Elena Michelle Espinoza, 21, had raised her hands for healing at every church service she attended since a softball injury destroyed her jaw as a high school sophomore in Bentonville, Arkansas.
But during a Southeastern University (SEU) conference, she quietly raised her hand again — and experienced the miraculous.
Espinoza, the daughter of two Assemblies of God pastors’ children, accepted Jesus at age 4 and says she felt called to missions work at age 13. As a high school senior, preparing to attend Southeastern University, her jaw injury gradually worsened.
“The softball knocked the cartilage out of place between my upper and lower jaw,” she recalls. “Bone against bone began to rub against each other, disintegrate, and move backward into my airway. It was like breathing through a straw instead of a garden hose.”
After CAT scans and an MRI, medical specialists told Espinoza she needed total jaw joint replacement surgery.
In 2017, Espinoza arrived with braces aligning her jaw in Lakeland, Florida, as a SEU communications major. Physicians scheduled surgery for the summer between her first and sophomore year.
“I was ready to go through the process knowing God heals through doctors, but still believed for a supernatural healing,” Espinoza says.
In February 2018, Espinoza attended a SEU conference in which the speaker asked who needed healing. She raised her hand and touched her jaw as he prayed.
“As we moved back into worship, I felt the Holy Spirit, so I lifted up my hands, and said, I’m giving this pain to you,” Espinoza says. “When I closed my mouth, my teeth aligned, and my lower jaw just shifted forward.”
She immediately began sharing with friends, family, and her campus pastor about the healing — which occurred a month before her next scheduled doctor’s appointment.
However, because her jaw occasionally still popped, she began doubting her healing. Then Espinoza remembered a story in one of her classes about a cargo ship that couldn’t move or turn in any direction until it reached the water. She designed a T-shirt declaring “Step Out of the Harbor” as a metaphor for stepping out in faith. She began selling the themed shirts she designed as a way to raise money for a mission trip that summer.
Espinoza, a distance runner, decided to go for a run three days before her doctor’s appointment. Typically, she listened to music over headphones to distract from the sound of her heavy breathing. But at the beginning of the run, her headphones died.
“My breathing wasn’t as heavy as before,” Espinoza recalls. She sensed the Lord telling her to keep going — and she jogged for 9 miles.
“I couldn’t run that far if my jaw hadn’t been healed,” she says. “I could breathe so much better than I did before.”
At the appointment, Espinoza’s physician confirmed she would not need surgery.
Bethany Tricia Thomas, Southeastern University’s vice president for student development, shared the news with the school’s board of directors.
“Healing stories do more than touch those who are healed themselves,” says Thomas, 37. “They boost faith among believers. And it really shows people — even people who don’t believe in healing — that it is biblical and alive and well in modern times.”
Thomas bought Espinoza’s T-shirts for all of SEU’s board members.
“We needed to get these shirts in the hands of a lot of people, because ‘step out of the harbor’ is such a cool concept,” Thomas says. “Everyone prays for something, but not all are willing to take the steps to get there.”
Espinoza says God grew Step Out of the Harbor as a nonprofit to minister to missionaries, especially during COVID-19. She has sold over 200 shirts and now also markets masks to help missionaries specifically impacted by the novel coronavirus.
She has told her story at different churches with Southeastern University President Kent Ingle. Espinoza graduated in December, and this month began her master’s degree in theological studies at SEU.