Compassion Over Distance

04/07/2018 .
Myra Biernat Wells  .  Volunteer Storyteller

I was leading a small group, but I didn’t expect one of my group members to lead me. Nia joined my small group during theDaring Faithcampaign, anxious to connect to other women and bolster her faith to bold, new levels. This soft-spoken woman with great, inner strength longed to embrace the empowering message of how, even in our deepest struggles, God is always lifting us up.

Nia was in the fight for her life against a vicious enemy — cancer. “Will I get through this?” Nia asked the group one week in a video chat. Immediately, the band of women in my group wanted to reach out to Nia, to hug her tight and to hold her hand while we prayed. Nia yearned to hear the repeated, decisive, and loving promises of God from us, about how God will provide hope and strength where the spirit is weak and torn.

My small group was scattered across eight states in the U.S. and Taiwan. We connect through Saddleback’s online campus on a weekly basis. As much as I’d like to try, a hug won’t make it across the World wide Web. But the distance didn’t discourage the women in my group.

As a small group host, my most important role is to help each member grow closer to each other and to God. Typically, this happens slowly over time, but Nia was a catalyst for our group. In a giant showing of faith, everyone opened their hearts to Nia. Though we couldn’t help Nia physically fight the cancer, we could help her fight against the fear that the disease brings. It was one battle we thought we could win through daily doses of love.

Twelve months later, Nia went to her doctor for testing, hoping to hear that she was cancer-free. But troubling news awaited her — the cancer was spreading. We were broken-hearted for her. Each group member reached out to Nia, trying to fight the discouragement in the only ways we knew how.

Clarene, a strong proponent of The Daniel Plan®, cooked healthy treats and shipped them to Nia. Chris, a flight attendant, would text Nia short, meaningful messages between flights. Tasha, Tammy, Monica, and Claire emailed encouraging thoughts or sent links to funny YouTube videos to keep Nia laughing. I’m old-school, so I’d write cards and encouraged others to do so, as well. All of us prayed, wondering if our faith would be strong enough to help Nia.

During trips to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, as Nia was hooked up to IVs in a sterile room, we connected with her. Throughout the day we’d text, “Praying for you,” or, “Stay strong,” or longer messages like, “You are God’s beloved child. He will comfort you. I love you so much.” Often during phone calls, we wouldn’t say a word, and instead just listened to Nia talk about her love for her daughter, or how frightened she was, or sometimes all we’d hear was crying. At the end of almost every phone call, Nia would say, “Thank you so much for sticking with me. Thank you for covering me with care.”

We all worried when Nia was unable to attend group because she was too weak. We’d plan what to do next to bolster her spirits, but we’d always discuss Nia’s gratitude. “Why is she thanking us?” we’d ask. “We should be thanking her for teaching us how kindness trumps distance.”

My pride for the group increased. None of us understood God at that moment. It is tough to communicate love through a cell phone, knowing that a friend is fading. We felt powerless to change the course of the disease. We were confident that God loved Nia even more than we could comprehend. I would tell my group, “Your daring faith has jumped off the pages of our study and into your hearts. Thanks for being a ‘joy epidemic’ by demonstrating how God can handle any concern we have. Nothing is too big for God.”

Then came the most saddening news of all. Nia’s oncologist attempted to get her into a clinical trial at Emory University. Tests were finalized, revealing that Nia was not strong enough to participate. Her oncologist shared the news: everything had been done, and there was no further treatment. Medicine offers us care until we die, but Christ is our only cure for death.

Clarene spoke up, enthusiastically suggesting a group fast — one week of not eating during the day and choosing foods that gave life. We would lift up Nia as we emptied ourselves and prayerfully turned our concern over to God.  

One by one, each woman agreed: Chris, Monica, Tammy, Claire, Tasha, Maria, myself, and   Clarene. We believed that God could conquer cancer — and that’s what we desired for our friend — but we also wanted Nia to know the joy of finishing well. While our stomachs ached and our prayers lifted heavenward, we continued to shower her with love. There was beauty in making God’s presence known to her, but also in making her grief personal to us.

In her early 30s, Nia was too young to pass way. During what turned out to be our last conversation, I asked her how she stayed so calm. The question seemed impertinent at the time, but I’m glad I did. In a weak and fading voice, she answered that she was at peace. I complimented Nia on her faith and thanked her for allowing us to join her on this journey.

Nia left behind a lot of broken hearts — not just in our small group. Her daughter, Leah, is growing up without a mother’s love. Her friends and family miss her wonderful spirit, her courage, and her unabashed joy for life.

I’d like to think her legacy is also what she left behind in the hearts of my group. She taught us how to move away from fear and control and toward peace and grace. She taught us to humbly choose to be part of a community, to learn despite the distance between us, and to know that we belong to each other.

Suffering calls for presence. To call, to show up, to be there for another. Nia taught every one of us that suffering is a shout for us to be in community, to stand together and hold each other. When we do these things, we remind each other that we are all being carried by the love of God.

Learn more about small groups at saddleback.com/smallgroups.