Finding Faith, Hope and Love
In the midst of sorrow, two sisters discover God is faithful
By Jennifer McClure
Feb. 27, 2011
The camp director’s house had become a search and rescue headquarters. It was 10 a.m., and tables covered with maps littered Holly Nesbitt’s living room. Teams of volunteers began combing the nearby woods and rivers. The local authorities and media put out alerts, posting descriptions of the two missing men and the vehicle.
Scott Nesbitt, 27, and James Brill, 22, had set out the day before, Aug. 1, 2000, to find a daylong canoe route safe enough for teen campers. Scott and Holly had only just opened the camp for business four weeks earlier.
Holly and her sister, Heather Brill, remained at the house in case any news of their husbands’ whereabouts came in. Heather busied herself with laundry she had begun the day before.
In the midst of the chaos, a small box arrived for Holly. It contained candles and a note from Scott, which read: “With all my love, thanks for your help.” With this reminder, determination to find the missing men intensified.
At about 5 p.m., a news crew set up in the house for an interview to air on the evening news. With the lights on and camera rolling, the phone call came.
“I got the information on the phone that their bodies had been found,” recalls Holly, whose daughter, Emma, had just turned 2. “I looked at Heather and told her that they were gone. She ran in one direction. I took off in another. We had to get away from everybody.”
Scott and James drowned in the Lamoille River in Johnson, Vt. They were found still wearing their life jackets near an area known for fast-moving water and strong eddies. Two paddles, the truck keys and a mountain bike were found in the vehicle. Authorities believed the men were carrying the canoe along the river with plans to return to the truck for the left-behind items.
It had rained recently, and the rocks that led to the river would have been slick. Autopsy results showed Scott had a gash on his head, supporting the belief that he slipped and fell in and James went after him.
“There was so much wailing going on at the campground, it took me awhile to walk so I couldn’t hear that anymore,” recalls Heather. “When it was just me and God, all I could say was ‘Why?’ I was just so hurt, shocked, mad — all these things whirling around my mind and my heart.”
Eight months earlier Heather and Holly’s father had died somewhat unexpectedly. Ever since, Heather had resented God and struggled with whether she could ever trust Him again. Now, alone on a hillside, she found herself confronting Him head-on.
“I felt like I was going out on the hillside to have it out with God,” recalls Heather. “I just felt like instead of hiding I needed to face Him.”
In facing Him, she was also faced with a decision: to run to God or to run from Him.
“I could visually see myself running from Him,” says Heather, then 23. “I felt it would lead me to darker times, depression and ultimately my death. In that same instant I thought, But what if I run to Him? I don’t like Him. He took everything away from me. I was wrestling with my two options, and I didn’t like either of them.”
Holly had remained near the house. Lying facedown in the grass, she also wept and cried out to God.
“I did ask God ‘why,’” Holly says. “But I remember so clearly saying, ‘God I don’t understand why, but I’m still going to praise You. And I’m going to thank You for Your kindness.’”
Her own words took her by surprise.
“What’s kind about God allowing our husbands to be taken from us?” asks Holly, who was 25 at the time. “What’s kind about our dad passing away months before that? But I kept saying ‘Thank You for Your kindness’ over and over. And I remember being completely covered like a blanket by God’s love and comfort.”
Both sisters found God’s comfort and peace that day, and for the first time since their father’s death, Heather resolved her struggle with her Heavenly Father.
“I knew the truth; I knew God was who He said He was,” Heather says. “I knew God loved me, even though I couldn’t understand Him and didn’t like Him in that moment. But in surrendering to Him, I felt so much love.
“There’s a verse, ‘He stood me up on a wide-open field; I stood there saved — surprised to be loved!’ (Psalm 18:16, The Message). That was me — I was surprised at the level of comfort I felt in that moment. It was shocking. It was overwhelming. It was healing even in that moment.”
Through the difficult days ahead, Heather and Holly remember God giving them strength and feeling the support of others’ prayers.
“God carried us in a supernatural way that left me in awe,” says Heather. “But it also left me wanting Him more because I realized I was not going to survive without Him. Through these hardest moments in my life I found it’s true, He’s with us. He’ll carry you.”
Following their husbands’ funerals — James’ in Missouri and Scott’s in his family’s hometown in western New York and in Vermont — Heather and Holly with little Emma joined their mom and three younger siblings at their childhood home in Jefferson City, Mo. Soon their next-youngest sister, Heidi, and her husband moved back home from Colorado. She was pregnant with their first child.
Four people became seven became nine and finally 10 when baby Avery arrived — all under one roof — and three were widows.
“It was a mess,” Holly recalls, “but a wonderful mess.”
“It was The Waltons,” Heather adds. “But it was what needed to happen at that time.”
Those living arrangements lasted for about four months and ended when the neighbors next door pulled their house off the market and offered it to Heather, Holly and Emma to rent.
But it wasn’t any home in Jefferson City that consumed their thoughts.
“We were consumed with eternity — all the time,” Holly says.
“The fact was, James and Scott were with Him,” Heather says. “So there was this awakening in my heart and mind to This is not my home forever. That gave me new perspective, a new dream. God became exciting. He was everything that He claimed to be.”
Evenings became sacred to both women. It began as a way to find comfort from bad dreams and unanswerable questions that nighttime brought, but it became something much more special than an escape.
“We found ourselves grabbing our Bibles, getting away,” says Holly. “Not necessarily together, but in that time, it was almost like every night was a date night between us and God. The evening was our instant encounter with the God of this world and the God of our hearts.”
Though it was a dark time in their lives, they both say they treasure that season of finding comfort and joy in drawing close to God. But it became clear it wasn’t God’s plan for them to remain single for the rest of their lives.
Much sooner than many, including Holly, anticipated, God brought someone into her and Emma’s world.
“I felt like the worst person in the world,” Holly recalls. “In my mind I’m like, How is it possible that I can, almost on a daily basis, cry over my husband who’s with the Lord and yet I have feelings for this other man? There was such a struggle.”
But through her struggle, she felt God speak to her that He wanted what was best for her and Emma, and she felt that was Aaron Snell. Less than a year and a half after the accident, Holly Nesbitt became Holly Snell.
“Now that time’s passed, I think it’s evident the strength Aaron has brought to me and to Emma,” says Holly, now 36.
The end of this year, she and Aaron will celebrate their 10-year anniversary. Emma is now 12 years old and has an 8-year-old brother, Malachi, and a 3-year-old sister, Ava. Each summer Emma visits the Nesbitt family in New York. She knows about her father’s death and has now read her mother and aunt’s account of it in their book, Dancing on My Ashes.
“I know my dad’s death was a great tragedy, and I wish I could remember him more,” Emma says. “But my God can take great sadness and exchange it for joy. That’s what He’s done in my life through my new dad. I never think of him as a stepdad. He’s who God chose for me. It feels like he’s been in my life all along. God has blessed us all so much.”
In the first few years following James’ death, Heather guarded her heart against loving again; but in His wisdom, God slowly brought Dallas Gilion into her life.
“I got to know him for a couple of years before I knew he was interested in me,” says Heather. “God was doing a work in me, preparing me for loving again, and for Dallas, God was teaching him about relentless pursuit and love and patience.”
On Nov. 29, 2004, Jim Brill, Heather’s first father-in-law, walked Heather down the aisle and presented her to Dallas. Six years later, she and Dallas have two sons: Noah, 3, and Zachariah, 1.
Over the years, both the Nesbitt and Brill families have maintained close relationships with their former daughters-in-law, even sending Christmas and birthday gifts to their children.
“The Brills have opened up their arms and their home to Dallas and my kids, and they treat them like their own,” says Heather.
“For Christmas and birthdays, the Nesbitt family send gifts to all of our kids; they don’t just send gifts to Emma,” says Holly. “It’s been a very special thing that only God can do.”
Both couples serve in ministry together and in their own churches. Holly and Aaron are planting an Assembly of God, The Parks Church, in the Dallas suburb of McKinney, Texas. It is slated to launch in April. Dallas and Heather were part of the team who helped plant LifePoint Church in Ozark, Mo., where Dallas is in the process of becoming an elder.
With the release of their book in May 2010, more opportunities have opened for Holly and Heather to share their story. Aaron, who plays piano, and Dallas, a guitarist, often accompany their wives, helping lead worship at retreats and conferences. When they can’t come, Holly says they show their support by watching the kids.
“It’s because of our husbands and their encouragement and God using them to help us get out and do this — to share, to write, to minister with us,” says Holly.
For both Dallas and Aaron, their wives’ story is now their story and is one, they believe, God wants to be told.
“Marriage is intended to be about so much more than just us,” says Dallas. “Heather’s story, our story, is our greatest tool for pointing to Christ and the hope that is found in Him.”
“God has been too good and too faithful for us not to share our story every chance we get,” Aaron says. “He has truly given Heather and Holly hearts for the broken, and I’m so proud of how they have yielded their lives for His glory.”
Heather and Holly marvel at the work God has done in the last 10 years.
“Isaiah 54:4 says, ‘You will no longer remember the shame of your youth or the sorrows of widowhood’ (NLT),’” Holly says. “That just rings so true in me because, though the scars are still there, God has done an absolutely beautiful job in healing those wounds.”
Visit dancingonmyashes.tatepublishing.net for more information.
JENNIFER McCLURE is technical editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.
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