“As a kid, I felt like a loner,” said Joe Russell. “A broken home life, as well as my own struggles with ADD and OCD, made me feel left out. I occasionally went to church, but I questioned what little I knew about God’s character. I wasn’t sure how a good God could allow my family to be so broken.
“I felt like an outsider, but everything changed when I started playing football in high school. I found something that I was good at. Playing football also gave me a chance to hang out with older students on and off the field. I went to parties and finally felt like I belonged. I started finding my identity in others’ opinions of me, which led to a desperate attempt to keep up a facade of having it all together. It wasn’t a safe place to fail or be real.
“I was planning to play football in college, but those plans changed when I herniated two disks in my back during my senior year. The pain from the injury was so intense I couldn’t stand up, much less play football. In a moment, my plans and identity felt stripped away. My life was in shambles and I didn’t know what to live for. In the midst of intense emotional pain and a long road to recovery, I dropped out of high school.
“Around that time, I met a guy named Mark. He was a member of a local church I attended, and his life was defined by something that mine wasn’t. His identity wasn’t in his success, football, or his dad’s approval. I didn’t know this stark difference in his life was because Mark had a relationship with Jesus, I just knew I hadn’t seen anything like it before.
“I finished high school at a charter school and wanted to leave San Diego, hoping to leave the pain of disappointment behind as well. Both of my sisters had moved to Dallas for college, so I decided to join them. I moved to Dallas searching for something. My sister suggested I check out The Porch, the young adult ministry at Watermark. After the service that night, they hosted an event for college students to get to know one another.
“I walked into that room full of students and immediately saw that this was totally different than the church I’d attended when I was younger. The room felt fun, authentic, and full of energy. I met guys who took time to know me, even though I couldn’t do anything for them. Their energy reminded me of my friend Mark.
“When my new friends from Watermark told me about a weekend retreat for college students, I was excited. My small group leader, Bert, asked me, ‘On a scale from one to ten, how sure are you that you would go to heaven if you died tonight? One means there’s no way you’re getting in, and ten means you’re definitely getting in.’ I considered his question and didn’t know how to answer. I’d done some good things in my life, but I definitely wasn’t perfect. I thought I was a ‘nine’ on the scale.
“When Bert told me that my answer could be ‘ten,’ I was blown away. He explained that my sin separated me from God and deserved death (Romans 6:23), but Jesus died to pay for my sin and rose again to prove that His payment was enough (Ephesians 2:8-9). I’d been to church, but this was the first time someone told me that the gospel was free. All I had to do was trust in Jesus– there was nothing I could do to earn my way to heaven and nothing bad enough to keep me out. I accepted Jesus as my Savior that weekend.
“Bert encouraged me to follow Christ by reading my Bible and being surrounded by other Christians. I started attending Watermark. The Lord allowed me to join a community group of other guys who were following Christ. These men have been one of the biggest expressions of God’s goodness. I’ve been blessed by how they’ve faithfully pointed me to Jesus over the past few years.
“Before I knew Jesus, I thought that the brokenness in my family and my shattered plans meant that God was taking good things away from me. I’ve learned that His plan isn’t to withhold good (Psalm 84:11), but to give me a life with Him that I had never known. Life isn’t easy, but He has shown me that He is faithful.
“Galatians 2:20 sums up my story really well. It says: ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ This verse reminds me that Jesus has changed everything about my life. Now, my joy is unwavering despite circumstance, and my identity is no longer found in football or others’ opinions. I find my identity only in my relationship with the Lord as His child.”
Each week, college students from across the city gather for worship, teaching, and fellowship. Connect weekly with other 18–22 year olds seeking to follow Christ. Check out The Nine on Thursdays at 9 PM in the Auditorium at the Dallas Campus. watermark.org/college