Laurelie Abbey always wanted to be a missionary. As a child, she devoured every mission story she could find and dreamed of a life in service. As a teenager, she met her match with David Hillebert, a fellow student who was also passionate about missions.
During their senior year at Weimar Academy in California, United States, David suggested they forgo the predictable tour to Disneyland and instead go on a mission trip with Maranatha Volunteers International.
“It was truly in planning and organizing that mission trip that we felt God leading us together. We discovered that we work well together and shared the same goals, and our relationship started,” Laurelie says. “Together, we became focused on service, knowing Jesus was coming soon.”
David and Laurelie went on to Pacific Union College and married soon after graduation. During graduate school at Loma Linda University, Laurelie eagerly explored options for serving overseas. David prepared by getting his pilot’s license so they could potentially serve in the bush.
“I remember going to some different venues to find out what kind of missionaries we could be and where we could go,” Laurelie says. The two were ready to serve God wherever He called them.
Then, the Hilleberts had their first child — a beautiful baby girl. The birth was a moment of great love mixed with tremendous heartbreak. Larissa had spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy. As medical professionals — David is a physician’s assistant, and Laurelie is a physical therapist — they understood the hardships they would face in raising their daughter.
“Because of her disability, we weren’t able to travel and do mission work. I ended up staying home from work to take care of her, and that put our missionary dreams on hold,” Laurelie says.
The couple waited 16 years before attempting to go back into the mission field. By then, they had two more children, Liana and Dawson. They hired a caregiver for Larissa, then joined a Maranatha project to Panama with their youth group at Red Bluff Seventh-day Adventist Church in northern California. The trip reignited their passion for missions. The family had such a wonderful time that they decided to do another trip the following year.
Then, in November 2016, just eight months after they returned from Panama, Larissa passed away. As Laurelie and David planned the memorial service, friends suggested they set up a way for people to give in Larissa’s honor, such as a charity fund.
“The idea came to me to set up a fund through the local church, and we created a fund to sponsor teenagers to go on mission trips,” Laurelie says. "We had just done the Panama trip that year, and missions had transformed David and me when we were teens."
“When you’re a teenager, you’re just focused on your own life and your own friends. Then when you go on a mission trip, it changes you. You see the whole world, and you see it through God’s eyes — how big God’s plan of salvation is. And you want to have a part in changing the world, one life at a time.”
So they created the Larissa Memorial Fund, and people gave in her honor.
Throughout Larissa’s life, Laurelie and David had prayed for their daughter as she lay awake at night with pain and the torment of her seizures.
“I still love God, and I still trust Him, and I know He has a plan. The best thing about her life — even on the miserable days — was knowing that her soul was secure. That was my hope and my confidence. But it still hurts to see your kid suffering,” Laurelie remembers.
When Larissa died, Laurelie held strong in her faith, but there were plenty of days when her spirits dipped low. “One of my challenges spiritually was to have prayed for 16 years for a miracle. And the answer was to wait for heaven, and that was hard. The temptation was to stop asking when you don’t get what you want,” she says.
It was a period of uncertainty for the family — not only because of Larissa’s death but a string of difficult and tragic events in their personal lives.
David says, “There was a very definite point where I had had it out with God. I even told Him, ‘Look, I’m pretty sure that You don’t love me. And I’m pretty sure You don’t even like me.’ I was getting self-centered. Then, the very next day, I had a specific thing happen that made it obvious that God was answering a prayer that I had prayed the day before. He was telling me, ‘You’re wrong. I do care. And I do love you.’”
It was the start of a new conversation, one that kept nudging at the Hilleberts and reminding them of God’s presence in their lives.
Hearing God’s Voice
In 2019, at the insistence of their daughter Liana, the Hilleberts signed up for another mission trip. This time it was to Zambia on Maranatha’s Family Project, designed to provide a bonding experience for families through missions. Volunteers would be building the Kabwe Adventist Primary School. The current facility is overcrowded, and Maranatha is constructing a brand new campus for the students. Using funds from Larissa’s Memorial Fund, the Hilleberts decided to bring along a teenager, Svetlana, from their church.
In Zambia, on the very first day of construction, Svetlana walked over to a stack of hard hats that had been left by previous volunteer teams. Without looking, she grabbed one and placed it on her head. To David and Laurelie’s surprise, the hat had a name scrawled on the crown: Larissa.
“When I saw that name on her head, I thought, ‘Oh, Lord, you are so great and mighty!’ It felt like a sign, and I was so thankful for Svetlana to be on the trip and for Larissa’s life and to remember her in this way. I realized God had given an opportunity for someone to serve in Larissa’s shoes and for her to be a blessing to someone else,” Laurelie remembers.
The nudges continued throughout the project. When the volunteers learned that the Kabwe school desperately needed new desks, the Hilleberts decided to give money from Larissa’s fund toward the desks; it was enough to provide desks for four classrooms.
Then, after the volunteers had completed the construction of a large classroom, the school held a dedication ceremony.
“The students sang ‘In Christ Alone.’ It took a few verses to remember that this was the same song we used for the slideshow at Larissa’s memorial service,” David says.
One of the most impactful moments took place during Sabbath worship. A volunteer preached a sermon about prayer. She asked the congregation whether they had ever prayed and not gotten answers. Laurelie’s ears perked up.
Then the volunteer said, “I have. So I changed the way I prayed. Instead of praying for certain things that I wanted, I started praying for others and asking the Lord what I could do for Him and praying for spiritual blessings. And when I changed what I prayed for, I started seeing answers.”
With those words, everything gelled for Laurelie. The questions she had been having about Larissa, God, and her prayers were answered on a mission trip, where her energy had been focused on others. There, she and David heard God’s voice.
“Everything in Zambia was a reminder that our daughter’s life was not in vain. Now, there are kids on the other side of the world that are benefitting from her life in that they have classrooms and desks and the opportunity to come and be taught about Jesus,” David says.
“We saw how God was working to use Larissa’s life in a meaningful way. I always knew that He was going to make it right in heaven, and eventually, things would make sense,” Laurelie says. “But t
o see how her life mattered, even here — before we got to heaven — was something I had not seen before this trip.”
“God didn’t answer my prayer to heal Larissa,” Laurelie says. “But when I thank Him in spite of those difficulties, there are blessings. When I pray for other people, there is fruit. When I pray for the salvation of my children, I see their character changing. Instead of sadness and depression, God gives me peace. I have hope and faith in my soul, and I see amazing answers.”
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of the Maranatha Volunteers International newsletter, The Volunteer.