Pictured from left are Fr. Mike Schmitz, Aly Aleigha Schissel, Tim and Becky Mika and Jeff Cavins. Becky Mika was the winner of a Holy Land pilgrimage giveaway sponsored by the Aly Aleigha Band. Another contest is being conducted for a pilgrimage in 2020. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Trust in God weaves together the story of a couple from Ashland, a musician from Rice Lake, and the Holy Land pilgrimage that brought them together, deepening their personal faith and commitment to following God’s call.

Aly Aleigha, the singer, remembers the moment a little more than a year ago when her parents, Laura and Terry Schissel, Rice Lake, suggested the idea of a pilgrimage giveaway.

The Schissels had given their daughter Aly her first trip to the Holy Land as a high school graduation gift. Familiar with Jeff Cavins’ Bible Timeline, father and daughter traveled to Israel during her freshman year at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Schissel attributes her songwriting to that first pilgrimage she made to the Holy Land. Mostly self-taught, she considered herself a mediocre musician.
However, “It was at the Holy Land – my first trip – that I feel like the Lord really took that and equipped me and blessed it,” Schissel said of her music ministry.

After receiving a demo tape sent by her father, Cavins himself invited Schissel to accompany his pilgrimage as a music minister. She made that second trip to Israel, one that allowed her to enter into the experience in a deeper and more peaceful way.

When Schissel contacted Cavins last summer about the idea of a giveaway, he was in full support.

The Aly Aleigha Band scheduled enough concerts to cover the cost of a giveaway pilgrimage. Laura Schissel, Aly’s mom and the band’s manager, said, “Basically, she played for free – a beautiful thing, and she was happy to do it.”

Her desire to give someone else a Holy Land experience was personal and powerful.

Called to the Holy Land

Becky and Tim Mika, Ashland, remember the moment they entered their name for Aly Aleigha’s Holy Land pilgrimage giveaway. It was at the religious education kickoff concert in September 2017 that Schissel’s band headlined.

Standing before the entry box, they had a quick conversation about how they would actually pull off the logistics of a trip like that.

“I guess if your name was drawn, you’d just have to trust that God would take care of everything,” Becky thought.

In January, Aly and Laura Schissel prayed a novena for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in choosing the winner. When the first name drawn was a college girl who would not be able to attend, the two saw it as God’s sense of humor. It was then that Becky Mika’s name was drawn.

She received the call from Schissel and spent the afternoon texting her husband, on his way to a wrestling tournament. They had known, in the slight chance they’d be chosen, they would make the trip as a couple, finding the means to cover the other spouse’s cost. She confirmed with both sets of grandparents, who were willing to tag-team to watch the Mikas’ five children for the 12 days the couple would be gone.

Tim acknowledged they had to surrender and trust that everything would be okay – leaving their kids at home and traveling to a part of the world that raised certain anxieties, from what is on the news.

The decision was finalized when Tim said to his wife, “It’s hard to say yes, but no is not an option.” He then realized it was Jan. 26, the feast of St. Timothy and St. Titus.

“Thanks for being blunt, God,” he thought and felt confirmed the trip was meant to be.

They admitted it was humbling to accept the help of their parents and others to make their absence from home possible. It was hard accepting the gift of the pilgrimage from “an incredible young person.” For two people who, in their own words, are “horrible asking for help,” they felt it was good for them to give others the opportunity.

It helped that their kids were excited about the overnights with their grandparents. Eight-year-old Matthias – on whose feast day they left for Israel – was immediately excited. His sense of its importance was heightened by his preparing for First Communion.

Schissel believes, “The Lord definitely picked (Becky) for a reason.”

Deep faith experiences weren’t new for the Mikas. Tim just finished the fourth of six years of formation for the permanent diaconate.

He said, “It wasn’t a trip that I needed to strengthen my faith … but being in the (diaconate) program, it gave me a different dimension of our Catholic faith.
“We embraced the gift Aly gave us,” the couple shared, but said the ultimate gift for Catholics and Christians is to be able to walk where Jesus walked and to tangibly experience his humanness.

They said the sites and the people were amazing; their pilgrimage guide was one of their favorite aspects of the trip.

A visit to Cana was early on in the itinerary. The Mikas were one of about 20 couples on the trip. Themed “Time of Decision,” there were more young adults among the 112 pilgrims than married persons. It was Cavins’ 53rd trip to the Holy Land, many of them accompanied by Fr. Mike Schmitz, of Duluth.

Schissel’s mom Laura, also a pilgrim but participating without her husband, said Fr. Schmitz “has such a gift to help people enter into that moment,” taking into consideration the various marriage scenarios represented, including those young adults discerning a religious vocation.

Married almost 16 years, the experience was “really moving” for the Ashland couple.

Becky said, “It was so amazing, just being in the moment … continuing on what God’s gifted us in our marriage, reaffirming that, thanking God for that.”
She continued, “Fr. Mike added so much depth, by honoring the journeys that people have been on already and that uniqueness to each relationship. He brought God right into the middle of it and just affirmed everything that people had been through but left you with this feeling of ‘just make sure that God is still the center of what you’re going to go through, and do it together.’ It was so rich and beautiful.”

For Tim, renewing their vows in Cana added a new perspective, “because I know this person even more intimately now.” This new perspective went beyond their time in Cana.

“It solidified my conviction and supercharged my faith,” Tim said. He summarized that the trip was perfect for himself and his wife – an experience of surrender and letting the Lord lead and finding peace following Him, receiving all God has to offer and giving glory back to Him.

Called to music ministry

As for Aly Aleigha, who recently signed with Rekindle Records in Chicago, she is still seeking time to process the pilgrimage – her third – into new songs. She commented on having “a lot of seeds” – notes from specific places and teachings. Her mother, and pilgrimage roommate, noted many nights Schissel was in and out of the bathroom to write down chords and ideas.

Schissel says her songs often start off as “a line with a kind of melody” that she expands on. And though she does sing many Christian songs, her genre is more folk sound than Christian rock, and geared towards deep thinkers.

She wants “to reach those that are unreachable.”

“I don’t really consider my originals Christian music… (even though) people who are Christians can recognize theology. I want it to reach people who wouldn’t necessarily step into a church or listen to contemporary Christian music,” the singer added.

“Growing up, I never thought this would be the route of my life,” Schissel said, and commented on the trust exercise her path has entailed.
“I embraced the mediocrity of what I was capable of,” she said referring to playing at church in high school. She remembers making mistakes, getting embarrassed and continuously “giving it to Him.”

“The Lord has gifted all of us in such unique and incredible ways, and I think too many of us are afraid to act on that … So many of us are afraid to embrace the gifts the Lord has given us because they might not be practical or we are falsely humble. (There can be) so much fear and the devil tries direct us away from using our gifts to glorify God and build up His kingdom.”

Schissel shared advice she tries to practice herself: “It’s really important to be in a relationship with God, to know what He is calling us to and receiving that … Trusting that I don’t have to be the best, but if He’s calling me He will continue to equip me.

“That’s been my story. It’s been really incredible. I’m blown away by the amazing opportunities that keep coming up. I’m doing nothing – just letting Him keep giving me these gifts,” she added. “Give to God what you’re excellent is and glorify Him through that. Be open to opportunities God presents.”

After starting the summer singing in Alaska, then spending time in Pennsylvania for Theology of the Body Institute events and filming for an Ascension Press series, the Aly Aleigha Band played for three Steubenville conferences, a festival in Iowa and a weeklong camp.

The full-time musician, working on a new single with Rekindle Records, will give two concerts in the Diocese of Superior during September and then will tour out West with Adoration Artist’s “The 177 Project.”

The Project consists of a nationwide Eucharistic Adoration tour featuring various Catholic musicians. Over a three-month period, teams of musicians will split up to visit all 177 dioceses across the US, including those in Alaska, Hawaii and St. Thomas.

Next up, #winisrael in 2020

Teaming up again with Jeff Cavins, Fr. Mike Schmitz and other priests and musicians, Aly Aleigha will travel to the Holy Land in 2020. Names can be entered with every concert booking – concerts must be booked through Nov. 30, 2019, to be eligible for contest entry.
More information is available at aly-aleigha.com.