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A foundation of faith

Author: Laurie Wertich

Betty Gibbons, a cancer survivor from Stafford, Virginia, exudes warmth and a zest for life, lighting up when she talks about her faith in God and her love for her family. When Betty was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in 2009, she knew exactly where to turn: her faith-based support group at First Mount Zion Baptist Church in Dumfries, Virginia.

Betty says that the group was like a family to her. “They showed me love and comfort and let me know that I wasn’t in this alone. It’s a great thing to have someone there for you, and First Mount Zion was really there.”

The support group at Betty’s church played a crucial role in helping her maintain a positive, upbeat attitude throughout her journey. “When you get stress like that and news of that sort, you have to get support,” Betty insists.

Indeed, and while there are many places to find support, Reverend Michael Barry, DMin, director of pastoral care at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, says that if you are a member of a faith community, church might be the best place to start.

The benefits of faith-based support

It may seem obvious, but at their core support groups need to be supportive. A group that spirals into negative, bitter venting is not conducive to healing. Churches, by their very nature, tend to focus on faith, hope, and emotional welfare—which makes them ideal venues for support groups.

“Hospitals are often ill-equipped to talk about religious concerns,” Rev. Barry explains. “Churches have always been engaged in pastoral care. Pastors have always been concerned about the emotional and spiritual welfare of parishioners. People have always sought out comfort and care from their churches.”

Rev. Barry says one of the benefits of participating in a church-based support group is that it is tailor-made to fit your unique needs. “If you want a group that is going to be sensitive to your own particular, unique belief system or faith, that is going to be best met in your local church,” he says.

What’s more, a church-based group will likely centered in the positive. In fact, the best spiritual support groups teach:

  • How to find joy in the midst of adversity
  • The role of hope in healing
  • The importance of forgiveness and healing emotional wounds

Joy on the journey

When Betty reflects on her support group, she remembers the love, joy, and support. “My favorite part is just getting together and loving on each other,” she says. “There are no tears in there. Everybody is just happy.”

Rev. Barry says this joy is fundamental: “My idea of a really good cancer support group is going bowling. That way you’re having fun and focusing on the positive instead of doom and gloom and despair.”

A support group should keep people engaged in life and occupied with the positive. “How can you truly help people if you’re negative?” Rev. Barry asks. “People with faith ought to be able to find joy in the midst of adversity. There is always a reason to find happiness and joy.”

Part of the joy is simply being together. Being part of a support group means you don’t have to navigate cancer alone.

Gather together

Luke Torian, DMin, pastor of First Mount Zion Baptist Church, says they started the Spiritual Cancer Support Ministry in 2009 to provide a safe, encouraging environment for people facing cancer. “We have approximately 4,400 members in our congregation, and we try to respond to the needs of our congregation, whether it’s 1, 2, 10, or 15 people who have a need,” explains Dr. Torian. So, when cancer support became a growing need, First Mount Zion was there to meet it.

The group started primarily with members of the First Mount Zion congregation, but it has since expanded to meet the needs of the greater community. Three additional congregations have joined the ministry, and an average of 35 to 50 people gather at the monthly meetings. The participants are cancer patients, survivors, family members, and caregivers.

“We want to provide an environment of support,” explains Dr. Torian. To do so First Mount Zion created a support group that is faith based and encouraging but also educational.

Geoffrey D. Moorer, MD, a board-certified oncologist and the group’s medical adviser, has been instrumental in helping facilitate the group. They host a wide variety of speakers, including doctors, nurses, and nutritionists, who speak on a range of topics, such as stress management, pain, fatigue, nutrition, and more. The meetings open with scripture and breakfast, followed by an educational presentation, questions, and prayer.

Betty says she has been empowered by the First Mount Zion group. “I have gained a good bit of information as well as support,” she says. “We get firsthand information straight from medical professionals— things we need to know to live a long and healthy life.”

While this information is invaluable, Betty says the emotional support of the group sustains her. “You just feel like everybody is family and we have each other to lean on,” she says.

Choosing a support group

Not all support groups are created equally. The Spiritual Cancer Support Ministry at First Mount Zion provides a great example of what to look for in a group: strong leadership, structured meetings, information, resources, prayer, and support. An ideal support group will strike a balance between education and encouragement.

“Look for a group that is interested in your well-being and wants you to live a long life,” Betty suggests. You should look forward to gathering with the group and giving and receiving support. You’ll leave feeling uplifted rather than drained.

If your church does not have a cancer support group, CTCA provides information, resources, support, and training to help create cancer ministries. In fact, Our Journey of Hope® is a comprehensive spiritual outreach program designed to provide spiritual support and resources both to individuals and to churches.

The power of a group

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20, KJV). There is something powerful about a group—especially a group that shares a common faith. Whether you find solace in a cancer support group at your church, a neighboring church, or online through Our Journey of Hope, you’ll likely find that the strength of the group helps sustain you.

“I thank God for it,” Betty says about her group. “Just being with them, having people to lean on in that spiritual group, really made a difference in my life.”

Spiritual support is just a click away

Spiritual support need not be confined within the walls of a church. Our Journeyof Hope® is a comprehensive spiritual outreach program that provides virtual spiritual support and resources for cancer patients and their families.

The website, ourjourneyofhope.com, is just one aspect of the program and was designed to provide a spiritual lifeline to patients and caregivers as they navigate cancer and all of its accompanying challenges. It serves as a place to connect and to give and receive support and inspiration. For some it serves as a complement to the spiritual support they receive from their local church. For others—especially those who are homebound—it serves as a critical spiritual foundation.

But Our Journey of Hope is more than a virtual community—the program serves as a bridge between hospitals and churches. Reverend Michael Barry, DMin, director of pastoral care at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, explains that the first duty of everyone in health care is to listen to patients and respond accordingly. “It’s not enough to listen—you need to respond,” he insists.

CTCA has done just that. “We listened to our patients and created programs,” Rev. Barry says. “We modeled for them what we believe is important.” The result: patients loved the programs so much that they wanted to take them beyond the hospital walls. Our Journey of Hope helps them do that through its lay ministry training, which is designed to equip churches with the tools and the resources to facilitate cancer support in their own communities. The lay ministry program is an invaluable—and free—resource for pastors, church leaders, and congregants.

Spiritual wholeness is at the center of mental, emotional, and physical healing. Our Journey of Hope is designed to facilitate that wholeness.

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