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When Val Hellman looks back on his years in high school, he doesn't remember letter jackets, dates every weekend, or invitations to the coolest parties.
"I struggled with loneliness a lot," he says. But Val (short for Valentine) doesn't have any trouble meeting people these days. As the tenor sax and clarinet player for the W's—a band whose sound is a hot combination of swing, ska and jazz—he's toured with bands like dc Talk and played for thousands. It's like Val and the rest of the guys in the W's have risen to the top overnight. (In our most recent Christian Music Awards contest, you voted 'em the best new group.) But back in high school, Val's social life barely made it off the ground.
"I was really shy, so I didn't talk to people," he admits. "I was a nerd, and nobody liked me. I got stuffed into the garbage can at lunch and stuff. It was really hard not having friends."
A churchgoing Christian since elementary school, Val was well aware that God knew of his frustrations. And he knew God could change things.
"I prayed every night for help to get through the next day," says Val. "Eventually, I made friends. People started coming up and talking with me."
God had heard Val in some of his loneliest times. But it wasn't long before Val forgot that God was worth hearing, too. After Val enrolled at Oregon State University, he jumped full-force into the party scene. In his own words, he "went crazy."
"After I started college, I didn't have any Christian friends. There was no one to hold me accountable. People would say, Let's go to this party and have a beer,' and I'd say, OK.' Or someone would tell me, That girl really has it for you,' and I'd go fool around with her. It all seemed so fun at the time."
Fun, maybe, but hardly fulfilling. The wild parties didn't give Val much more than a load of regret and a deep emptiness inside. Val didn't like the lifestyle he was leading. But he just couldn't find the will to change his behavior.
That's when Val got to know J.P., someone who would help turn his actions around—and turn his heart back to God. J.P. lived in the same house at college. He gave Val a CD of the Christian punk group MxPx, and Val came back with questions.
"I'd ask J.P. why he acted like this and like that," Val says. "I learned that the basis of his life was his relationship with Jesus. He made that evident to me without preaching at me. And it brought me back to faith."
Through their conversations, J.P. showed Val that the drinking and the sex were only surface issues. What Val needed most was a concept of God's incredible grace. Instead of telling him what to do, J.P. got Val to think about why he did the things he did. With the accountability of a good friend and the love of a great God, Val got back on the right track.
"You can have a lot of fun without doing those things I was doing," he says. "I don't do any of those things anymore, and I still have lots of fun hanging out with my Christian friends."
Yeah, when Val and his buds in the W's bring their swingin' show to fans across the country, they have a blast. But they also encourage people to get serious about their relationship with God. Val, for one, is speaking from experience.