During this season of Lent, we’re journeying together through the Book of Job. It’s a story of suffering, faith, questions, and one man who cries out to God in the midst of heartbreaking affliction.
Over the last few weeks I’ve shared stories of “suffering well” with you, from Sojourners at each of our campuses and from brothers and sisters that have come to know Christ through Sojourn International, our missions ministry. Here is a testimony from a Sojourn Midtown campus member:
I serve with SojournKids on Sundays by teaching and watching over Avy and Ever Stettler. Avy was diagnosed with Leukemia and underwent chemotherapy. He is now at the end of his treatment and in remission. Chemotherapy kills an individual’s immune system, sometimes to the point of needing to be quarantined. Avy does have a weakened immune system, but fortunately not to this extreme.
Because of his progress in recovery and Sojourn’s Special Needs Program, the Stettlers were able to return to church again in November, which is where I come in. Because of Avy’s weakened immune system, his risk of becoming sick is much higher than the average child’s. The effects of illness are also much more extreme for Avy should he ever become sick, so I (and another servant) teach the Stettlers and watch over them each Sunday in a separate room from the other children. We will continue to watch over them until the beginning of May when, God willing, Avy’s immune system will be restored to its normal strength and he can be around his peers again.
I feel a deep connection to Avy and what his family has been through with his illness, as I also had cancer. When I was 13 years old, I was sexually assaulted by my music teacher. I found out two years later that, because of the assault, I had HPV. The strain of HPV I was given is considered one of “the killers”, and is now completely preventable through vaccination. Because the HPV went undiagnosed for so long (there are no symptoms), I developed Cervical and Ovarian cancer.
Words cannot explain how it feels to find out you have cancer. It is incomprehensible, a parent’s worst nightmare for their child, and a fate I believed to be worse than death once I was in the full swing of treatment. I was not a Christian, nor did I have believers in my life when I found out the news. I underwent several years of chemotherapy, radiation, and an additional year’s worth of experimental treatment in France. The United States has policies against several life-saving experimental treatments for cancer patients, and my Dad wasn’t ready to let me go, as my doctors in Kentucky told my family was inevitable.
I lived in a hospital in France alone for a year. My parents were not able to move with me because they had to work to pay for the medical bills. When you seek treatment outside of the US it is completely elective and comes out of your own pocket.
France kept me alive but barely hanging on. My life really started to change when I moved back to the US so I could pass away, surrounded by my family. It was expected that I had only a few months left. A volunteer at the hospital, Alan, began visiting with me every day. He got to know me and started asking me questions about my faith and what I “believed in.”
I told him I believed in random occurrences and spontaneous events and that the world was an evil place and that no God would do this to someone he loved.
I told him I was an atheist.
I told him I would rather die than live in this pain and put my family through this.
He began sharing the gospel with me. He taught me about Jesus and the perfect life he lived, only to be beaten, nailed to a cross, and killed so that I, too, may live. The fog and anger that once consumed my thoughts on what I was going through was soon replaced by relief and understanding. I slowly realized that I deserved much worse than what I was going through, and that there was something so much greater than anything this life could offer, waiting for me when it was all over.
The feeling that I was fighting for my life made me realize that it wasn’t me, but it was God. He was with me even when I didn’t know Him. I now realize more than ever that had I not been assaulted, diagnosed with cancer, and brought within an inch of my life, I would not know Christ. But I thank the Lord every day that Christ knew me then and was fighting for me, my heart, and my salvation.
As you can see, I’m still here today. Before giving up, as I so wanted to do, I promised my father I would take one last surgery when I was 19. The doctors told me that there was 99% chance I wouldn’t make it out of the OR but I did. I came out 5 hours later to a room full of smiling and tearful faces.
It was nothing short of a miracle. I went into remission, and it has been a long and painful process. To this day I go to the doctor every 2 weeks so tests can be run, and I am down one ovary. But I am more full of hope and faith now than I was when things were fine, and there was nothing to complain about in my life. God truly works in mysterious ways, and although life is harder now that I have to live instead of prepare to die, I know He is always with me and always has been.
Every second is a gift, and I can only hope and pray that I don’t waste it or take it for granted. This brings me back to Sojourn and the Stettlers. I began attending Sojourn in September of 2011 with a new friend, Kasey Miller, who has since moved to Detroit. My faith was a private thing until my first visit. I was scared of church, scared of judgment, and scared I would actually have to share my story with others.
She told me I was wrong, she told me that Christians are accepting and that I should try living in community. Not just living in the community of St. Matthews, like I currently do, but living out the gospel in Christian community with my brothers and sisters.
It sounded like a cult, but I thought I would try it out.
From the very first sermon, I was hooked. I didn’t feel judged because Pastor Daniel admitted he was struggling with the very things he was preaching about as well. Strangers shook my hand, and seemed to genuinely love me even though they knew nothing about me. I couldn’t help but think that this is how Church was meant to be.
My boyfriend moved back from Colorado and started attending with me, and we decided to take the next step: join a Community Group. We went on a walk to Waterfront Park with my dog one warm evening, when a Mexican man came running towards us asking if he could pet my dog. I thought I recognized him and asked if he attended Sojourn, and he did – his name was Leandro.
We began chatting and got on the topic of Charlie Ray, and me wanting to join a Community Group. He invited us to come meet his Community Group as they were at the park with him for a multiplication celebration. That’s when we met Blake and Haley Nail and they invited us to visit their group the next week. We did, and we have been members of that Community Group ever since.
After getting plugged into the Community Group, we decided it was time to take the next step and become members of Sojourn. At my membership interview with Pastor Chad, I remember sharing pieces of my story and then explaining my desire to serve the church more faithfully.
The next week, we went to brunch after church with our Community Group and Haley told me that Sojourn Kids looking for a couple members to watch a little boy who had Leukemia, but was in remission. This was the answer to my prayers regarding getting plugged into service at Church.
For the rest of my life, I will never forget the first morning I met Avy Stettler. He lifted up his shirt, pointed at his chest and said “Look, this is where my chemo port was. This is where Jesus healed me!” with the biggest grin on his face. I have learned so much from Avy and his spirit, about what he has been through. He has, and I’m not even kidding, made me less reserved and ashamed of what I went through…and he is 4 years old (but going on 5 soon, he would want me to say that).
He loves the Bible and he reallllyyyyyy loves King David. We were teaching one Sunday about how David was anointed with oil on his head, so Avy came in a few weeks later to a completely separate activity that involved oil and asked if we were going to anoint him (he is so smart!). Another favorite story of mine is when we were about to pray one morning before the lesson began, and he asked if he could pray. He prayed for his teachers.
He makes my heart so happy and I find myself praying that my heart could reflect a childlike spirit of warmth and understanding and trust in God, like Avy’s. I also pray that Avy’s heart remain the same in that regard as he grows up.
A few weeks ago, I finally mustered the courage to tell my story to Avy’s parents. They were aware that I had been through cancer, but that was the extent of what I had shared. When I finally explained the whole story, I felt a connection with them that I had not felt before. I have learned over my short time as a Christian that we have to share with one another to really know and care for one another.
Paige, Avy’s mother, and I shared our common desires and fears surrounding getting more involved in the cancer community in Louisville, how we would both probably be great advocates and supporters for those facing cancer. We realized our fears were somewhat related. For her, it was facing parents that are losing children while hers is still here, and for me it is watching people pass away from something I survived, and the guilt I would feel and have felt as a result.
We both shared a nervous chuckle as we realized that Sojourn would be digging into the book of Job and how hard it would be for us. Job has always been a book that I have avoided (you would think by now that I would suffer well, but I still do not). We plan on meeting for coffee and digging deeper into our fears and desires that have been brought about due to the impact cancer has had on our lives.
I know this was pretty long, but in sharing my story with others over the past year I have learned that there is no easy or short way to tell it. But, I do think it paints a great picture of God’s work in my life, and how the Special Needs Program for Sojourn Kids has a way of bringing people together and changing lives in ways that are so unexpected, in ways I don’t even deserve.
Every day I am amazed by God’s grace in my life. Just when I think it can’t get much better, or in my pessimistic hours when I think this is all life has to offer, God reveals himself in ways I could have never imagined.
I thought I would just be walking into Sojourn every Sunday morning to read the Bible to some kids, and make sure they were safe for the 90 minutes or so that their parents were in the service. In my wildest dreams, and in my best prayers, I would have never been able to hope for what God has provided in my time with this program and the Stettlers every Sunday morning.