Ministry Leader

     In 1998, John Williams needed a pastoral reference so his daughter could participate in the Noah’s Ark program. The church he chose for that reference was Northland, and that small incident has transformed his life in a way he never imagined. John and his family started attending Northland, but they were not regulars in the early days. Even when his family started attending more regularly, they still were not nearly as engaged as they feel they should have been.

     As the years went by, John admits he became a slave to accumulation. He bought five real estate properties and had an insatiable hunger for accumulating things.

     “Anything that takes us away from God is a prodigal journey. Money, freedom and career became my primary motivations in life,” he remembers. Around the same time his values began shifting toward material matters, he developed debilitating sleep apnea and work-related stress that brought him to his knees.

      One day he came home early from work and felt dizzy, tired and hopelessly panicked. He looks back on that time and is convinced he was having a panic attack. As he fell to the floor, clutching his chest, the phone rang. Realizing that was his only chance at survival, he picked up the phone. It was Pastor Gus Davies calling in regards to his daughter’s pastoral reference.

      From then on, John realized he needed to be more engaged at Northland; he just wasn’t sure how. In 2009, he joined Celebrate Recovery (CR) with a desire to serve others. A year later, while attending a leadership summit at work, John realized he was a codependent and that Celebrate Recovery might be able to help him personally.

     “The greatest thing I’ve learned from Celebrate Recovery is that radical generosity is what matters,” says John, who’s spent nine years with the ministry. “When we utilize our time, talent and our ability to share Christ, we are doing the Lord’s work. I’ve come to realize I may not have the gifts to convert a person to a believer, but if a person has a need and wants to trade that for a relationship with Christ, then that’s where we come in.”

     Looking back on his time, he’s proud to be a ministry leader, a position he’s held for three years and one he does not take lightly.

     “The beauty of serving someone in need is it reminds you that you too are broken,” he says. “The challenge of the ministry is working beyond recovery and focusing on their salvation. That isn’t always an easy process.”

     What moment from his nine years means the most to him?

     “There’s not just one, but it’s easily the altar calls we have. Those testimonies are so powerful, and they are the biggest connecting points of the evening. Being at CR is a tangible way to see the hands and feet of Jesus at work on a weekly basis. Helping the broken heal is a very powerful thing. If someone is struggling, we have the ability to help. We’ve seen that brokenness be healed. In the end, it comes down to four things: reconcile yourself with God, reconcile yourself with yourself, reconcile yourself with others, and give back.”

Al Gamblin – Care Center Front Desk Host

     Al Gamblin admits that growing up in Carthage, Mississippi, he was quiet and shy, but his faith was always extremely important to him. He was raised Baptist and was ordained as a deacon at age 17. He says being a deacon and serving in Heidelberg, Germany, for 18 months as a member of the U.S. Army woke him up a great deal and forced him to come out of his shell. He was only 20 at the time, but it formed a personality that is infectious, generous and undeniably genial.

     After his time in Germany, he moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and lived with his grandmother for five years before moving back to Mississippi to work at International Paper. He worked there for 25 years before the company decided it wanted to move on without him. He drove a truck for a few years until his entire world changed in an instant.

     His mother died, and his sister, who is stricken with cerebral palsy, became entrusted to him as caretaker. Very soon after becoming her caretaker, Al realized he was overwhelmed and needed help. One night while explaining his situation to his close friend Bonnie, a resident of Longwood, she offered to take both of them in.

     “To this day she’s never asked for a dime, and she continues to help me take care of her,” he says. “I’m very blessed to have her in my life. She’s a great friend.”

     In 2007, while attending a church in Sanford, he decided he needed to find a new church. Since Northland was close to his sister in Longwood, he decided to give it a shot. It’s a decision he’s never regretted.

     “The minute I walked into Northland, I knew I had found my home,” he says. Not content to just be a seat warmer on Sundays, Al immediately began serving with a homeless ministry outreach, taught at Children’s Church, and worked in both prison ministry and parking ministry. He also drives the van for Access Ministries.

      Of all the things he’s involved with, two groups mean the most to him: Joy Connections and LifeHope. Summing up his time with Joy Connections, Al says, “We started as a group of eight, and now we are up to 25. It’s a really great group, and I love being a part of it.”

     But few, if any, ministries he’s been a part of are as important to him as LifeHope. What began as administrative and clerical work has moved far beyond that.

     “Jamila Millette asked me to serve at the front desk, and I’ve been there for two years,” Al says. “I love meeting people and being able to help them. The important part about the front desk and working in LifeHope is that communication is essential. You need to be able to relate to people really well, and I think I do. I am certain that this is my niche, this is where I belong. I look forward to every day. There’s something very profound about the spirit of giving and helping people. Ideally I want to reach every person I interact with.”

     What Al likes so much about Northland is the great people he works and interacts with there.

     “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he says. “This is where I need to be, and this is what God has called me to do. People from all walks of life can feel welcome here. At the end of the day, when you’re around friendly people that trust you, you want to talk to them; you want to share your story. That’s why Northland thrives so much. I truly believe this is the friendliest church I’ve ever been to.”

Deb Lightfoot – Disaster Response Liaison

     Having grown up in a Christian home, Deb Lightfoot has always been a believer. She says there was never a time in her life when she didn’t feel God’s presence. Though she says she’s never had a come-to-Jesus moment, she says she’s most aware of God’s presence when terribly disruptive things emerge in her life.

     One of those was the birth of her daughter. At the end of the pregnancy, both she and her husband were eager to find out the gender and if their nursery would be decorated in pink or blue. While they were elated to find out they were having a daughter, they were told their daughter had spina bifida and Deb would need a C-section.

    During a meeting with a new doctor, they saw the walnut-sized bundle of exposed nerves at the base of her spine and began to wonder how their life might change. The Lightfoots went home and began to pray. Shortly after that, they called family. Later that night, Deb’s mother called back and let her know that their daughter was on her prayer chain. She was going to be OK.

     The next morning, she went into labor. When she woke up in recovery, the hospital pediatrician was at her side letting her know her daughter was perfect. The only sign of the spina bifida was a birthmark at the base of her spine. That birthmark has now become a constant reminder of God’s grace and the power of prayer. It’s something she says will remain with her all her days.
    Being able to stay calm despite her circumstances is one of the reasons Deb serves as a Disaster Response liaison, working alongside Judy Head and the team to make sure the ministry runs efficiently.

     She came to Northland more than 15 years ago with her daughter out of a desire to find something new.

     “I was tired of being preached at,” she explains. “I wanted something new. Every service we attended at Northland was like a giant praise session, and it got me hooked. I’ve never looked back.”

     Though she and her husband sat in the same seats regularly, she says everything changed one morning during the meet and greet.

     “The people that sat in front of us invited us into their home group, and it felt like coming home again immediately. We’ve been attending ever since,” Deb says. The group now includes 35 people, with 14 of them sitting in the same section for service every Sunday at 9 a.m.

     She says the fiber that knits them together is that they are people she knows and feels comfortable with. In the 15 years they’ve been gathering, they’ve shared burdens and laughs in equal amounts, she says.

     “These are people you can always call and lean on,” Deb says. “These are prayer warriors and confidants and people you do life with. In a group this close, they know the troubles of your heart. God works through them.” Deb says the home group she’s formed is so close, more than a dozen arrive at Northland at 8 a.m. to fellowship and share stories before migrating to their section and enjoying the service.

     While her home group remains an integral part of her time at Northland, Disaster Response is equally important. She has served with the ministry for six years and served in Haiti after the earthquake. That’s an experience she remembers vividly.

     “We traveled from schools to health clinics on a bus, and as we drove past the landscape and the devastation, it was quite overwhelming,” she recalls. It quickly dawned on her how blessed we are to live in America and call this country our home.

     Her time with Disaster Response was not an accident. While working at FDLE in the forensics crime lab, she was asked to attend a Disaster Response seminar. Her attendance in that seminar would ultimately lead her to serve alongside FDLE employees in both Mississippi and Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Much like her time spent in Haiti, she remembers it vividly.

     “I remember cops breaking down in tears because we were offering them food. I remember a local newspaper showing a picture of a woman holding her dead child while waiting on responders to come find her.”

     Deb says it’s moments such as that that make her grateful to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

     “The beauty of helping people after disasters is showing God’s love for people on the worst day of their lives,” she says. “These are people with nothing, and you offer them an extension of God’s love. To them that can mean so much. Mitigation is a word we use fairly frequently in disaster response. Bad things happen to everyone, but in my life, He has always mitigated the end result.”    

     In addition to lending her time to Disaster Response, Deb is also active in Children’s Church, serving alongside her husband with the security team on Saturdays. She’s also been part of R.J. Williams’ ASL class for the last two years.

     “I get more out of being at Northland than any other church I’ve ever been a part of,” Deb says. “Over the last year, I realized I’m here almost every day. How much of your life revolves around the people that call Northland home? You meet so many people who are overwhelmed by the size of Northland, but you will never feel that way if you come regularly and strike up conversation.

     “Northland becomes more of a church when you engage with others. This church is a continuous demonstration of God’s love in so many ways.”

Pam and Gerry Glose – Belong and Grow Table Leaders

     Pam and Gerry Glose started attending Northland in July 2016. It was a big step for both of them. Pam, who grew up Southern Baptist, attended church in Orlando as a teen but had not attended since college.

     Despite being married for 22 years, they had never attended church as a couple. Gerry had been to Northland once about a decade ago. But he wasn’t there for church; he was there on business. While he was working as a project manager for a web design firm, Northland was one of his clients. Through friends and coworkers, they had heard about Northland and decided to give it a try.

     “We had heard good things about Northland and liked the fact that it was nondenominational,” she says. “We felt at home the minute we walked through the doors. We were welcomed by friendly, happy people and liked the general feeling of the place. When the service began and the music started, we were moved to tears. We began to attend every week.”

     In September 2016, during an altar call, Gerry accepted Christ. A Belong seminar followed, and last year the Gloses decided to join the Connect Team.

     “We joined the Connect Team out of a desire to get involved and be a part of the Northland community,” Gerry explains. “Becoming a member of the Connect Team changed everything for me. Putting myself on the front line at the Sunday service opened my eyes to what it means to be a Christian. For most of my adult life, it was, How can a particular situation serve me? Now it’s, How will Christ use me to serve someone else?”

     Being part of the Connect Team has impacted Pam and Gerry equally. Gerry remembers being approached by a young man after service one Sunday morning. He was a first-time attendee and was moved by the entire experience. A non-Christian, he was still not certain what compelled him to attend.

     The divine appointment was not lost on Gerry.

     “I was the first person he talked to as he was leaving the sanctuary. I think what I was witnessing at that moment was the Holy Spirit pouring in and out of this guy. All I had to do was look him in the eyes and ask him his name and then listen. As a relatively new Christian, this was a moving experience for me too.”

     To the Gloses, the Connect Team is essential because it helps personalize the Northland experience for people. A hug, a chat or the shake of a hand is always available. For those who are intimidated by the size of Northland, being the one to offer that hug, chat or handshake is vital.

     Recently the Gloses felt God calling them away from the Connect Team into Belong and Grow, where they serve as table leaders. For Pam, the abundance of resources is what makes Northland so dynamic.

     “There are so many ways to get involved,” she says. “Each person should explore options that interest them and become part of the community. It can evolve and change, but you will always be making new friends and finding refreshing ways to serve Christ and his church.”

     Gerry, a native of upstate New York and one of eight children in a Catholic family, has found a home at Northland but admits he misses the closeness of family. Roughly a year ago, he was invited into a small group and said that dynamic has changed things.

     “Developing a relationship with my small group from Northland feels familiar, like family –  meeting each week outside of church, taking the message from Sunday and going deeper and applying it at a more personal level. God’s Word is not just for Sunday. The small group extends Sunday’s message into the week.”

     Pam echoes that point: “Discussing the latest sermon, studying the Bible, and sharing your thoughts with the same people weekly is a great way to develop strong relationships. This is why we love our small group! We all come from different backgrounds but meet every week to spend time together in Christ. We pray for and follow up with each other. If anyone in our group has a need, we’re there in a heartbeat. This kind of love is what the body of Christ is all about.”


Richard and Jill Bowles – GriefShare Alumni, LiFT (Life in community Forming Together) Teachers

     Richard and Jill Bowles are proud empty nesters. Their eldest son, John, was a senior designer at brand agency Matchstic in Atlanta before feeling called to missionary work. Along with his wife, Julie, and their two children, they served in Thailand with Mission to the World for three years and are readying to re-enter the mission field for a four-year assignment later this year.

   Though it hasn’t been easy on Richard and Jill, they are quick to acknowledge, “We caught up to the idea that God wanted our kids in Thailand.” In addition to John, they also have a son Stephen, who worked at Northland during his adolescence and is CEO and founder of the event production software Shoflo. They also have a son Michael, who is a CPA, and their youngest, Chris, is a paramedic.

     Richard was a staff member at First Baptist Sweetwater for 25 years, and Jill was active with its worship team. But as often happens, they felt the Lord nudging them in a different direction, and as Richard points out, “You go where He calls you.”

     They started attending Northland regularly in 2015, but one Sunday in February, everything changed.

     “Pastor Joel was preaching about GriefShare, and something guided me towards that class,” Richard explains. “During the first class, Jeremy Jobson, who led the class, made us complete a diagnostic tool. There were 50 indicators that identified a person struggling with grief. I checked 49 of the 50.”

     Pastor Jeremy encouraged Richard to stick around for all three classes, and the results were nothing short of extraordinary.

     “During a five-year span, I had lost my parents, my brother, a best friend, as well as aunts and uncles. I never got a chance to grieve. I was just moving on to the next thing. By attending GriefShare, I met Jeremy Jobson, he asked me to commit to three meetings, and I attended all three.”

     Richard notes that had he not entered GriefShare, his life might have been drastically different. Shortly before entering the class, the grief weighed him down so much his life was spinning out of control.

     “An activity as simple as running errands and forgetting where I had to go had become my new normal. I was genuinely worried that I was losing my mind. It dawned on me shortly after that grief was at the root of my problems; it was affecting everyone around me.” He says as a result of attending GriefShare, he healed his relationship with his wife, became more engaged in worship, and started investing in Northland’s abundant resources.  

     One Sunday, Richard and Jill were walking past one of the TV monitors that referenced Jeremy Jobson’s Life in Community class. Remembering how much Jeremy had helped Richard, she encouraged Richard to attend the class with her.

     “GriefShare gave him so much understanding, and our life changed for the better as a result of him attending that class,” Jill says. “I knew if we could get connected with Jeremy again, it would help our spiritual growth.” What the Bowleses did not take into consideration is that Life in Community was nearing the end of its curriculum.

     Worried they were going to be a burden to the class, they contemplated not returning. After much prayer and conversation, they decided to commit to the rest of the class. Pastor Jeremy was so encouraged by their faithfulness he asked them to lead the class when it would start up again in February 2017.

     The Bowleses are currently teaching a Life in Community class for the second time. Leading the class has been impacting for Jill.

     “It’s beautiful to see who God brings into the class. Due mostly to word of mouth, we now have 12 people in the group. We now call the group LIFT, an acronym that stands for Life in Community Forming Together. These people really are our community. If a car breaks down, we stop by and pick them up.” Teaching a Life in Community class is not the extent of their involvement. Jill is active in Biggie Choir, and her worship is as important as any aspect of the Sunday service.

     “I love being surrounded by an audience of one. Up there on stage, it’s just me and our Father,” she says. The Bowleses also have participated in Local Serve Day, and Richard is active in the Links golf ministry. Being actively involved in Northland is something the Bowleses feel strongly about.

     Richard, a former education minister, is determined to stay engaged: “Attending Northland is simple. You can come and warm a seat, or you can make it an intimate and dynamic church by being involved. Most people come and enjoy the service, and that’s that. If we can transition the model so that people learn on the weekends but grow and shape their faith in small groups, then I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

Alexandria Price, Divorce Care Attendee

     Two years ago, Alexandria Price moved to Central Florida hoping for a new start. A single mother of two daughters, she was 1,000 miles from family and doing her best to give her children the best life possible. Everything changed this past October. Alexandria and her 2-year-old daughter were driving through Orlando on what was a most ordinary day when they were involved in a terrible car accident.

     In an instant, it was fight-or-flight.

     “The first 30 seconds were the scariest moments of my life. I wasn’t sure if my daughter was OK or not,” Alexandria says. “By the grace of God, she was unharmed. I knew right away that He had been protecting her, because there was no other explanation. I thank Him every day for not only keeping my baby alive, but for letting her walk away without a scratch.”

     In the aftermath of the accident, the Prices were left without a vehicle. The damage was too significant, and the car could not be saved. Knowing that she needed a vehicle to get to work and also to take her oldest daughter to school and back, she felt overwhelmed and frightened. She says she spent every dollar from her bank account trying to make ends meet and, with little to no money left, reluctantly asked her mother for money to buy a car. Though her mother had little to give, she gave enough, and the Prices were able to find a car that met their needs. With little left in the bank account, she began worrying if she would be able to pay the rent for her apartment.

     God indeed had other plans. By divine appointment, Alexandria was introduced to LifeHope and filled out an application, though she admits she didn’t expect much to come from it.

     “I wasn’t expecting a call back,” she says. “Thankfully I was wrong.”

     LifeHope helped Alexandria pay her rent, provided a financial stewardship class and offered her counseling sessions. She said the counseling sessions emboldened her to set and meet goals for herself. As a result of the classes and the counseling, Alexandria has rejuvenated her checking account, opened a savings account and is currently attending Northland’s DivorceCare class. She’s also eager for more volunteer opportunities.

     “My life has changed so much, thanks to LifeHope,” she notes. “After the car accident, I felt hopeless and alone. I had no idea what I was going to do or who I could turn to for help. I feel that God led me straight to Northland, and I have been coming here ever since.”

     Attending Northland is what she and her daughters have been missing their whole lives, she says, adding that in the few months she’s been at Northland, she has grown closer to Christ and to her daughters. 

     “I am so grateful for everything LifeHope has helped me with,” Alexandria says. “I strongly recommend anyone going through any type of hardship to contact them. Having someone to talk to when you feel so alone helps far more than you could imagine. They will help you put your life back together piece by piece. They did that for me.”

Each of these stories illuminates the work that God is doing in the lives of the people who worship alongside us every weekend. As we embrace the summer season, let’s not forget to take the time to engage with others, share our stories and be of service to those around us.

As we continue to cultivate the gardens of our hearts, may we also cultivate relationship, dialogue and abundant generosity. Engage. Connect. Grow. Serve. With those four tenets guiding our spiritual growth, this summer just might be the season in which our stories become the seedlings for transformative growth.