Updated: Oct 9
What started as a seemingly normal chapel on April 20 quickly turned solemn and earnest, as senior Jovona Neely presented a message on the perfection of Jesus. The story that Jovona told about herself and Jesus was a profound example of how Jesus can begin to perfect us and make us whole. But it was also a deeply personal story that required great courage to share with the entire school. Jovona wept, students wept, teachers wept, and people reached out to comfort each other.
Here is Jovona’s powerful message:
When I was in 8th grade, I wrote a goodbye letter to anyone who would find it. I was not happy with my life. I don’t believe I was really going to do anything to myself, but writing the letter definitely got some feelings out. In my unhappiness, and because I was into myself, the temptation of leaving this world sounded better than good to me.
But Jesus was tempted, and He never fell — because His mind was perfect and His heart was pure, and He knew His plan and the goal He had to reach, and He didn’t let temptation get in the way.
Something I said in my letter was “I’m tired.” I was tired of the stresses and the standards that I thought I had to bear and reach. There were two people around when I wrote that letter, and between those two people, someone told the guidance counselor, and that’s when the help started.
This all happened before I was stronger in my faith in Jesus. Now I realize that God sent those people and showed His love for me through them. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30). If I were stronger in my faith then, I would have ran to embrace Jesus, to be held next to His gentle and humble heart. I would have seen that God was there. Even when I didn’t see Him, He still saw me.
My faith is stronger now. Jesus gives me peace in my times of trouble. I still get into dark spaces sometimes, but Jesus is the light that guides me back to where He wants me to be, to where I am happy and at peace. Now I have a journal that I write letters in. Because I’m not great at expressing my feelings aloud, I open up in the journal — not only to get feelings off my chest, but also as an eye opener to how I really feel.
I started to cut soon after my letter. The feeling of pain was my pleasure. I thought the only way I could be happy was to go through the pain that haunted me. I’ve been in pain my whole life. I lost my mother at a young age, and I didn’t learn how to cope with the feelings of abandonment and loneliness. I thought that by bringing myself physical pain, and bearing it, I could numb the emotional pain.
I didn’t take into consideration that Jesus was perfect, and He didn’t come into this world for nothing. He came to set an example of how to live perfectly. In the end, Jesus suffered, and that was painful, but He didn’t suffer because He liked the thought of pain. He suffered because of how strong His love is for us and how He continues to love us, even when we make ourselves bleed.
Isaiah 53:5 says, “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.” As I was cutting my arms and my hands, whether it was raw or in the shower, I made myself feel so much pain. But while I was cutting and wounding to “heal myself,” Jesus took that beating and that pain and agony and shed His blood to heal me. And now that speaks to me.
I had a rough time during my sophomore year, when COVID came around. Being isolated from the world and not being able to be with people was an excuse for me to feel sorry for myself. It caused me to become stressed, to have anxiety, and to fall into depression. Not gon’ lie, during the time of online school, I was not doing the greatest, and I slacked. A lot. I saw how my grades were affected. It was my fault that my grades were going the way they were going, and that caused me even more stress.
I began to feel so overwhelmed that I contemplated death — again. I thought it was my only way out. I thought about it multiple times a day. Until one day, I was just pushed to my limit. I went into the bathroom, and I cut, and I felt nothing. So I grabbed the only thing I thought would make all the pain and all the tears go away. I grabbed pills. A bunch of them, and I was ready.
As I lifted the pills to my mouth, I heard a voice say, “Don’t do it. You know you don’t want to.” I stopped with the pills near my lips. My mind flooded with all the people I love. Just the year before, my father had gotten injured, and I felt guilty. He had just gone through so much pain, and I was going to put him through more. I thought about my grandma, and all the times we laughed together, and I thought about my sisters. We had lost my mother, and I couldn’t bear the thought of them having to lose me, too.
I prayed. I prayed for strength and for God’s help. I prayed harder than I’d ever prayed before, because I knew I didn’t want to leave that way. I loved my family so much, I didn’t want to do it. The pills stayed near my mouth as I prayed. I knew these thoughts weren’t coming from me. I knew the voice in my head wasn’t me, and it wasn’t the enemy either. I knew it was Jesus who stopped me from doing what I thought was best. Jesus showed me His gentleness, His kindness, and His patience. He showed me His love and His peace. It’s as though I felt God push my hand away from my mouth, because I could not have done it on my own. But “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
During my junior year, I still wasn’t the strongest in my faith. I felt myself getting closer to Jesus, but I still wasn’t firm. I had to take baby steps and start over. One day, my cousins invited me to church, and that was the first step. When I attended the church for the first time, I felt redeemed. Jesus revealed Himself to me in that church, and His timing was perfect in my life.
Jesus knows my pains and my aches, but He still wants to give me His perfect love. Jesus doesn’t judge me for my past or even for how I am today. He corrects me out of love, and He does it in His perfect righteousness. As I found Jesus, He helped me find myself again. For the first time, I experienced Jesus’s perfect love, and He revealed to me that while I can never be perfect, through Him, I can be perfected.
Now, Jesus is helping me open up, not only to others but also to Him. He’s always revealing the hidden feelings I try to bury. He’s helping me not to be silent or soft-spoken when I get in my head. He’s showing me how my anger has simmered down and that I have been upgraded to confusion. Yes, that may sound bad. But I’m not angry anymore, and I’m seeing new things about myself and about Jesus that I haven’t seen before. So I’m confused, but no longer angry.
Jesus is healing my feelings of abandonment and helping me to not abandon situations that before would have caused me to flee. Jesus is showing me that He is perfect in every way. He has something to give me in every situation, and He is constantly revealing things to me. Jesus has taught me that He can be everything to me.
Jovona poured her heart out before everyone and revealed her struggles without fear of ridicule or embarrassment. This is what Judah is supposed to be — a welcoming community where we can be open with our peers and share our experiences and problems with each other, where we can be vulnerable with each other, where we can grow with each other and strengthen our faith in Jesus. Judah is not meant to be just a place of learning. It is meant to be so much more.
— Owen Jones, class of '23