Love Surrounds Me – Experiencing the Third Hearties Family Reunion (HFR3)

On the corner of Church Street and Mavis Avenue, in Langley, BC, I discovered my “writer’s corner” in the form of Blacksmith Bakery, a quaint little shop that serves delicious croissants and my favorite cold-weather beverage: a London Fog Latte.

With the sun streaming through the windows, flooding the farmhouse-style table with light, I reclined at one end and closed my eyes.  Breathing deep, I replayed each scene of the weekend in my mind. Others around me rattled on to their companions but I wanted – needed – to slow down after the whirlwind of blessings I had just experienced, a space of time to etch each special moment into my memory, moments when –  in the eye of the storm – I experienced God’s provision and presence like never before.

One of my favorite songs on the radio lately has been “In the Eye of the Storm” by Ryan Stevenson. If you haven’t had the pleasure of listening fully to the lyrics, the chorus reads like this:

In the eye of the storm/You remain in control/And in the middle of the war/You guard my soul/You alone are the anchor/When my sails are torn/Your love surrounds me /In the eye of the storm

Let’s be honest. Satan knows how to attack us. He knows when we are strong in the Lord, and he will do whatever he can to derail us. Just the other day, my older son said something that resonated deeply with me.  In a casual conversation with his brother, he warned, “You’d better stop that. If you don’t, you’ll render it useless.”  How often does Satan use my weaknesses against me and render me useless? Too often for my liking. And one of my biggest weaknesses is the need to be accepted. When Satan plays on my lack of confidence, it’s like taking a hammer to an eggshell – I shatter. I thought I had all the confidence I needed to fly alone to Vancouver and return home with an incredible article about the third Hearties Family Reunion. As it turns out, I was never truly alone.

My first experience at a Hearties Family Reunion came last December at HFR2, and it was surreal to say the least. In anticipation of HFR3, I wondered if it would be similar. Would I be floating around in a haze of incredulity as I had before? Would my nerves get the better of me and render me mute when I finally came face-to-face with the cast?

Initially, I almost didn’t even go. Time and again, although registered for the event, I wavered. After all, the event sold out in less than a minute. The waiting list was incredibly long and I was taking up an actual opening. I could visit Vancouver another weekend, without the cast and special events. The real challenge? I was traveling alone and my plans kept changing. I think I changed hotels four times. Just two weeks before the event, I tried to cancel my flight, but I couldn’t. By the time I was set to fly out on Friday morning, I still didn’t know how I was getting back to the airport on the following Wednesday. But here is what I’ve been learning: No matter the size of the storm, God’s presence surrounds me.

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Daniel Lissing and Erin Krakow pose in front of the precious phrase “Take a walk with me” that served as the centerpiece for HFR3.                 PC: Ardra Morse

Waiting for the Kick-Off party to start on Friday night, sitting in a room lit by about a thousand candles, I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere. The subtle warmth of the candles’ glow transformed a typical hotel conference room into a romance-filled ballroom worthy of a Hallmark movie. The precious phrase “Take a walk with me” that served as the centerpiece and theme of the weekend melted my heart a little, and God winked at me through my blindfold of anxiety. Okay, I’ll take this walk with You. I’m not sure how this weekend will go, God, but I’ll walk with You. Still feeling a little out of place and needing to refocus my perspective, I pushed my seat back and headed for the restroom to splash some cold water on my face. I hadn’t covered more than a few feet of carpet when, from a few tables over, I heard a sweet voice call my name. A dear friend jumped up from her seat and threw hear arms wide. We had not seen each other since a snowy day in December at HFR2, but for some friends, time is of little consequence. I probably suffocated her a bit with my bear hug, but her voice and acceptance at just the right moment were all I needed to shift my heart and mind back to the event and the reason I decided to come: God opened a door and had called me through it. He brought this sweet friend to me as a gentle reminder that He was there with me.

My nerves calmed and the program starting, I hurried back to my seat. The friends who had driven me from the airport to the hotel were at a different table, and I inwardly cringed at having to sit at a table full of strangers.  Rather than engage in conversation, I focused on my notes.  Instead of littering my journal with every comment and quip from the guest panels, I decided to listen for God’s voice, knowing that only He could calm the storm of nerves welling up again inside of me. I began cataloging only the comments that touched my heart in a special way. With each word or phrase I added to my growing list over the weekend, I compiled a new understanding of the Heartie movement – and my faith in a God who goes before me took even deeper root in my soul.

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Brian Bird, Michelle Vicary, and Brad Krevoy lead the Hearties in their mission to provide family-friendly programming that “takes you to that next level.”                  PC: Ardra Morse

The very first line I penned in my journal came from Michelle Vicary, the executive vice president of programming and network publicity for Crown Media Family Networks. She explained on Friday night that “When you are looking to feed another part of your heart and soul and mind, When Calls the Heart takes you to that next level.” That’s why we are all here, I thought to myself. We are all seeking to renew our spirits. We are overwhelmed by the weight of evil in this world and desire a deeper connection with who we were designed to be. I rolled the idea over in my mind for quite awhile until the writers added that “There is no other show like this. This is special. It gives you goosebumps.” I felt the hair raise on my arms. There were hundreds of other thoughts shared that night, but the realization that this show means as much to the key players in its creation as it does to me struck me the deepest. In fact, it is no longer just another show on television. It is a living and breathing movement of people around the world.

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Paul Greene led the entire room of Hearties in singing “Hallelujah.”

All through Saturday, I continued searching for God’s special voice among the actors comments and anecdotes. When Paul Greene took hold of the microphone, his voice quivered a bit as he spoke about his mother’s recent illness and hospital stay. “Your support and prayers,” he said, “are making a difference,” and he donned his guitar to lead us all in singing “Hallelujah.” I teared up, closed my eyes, and breathed in the sweetness of that moment. I had discovered another ripple effect of this Heartie movement. You see, author Janette Oke shared that her deepest wish for the When Calls the Heart stories is that they “create a legacy of love, family, community, and the knowledge that we have a God who cares for us.” It would seem that this legacy is taking a firm grip on the hearts of not just the fans, but also on the cast, crew, and everyone else involved with the production. This legacy extends into their families, too.

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Daniel Lissing showed a little extra love to Michelle Vicary during the Q&A.             PC: Ardra Morse

Taking another deep breath, I began to feel enveloped by this community and an inexplicable joy bubbled up in me. I joined in table conversations and grew close to two special groups of friends. In response to this encouragement, I began to record the fun, the laughter, and the excitement that accompanied the rest of the weekend. For example, when Michelle Vicary explained her reaction to Daniel Lissing’s breath-taking good looks during his audition, the giggles began. But when Dan then pushed back his chair, walked all the way across the stage, and planted a kiss on the bewildered executive, the entire room burst into laughter.  Then, upon being asked what role other than Nurse Faith Andrea Brooks would like to play, she very kindly explained that everyone is perfectly cast in their roles…but she finished with “I’d be Bill because then I could carry a gun and catch bad guys.”

It thrilled me, like all of the Hearties, to hear the “behind-the-scene” details of the production of the show. My favorite tidbit this time around came out during the set tour: it would seem that the original script for the engagement episode didn’t actually involve Jack proposing at all. Instead, he would explain to Elizabeth that it wasn’t fair to propose and then leave. Later, the episode was rewritten to include a proposal but Jack would pose the question by writing “Will you marry me” on the Hope Valley water tower. Apparently, someone didn’t think that was quite romantic enough to appease the Hearties, so the episode  was rewritten again, just a few days before shooting, and Hearties got the overwhelmingly beautiful proposal scene that was three and a half seasons in the making.

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Meeting writers Paul Jackson and Cynthia Cohen was the highlight of my weekend.

The icing on the cake, in my case, was interacting with the writers, the actors, and the producers. I learned about the process for creating the scripts. Knowing that they start with a season arc, and then develop a story arc for each episode, intrigued me. I also gained new understanding of just how much of a “team effort” these scripts truly are. We know the Hearties have very specific ideas about what they want to see each season, but can you imagine also factoring in the writers’ ideas, the producers’ input, and the framework Hallmark provides? That’s a lot of creativity to work into a one-hour show.

Hearing Pascale Hutton describe family time and making her boys’ “mommy time” a priority helped me see her as a busy working mom with a huge heart. Martin Cummins telling us that When Calls the Heart is his “dream job” because it keeps him working in town and near his family just gave me one more reason to adore these people: their values echo my own. Then, when the autograph sessions ran over time and Lori Loughlin and Jack Wagner had to catch flights to LA, they stopped with every single person in line to say hello and take a quick picture. In fact, all of the actors gave up their precious weekend off to support and show love to their fans.

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All of the actors, including Lori Loughlin and Jack Wagner, were incredibly generous with their time.

In replaying these scenes from the weekend as I reclined in my new favorite location in Fort Langley, I tried to piece together just what I was supposed to get out of the weekend. After all, in spite of my fears and logic, God had opened the door and I had stepped through. I’d heard Him and seen Him all weekend, but what did it amount to? Then, in that quiet whisper I am coming to know so well, it came: I am with you in the eye of any storm. The world may pull at you, but look for Me and you will know peace. Delight yourself in Me, and I will give you the desires of your heart.

This time, the unspoken desires of my heart had been to establish true friendships; to find encouragement in being a writer, a teacher, a wife and a mother; and to return home with renewed purpose. God provided all these and more: I’ve discovered once again that God’s desire for me is more inspiring than any plan I have for myself.

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