The Sound of These Belles Will be Heard Meet Erin Weidemann
Say the names of Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Rapunzel, Anna and Elsa and most young girls can tell you their story, and likely even sing you their songs. These are among the coveted list of fictional female heroines known as Disney princesses. But ask those same girls about Hannah or Ruth or Deborah and a blank expression appears. So it was with that knowledge that Erin Weidemann set out to teach girls about real life women whose stories of accomplishments and character are told in the Bible. The result is a newly-released book series called Bible Belles. But there is a story within the story in the development of this promising series. Risen sat down with the author who shares about her own struggles with cancer, self-image, and her relationship with God.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: Sports was a huge part of your life, you even played college softball, so what did that theme look like for you?
Erin Weidemann: If I were to say it in one word, I’d say that I was always very driven from a very young age. Softball was my thing. I loved playing and would play every single day. My dad, growing up, coached me for many years from when I was really little to almost through high school. He would ask me every so often, “Do you want to take a break and try something else?” And the answer was always, “No.” He never pushed me it was just something that I found early that I could get, and be, really good at so I just worked and worked. I thank God that I had an opportunity to find myself, and find an identity, through athletics because it helped me develop a lot of qualities I didn’t have when I first started and struggled to find.
RM: How did those qualities you developed through softball prepare you or enhance the experiences you have now?
EW: I think as an athlete, especially in softball, you really had to work at the fundamentals and the technique of it to be really good. A lot of kids can be fast at running, or good at shooting hoops, but with softball sometimes you only get a couple of opportunities in a game to perform so you have to do it correctly over and over and over. The meticulous way you have to fine tune your abilities, I really latched onto because I liked the repetition, I liked knowing I was doing it well several times in a row. That way when I got to moments when I had to preform, I could do it. I saw the value of putting in the work ahead of time and then getting the results. And I was successful because of the amount of work I put in.
I was so freaked out and became hysterically terrified. It hurt so bad, and I was so dizzy, I just thought, “Oh my gosh, I am going to die.” So I laid down on the bathroom floor and I started to pray. I prayed for God’s help because I was totally broken in that moment.
RM: How does faith fit into those formative years of your journey?
EW: I grew up Lutheran; attending Lutheran school and church. My parents, and my sister and I all went to the same small school in Orange, California. My personal experience was that it was rigid and formal, and I didn’t understand or find any connection with God. Plus as a family we didn’t bring church home with us. We didn’t read the Bible at home, it wasn’t something we talked about, and we didn’t pray as a family, so essentially I compartmentalized who I was from the beginning. It was like I’m going to go to church, and school and be this person and at home it was someone totally different. As I got older and started to rebel, in the natural way some kids rebel when they get to middle school and high school, I started meeting different kinds of people who didn’t necessarily believe what I had grown up thinking about and believing, I questioned. Those years and into college was a time that I just abandoned God and stopped pursuing that part of my life.
RM: So that begs the question as to what it was that made you want to reengage with a relationship with the Lord?
EW: I fell into that in a weird way. I graduated from Penn State in 2003 with a degree in Journalism and Spanish – because those were two things I was passionate about, writing and language. So it made zero sense, but I went into finance. I got a job working as a mortgage consultant for D.R. Horton, because I thought, “I can make a lot of money working for a home builder.” I was super successful making money in real estate and I was doing great and I starting living 100mph.
I was going out and doing a lot of things I should’ve have been doing in a lot of places I should’ve have been. This went on from around 2004 to 2006. I wasn’t really aligning myself with what my true talents were or pursuing my passion, I was just making a lot of money. And then I bought a house in December of 2006 and then a month or two after I moved in, in March of 2007, I found out I had cancer. I got sick and moved right back out and into my parent’s house for months after I had two different surgeries and physical therapy and it was a time where I just couldn’t take care of myself. But the moment when I found my way back to God was in June of 2007 when I was in the middle of a 72-hour quarantine.
The type of cancer I had was aggressive variant metastatic papillary carcinoma cancer. It starts in your thyroid and if it doesn’t get dealt with, it metastasizes and mine was super bad. It went all the way up my brain stem and into my chest on both sides. So when they took it out, they took my thyroid and most of the lymph nodes that were cancerous in my head and neck and chest. While I was doing this radiation treatment I had to be quarantined for 72-hours. I could’ve done it at the hospital, but my mom suggested I just do it at the house. So they moved out of their bedroom and had me stay there with a cooler and we also had to saran wrap the entire room because anything I would touch would become radioactive and I spent three days in that room and ten days total away from human contact so that I wouldn’t injure anybody because once you swallow the radiation pill it starts to radiate and kill all the cancer throughout your whole body, but it becomes a danger to other people in close proximity to you.
I took the pill on the way home and laid down in the back of my mom’s Suburban wrapped in a radiation blanket so I wouldn’t hurt her, and then I waited outside on the curb and I started to feel sick. I got inside the room and about 12 hours in, the pain of it, and the physical bad feeling, started to escalate. I hit this hour twelve panic. I was so freaked out and became hysterically terrified. It hurt so bad, and I was so dizzy, I just thought, “Oh my gosh, I am going to die.” So I laid down on the bathroom floor and I started to pray. I prayed for God’s help because I was totally broken in that moment. I couldn’t fix it, I couldn’t help myself, and it wasn’t going away.
I sat up a few minutes after that and I definitely felt calmer. It was the little push I needed to think, “Okay things are going to be okay and you are going to get through this.” And then after I got out of there and thought about it for a little bit I thought, “I should probably revisit this because if I don’t think God exists, then who was I talking to?”
RM: Was that an immediate dialogue that you had with God or did it take a longer stretch before you explored those thoughts?
EW: So, all of that happened, and then I rehabbed myself and felt differently about my life, but I wouldn’t say I started going to church and everything was great and I had my faith turn and immediately started walking with God. But I definitely woke up and my heart was softer because of what had happened. I started thinking a lot about, “What am I supposed to be doing if I don’t have a lot of time?” That was one thing the doctor said in his report and I would read. I would read his op report over and over and I just couldn’t come to terms with it because it said over and over, this woman is very diseased, like twelve times in a nine-page report. Very diseased – it just stuck with me. So if I’m super sick, even when I start to feel better, I need to do something with the time I have here, which doesn’t seem like a lot of time, so what should I do? So I went back to school and I became a teacher.
Diagnosed in 2007, and 2008 became the year of realigning my life with my passion and doing what I felt God put me here on this earth to do. I had always had a connection with kids, interacted with them and there is something special between me and children and there had been for a very long time. So I quit my job, went back to school and then I met Brent when I was living at home and student teaching.
RM: Speaking of Brent, who is now your husband, were you open to the idea of a relationship with everything going on your life at the time you met?
EW: Nooooo! No. No. No. We definitely had the whole conversation, “Oh that’s adorable you want to date but I’m dying. No I’m not going to date. Why would we date? That’s stupid.” And he just did not listen to me. But I didn’t think I was going to be around very long so I didn’t want to hurt him. But he convinced me to date him and we got married in 2010. Brent’s faith journey is an interesting one too. He was a lot more mature in his faith and I am grateful for his ability to steer me on that path, when I was not so lost anymore, but still in need of that push toward God. Yes, I had made a turn in my life but I still felt a lot of guilt around, “How could I go back to God after the way I had treated Him?”
RM: Interesting. I’m sure that feeling of being disqualified from God’s love because of prior behavior is something many people can resonate with, so what was it that helped you understand God loves you no matter what?
EW: It took me a long time and I would even say that it is a recent feeling. For several years of me finding my way back to Him I did not feel worthy. But I am looking at the way that God has blessed me and He is clearly not hung up on the way I had treated Him. [Laughter] He gave me this amazing husband, and I never thought I would be a mom – ever. I should be dead. And it’s not like the cancer came one time and went away. I’ve had it again, and again, and again, and again. And God continues to deliver me through all of that and now I have a family.
RM: Let’s talk for a moment again about your cancer because it’s daunting and extremely difficult for anyone who has to battle the disease, but then to have cancer come back multiple times, and in consecutive years, that is obviously physically challenging. How did that affect you mentally?
EW: I kind of look at it as a comparison. The first time I was diagnosed in 2007 God was not a part of it until treatment when I had my moment. But ever since then when the cancer came back, my heart was softer. So my mindset was, “Okay we are just going to deal with it,” because it wasn’t as bad as the first time and I had God now. It was more like, “When is the surgery?” And I have had six surgeries. I can’t remember them all, but that is the point. I only remember the first one and how horrific it was because God was not with me – well He was there, but in my brain I had pushed Him out – so I wasn’t with Him, which is why I think it was so hard. But since then it really just feels more like a second job. But fortunately now I have been cancer-free for the past two years and it is interesting to see how that was one season, and now we are focused on this season and Bible Belles. But even if the cancer does come back then God will teach me something through it.
We found out that not very many of the little girls we knew were aware that there were any women in the Bible,but they could all name all the Disney princesses.
RM: Bible Belles is the book series you just launched for young girls, and I understand the idea actual was born out of the search for a birthday present for your niece. Tell me the story.
EW: Exactly. We were driving home from church and it was going to be my niece Hannah’s fifth birthday and we didn’t want to just get her another toy and we thought, “There is a Hannah in the Bible, wouldn’t it be cool if we gave her the story?” Brent is really talented in art so he could illustrate it and then I would rewrite the story so that she could understand it better since she is only going to be five. We’d package it up and give her this book that we made.
So we did that and she was really excited, but also confused because she had no idea that there was a Hannah in the Bible. We thought that was surprising so we explored that a little bit and asked around and found out that not very many of the little girls we knew were aware that there were any women in the Bible. They knew a couple, but not one that they cared about, but they could all name all the Disney princesses. Not that Disney is not great; but we thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if the names and stories of these Bible women were in the hearts and minds of these girls in a way that they would look up to them and they would be their heroes?” That’s where Bible Belles came from. It was born out of this gift that morphed into the realization that girls need heroes.
RM: When did your mindset shift from, “Yea that is a great idea, someone should do it for girls,” to “I think I am the one called to bring this to the marketplace.”?
EW: We decided to launch it as a company when I was eight months pregnant. We kind of kept that quiet and worked on it together as a husband-wife team. We did a lot of research and tried to align ourselves with experts and people who could help. We really prayed about it and wanted to make sure it was something God wanted us to do.
RM: How did you decipher that is what God wanted you to do and the plan which He wanted you to execute?
EW: I think in the way that choices were laid out for us and the way we felt God working us through challenges. I’ll give you an example. We struggled with the idea of how do we marry the creative entertaining part that kids need with the truth and Bible accuracy that parents are looking for. We knew we were going to introduce this fictional character to encounter women of the Bible, but which women do we include? Initially we thought maybe we would do each woman from the Bible and give them their own book and there would be around 20-30 books in the series.
The more I wrote about that, and thought about that, and prayed about that, I just said to God, “Which women am I supposed to use?” We are talking about young kids so I can’t use all of them because some of the themes are not appropriate and the lessons are more suited for junior high or high school. Is it Old Testament? Is it New Testament? What does it look like? I started to research and read books about the women of the Bible. I then settled on five. I didn’t find out until later, but it was a total God-reason for these specific five. I picked, not in any order, Hannah, Esther and Ruth. And I was stuck on those three for awhile. Then I added Abigail and lastly, Deborah.
I am looking at these women’s names on a piece of paper and I like words and writing so I took their first initials and together – Hannah, Esther, Abigail, Ruth and Deborah – spells out the word HEARD. And that resonated with me because as a mean, loud, brash, put-on-a-front, kind-of-a-girl that I spent a lot of my early life being, the type of girl the world seems to celebrate, the acronym H.E.A.R.D. becomes a symbol for the difference between the world’s voice which tells you to make a certain kind of noise, and the kind of voice God wants you to make—in understanding how much He loves you and finding out what your purpose is – that is the noise that needs to be HEARD. And when you meet people who understand God’s love and what they are put on this earth to do, they do make a different kind of noise; a noise that is very different than the world’s noise. I felt like through that word, HEARD, God showed me exactly which women I was supposed to use. And to take it a step further, they are not in that order just because of their initials. They are in that order because together, in order, they teach something about understanding God’s love and how to find purpose.
RM: So then the lesson from each woman builds and supports the next woman’s lesson as your fictitious girl Rooney, named after your real-life daughter, encounters each of these women in each book?
EW: Yes. Hannah is the belle of Prayer. Esther is Patience, Abigail is Bravery, Ruth is Loyalty, and Deborah is Leadership.
RM: The importance of investing girls deepened as you had a baby girl in 2014. Why did you decide to name the central character in your books, Rooney, after her?
EW: I am looking for a way for my daughter to get connected to the Bible early and in a way that will mean something to her. And it already means something to me because as a mom, I want to teach values to her that come from the Bible that are the values that God wants us to learn. But for her, the Bible is her manual. That book is what is going to get her through life; it’s the only book with all the answers. I want her to have a way to experience the stories in it in a way that she can connect with each woman, understand how the stories are relatable to her life, and because she is little, hopefully it will give her the desire to learn more about the Bible.
RM: In the process of writing the book, being a mom, working in the classroom, what are some of the biggest challenges when it comes to raising girls?
EW: I see a lot of things that I felt as a kid – feelings of worthlessness, feelings of judgment of other girls, and feelings of self-judgment, thinking, “How do I measure up against everything I am seeing?” Now as an adult, I want to battle against those things. The idea of beauty in the world is so different than when I grew up, but it is so detrimental to a girl nowadays that we have to do something about it.
RM: Lastly, all of us are going to have hardships in our lives, some will be health-related, maybe others it’s financial or relational. What encouragement or advice would you give to someone to help them persevere through the struggle?
EW: I personally view my struggle with disease as one of the most precious blessings in my life. Honestly, besides my baby and my husband and my faith, me getting sick was so benevolently important because I had to be broken that way for God to really get my attention. He tried to get my attention a lot of times and I was just hard-nosed and stubborn and I refused to listen to Him so He got my attention and it worked. I felt my background in sports physically prepared me for what I went through as well as mentally too and all the rehab. I learned through it that you need to lean on God, talk to people about what is going on and not try to do it alone.