Strength in weakness

Photo by Lynn Anselmi

Last summer, Tabitha Villanueva’s Instagram feed was full of friends enjoying their summer adventures. There was her friend, an ecology major, who was doing research in the Galapagos Islands. Tabitha’s boyfriend was in South Africa working on a radio tower for Transworld Radio. Those not traveling abroad remained in Seattle, enjoying the summer months when the city’s grey clouds and rain finally give way to blue skies and sunshine glistening off the lakes and Puget Sound. 

Tabitha was looking forward to spending her final summer in Seattle before her senior year at SPU. An apparel design major from Alaska, she had lined up a summer job with Zebraclub, a small chain of Seattle-area boutiques that showcase upscale street-style fashion. Then, her mother, Ruth, called. 

“She was like, ‘Tabby, I wouldn’t ask this of you if I didn’t really need you, but could you please come home this summer?’” Tabitha recalled. “I said, ‘Absolutely!’ because one lesson my family has really instilled in me is that family is family. God comes first, and then it’s family.” 

Her mother needed to undergo a major surgery while Tabitha’s father was on an extended business trip, so it fell to Tabitha to decline the Zebraclub job and return home to Palmer, Alaska, approximately 40 miles northeast of Anchorage. She fixed meals for her mother and two younger siblings and helped her mother lift heavy things and navigate stairs. She worked at Ruth’s retail clothing store to keep it running while her mother recovered, which meant that Tabitha got home after 8 p.m. and completed work orders, prepared items for shipping, and communicated with vendors as her mother usually did for the business. 

“We had this awesome opportunity to not fall into fear but to fall further into faith.”

Tabitha Villanueva 

It was hard not to be resentful over her upended summer plans. 

“I came home one evening after a really long day of work and decided to go on a bike ride, which is not a usual thing for me. I just vented to God about how I was feeling. I told him that I didn’t want to have these hard feelings; that I was grudgingly doing all of this, but it was so hard!” Tabitha said. Alaska’s late summer sunsets meant that Tabitha could get in a 12-mile bike ride while she prayed about her frustrations. 

“The pressure just started to go away, and then there came these thoughts where God was like, You don’t have to be happy all the time. You don’t have to be happy with where are you at and what you are doing, but you do need to rely on me and trust me that in this process I’m walking with you, and I’m holding your hand through this. It’s going to be OK. I think God speaks to us in those moments,” Tabitha said. 

At home, her mother was going through her own reckoning. “After her surgery, it was so hard for my mother to be completely broken,” Tabitha said. “Her health wasn’t what she was used to. She was utterly dependent on me and my siblings. 

“My mom and I talked about how bombarded we are with these messages that women should be strong and powerful. I think God has given women incredible gifts and strengths, but that strength doesn’t come from ourselves; it’s not like this secret resource we have because we are women. We have this strength that comes from abiding in him. Over the summer, I learned that in our weakness, God brings us closer to him.”

Toward the end of the summer, SPU Chaplain Lisa Ishihara contacted her and asked if she would be willing to speak to the University community. “I was like, ‘Sure, OK,’ but I didn’t really know what to talk about. Chaplain Lisa left it very open-ended. She said, ‘Just bring your full self to this. Tell them your story.’” 

At the first chapel of the year, Villanueva stood before friends and faculty and shared her story: “As a Christian, I sometimes feel like there is this pressure to have your life perfectly together; that somehow following Christ means health, wealth, and prosperity. But in reality we are actually called to be broken. To have flaws. To cry. To surrender it all. It’s a hard lesson and one I am continually learning.

“We had this awesome opportunity to not fall into fear but to fall further into faith.” 

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