When Noel Wood is not charming customers and making a mean cup of coffee at Starbucks, you will find her laughing with her friends or leading Westside in worship on Sundays. The very definition of a “people-person”, Noel thrives in social settings. Her enthusiasm and honesty make those around her feel at ease, and people often feel completely comfortable being themselves in her presence. She is fascinated by the stories of other people, and loves getting to know those who are different from her. “Knowing people is my passion,” she says. It only makes sense that she is an interviewer for the Story Team at Westside, and is working on starting an event-planning business. People are drawn to Noel like a magnet, and rightfully so. Looking at Noel now, you would never suspect that a family crisis in her teen years could have robbed her of this vibrant and contagious love of people.
Noel became a “pastor’s kid” as a 4 year old, when she and her family moved to a small town in Washington to plant a church.This was a tight-knit community where everyone’s lives intersected: “Everyone knew what was going on in everyone else’s life,” Noel explains, “you were under a magnifying glass.” Noel’s parents pastored faithfully for many years in this community, until one day, she recalls, everything shifted. “I was only 13, but I knew some of what was going on…we’re such a close family that we can’t hide things from each other.” What Noel then discovered shook her: trusted friends had approached her parents, wrongly accusing them of stealing money from the church they led and loved. “My parents have more integrity than anyone I know…I was confused. I remember asking them, ‘Did you?'”
The accusations were false, but the ramifications for the Wood family were devastating. Not only did Noel watch her parents grapple with the pain of betrayal, but her own peers would call and verbally attack her. The wound on Noel’s tender, young heart went deep. “[This was] one of the first adult things that happened to me. It has affected the way that I view and treat people to this day. I have a hard time trusting people, and I think I can honestly say it started there.” The rift in their church necessitated that Noel’s family move to Oregon, where they hoped to begin to heal from the trauma of lost relationships and wrongfully defamed character.
Though she describes the incident through tears, how Noel has healed from the pain caused to her and her family is inspirational. “I feel like I should have a harder heart, but I don’t,” she says. “I still think the best of people and want them to be who they say they are. The world would say that I shouldn’t trust people, but it hasn’t hindered me from having deep relationships. It may take a while, but I let people in. I think community is important. I think it’s worth the risk of people hurting you to be in relationship with them.” Through the way she lives her life, it is obvious that Noel has let the love of God pour out to those around her, in spite of the circumstances that could have shut her heart off from the world.
So what brought healing to Noel? How was she able to forgive and move forward, to trust people again? Noel believes that healing for her could not have happened without the grace of God, and the faithfulness of her parents. After her family’s move, Noel says her dad “responded by immediately saying, ‘let’s plant another church.'” Watching her parents’ resilience and commitment to God shaped the way Noel was able to forgive and heal. Though they had every reason to be angry, Noel’s mom and dad reassured her that not only were they ok, but they would do it all over again. “It made me realize, ‘Oh, I can trust people again.’ It helped me learn to have grace for people, to still be soft, and that no matter what people do, your calling and purpose still stand.” Noel found hard-won community and deeper, lasting, friendships in the years following her family’s move.
In addition to finding trustworthy relationships, Noel’s relationship with Jesus grew stronger as she learned to forgive, “[This circumstance] made me know [Jesus’] character more, and His character is to not hold things against people. If I withheld that from people, then I’m withholding the character of Jesus from them.” This powerful realization has given her an ability to see people with more maturity and grace. “I’ve made poor decisions and accused people too. I just see people differently than I did when I was 13. I can see brokenness that needs healing and how hurt that has happened in their past has affected them today. I don’t blame people like I used to. I think we’re all hurt. We all make bad decisions.”
Because of her parents faithfulness to continue to pastor despite their hurt, Noel developed a fervent commitment to the Church and has consistently volunteered with various ministries since her experience at 13. “The way my dad responded…gave me a love for the church. Not being a part of the church, not loving the church, was never an option for us. Still to this day I have a deep rooted foundational love for the Church.” Through her family’s faithfulness in the face of adversity, Noel has developed a deep passion for the role we all have in the Church at large: “When something happens to someone in the church, most of the time they cut [the relationship] off, they leave. They put the whole ‘capital-C’ Church under one umbrella. That one person (who by the way is human) is the whole church, in their minds. The reality is, people are leading churches. People disappoint you. You have to have the perspective of a bigger picture. Who is still in authority over [the Church]? Even if my pastor makes a bad decision or a mistake, Jesus is still over it all.”
Noel’s story is relatable to many of us, as she still feels a twinge of pain from her past. But through the pain she is committed to continually letting the Lord heal her heart as she trusts Him and others. For her, the most impactful example of this lesson is her father, Barry. “It still makes me tear up when I talk about it. It obviously still affects me, but I haven’t let it damage my life now. It still hurts, but God’s got it. Today my dad is again a pastor in a small town. It hasn’t stopped him. That’s inspiring to me. I love my dad.”
Noel challenges us to refuse to let the failures of imperfect people drive us away from the purposes of God. We all will experience pain and disappointment from people, but God’s calling in our lives and power in our world remain the same. Noel hopes that people would be encouraged and confident through her story that no matter what they face, “God can’t be stopped. His calling is bigger than what people can do to you.”
Written by: Kate Schaber || Photos by: Erica Stubblefield