Showing Up and Spreading Love: An Interview With Melissa Arista

Melissa greeted me in the main lobby of the South Barrington campus with her two-year-old niece in tow. She flashed a bright, genuine smile as we headed to Promiseland where her niece could play while we chatted. She told me about her childhood, as well as her experience with church. Little did I know that we were occupying a space that was so central to her story here at Willow.

Melissa grew up in Elmhurst with her parents, brother, and sister. Although she now exudes joy and positivity, her upbringing was a difficult one. “I didn’t have much of a childhood,” she told me. Her parents divorced when she was four years old, her dad worked six days a week, and her relationships with her mom and stepmom were both complicated and punctuated with pain.

Melissa’s mother passed away when Melissa was thirteen – and Melissa never had a chance to forgive her in person. Three years ago, however, she went to Connecticut, where her mom is buried, and forgave her mother at her grave. “After forgiving her, my spirit is lighter – and I know what kind of mom I want to be for my kids.”

In addition to complex dynamics at home, Melissa had a hard time in school. “When I misbehaved, I was sent to church in Oak Park– so my first relationship with church was one based on punishment.”

She grew up without many positive influences and found that her self-confidence was low, but she ended up graduating from Benedictine University and majoring in Elementary Education.

While she was in high school she met her husband, Hector. They married the July after she graduated college. It was around that time that her sister-in-law visited a large church in Oklahoma City. She came back to Chicagoland and told Melissa about a church called Willow Creek that she thought would be similar to the experience she’d had in Oklahoma.

Although her interest was piqued, Melissa wouldn’t visit Willow until about ten years later. When Hector and she finally did, they instantly felt the relief and freedom that accompanied being able to put her three kids – Tyler, Madeline, and Victoria - in the safe and secure Promiseland environment. Unlike other church experiences where she’d felt shame for needing to attend to her kids in church services, Melissa felt free to enjoy service and engage wholeheartedly. After visiting a couple other churches, Melissa and Hector found themselves back at Willow because of Willow’s powerful worship experiences and relatable messages. “Willow Creek feels like home,” Melissa told me. “It’s the people. My section leaders, our community – we feel like a team. And it’s been amazing to be able to meet new people.”

One of the largest impacts the church community had on Melissa’s family was on her son Tyler’s experience in Elevate, the middle school ministry at Willow. She attributes much of his growing faith and involvement at church to the care of Tyler’s small group leaders, Scott and John. Scott was Tyler’s first small group leader for 6th and 7th grade, and Melissa is so grateful for his role in Tyler’s life. “Scott started Tyler’s faith journey,” she said,” and John calls to check up on Tyler. John even carved crosses out of wood for Tyler and the rest of the boys in his small group – these are the experiences you can’t buy.”  Through Elevate’s student leadership program, Tyler has attended local missions trips, and consistently engages in his personal chair time with God.

After making Willow their church home, Melissa started serving in Promiseland. “I realized that coming to church wasn’t all about me – and that other people needed help being able to engage in church, too.” Now, her family holds an annual Christmas tradition of serving together in Promsieland in addition to their year-round serving in the Care Center. Last year, they also started serving in Harvest. “My six-year-old serves enchilada bowls, and people are so patient with her!”

Today, Melissa admits that she still struggles with self-confidence from her past, but told me that she knows God is always with her. “He always shows up,” she said. Melissa’s two daughters were diagnosed with Graves’ disease in 2017. Additionally, her six-year-old daughter broke both arms at school. “It was a hard year, but without the strength of the Lord, we wouldn’t have been able to get through that hard time. Without faith, I’m not sure I could have been as strong for my kids. Through everything, He’s helped me be a better person – to be someone who shows up and spreads love.” Hector and Melissa’s first outward response to God’s strength and presence in their lives, even before the difficulty of this past year, was their decision to be baptized together here at Willow in 2014.

From this personal and meaningful breakthrough of forgiveness – to the hallways of Promiseland and the enchilada line at Harvest – Melissa continues to joyfully show up and spread love, far from viewing church as punishment. Despite her hard upbringing and the everyday life obstacles that her family faces, Melissa has been transformed by the power of community and God’s faithfulness. 
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