Through the valley of the shadow.
Through the doubt and through the sorrow.
I will follow You, I will follow You.
I set my mind on things above.
Remember I’m not who I was.
–Lyrics from “Follow You,” by Desiree Aguilar and Jessica Sams, published in Canyon Worship 2016
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Desiree Aguilar isn’t who she was four years ago.
The Center for Worship Arts at Grand Canyon University isn’t what it was when it opened in 2014.
Together, they have thrived in ways that don’t just happen by themselves.
That’s the operative word here – together. From the first class, when students cried tears of joy as they prayed together, to the spirit of collaboration and community that pervades the GCU Recording Studio and the overwhelming sense that their mission has been touched by the hand of God, this has gone far beyond writing inspirational Christian songs and learning how to manage meaningful church ministry.
The College of Theology celebrated its first sizable class of Worship Arts graduates (18) Thursday afternoon at commencement – with Aguilar giving the student address – but many of its students and graduates already are working at churches around the Valley. Aguilar said she can think of 10 off the top of her head. She’s one of them.
“GCU has opened doors in Arizona that were not open before,” she said. “The Worship Arts program has brought life into a desert that has been dry for a long time.”
Dr. Jason Hiles, the Theology dean, hears it all the time from churches, from Christian schools, from parents, from pastors. He heard it again earlier this month at the Canyon Worship Songwriters Showcase, which features the top songs written and performed by Worship Arts students – many of which are incorporated into the annual Canyon Worship album.
“The reach in the Valley just keeps expanding,” he said. “There’s a buzz. They’re excited. Our first graduates are coming out, so there’s maturity that we didn’t have before. Some of the work that’s coming out, it’s amazing. You can hear that. It’s album quality, and you can’t plan for that – this sort of thing just happens.
“Part of it, I think, happens because they’re in collaboration with each other. There are so many talented musicians, when they come together and they play off one another, you can just see that they’re moving in directions that they might not individually.”
The collaboration starts with Aguilar, whom Eric Johnson, manager of the Recording Studio, calls “the face of the program.”
“She kind of embodies the character-building qualities of this program,” he said. “She really became an advocate for the community of the Worship Arts program. She became this de facto cheerleader for everyone else who was working on their music projects. Everyone just looks to her as a life leader and a mentor.”
She still can’t believe it turned out that way. Hers is the kind of story that gives you shivers as she tells it, the kind that doesn’t feel at all like a coincidence. “God just lines things up in a good way,” she said.
Aguilar was within a few credits of getting a music degree from another university in 2009 when she was afflicted by a serious virus. She thinks she got it from a sample she ate at a street fair, but she’ll never know for sure. All she knows is that it was frightening.
“I went from being completely normal to, ‘I’m not OK. I feel like I’m going to die.’ My stomach hurt and I had instant panic and anxiety attacks. I couldn’t function. My heart was pounding out of my chest,” she said.
It took several months for doctors to even figure out what it was and more than a year for her to get anywhere close to back to normal. Even then, the anxiety attacks – something she’d never experienced before – didn’t stop.
And by the time she finally got healthy, the music program at her college had been cut back. The remaining classes she needed were no longer available.
She was in limbo until some friends of her family came to her with startling news: God had told them to pay for her to go to GCU, and it just so happened that the Worship Arts program was starting. Yet she still wasn’t sure she could do it. “I was broken when I got here,” she said.
“It wasn’t even in my mind that I could go back to college,” she said. “I was walking through that first semester thinking, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to handle this, but I’m just going to be faithful to what God has called me to do.’”
Aguilar didn’t know a soul on campus, but on her first day, in her first class, she just happened to sit next to Jessica Sams, who also was eager to make some new friends. “We’ve been attached at the hip ever since,” Aguilar said.
That led to “Follow You” (click here to see Aguilar perform it at North Phoenix Baptist Church). For homework, Aguilar wanted to write a song about the path that led her to GCU, and she and Sams started merging words with music until they had what still stands out as the most noteworthy piece the students have produced in the program’s first four years. The song reached No. 1 on the indie charts and was in the top 20 on iTunes.
“I think the song set the standard for what’s happening now,” Sams said. “It’s interesting, the expectations for songs that are coming out now. It’s such a privilege to be part of the first thing to come out of here, and that was before the studio was built.”
Equally interesting is the fact that Aguilar views it as “even when it didn’t make sense, saying yes to God asking me if I would be vulnerable to write songs that I would submit for homework. It wasn’t even intended necessarily for someone to hear.”
All about the community
Aguilar has been heard in other ways in the Recording Studio, which has developed a culture that goes far beyond spiritual music. Johnson said she has told him that “it’s not all about musical skill – in fact, that’s kind of secondary, because really what it’s about is character, spiritual maturity and community.”
As a leader of that community, Aguilar believes that “a lot of the beauty is in the stuff that you don’t learn in the classroom – not to say that the things in the classroom aren’t spectacular. GCU has amazing teachers and amazing faculty, and the academic side of this program is fantastic. But I think a lot of what happens, it happens in your heart.
“There’s a spiritual maturity that you gain from being up here that comes purely from being here. You add classes into that equation and it makes for a really good education, in and out of class.”
What’s next? Aguilar and Sams have similar thoughts on that front – get some sleep, write more songs. Aguilar, who lives in Anthem, has been crashing in Sams’ room when the long drive home felt too daunting.
“We’ve had too many late nights,” Sams said. “People ask me, ‘What are you going to do after school?’ And I’m like, ‘Sleep!’”
But they’re taking with them four years that have unfolded like a perfect dream.
“I have lived the last four years in this massive state of submission to the Holy Spirit and the will of God,” Aguilar said. “Yeah, there have been moments of super ups and super downs, some scary and some not too scary. But looking back over the last four years, I definitely can see God’s hand through it all, God’s grace over it all and God’s peace through it all. This is the best version of this I could have ever had because I was willing to be obedient when I needed to be.”
Together, it all follows.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.